The Necronomicon

Daniel Harms and John Wisdom Gonce III, The Necronomicon Files: The Truth Behind the Legend, Weiser Books, 2003.

One of the most curious aspects of folklore is the way that some stories, which were never meant to be taken seriously by their originators, acquire a life of their own. The assertion that George Bush has the lowest IQ of any American president began on a humour website which was clearly identified as such, but has spread around the world as a fact. Here is an in-depth study of one of the most persistent, that the Necronomicon, a book of dark magic which was repeatedly mentioned in the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft [left], is real, rather than a literary invention as Lovecraft himself always maintained.

A magic book that bestows incredible powers upon the reader, but which may be dangerous, is a very old motif, found in the ancient Egyptian story of Setna and the Book of Thoth. Most collections of fairy stories contain some variant of it. Nowadavs, however, such treatments are not taken seriously by anyone except small children.

Yet, since the idea is perennial, all that it needed to make a comeback was to be published in some format that adults could believe in. H.P. Lovecraft, a regular contributor to Weird Tales in the 1920s and 1930s, heard the name Necronomicon in a dream, the source whence he derived much of his inspiration. He included it in a story, 'The Hound', published in 1923, in which two young men unearth an amulet:
"... we recognized it as the thing hinted of in the forbidden Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred; the ghastly soul-symbol of the corpse-eating cult of inaccessible Leng, in Central Asia. All too well did we trace the sinister lineaments described by the old Arab daemonologist, lineaments, he wrote, drawn from some obscure supernatural manifestation of the souls of those who vexed and gnawed at the dead."
'Abdul Alhazred' had been Lovecraft's childhood nickname for himself. Evidently he felt that this 'book' was a success, for he 'cited' or `quoted' it in numerous subsequent productions. Its supposed pedigree was as follows: Abdul Alhazred composed it circa 700 AD in Damascus, before being killed by an invisible monster. It was translated into Greek in 950, hence the name Necronomicon, and into Latin by Olaus Wormius in 1228. Very few copies have survived, but the library of the Miskatonic University at Arkham, Massachusetts, has one. Incidentally, this meant that librarians often featured in Necronomicon stories. in one as the hero, but in a later screen version as the 'sinister cult leader'.

The pulp horror writing community was then quite incestuous, and Lovecraft often revised or ghost-wrote stories for others. Accordingly, younger writers such as Robert Bloch began to mention Lovecraft's creation in their own works. When Frank Belknap Long referred to an English translation of the book by Dr John Dee, Lovecraft returned the compliment by introducing Dee's version into 'The Dunwich Horror'. The result was the spread of references to the Necronomicon in a type of literature which was evidently regarded seriously by people who would not credit nursery tales. A generation or so later it started to work its way into movie scripts: there are at least sixteen films in which the Necronomicon is important to the plot, and it also formed the basis for an episode of the TV cartoon series of Ghostbusters.
In 'The Festival' Lovecraft made the narrator describe how he looked through a collection of books which "included old Morryster's wild Marvells of Science, the terrible Saducismus Triumphatus of Joseph Glanvil, published in 1681, the shocking Daemonolatreia of Remigius, printed in 1595 at Lyons, and worst of all, the unmentionable Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, in Olaus Wormius' forbidden Latin translation; a book which I had never seen, but of which I had heard monstrous things whispered."

The first of these titles is fictional, as one might guess from the combination of the archaic spelling Marvells with the word Science used in the modern sense. (It was not Lovecraft's own invention, but had first occurred in a story by another horror writer, Ambrose Bierce.) Yet the books by Glanvil and Remigius are perfectly genuine, so, for all the average reader might have known, the Necronomicon could have been real also.

Mixing real and fictional books is quite a common literary device, so a grimoire described in a work of fiction may nonetheless be genuine. Dennis Wheatley's The Devil Rides Out contains some real information on occultism taken, though Wheatley did not say so, from Aleister Crowley's Magick in Theory and Practice. If he had mentioned it, then the latter work would perhaps also have become a best-seller, despite its contents having very little resemblance to Wheatley's devil worshipping cultus.

Lovecraft was not very pleased at what began to happen. "I am opposed to serious hoaxes". he wrote in a letter to Willis Conover, "since they really confuse and retard the sincere student of folklore. I feel quite guilty every time I hear of someone's having spent valuable time looking up the Necronomicon at public libraries."

Though it took a long time for the law of supply and demand to take effect, an increase in Lovccraft's popularity in the 1960s and 1970s led to the production of numerous Necronomicons. beginning with Al Azif (its supposed Arabic title) in 1973. This one must have been something of a disappointment to purchasers, since the text was in Arabic-looking calligraphy which actually had no meaning. But it was quickly followed by versions in English, which usually had nothing in common, except insofar as they may have included the 'quotations' given by Lovecraft and others. The most popular is the Necronomicon attributed to 'Simon', 1978, probably because unlike most of the others it is a workable textbook of practical magic.

As a parallel to this the authors cite the various seventeenth-century printed versions of the alchemical Book of Saint Dunstan, a work which almost certainly never existed in the first place. There are other examples that they could have mentioned, for instance the three separate works all called the Book of Raziel, a title invented in the thirteenth century by the author of the Zohar (itself a forgery), who said that it contained the secrets of the universe. I would suggest that a similar process probably explains the existence of pairs of grimoires with similar names but totally different contents, such as the Picatrix and the Peccatrix, the Almadel and the Armadel, the Sworn Book of Honarius and the Grimoire of Honorius. The Picatrix was once quite notorious, for instance. but ecclesiastical opposition resulted in most copies being destroyed, making it an exceedingly rare work. I surmise that some bookseller continually had people who had misheard the name coming in and asking if he had the Peccatrix. Since he did not, he composed his own (greatly inferior to the original, incidentally), and presumably sold copies at huge prices.

Though identifying thirteen different Necronomicons, well as Internet versions, they admit that their list is bound to be incomplete. They have certainly missed the manuscript Necronomicon owned by Maxine Sanders. Though this has never been printed, photographs of some of the pages were reproduced in the magazine New Witchcraft in 1974. Most of its contents were derived from the Order of the Golden Dawn, which was founded in 1888. This makes it rather unlikely that Maxine's Necronomicon dates back to the eighth century.

Believers in an authentic Necronomicon will go to some lengths to defend its existence. When someone objected to its traditional history that Olaus Wormius was actually a Danish physician of the sixteenth century it was declared that the 1228 Necronomicon translator was another man of the same name, a Spanish Inquisitor. Various objections could be brought to this explanation, not least that the Spanish Inquisition was not founded until 1483.

As a last resort they will demand that sceptics prove that there never was an ancient Necronomicon. Of course. no one can prove a negative. The authors recognise this, but they have gone to considerable lengths to check out alleged Necronrrmicons. with a thoroughness that one wishes was more widespread among sceptics generally. There is also a guide to Necronomicom investigators' tools which would be useful in many fields, for instance: "Break the rumor into smaller parts and verify each one individually" - for instance the fact that John Dee was a real Elizabethan magician does not prove that he really translated the Necronomicon into English.

Most interestingly, many people have actually used the various Necronomicons as working grimoires and supposedly obtained successful results, though no one has yet succeeded in getting the Great Old Ones to destroy the world. There is even an organisation for Lovecraftian magicians, entitled the Esoteric Order of Dagon, which published its own writings including accounts of their rituals. There are here some interesting sidelights on the habits of would-be maguses, such as the high school student who described himself as the 'Founder of the New Order of the Crystal Dawn' though. as Gonce points out, Crystal Dawn was the name of a 1980s porn film actress.

This ultimately raises the question, what is 'real'? I am not certain that the word has any meaning in this field. I am tempted to produce a book myself. to be entitled How to Write your own Necronomicon -- Gareth J. Medway, from Magonia 83, December 2003

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