The Necronomicon is a fictional grimoire (textbook of magic) appearing in the stories by horror writer H. P. Lovecraft and his followers. It was first mentioned in Lovecraft’s 1924 published short story “The Hound“, written in 1922, though its purported author, the “Mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred, had been quoted a year earlier in Lovecraft’s “The Nameless City”. Among other things, the work contains an account of the Old Ones, their history, and the means for summoning them.
Other authors such as August Derleth and Clark Ashton Smith also cited it in their works; Lovecraft approved, believing such common allusions built up “a background of evil verisimilitude.” Many readers have believed it to be a real work, with booksellers and librarians receiving many requests for it; pranksters have listed it in rare book catalogues, and a student smuggled a card for it into the Yale University Library’s card catalog.
Capitalising on the notoriety of the fictional volume, real-life publishers have printed many books entitled Necronomicon since Lovecraft’s death.
In 1927, Lovecraft wrote a brief “History of the Necronomicon” that was published in 1938, after his death. According to this account, the book was originally called Al Azif, an Arabic word that Lovecraft defined as “that nocturnal sound (made by insects) supposed to be the howling of demons”, drawing on a footnote by Samuel Henley in Henley’s translation of “Vathek”. Henley, commenting upon a passage which he translated as “those nocturnal insects which presage evil”, alluded to the diabolic legend of Beelzebub, “Lord of the Flies” and to Psalm 91:5, which in some 16th Century English Bibles describes “bugges by night” where later translations render “terror by night”.
In the “History”, Alhazred is said to have been a “half-crazed Arab” who worshipped the Lovecraftian entities Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu. He is described as being from Sanaa in Yemen, and as visiting the ruins of Babylon, the “subterranean secrets” of Memphis and the Empty Quarter of Arabia (where he discovered the “nameless city” below Irem). In his last years, he lived in Damascus, where he wrote Al Azif before his sudden and mysterious death in 738.
In subsequent years, Lovecraft wrote, the Azif “gained considerable, though surreptitious circulation amongst the philosophers of the age.” In 950, it was translated into Greek and given the title Necronomicon by Theodorus Philetas, a fictional scholar from Constantinople.
After this attempted suppression, the work was “only heard of furtively” until it was translated from Greek into Latin by Olaus Wormius. (Lovecraft gives the date of this edition as 1228, though the real-life Danish scholar Olaus Wormius lived from 1588 to 1624.) Both the Latin and Greek text, the “History” relates, were banned by Pope Gregory IX in 1232, though Latin editions were apparently published in 15th century Germany and 17th century Spain. A Greek edition was printed in Italy in the first half of the 16th century.
The Elizabethan magician John Dee (1527-c. 1609) allegedly translated the book—presumably into English—but Lovecraft wrote that this version was never printed and only fragments survive.
According to Lovecraft, the Arabic version of Al Azif had already disappeared by the time the Greek version was banned in 1050, though he cites “a vague account of a secret copy appearing in San Francisco during the current [20th] century” that “later perished in fire”.
According to “History of the Necronomicon” the very act of studying the text is inherently dangerous, as those who attempt to master its arcane knowledge generally meet terrible ends.
The Necronomicon is mentioned in a number of Lovecraft’s short stories and in his novellas At the Mountains of Madness and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. However, despite frequent references to the book, Lovecraft was very sparing of details about its appearance and contents. He once wrote that “if anyone were to try to write the Necronomicon, it would disappoint all those who have shuddered at cryptic references to it.”
According to Lovecraft’s “History of the Necronomicon“, copies of the original text were held by only five institutions worldwide:
- The British Museum
- The Bibliothèque nationale de France
- Widener Library of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts
- The University of Buenos Aires
- The library of the fictional Miskatonic University in the also fictitious Arkham, Massachusetts
The Miskatonic University also holds the Latin translation by Olaus Wormius, printed in Spain in the 17th century.
Although Lovecraft insisted that the book was pure invention (and other writers invented passages from the book for their own works), there are accounts of some people actually believing the Necronomicon to be a real book. Lovecraft himself sometimes received letters from fans inquiring about the Necronomicon‘s authenticity.
Pranksters occasionally listed the Necronomicon for sale in book store newsletters or inserted phony entries for the book in library card catalogues.
The line between fact and fiction was further blurred in the late 1970s when a book purporting to be a translation of “the real” Necronomicon was published. This book, by the pseudonymous “Simon,” had little connection to the fictional Lovecraft Mythos but instead was based on Sumerian mythology. It was later dubbed the “Simon Necronomicon“. Going into trade paperback in 1980 it has never been out of print and has sold 800,000 copies by 2006 making it the most popular Necronomicon to date.
Three additional volumes have since been published — The Necronomicon Spellbook, a book of path-workings with the 50 names of Marduk; Dead Names: The Dark History of the Necronomicon, a history of the book itself and of the late 1970s New York occult scene; and The Gates of the Necronomicon, instructions on pathworking with the Simon.
The Necronomicon makes minor appearances in many films and television shows and a few video games, and a version of it known as the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis is featured as a primary plot point in the Evil Dead film series. This specific version of the Necronomicon then appears briefly in the ninth film of the Friday the 13th franchise, Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday.
Necronomicon is a 1993 film anthology of three Lovecraft stories, directed by Brian Yuzna, Christophe Gans and Shusuke Kaneko.
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