I have been waiting a very long time to report a fun and fascinating story of the “true” origins of the Necronomicon, and now I finally can! Several years ago, Jeb J. Card shared with me some of his intriguing research into the influence of the so-called “Curse of King Tut” on H. P. Lovecraft’s work as well as some conclusions he drew about the parallels between a particular episode in the history of the curse and Lovecraft’s fictitious history of the Necronomicon. I haven’t said anything about it because I have been waiting for Card to publish his findings, which are now in print in the compelling new volume Spooky Archaeology, published this month by the University of New Mexico Press. With the material in print, I can share with you how I accidentally translated the “real” Necronomicon and lived to tell the tale.
As most of you know, Lovecraft invented a dark grimoire for his story The Hound, which he called “the forbidden Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred.” It was a book covering the dark history of the world and its magic. “We read much in Alhazred’s Necronomicon about its properties, and about the relation of ghouls’ souls to the objects it symbolised; and were disturbed by what we read.” Over time, Lovecraft developed an elaborate history of his fictitious tome, from its origins as an Arabic volume called the Al Azif in the eighth century, to its translation into Greek and Latin, the loss of the original Arabic, and an English version composed by the occultist John Dee at the court of Elizabeth I. “Reading leads to terrible consequences,” Lovecraft wrote.
The fine details of the Necronomicon are a synthesis of many influences. The moldy old book of forbidden lore is a stock element of Gothic literature, and Lovecraft was a longtime devotee of the fantastical tales of Arabic lore, notably the Thousand and One Nights, from which he gleaned his love for the wild and colorful legendry of the medieval Muslim world. As Card demonstrates, however, there is a good case to be made that Lovecraft assembled bits and pieces into a specific form because of the then-current discussion of the Curse of King Tut, which I wrote about two years ago.
As I reported at the time, the Curse was said to have been reported in an ancient Arabic tome, according to the eccentric novelist Marie Corelli, who published a letter in the newspapers following Lord Carnarvon’s mysterious death from blood poisoning shortly after the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb:
As one who has studied Egyptian mysticism all my life I may say that I am not surprised at an accident occurring to those daring explorers who seek to rifle the tombs of the dead monarchs of the land shadowing with wings. That is what the Bible calls it, a strange designation with a strange meaning behind it. According to a rare book I possess, which is not in the British Museum, entitled “The Egyptian History of the Pyramids” translated out of the original Arabic by Vattie, Arabic professor to Louis XVI of France, the most dire punishment follows any rash intruder into a sealed tomb. This book gives long and elaborate lists of the treasures buried with several of the Kings, and among these are named “divers secret potions enclosed in boxes in such wise that those who touch them shall know how they come to suffer.” That is why I ask, Was it a mosquito bite that so seriously affected Lord Carnarvon? Could it be that he touched something poisonous among the garments or jewels of the entombed King? In any case I feel that intrusion of modern men into the 3,000 years’ silence and death sleep of the Kings of Egypt is something of a desecration and sacrilege and that it will not and it cannot come to good.
While many later writers assumed Corelli had made up the book, I demonstrated two years ago that the book in question was the History of Egypt by Murtada ibn al-‘Afif, a medieval Arabic treatise on the wonders and talismans of ancient Egypt. Murtada wrote his book in Arabic around 1200 CE, but the original was lost in the Renaissance. Today, it survives only in a French translation produced at the court of Louis XIV in 1666 by the scholar Pierre Vattier under the title of L’Égypte de Murtadi, fils du Gaphiphe and in an English edition translated in 1672 from the French by John Davies.
As Card notes, “This is very similar to Lovecraft’s fictional history of the Necronomicon as translated by the Elizabethan royal astrologer John Dee through a Latin version derived from the medieval Arabic Al Azif.” Card goes deeper, suggesting that the story of a dead king wreaking vengeance from his tomb with the help of a curse and a book of occult lore directly influenced the plot of Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu.” I will leave it to you to get Card’s book and read his analysis of “The Call of Cthulhu” for yourself. Here, though, I will stick with the Necronomicon, and it is indeed interesting that Lovecraft’s history of the book seems like a mirror of the complicated textual transmission of Murtada’s text. To the best of my knowledge, there is no evidence that Lovecraft read Corelli’s letter, but it would have been surprising if he had not seen it, since it was widely reprinted in the papers he was reading at the time, and it was referenced by many of the writers that he is known to have read. As Card points out, Lovecraft was deeply involved in researching Egyptian mysteries in the mid-1920s, not least for Houdini’s 1924 story “Under the Pyramids,” which he ghostwrote for the magician.
Murtada’s History of Egypt, in turn, is an odd duck in Arabic literature. It is famous mostly because it was the only work of its kind available in either French or English until the end of the nineteenth century, and as such it exercised outsize influence over European writers, particularly the Romantics and the Gothics. Percy Shelley’s friends literally had to pry the book from his hands and chuck it out the window because he wouldn’t stop reading it. It is a short treatise covering the antediluvian history of Egypt, the creation of the Pyramids as a hedge against the Flood, and the magical and occult events after the Flood. It claims to be the author’s efforts to copy what he could of a partially mutilated older volume. Given that it is nearly a word-for-word copy of the second half of the Akhbār al-zamān, the earliest known collection of occult lore about ancient Egypt, as filtered through Hermetic and Late Antique Christian hands, the most likely possibility is that Murtada was copying from either the Akhbār itself, a derivative of it, or its hypothetical but lost ancestral source text. (Textual elements in the Akhbār suggest that it was revised and reedited from a lost original.)
Lovecraft took inspiration from Corelli’s reports about Murtada’s book, and Murtada’s book is a close copy of chunks of the Akhbār al-zamān. Weirdly enough, and unbeknownst to Lovecraft, who never read the French edition of the Akhbār al-zamān, the only version available in the West until the modern era, the book really is very much like the Necronomicon is described. It covers the primeval history of the world, including the actions of godlike beings from the sky—the djinn—and the incredible antediluvian civilizations that once littered the ancient Earth. It describes vast cycles of cosmic time and puissant works and cyclopean architecture of the giants and monsters that reigned before the Flood. It even has an evil monster, the antichrist, who is imprisoned on a mysterious island and will emerge from it “when the time is right,” just like Cthulhu! It also describes the wonders of Arab and Egyptian magic at length, though not with specific spells.
In short, the Akhbār al-zamān is the closest we will come to the “real” Necronomicon. I translated the book into English, and I lived to tell the tale. It is, frankly, a little disappointing. I sort of expected something cosmic to happen.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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