How the Necronomicon Works


Cover of the Necronomicon book.
Cover of the Necronomicon book.
Photo courtesy Amazon.com­

Weird fiction author H.P. Lovecraft created a mythology that includes bizarre monsters, troubled communities, insane scholars and a library of books filled with forbidden lore. Of all the books detailing this mythology that Lovecraft mentions in his fiction, one in particular captures the imagination more than any other: the "Necronomicon." According to Lovecraft, it's a tome filled with secrets and rituals that can drive a reader to the brink of insanity.

In reality, the "Necronomicon" doesn't exist, though more than a half dozen books with the title "Necronomicon" are available at bookstores. The book is yet another aspect of Lovecraft's fiction, invented as a mere plot device.

The "Necronomicon" plays an important role in the Cthulhu mythos -- the mythology behind much of Lovecraft's work involving extraterrestrial beings of immense power. Lovecraft mentions the book in 18 of his stories, more than any other mystical book (real or otherwise) that he references. Many fans of the mythos think of the "Necronomicon" as the Bible of Lovecraft's pantheon. This might be why people refer to the book in the same fashion: the "Necronomicon."

Lovecraft tells us that the author of the book was the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, who perished in A.D. 738 after being eaten by one or more invisible monsters.

So what's in this book? From what Lovecraft tells us in his stories, it seems that Alhazred mostly wrote about a race of extraterrestrial creatures with cosmic powers. He calls them the Old Ones, a term that Lovecraft used for more than one group of strange creatures. In "The Dunwich Horror," Lovecraft inserts a lengthy excerpt from the "Necronomicon" about the Old One known as Yog-Sothoth. Cthulhu, a monster who lies sleeping at the bottom of the ocean, also gains a mention in this passage. The reader discovers that Cthulhu is only distantly related to the other Old Ones and that he can "spy Them only dimly."

In other words, the book is a fictional history about our world and the creatures that eons ago ruled the Earth and other realms. Lovecraft said the title meant "the book of the customs (or laws) of the dead," but a more literal translation is "the book of dead names." Later on, other authors would give the "Necronomicon" its reputation as a book of spells, but apart from some very vague descriptions of summoning rituals, that doesn't seem to have been Lovecraft's original intent.

Nevertheless, this history of the youngest days of our world and the otherworldly beings who controlled it is so horrifying that, according to Lovecraft, reading the book could drive you insane. Many of Lovecraft's stories end with one or more characters descending into madness, and quite a few of them did so after perusing the "Necronomicon." Lovecraft stressed that these beings were so beyond human comprehension that even considering them for more than a moment could warp your mind.

In this article, we'll explore the fictional author of the "Necronomicon," the various translations Lovecraft mentions in his fiction, the real and fictional locations where you would be able to find a copy -- if it really existed -- and the hoaxes and homages inspired by Lovecraft's clever creation.

In the next section, we'll learn more about the mad Arab.

­

It's a Mad, Mad, Arab Abdul Alhazred World

H.P. Lovecraft created the "Necronomicon" as part of his Cthulhu mythos.
H.P. Lovecraft created the "Necronomicon" as part of his Cthulhu mythos.
Photo courtesy of Arkham House Publishers

So what's the deal with this Alhazred guy, anyway? Well, within the context of the fictional Cthulhu mythos, Abdul Alhazred was a poet who was born in Yemen and lived in Damascus during the 8th century. He was a world traveler, exploring much of the Middle East and Europe. He was remarkably intelligent and adept at learning and translating languages. Perhaps most importantly, as far as the "Necronomicon" is concerned, he was an avid drug user.

Alhazred's source of information for his history appears to have been the cosmos itself. He would meditate while inhaling fumes from incense that included exotic ingredients -- like opium -- and wait for knowledge to fill him. It's probably this unorthodox research methodology that inspired others to give him the nickname the "mad Arab."

The original title for Alhazred's book was "Al Azif," a reference to the noise made by insects at night, though some scholars (both real people in our world and fictional characters within the mythology itself) say it's also the sound of the demons howling. Sadly for prospective insane scholars across the globe, you can't get your hands on a copy of the original Arabic text, as all copies have disappeared.

That's the Cthulhu mythos version of the story -- here's the real deal. Abdul Alhazred was a name Lovecraft invented when imagining himself adventuring through the stories from Andrew Lang's "Arabian Nights." He was 5 years old at the time.

That's right, the most famous mystical book of spells was, in fact, initially just a fantasy from the mind of a 5-year-old boy living in New England. Later, Lovecraft was careful to create a sense of plausibility in his mythology, referencing the "Necronomicon" several times, often in the same paragraph that included references to authentic books on the occult, including "The Book of Dyzan" and "Poligraphia." In correspondence with his friends, however, he readily admitted the origin of his dread Arab's name.

"Necronomicon" is a movie adaptation of three H.P. Lovecraft short stories.
Photo courtesy Amazon.com

Lovecraft expressed a desire to eventually write the "Necronomicon" himself. He thought it would be great fun to create out of whole cloth an ancient text that would lend credence to his mythology [source: The H.P. Lovecraft Archive]. However, he considered it too great a challenge, and for many years he thought about writing an abridged version of the book, which thankfully would only contain the bits that wouldn't drive the reader nuts.

Shortly after he first mentioned the "Necronomicon," it began to pop up in other authors' stories. Lovecraft took great pleasure in seeing his book referenced in his friends' stories and felt that widespread references helped make the book seem more real.

In the next section, we'll learn about the various translations of the fictional "Necronomicon," as well as where these fabled books are now.

The Language of the 'Necronomicon'

The Simon hoax edition of the "Necronomicon" contains Sumerian mythology and a mishmash of occult rituals.
The Simon hoax edition of the "Necronomicon" contains Sumerian mythology and a mishmash of occult rituals.
Photo courtesy of Amazon.com

According to a letter Lovecraft wrote to fellow author Clark Ashton Smith, Theodorus Philetas translated the original Arabic text into Greek in A.D. 950, whereupon "Al Azif" became known as the "Necronomicon." Most copies were burned after a few nasty incidents involving people experimenting with the text with the intent of harnessing the power of the Old Ones.

In 1228, Olaus Wormius, a priest, translated the Arabic text into Latin. Pope Gregory IX banned both the Latin and Greek translations, and Church officials seized and burned as many copies as they could find (in reality, Olaus Wormius was a 17th-century Dutch physician with no connection to mystical books).

Additional lore claims that in 1586, Dr. John Dee, an Englishman and magician, discovered a long lost copy of Wormius' Latin translation. Dee and his assistant, Edward Kelly, attempted to translate the work into English. No publisher ever printed the full text, and the original translation sits in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England, (the real John Dee was an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I and was known as both a mathematician and an alchemist).

Other authors mention more translations, including a copy written in Hebrew, but not all Lovecraft fans accept those copies as canon in the Cthulhu Mythos. Lovecraft said that copies of the "Necronomicon" exist at the following libraries:

  • Bibliotheque Nationale at Paris (Latin text)
  • British Museum (Latin text, safely locked away from the public)
  • Miskatonic University in Arkham, Mass. (Spanish reprint of the Latin text)
  • University of Buenos Aires (Spanish reprint)
  • Widener Library at Harvard (Spanish reprint)

In Lovecraft's fiction, most religious and political organizations ban the book outright, as madness and calamity follow copies wherever they go. Of course, all of these copies are completely fictitious. In fact, Miskatonic University and Arkham are both Lovecraft inventions and don't exist.

In the next section, we'll look at some hoaxes that have fooled people into thinking there is a real "Necronomicon."

Your Local Friendly Necronomicon

You might be sitting there at your computer saying, "Hey, HowStuffWorks, how about all those copies of the "Necronomicon" I've seen on Amazon.com or at my local bookstore?" These books are all hoaxes of varying degrees of quality. Some authors wrote hoax versions in order to further Lovecraft's vision, while others sought a way to make some money off of the credulous.

The most well-known of all the hoax books is the Simon "Necronomicon." This edition, edited and annotated by an editor known only as Simon, combines the Cthulhu Mythos with Mesopotamian mythology and mysticism into a spellbook claiming to give the owner the ability to summon various eldritch beasties (that means weird, unearthly critters). The first printing was limited to 666 copies in 1977. Avon Publishing gave the book a widespread release in 1980. Several Web sites provide a thorough debunking of the book, and one even reveals Simon's (alleged) true identity.

Two other famous spoof versions of the book are the DeCamp-Scithers and the Wilson-Hay-Langford-Turner editions. The DeCamp-Scithers work sprung from the minds of authors L. Sprague De Camp and George Scithers and features a few pages of nonsense text written in an Aramaic language, with the same set of pages appearing multiple times. De Camp included an introduction acknowledging that the volume was, in fact, a fake. Colin Wilson, one of the authors of the other famous spoof, admitted to the joke in an article called "The Necronomicon: The Origin of a Spoof." His version, like the Simon edition, included various rituals and spells commonly found in books of the grimoire genre -- grimoires are manuals that describe rules and instructions for a specific process and are often associated with magic.

There are several other versions floating around bookstores and the Internet. They tend to either be very poor emulations of Lovecraft's writing style or odd combinations of Cthulhu mythos and other, older mythologies. The bottom line is that the "Necronomicon" is a literary device intended to add a sense of believability and legitimacy to otherwise unbelievable tales. It seems it has a much grander reach than the author intended.

In the next section, we'll look at how the "Necronomicon" has popped up in some unusual movies, television shows and comic books.

Pop-Up Necronomicon

"The Evil Dead" special edition DVD comes in a case modeled after the film version of The Book of the Dead, aka the "Necronomicon."
"The Evil Dead" special edition DVD comes in a case modeled after the film version of The Book of the Dead, aka the "Necronomicon."
Photo courtesy of Amazon.com

The "Necronomicon" appears in dozens of movies, comic books, short stories, novels and even cartoons. In most of these appearances, the book is a dangerous tome of spells and rituals filled with forbidden, evil power. In other cases, the presence of the book is no more than a sly, casual nod to the audience. Either way, the book can be found well outside the Cthulhu mythos.

Perhaps the most infamous appearance of the "Necronomicon" in cult film circles is "The Evil Dead" series. Sam Raimi's films follow the misadventures of Ash, played by Bruce Campbell, as he encounters supernatural ghouls and ghosts determined to cut his life short. The source of all the trouble is an ancient book bound in human skin and written in blood. The book is, of course, the "Necronomicon," though apart from the name it bears no resemblance to the grimoire in Lovecraft's stories -- though it contains rituals and spells like any good grimoire should, none of them deal with Lovecraft's creatures.

There's even a movie called "Necronomicon," though this film is really a series of three short movies based off of Lovecraft's stories. Other films like "Cast a Deadly Spell" and "Forever Evil" reference the "Necronomicon" and borrow from the Cthulhu mythos, but are not direct adaptations of Lovecraft's stories.

On television, the "Necronomicon" shows up quite a bit, mostly in cartoons. Here's a short list of some of the animated shows that reference it:

  • "Aqua Teen Hunger Force"
  • "Metalocalypse"
  • "The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy"
  • "The Real Ghostbusters"
  • "The Simpsons"

It seems that whenever a director or author needs a creepy book in his story, the "Necronomicon" is the go-to grimoire. Lovecraft would undoubtedly be pleased with the way his creation has thrived, though perhaps he might be a touch perplexed that it shows up in stories that have no connection with his own mythology. The next time you're watching a movie or television show with a mystical or supernatural theme, keep your eyes open -- sooner or later the "Necronomicon" is bound to show up.

To learn more about the "Necronomicon" and the Cthulhu Mythos, check out the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Cthulhu Files. http://cthulhufiles.com
  • Lovecraft, H.P. "History of the Necronomicon." Letter to Clark Ashton Smith, Nov. 27, 1927.
  • Lovecraft, H.P. "The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories." Penguin Books. 1999.
  • Papers from an Attic Window. http://danharms.wordpress.com/
  • The H.P. Lovecraft Archive. http://www.hplovecraft.com/
  • The "Necronomicon" Anti-FAQ. http://www.digital-brilliance.com/necron/necron