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Necronomicon -- shedding some light on Lovecraft's sources

Joseph H. Peterson, © 1995, 2003.


If we examine H. P. Lovecraft's use of the name "Azathoth", I believe we can shed some light on his probable source of information on the Necronomicon, namely John Dee's partial English translation.
American author Howard P. Lovecraft was known for featuring sinister ancient texts in his horror fiction. His biographers have documented some of his texts as genuine, such as Borelli's De Motu Animalium and Johann Trithemius' Polygraphia, (Oppenheim, 1518). Lovecraft apparently was familiar with some of the texts only through secondary sources. Such is thought to be the case with Raufft's De Masticatione mortuorum in tumulis which Lovecraft almost certainly learned about through Calmet's Dissertation upon the Apparitions of Angels, Daemons, and Ghosts, ... (London, 1759).1 Still other texts mentioned in his stories are generally regarded as Lovecraft's own inventions. Many of his stories draw on a common 'mythos' which he associated with the prototypical evil book, the Necronomicon. However, it is not entirely clear whether he was drawing on original source material, secondary sources, or his own imagination for this mythos. 1. See William Scott Home, 'The Lovecraft "Books": Some Addenda and Corrigenda' in The Dark Brotherhood and other pieces (Sauk City, Wisconsin, Arkham House, 1966, pp. 134-152). Calmet's book has recently been republished in abridged form as The Phantom World (Wordsworth Editions Ltd., 2001).
I believe one key to understanding Lovecraft's Necronomicon mythos can be found in his 'History of the Necronomicon,' where he states that "a translation made by Dr. Dee was never printed."2 2. August Derleth, Dark Brotherhood, p. 263.
John Dee (1527-1608), perhaps best known as Queen Elizabeth I's scientific advisor, left an enormous literary output, much of which was never meant to be published.3 Dee assembled one of the most impressive libraries of his time, many of his volumes being rescued from then-recently-defunct Catholic monasteries. Even in his own time Dee had a reputation for being involved with sinister magical practices. Indeed much of his library was kept secret and separate from his public library because it was dangerous to possess such texts. Fortunately, many of the original volumes from Dee's bibliotheca externa, as well as his secret occult library, have been identified through the meticulous research of Julian Roberts and Andrew Watson.4 This was largely possible because Dee usually left copious notes in the margins of his books, including some very characteristic symbols.5 3. William H. Sherman, John Dee, The Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance (Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1997, pp. 116-117).

4. Julian Roberts and Andrew Watson, John Dee's Library Catalogue (Oxford, 1992).

5. For example, a bracket shaped like a face used to indicate alchemical passages. Dee also used a symbol described by Sherman as his 'ladder symbol'; this is seen in the margins of a 13th century manuscript of Liber Iuratus (Sloane Mss. 313) which identifies it as coming from Dee's secret library.
Dee apparently regarded the Necronomicon, or Ars Necronomica ('The art of controlling [spirits of] the dead') as an extension of Ars Pyronomica ('the art of controlling the fire'). The latter is an obscure alchemical process; in the terminology of spiritual alchemy it refers to controlling one's astral body. Josten explains the latter in his introduction to Dee's Monas Hieroglyphica:
"In another dark passage, which alludes to the philosophers' mercury and its replacement by the Sun, i.e., gold, Dee asserts that this operation (which is the final stage in the transmutation of metals) can no longer be performed in the present age, as it was in the past performed by some great experts, unless indeed one let the work be governed by a certain soul which has been severed from its body by the art of controlling the fire (ars pyronomica), a work very difficult and fraught with dangers because of the fiery and sulphurous fumes which it occasions [Ibid., f. 14v; below, p. 165.]."6
6. C. H. Josten, A Translation of John Dee's "Monas Hieroglyphica", Ambix, Vol. XII, 1964, p. 100-101.
The passage Josten refers to is from Dee's Theorem XIII:
"In our present age we cannot perform this, unless we let this golden work be governed by a certain soul that has been separated from [its] body by the art of controlling the fire [ars pyronomica]. This work is difficult, and also very dangerous because of the fiery and sulphurous fumes which it occasions; but surely that soul will be able to work wonders, tying, no doubt, with bonds that cannot be loosed, Venus and indeed Mars to the disk of the Moon (or at least to that of Mercury), and producing -- in the third place (as they will have it) (to complete our septenary number -- the Sun of the philosophers."7
7. Dee's preface to his Monas Hieroglyphica, in Josten op. cit., p. 165.
It is hard to imagine that Dee regarded ars necronomica any less dangerous than ars pyronomica.
It is not know when or where Dee acquired a copy of the Necronomicon, but it is probably the book he refers to in his Mysteriorum Libri (or magical diaries) as "my Arabik boke." This would place it in his hands in 1583.8 This coincides with the probable date of his translation, since the manuscript contains some notes in Edward Kelley's handwriting (folio 74r) which refer to Singilla, a spirit who is only mentioned once in Dee's Mysteriorum Libri, i.e. in an "action" dated Apr 18, 1583.9 The incomplete state of the translation can be explained simply by the fact that the work was interrupted by the disappearance of the book.10

Edward Kelley's scribblings in Dee's manuscript.

8. On Dee's "Arabik boke", see Peterson, John Dee's Five Books of Mysteries (Red Wheel/Weiser, 2003, p. 15, 40, 353). It was prized by Pontois and described as having "cost Doctor Dye £ 600 ready money as he the deponent did hear himself the said doctor afferm." It somehow disappeared in 1583, and Dee asked the spirits for help in recovering it. It was eventually recovered in 1595 "by gods favor."

9. Peterson, op. cit., p. 356. It is also possible of course that Dee wrote the text much earlier, and Kelley only picked a convenient blank spot between chapters to write.

10. It is also damaged in many places due to careless handling by successive owners, including a maid who used pages under pies and tore out strips to light fires and such. We know this because of the account of how Ashmole came to possess Dee's stash of private occult writings, which is bound with Sloane Mss 3188 in the British Library.
It is this incomplete and fragmentary nature of Dee's manuscript which gives us a clue to Lovecraft's sources. While HPL consistently uses "Azathoth" to refer to a demon of chaos, a comparison of the fuller Latin text of the Necronomicon with Dee's manuscript shows that there are actually two separate beings with similar-sounding names ("Az" and "Aza-Thoth"). This is not at all apparent from the Dee manuscript alone.

Latin manuscript of Necronomicon, ca. late 14th or early 15th century.

The Necronomicon, in a short section cataloging various demons, clearly names Az as the "blind demon":
"The blind demon Az sits on the throne of Chaos. It is he who swallows everything, and when in the end he finds the world is nought, he eats himself.

Asto-vidad is the evil flyer who seizes the life; as it says that, when his hand strokes a man it is lethargy, when he casts it on the sick one it is fever, when he looks in his eyes he drives away the life, and they call it death. The demon of the malignant eye is he who will spoil anything which men see, when they do not say 'in the name of Yog-Sothoth.'


With every one of them are many demons and fiends cooperating, to specify whom a second time would be tedious; demons, too, who are furies (rabei), are in great multitude it is said. The demons of ruin, pain, and decrepitude, producers of vexation and bile, revivers of grief, the progeny of gloom, and bringers of stench, decay, and vileness, who are many, very numerous, and very notorious; and a portion of all of them is mingled in the bodies of men, and their characteristics are glaring in mankind." - (Book 1, ch 28; pg 110 ff of Dee's Ms.)

Later, this demon is mentioned as a sole companion of the 'Evil One' after other evil spirits have been conquered:
"Then two fiends (diaboli) remain at large, the Evil One and Az." - (Book 1, ch 30; Dee Ms. pg 128.)
This being is wholly distinct from Aza-Thoth, who seems to be some kind of legendary king and sorcerer who has both human and demonic ancestry:
"Aza-Thoth was the son of Khrutasp, son of Zainigau, son of Virafsang, ... son of Druiaskan, son of the Evil One." - (Book 1, ch 31; not found in Dee Ms.)
He currently lies bound but will eventually break free and lay waste to the earth, as seen elsewhere in the Necronomicon:
"After the apostate shouts like this, and because of it, Aza-Thoth stands up before him, but through fear of the likeness of Fraidaun in the body of Fraidaun, he does not first remove those fetters and stake from his trunk until the Evil One removes them. And the vigor of Aza-Thoth increases, the fetters being removed from his trunk, and his impetuosity remains; he swallows down the apostate on the spot, [here Dee's manuscript, pg. 233, breaks off] and rushing into the world to perpetrate evil, he commits innumerable grievous sins; he swallows down one-third of mankind, cattle, sheep, vegetation, and commits grievous devastation." - (Book 4, ch 3.)
This person seems to be the same as 'Aza-Citra', because on the next page of the Latin codex we read:
"And, afterwards, when the twelfth millennium comes, through Hucedar-mah the creatures become more progressive, and he utterly destroys Aza-Citra."
This also may provide a clue as to the meaning of his name, since *Aza-Chithra can be translated 'Spawn of Az', if we assume Middle Persian loan words in Alhazred's (lost) Arabic original.
Finally, there's another interesting allusion to Aza-Thoth in a passage which Alhazred uncharacteristically wrote in the first person (the Medieval Latin seems to be a little faulty here too):
"When I issued from the sweat, and raised my eyes, I saw the world when it was dark as night; on the whole earth were snakes, scorpions, lizards (stelliones), and noxious creatures of many kinds; and so the other kinds of quadrupeds stood among the reptiles; every approach of the whole earth was as though not as much as a needle's point remained, in which there was no rush of noxious creatures. There was the coming of a planetary star (?) into planetary conjunction, and the moon and planets in fours and fives; many dark forms with the face and curls of Aza-Thoth suffered punishment in company with certain aliens; and I was amazed at calling the wicked out. Lastly, he (the Evil One) came up to the fire, and mingled darkness and smoke with it." - (Book 2, ch 2; pg 162 of Dee's Ms.)
I believe this is strong evidence that HPL did not have access to the fuller text as preserved in the Latin edition, and most likely had only seen Dee's manuscript.

:-) JHP

Dee's translation of Necronomicon

Seal of Cthulhu

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