That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.
For many years there has been a raging controversy regarding the most forbidden of all eldritch tomes, the Necronomicon, or Al Azif, by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred. Is it really one of the most dangerous books ever written, or is it a big in-joke amongst a bunch of early 20th Century horror authors?
This is the first in a series attempting to provide all relevant evidence so you may decide for yourself whether or not the tome ever existed. I will try my best to present all sides in an unbiased, unopinionated manner.
The most famous of all references to this infamous tome feature prominently in the writings (both fiction and letters) of Howard Philips Lovecraft. Contained herein are quotes from the stories and letters of Lovecraft describing the Necronomicon, and his History of the Necronomicon. Make of it what you will...
HPL's History of the Necronomicon
From a letter to Clark Ashton Smith dated November 7, 1927 (Selected Letters pg 307)
"I have drawn up some data on the celebrated & unmentionable Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred!"
Original title Al Azif - azif being the word used by the Arabs to designate that nocturnal sound (made by insects) suppos'd to be the howling of daemons.
Composed by Abdul Alhazred, a mad poet of SanaÃ¡, in Yemen, who is said to have flourished during the period of the Ommiade caliphs, circa 700 A. D. He visited the ruins of Babylon and the subterranean secrets of Memphis and spent ten years alone in the great southern desert of Arabia -the Roba el Khaliyeh or "Empty Space" of the ancients- and "Dahna" or "Crimson" desert of the modern Arabs which is held to be inhabited by protective evil spirits and monsters of death. Of this desert many strange and unbelievable marvels are told by those who pretend to have penetrated it. In his last years Alhazred dwelt in Damascus, where the Necronomicon (Al Azif) was written and of his final death or disappearance (738 A. D.) many terrible and conflicting things are told. He is said by Ebn Khallikan (12th cent. biographer) to have been seized by an invisible monster in broad daylight and devoured horribly before a large number of fright-frozen witnesses. Of his madness many things are told. He claimed to have seen the fabulous Irem, or City of Pillars, and to have found beneath the ruins of a certain nameless desert town the shocking annals and secrets of a race older than mankind. He was only an indifferent Moslem, worshipping unknown entities whom he called Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu.
In A. D. 950 the Azif which had gained a considerable tho'surreptitious circulation amongst the philosophers of the age, was secretly translated into Greek by Theodorus Philetas of Constantinople under the title Necronomicon. For a century it impelled certain experimenters to terrible attempts, when it was suppressed and burnt by the patriarch Michael. After this it is only heard of furtively, but (1228) Olaus Wormius made a Latin translation later in the Middle Ages, and the Latin text was printed twice - once in the fifteenth century in black-letter (evidently in Germany) and once in the seventeenth (prob. Spanish)both editions being without identifying marks, and located as to time and place by internal typographical evidence only. The work both Latin and Greek was banned by Pope Gregory IX in 1232, shortly after its Latin translation, which called attention to it. The Arabic original was lost as early as Wormius' time, as indicated by his prefatory note; and no sight of the Greek copy -which was printed in Italy between 1500 and 1550- has been reported since the burning of a certain Salem man's library in 1692. An English translation made by Dr. Dee was never printed, and exists only in fragments recovered from the original manuscript. Of the Latin texts now existing one (15th cent.) is known to be in the British Museum under lock and key, while another (17th cent.) is in the Bibliotheque Nationale at Paris. A seventeenth-century edition is in the Widener Library at Harvard, and in the library of Miskatonic University at Arkham. Also in the library of the University of Buenos Ayres. Numerous other copies probably exist in secret, and a fifteenth-century one is persistently rumoured to form part of the collection of a celebrated American millionaire. A still vaguer rumour credits the preservation of a sixteenth-century Greek text in the Salem family of Pickman; but if it was so preserved, it vanished with the artist R. U. Pickman, who disappeared early in 1926. The book is rigidly suppressed by the authorities of most countries, and by all branches of organised ecclesiasticism. Reading leads to terrible consequences. It was from rumours of this book (of which relatively few of the general public know) that R. W. Chambers is said to have derived the idea of his early novel The King in Yellow.
Al Azif written circa 730 A. D. at Damascus by Abdul Alhazred
Tr. to Greek 950 A. D. as Necronomicon by Theodorus Philetas
Burnt by Patriarch Michael 1050 (i.e., Greek text). Arabic text now lost.
Olaus translates Gr. to Latin 1228
1232 Latin ed. (and Gr.) suppr. by Pope Gregory IX
14... Black-letter printed edition (Germany)
15... Gr. text printed in Italy
16... Spanish reprint of Latin text
The Necronomicon in Lovecraft's Fiction
One of Lovecraft’s best-known creations, he refers to the Necronomicon or Al Azif in no less than 18 of his stories. All relevant passages are featured below.
The Nameless City, p. 99 (January 1921)
Before the Necronomicon is ever mentioned by name, Lovecraft mentions Abdul Alhazred and the "unexplainable couplet":
That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.
The Hound, p. 174 (September 1922)
The first reference to the Necronomicon
Immediately upon beholding this amulet we knew that we must possess it; that this treasure alone was our logical pelf from the centuried grave. Even had its outlines been unfamiliar we would have desired it, but as we looked more closely we saw that it was not wholly unfamiliar. Alien it indeed was to all art and literature which sane and balanced readers know, but we recognised 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 inaccesible 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.
The Hound, p. 175 (September 1922)
The jade amulet now reposed in a niche in our museum, and sometimes we burned strangely scented candles before it. We read much in Alhazred's Necronomicon about its properties, and about the relation of ghouls' souls to the objects it symolised; and were disturbed by what we read.
The Festival, p. 211 (1923)
Pointing to a chair, table, and pile of books, the old man now left the room; and when I sat down to read I saw that the books were hoary and mouldy, and that they included old Morryster's wild Marvells of Science, the terrible Saducismus Triumphatus of Joseph Glanvill, 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 Festival, p. 216 (1923)
The nethermost caverns...are not for the fathoming of eyes that see; for their marvels are strange and terrific. Cursed the ground where dead thoughts live new and oddly bodied, and evil the mind that is held by no head. Wisely did Ibn Schacabao say, that happy is the tomb where no wizard hath lain, and happy the town at night whose wizards are all ashes. For it is of old rumour that the soul of the devil-bought hastes not from his charnel clay, but fats and instructs the very worm that gnaws; till out of corruption horrid life springs, and the dull scavengers of earth wax crafty to vex it and swell monstrous to plague it. Great holes secretly are digged where earth's pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl.
The Last Test, p. 47 (1927)
First and only mention of Arabic Title 'Azif' outside of "The History of the Necronomicon."
"Be careful, you --! There are powers against your powers - I didn't go to China for nothing, and there are things in Alhazred's Azif which weren't known in Atlantis!"
The Dunwich Horror, p. 170 (Summer 1928)
Nor is it to be thought...that man is either the oldest or the last of earth's masters, or that the common bulk of life and substances walks alone. The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be. Not in the spaces we know, but between them, They walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen. Yog-Sothoth knows the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the key and guardian of the gate. Past, present, future, all are one in Yog-Sothoth. He knows where the Old Ones broke through of old, and where They shall break through again. He knows where They have trod earth's fields, and where They still tread them, and why no one can behold Them as They tread. By Their smell can men somtimes know them near, but of Their semblance can no man know, saving only in the features of those They have begotten on mankind; and of those are there many sorts, differing in likeness from man's truest eidolon to that shape without sight or substance which is Them. They walk unseen and foul in lonely places where the Words have been spoken and the Rites howled through at their Seasons. The wind gibbers with Their voices, and the earth mutters with Their consciousness. They bend the forest and crush the city, yet may not forest or city behold the hand that smites. Kadath in the cold waste hath known Them, and what man knows Kadath? The ice desert of the South and the sunken isles of Ocean hold stones where Their seal is engraven, but who hath seen the deep frozen city or the sealed tower long garlanded with seaweed and barnacles? Great Cthulhu is Their cousin, yet can he spy Them only dimly. IÃ¤! Shub-Niggurath! As a foulness shall ye know Them. Their hand is at your throats, yet ye see Them not; and Their habitation is even one with your guarded threshold. Yog-Sothoth is the key to the gate, whereby the spheres meet. Man rules now where They ruled once; They shall soon rule where man rules now. After summer is winter, and after winter summer. They wait patient and potent, for here shall They reign again.
At the Mountains of Madness, p. 7 (February-22 March 1931)
Something about the scene reminded me of the strange and disturbing Asian paintings of Nicholas Roerich, and of the still stranger and more disturbing descriptions of the evilly fabled plateau of Leng which occur in the dreaded Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred. I was rather sorry, later on, that I had ever looked into that monstrous book at the college library.
At the Mountains of Madness, p. 22 (February-22 March 1931)
Dyer and Pabodie have read Necronomicon and seen Clark Ashton Smith's nightmare paintings based on text, and will understand when I speak of Elder Things supposed to have created all earth-life as jest or mistake.
At the Mountains of Madness, p. 62 (February-22 March 1931)
These viscous masses were without doubt what Abdul Alhazred whispered about as the "shoggoths" in his frightful Necronomicon, though even that mad Arab had not hinted that any existed except in the dreams of those who had chewed a certain alkaloidal herb.
The Dreams in the Witch House, p. 263 (January-28 February 1932)
Non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics are enough to stretch any brain; and when one mixes them with folklore, and tries to trace a strange background of multi-dimensional reality behind the ghoulish hints of the Gothic tales and the wild whispers of the chimney-corner, one can hardly expect to be wholly free from mental tension. Gilman came from Haverhill, but it was only after he entered college in Arkham that he began to connect his mathematics with the fantastic legends of elder magic. Something in the air of the hoary town worked obscurely on his imagination. The professors at Miskatonic had urged him to slacken up, and had voluntarily cut down his course at several points. Moreover, they had stopped him from consulting the dubious old books on forbidden secrets that were kept under lock and key in a vault at the university library. But all these precautions came late in the day, so that Gilman had some terrible hints from the dreaded Necronomicon of Abdul Alhazred, the fragmentary Book of Eibon, and the suppressed Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt to correlate with his abstract formulae on the properties of space and the linkage of dimensions known and unknown.
The Necronomicon in Lovecraft's Letters
H.P. Lovecraft was one of the most prolific American letter writers of the 20th Century. He mentions the Necronomicon in quite a few of these, which are quoted below.
To Edwin Baird (February 3, 1924):
At one time I formed a juvenile collection of Oriental pottery and objects d'art, announcing myself as a devout Mohammedan and assuming the pseudonym of "Abdul Alhazred"-which you will recognise as the author of that mythical Necronomicon which I drag into various of my tales.
To Robert E. Howard (August 14, 1930):
Regarding the solemnly cited myth-cycle of Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, R'lyeh, Nyarlathotep, Nug, Yeb, Shub-Niggurath, etc., etc.-let me confess that this is all a synthetic concotion of my own, like the populous and varied pantheon of Lord Dunsany's Pegana. The reason for its echoes in Dr. de Castro's work is that the latter gentleman is a revision-client of mine-into whose tales I have stuck these glancing references for sheer fun. If any other clients of mine get work placed in W.T., you will perhaps find a still-wider spread of the cult of Azathoth, Cthulhu, and the Great Old Ones! The Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred is likewise something which must yet be written in order to possess objective reality. Abdul is a favourite dream-character of mine-indeed that is what I used to call myself when I was five years old and a transported devotee of Andrew Lang's version of the Arabian Nights. A few years ago I prepared a mock-erudite synopsis of Abdul's life, and of the posthumous vicissitudes and translations of his hideous and unmentionable work Al Azif...-a synopsis which I shall follow in future references to the dark and accursed thing. Long has alluded to the Necronomicon in some things of his-in fact, I think it is rather good fun to have this artificial mythology given an air of verisimilitude by wide citation. I ought, though, to write Mr. O'Neail and disabuse him of the idea that there is a large blind spot in his mythological erudition!
To Robert E. Howard (October 4, 1930):
...I read the Arabian Nights at the age of five. In those days I used to dress up in a turban, burnt-cork a beard on my face, and call myself by the synthetic name (Allah only knows where I got it!) of Abdul Alhazred-which I later revived, in memory of old times, to confer on the hypothetical author of the hypothetical Necronomicon!
To Robert E. Howard (May 7, 1932):
As for writing the Necronomicon-I wish I had the energy and ingenuity to do it! I fear it would be quite a job in view of the very diverse passages and intimations which I have in the course of time attributed to it! I might, though, issue an abridged Necronomicon-containing such parts as are considered at least reasonably safe for the perusal of mankind! When von Juntz's Black Book and the poems of Justin Geoffrey are on the market, I shall certainly have to think about the immortalisation of old Abdul!
To Robert Bloch (May 9, 1933):
By the way-there is no "Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred." That hellish & forbidden volume is an imaginative conception of mine, which others of the W.T. group have also used as a background of allusion.
To Robert Bloch (early to mid July 1933):
As for the "Necronomicon"-this month's triple use of such allusions is bringing me in an unusual number of inquiries concerning the real nature & obtainability of Alhazred's, Eibon's, & von Junzt's works. In each case I am frankly confessing the fakery involved.
To Miss Margaret Sylvester (January 13, 1934):
Regarding the Necronomicon-I must confess that this monstrous & abhorred volume is merely a figment of my own imagination! Inventing horrible books is quite a pastime among devotees of the weird, & . . . . . many of the regular W.T. contributors have such things to their credit-or discredit. It rather amuses the different writers to use one another's synthetic demons & imaginary books in their stories-so that Clark Ashton Smith often speaks of my Necronomicon while I refer to his Book of Eibon . . & so on. This pooling of resources tends to build up quite a pseudo-convincing background of dark mythology, legendry, & bibliography-though of course none of us has the least wish actually to mislead readers.
To Robert H. Barlow (August 14, 1934):
[P.S.] Just had 2 more enquiries as to the reality of the Necronomicon!
To William Frederick Anger (August 14, 1934):
Regarding the dreaded Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred-I must confess that both the evil volume & the accursed author are fictitious creatures of my own-as are the malign entities of Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, &c. Tsathoggua & the Book of Eibon are inventions of Clark Ashton Smith, while Friedrich von Junzt & his monstrous Unaussprechlichen Kulten originated in the fertile brain of Robert E. Howard. For the fun of building up a convincing cycle of synthetic folklore, all of our gang frequently allude to the pet daemons of the others-thus Smith uses my Yog-Sothoth, while I use his Tsathoggua. Also, I sometimes insert a devil or two of my own in the tales I revise or ghost-write for professional clients. Thus our black pantheon acquires an extensive publicity & pseudo-authoritativeness it would not otherwise get. We never, however, try to put it across as an actual hoax; but always carefully explain to enquirers that it is 100% fiction. In order to avoid ambiguity in my references to the Necronomicon I have drawn up a brief synopsis of its 'history'... All this gives it a sort of air of verisimilitude.
To James Blish and William Miller (May 13, 1936):
Uncollected Letters, 37-38
If anyone were to try to write the Necronomicon, it would disappoint all those who have shuddered at cryptic references to it. The most one could do -- and I may try that some time -- is to 'translate' isolated chapters of the mad Arab's monstrous tome . . . A collected series of such extracts might later be offered as an 'abridged and expurgated Necronomicon' -- although I am opposed to serious hoaxes, 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
To Willis Conover (July 29, 1936):
Now about the "terrible and forbidden books"-I am forced to say that most of them are purely imaginary. There never was any Abdul Alhazred or Necronomicon, for I invented these names myself. Robert Bloch devised the idea of Ludvig Prinn and his De Vermis Mysteriis, while the Book of Eibon is an invention of Clark Ashton Smith's. The late Robert E. Howard is responsible for Friedrich von Junzt and his Unaussprechlichen Kulten....
As for seriously-written books on dark, occult, and supernatural themes-in all truth they don't amount to much. That is why it's more fun to invent mythical works like the Necronomicon and Book of Eibon.
To Harry O. Fischer (late February, 1937):
The name "Abdul Alhazred" is one which some adult (I can't recall who) devised for me when I was 5 years old & eager to be an Arab after reading the Arabian Nights. Years later I thought it would be fun to use it as the name of a forbidden-book author. The name Necronomicon...occurred to me in the course of a dream.