What is the Necronomicon?
The Necronomicon, commonly known as the Book of the Dead or by its supposed original Arabic title of Kitab al-Azif, is a fictitious grimoire that appears in works by H. P. Lovecraft and his followers. Over the years, other additional authors, including Clark Ashton Smith, Brian Lumley, Ramsey Campbell, and Keith Herber, have contributed to its material. Lovecraft endorsed other writers who drew on his work, feeling that such common allusions created “a backdrop of diabolical verisimilitude.” Many readers thought it was legitimate work, and booksellers and libraries received numerous requests for it; pranksters included it in rare book catalogues, and a student slipped a card for it into the Yale University Library’s card catalogue.
The work of H.P. Lovecraft has influenced countless individuals and we still see this influence today, not only in the cosmic horror genre but in horror itself as well as in all kinds of strange fiction. One of his most universal ideas was the Necronomicon, a fictional grimoire that features all sorts of dark rituals, magic, and strange sciences.
There is the belief that a Necronomicon may have once existed and it was merely translated and published by Lovecraft; although this may not be true and a lot of it comes down to Lovecraft himself and how alluring the idea was to others, there is a lot of history and lore surrounding this grimoire, more so than some of Lovecraft’s other work.
He was also a big proponent of a shared universe and encouraged other authors to expand upon his work if they saw potential. So, when you have this many authors mentioning a very specific idea, in this case, the Necronomicon, you almost get the feeling that this idea must have been real or at least rooted in truth, and I guess that level of mystery and uncertainty is why the Necronomicon was used by so many, even in modern-day work that doesn’t necessarily tie into Lovecraft mythos.
The Origin of the Necronomicon
The owner of the book is a character named Abdul Alhazred, whom Lovecraft refers to as the crazed Arab. Abdul Alhazred was first mentioned several years before the Hound in the story ‘The Nameless City’, but his association to the Necronomicon is something we only discover later.
When he was asked where he drew his inspiration from, Lovecraft gave pretty much the most Lovecraft answer possible. He said it came to him in one of his dreams, and by now we know well that his dreams and nightmares were quite weird to say the very least.
He states that the name Necronomicon was translated from Greek to mean ‘An image of the Law of the Dead’. Authors are then subsequently followed have translated it to mean a variety of different things, from ‘Book of Laws of the Dead’ to ‘Book of Names of the Dead’, and even ‘Book of Dead Names.’
So, what we can surmise from this at a very basic level is that the Necronomicon was designed to contain information about the dead and the laws that surrounded them, which is quite like the magical practice of Necromancy—not only in premise but also in name.
The History of the Necronomicon by H.P. Lovecraft
With how mysterious the Necronomicon was, in 1927, Lovecraft wrote a short piece titled ‘The History of the Necronomicon’ which wasn’t published until after his death, but this piece gives us some additional history and context.
We find out that the book was originally called Al Azif, referring to its Arabic origin. The term Al Azif is what Lovecraft defined as ‘that nocturnal sound supposed to be the howling of demons. So, we certainly get the idea that this book isn’t a beacon of happiness and rainbows; it’s much darker and nefarious.
The book was written by Abdul Alhazred—whom we mentioned earlier—but what we didn’t mention was that he worshipped Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu. Abdul Alhazred was originally from Yemen, but it wasn’t until he visited Memphis Egypt that the idea for the book began.
In Memphis, he came across the ruins of Babylon and the underground secrets of the city where he would discover the nameless city. He then spent the rest of his life living in Damascus, but we would recognize it as modern-day Syria.
Shortly before his mysterious disappearance in the year 738, he wrote Al Azif (The Necronomicon). The book then began to circulate amongst philosophers for the next 200 or so years, and in the year 950, it was translated by the Greek philosopher Theodorus Philetas, and given the name the Necronomicon.
This version of the Necronomicon was said to influence many individuals into committing acts that were so terrible they could barely be mentioned, and that is why the book was burnt in the Year 1050 by the Patriarch Constantinople (Patriarch Michael).
After this, the book wasn’t mentioned much and when it was, it was done so in secret, to avoid any unwanted attention from those responsible for trying to erase it from existence.
Translation and Location of the Necronomicon
The book would then be translated from Greek to Latin by a Danish scholar in 1228 named Olaus Wormius. This edition would be bound by the Pope, but it continued to resurface in other European countries up until the 17th century.
Lovecraft states that there are only five copies of the original translated Necronomicon held in five institutions worldwide and these are as follows:
- The British History Museum in London
- The Bibliothèque Nationale de France
- The Widener Library of Harvard University in Cambridge Massachusetts
- The University of Buenos Aires in Argentina
- The Last is in Lovecraft’s fictional town of Arkham Massachusetts in the Miskatonic University, which is also in possession of the Latin translation.
There are of course other copies of the book in circulation, but these copies were pretty much just copies of copies. So, how authentic the contents are, we don’t know. These copies were mostly in the hands of private individuals, so they weren’t easy nor cheap to get a hold of.
Why is the Necronomicon a Dangerous Book?
So, back story aside, I’m sure the question that most of you want to be answered is what is in the book to make it so taboo, so dark that everyone who reads it suffers a horrendous end?
We know the book was written by someone who worships the Elder Gods, so, as you can imagine they make up quite a large part of what’s inside of the Necronomicon. It’s full of strange symbols and arcane knowledge that we can’t understand, and its content ranges from stories to rituals and all kinds of weird science.
In the story ‘The Thing on the Doorstep’, the book contains a formula for one to transfer their consciousness. The Dunwich horror contains a chant that can summon Yog-Sothoth, and there are more than a few rituals that can summon deities and all sorts of creatures from Lovecraft’s universe inside.
As the name may suggest, there is also a chapter devoted to resurrecting the dead. One of the easiest ways to describe the Necronomicon is as an encyclopaedia to all things Lovecraft. Granted, it’s a very weird encyclopaedia that has a habit of killing anyone who reads it, but an encyclopaedia, nonetheless.
It’s also a detailed history of what Earth may have been like years ago when it was ruled and inhabited by creatures and entities that we cannot even begin to imagine.
The Appearance of the Necronomicon
I think what I like most is, despite the numerous times Lovecraft mentions the book in his stories, he doesn’t describe the contents or the appearance in detail. So, it does remain mysterious which is something that we don’t see too much nowadays with everything being spoon-fed to us.
The only thing we know is that it’s a leather book bound by metal, and even, then it’s intentionally miss-titled sometimes to keep it hidden in plain sight. This idea of being able to read the Necronomicon without even knowing creates a whole new horror concept.
Is the Necronomicon Book Real?
The obsession of the Necronomicon outside of fiction that I mentioned that this start is no exaggeration. There have been, and still are those, who believe it to be real, and several hoaxes and strange stories over the years is quite astounding.
Lovecraft often received letters from fans asking about the authenticity of the book, to which he assured them it was purely fictional. This didn’t stop some individuals from listing the Necronomicon for sale in local bookstores, as well as creating entries for the book in library catalogues. Even going as far as to say the Vatican Library had a copy themselves. But most of this, we can put down to light-hearted pranksters and some crazy people.
As the obsession continued to grow, in 1970, a book by the name of Necronomicon was published by an author under the pseudonym of Simon. It would later be dubbed Simon Necronomicon. The book itself doesn’t link to Lovecraft’s work but instead claims that it was influenced and based on Sumerian mythology.
This certainly blurred the lines between fiction and reality, with bookselling over 800,000 copies as of 2006. So, it appears many of Lovecraft’s fans were intrigued enough by the premise to read further.
It could also be because the marketing for this book made some outrageous claims, such as, ‘this book may be the most dangerous black book of the Western world.’ Regardless, its success meant that there were three additional volumes published, and I guess why not if people wanted.
The major success of Simon’s Necronomicon led to the publishing of the Necronomicon files in 1998, which aimed to finally prove that the book was, in fact, a work of fiction; examining not only just Simon’s version of the Necronomicon but the many obscure versions that followed in its success.
Whether or not you believe the Necronomicon is real, I certainly understand the appeal of the book in a fictional setting and why it would attract so many different types of people.
Art Sources: Slava Sivun, Ilya Poltavets, T.C. Fraser, Eddu Design.