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The Names Necronomicon and Al Azif: Where They Came From, What They Mean

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Subject: The Names Necronomicon and Al Azif: Where They Came From, What They Mean
   The name Necronomicon was coined by H.P. Lovecraft. He stated in
   a letter that the name occurred to him in the course of a dream,
   and there is no reason to doubt this. As no occurrence of the
   term has been found that predates Lovecraft's usage of it, and as
   all later uses can be traced back to his, he was certainly the
   sole source of the title.
   While the origin of the name offers us no ambiguities, however,
   this is not the case with its interpretation. Most interpret the
   title The Necronomicon as "The Book of Dead Names". This,
   however, is certainly incorrect. The derivation of the first root
   from (nekros, dead, corpse) is definitely right, but the
   second root cannot derive from (onoma, name, title,
   noun) as the combining form of that word is onomat-, as in
   onomatomania, the uncontrollable obsession with words or names or
   their meanings or sounds.
   Some may also have in mind the Greek (onyma, name), as
   in pseudonym, antonym, etc., or the Latin nomen (name), root
   nomin-, but it is easily seen that these are equally impossible.
   Another attempt to etymologize the title as "The Book of Dead
   Names" breaks it down into nekros plus the non-existent and
   impossible form nomikon, a book of names.
   Lovecraft himself offered a translation of the title:
     The name Necronomicon ([nekros], corpse;
     [nomos], law; [eikôn], image = An Image [or Picture
     -- HPL's brackets] of the Law of the Dead) occurred to me in
     the course of a dream, although the etymology is perfectly
     sound. In assigning an Arabic author to a Greek-named book I
     was whimsically reversing the condition whereby the monumental
     astronomical work of the Greek Ptolemy
     ( [Megalê Syntaxis Tês
     `Astronomias]) is commonly known by the Arabic name Almagest
     (or more truly, Tabrir al Magesthi), which was evolved from a
     corruption of the original title when the Arabs made their
     translation ( [megistê] is the superlative of
     [megalê], & the Arabs probably found it in common use
     to distinguish the work from another of Ptolemy's) (Selected
     Letters V, 418).
   Those concerned with authorial intent will feel bound by
   Lovecraft's interpretation, while it is certainly of interest to
   anyone reading his work. While he was on the right track with
   nomos, however, the interpretation of the final root as deriving
   from eikôn is definitely mistaken, as we shall see later.
   The exact meaning of the root nom- has caused some differences of
   opinion. It comes from a family of words including the verb
   (nemein, to distribute, pasture, manage), the noun
   (nomos, usage, custom, law), and the combining form
   -nomia, (-nomos, distributing, arranging) used in the naming of
   sciences such as astronomy. The last would seem to be the
   interpretation favored by Lovecraft, the title thus indicating a
   treatise on the scientific study of the dead, which science would
   be named in this interpretation necronomy. Others have suggested
   the second choice, translating the title as "The Customs of the
   Dead". Still others have proposed deriving the nom- element from
   another set of related Greek words, with meanings such as
   "pasture", "region" "(political) division", thus giving the
   translation: "Guide[book] to the Regions of the Dead". Yet
   another possibility which suggests itself (though I do not recall
   seeing it mentioned before) is taking -nomia (management,
   control) as in economy, economics, "the art of household
   management"; -- thus giving "The Management of the Dead", which
   is not too far out of line of the conception of the book in the
   stories where it first appeared, "The Festival" & "The Hound". It
   would thus perhaps belong to the science of necronomics.
   Yet another attempt to interpret the name views as combining two
   roots instead of three: nekros, dead, with nomikos, lawyer. As
   attractive as many might find "The Book of Dead Lawyers",
   however, this is not an accurate translation.
   Finally, to resolve these nagging doubts we may turn to S.T.
   Joshi's "Afterword" to Lovecraft's "History of the Necronomicon".
   In addition to being the preëminent Lovecraft scholar, Joshi has
   a degree in Classics, and so is in his area of specialty twice
   over. He analyzes the title by comparison with that of the
   Astronomica (plural; singular Astronomicôn) of Manilius, a Latin
   work on astronomy which Lovecraft knew and cited. (E.g., in an
   article titled "Mysteries of the Heavens", published in the
   Asheville Gazette-News April 3, 1915, he says: "Manilius,
   referring to the Milky Way in his 'Astronomicon.'...") He breaks
   it down as follows: nekros, dead person, corpse;
   nemein, to consider; and -ikon, an
   adjectival suffix equivalent to Latin -icum, English -ic, -ical.
   From this last it can be seen that the strained interpretation of
   -icon as eikôn, picture, image = "book", is totally unnecessary.
   Joshi thus gives the Greek title the following rendering: "Book
   Concerning the Dead".
   In the movies Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness there appears a
   variant form of the name. There, the book is called the
   Necronomicon ex Mortis. This is apparently a bit of flubbed
   Latin: it should presumably be either ex Morte, "from death", or
   more probably ex Mortuis, "from the dead".
                                Al Azif
   In his "History of the Necronomicon" Lovecraft begins: "Original
   title Al Azif -- azif being the word used by Arabs to designate
   that nocturnal sound (made by insects) suppos'd to be the howling
   of daemons." Again, in Selected Letters II he states: "The book
   was a product of Abdul's old age, which was spent in Damascus, &
   the original title was Al Azif -- azif (cf. Henley's notes to
   Vathek) being the name applied to those strange night noises (of
   insects) which the Arabs attribute to the howling of daemons."
   Oddly, his only use of the title in his fiction seems to occur in
   his revision of Adolphe de Castro's "The Last Test" (unlike many
   of the "revisions", this was actually a revision of a work
   written by de Castro, rather than a ghost-writing job); there,
   the mad scientist is made to shout: "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 meaning of azif in this context is not entirely clear. One
   speculation, that it indicates that the book was inspired by
   Alhazred hearing voices, certainly makes sense in the context of
   his status as a "mad poet" and Arab beliefs about such in the
   period in which he lived.
   Still, a different interpretation emerges when one considers
   Lovecraft's acknowledged source for the word. He stated that he
   derived the word from a note to Henley's translation of
   Beckford's Vathek. The text to which the note is appended runs as
     The good Mussulmans fancied that they heard the sullen hum of
     those nocturnal insects which presage evil, and importuned
     Vathek to beware how he ventured his sacred person.
   The note runs:
     It is observable that, in the fifth verse of the Ninety-first
     Psalm, "the terror by night," is rendered, in the old English
     version, "the bugge by night." In the first settled parts of
     North America, every nocturnal fly of a noxious quality is
     still generically named a bug; whence the term bugbear
     signifies one that carries terror wherever he goes. Beelzebub,
     or the Lord of Flies, was an Eastern appellative given to the
     Devil; and the nocturnal sound called by the Arabians azif was
     believed to be the howling of demons. Analogous to this is a
     passage in Comus as it stood in the original copy:--
     But for that damn'd magician, let him be girt
     With all the grisly legions that troop
     Under the sooty flag of Acheron,
     Harpies and Hydras, or all the monstrous buggs
     'Twixt Africa and Inde, I'll find him out.
   From all this it is clear that the noises referred to are not
   intelligible speech; and it would appear that the correct
   translation of the title would be something like The Bug; more
   specifically, The Hum, The Humming, The Buzzing, or The Rustling;
   or less literally, The Omen or The Portent (we respectfully
   refrain from suggesting Humbug as the title's true translation,
   In any case, however, the word is not a real term from Arabic.
   The source of Henley's note is unknown. There is, however, an
   Arabic word aziz, which translates as "buzzing, rumbling (as of
   thunder)" and other buzzing or rumbling sounds in general.
   A variant form, Kitab al-Azif, was never used by Lovecraft and
   seems to have first appeared in the seventies. The word kitab
   simply means "book" in Arabic, and appears in many titles in that
   language. Those who have added it have probably had in mind,
   however, a specific work. This is the Kitab-al-Uhud, or Book of
   Power, by Abdul-Kadir, and identified with a book supposedly
   dictated to Solomon by the demon Asmodeus. Only one copy of this
   work is known to exist; that copy was tracked down by the Sufi
   expert Idries Shah, who tells of his search for it in Oriental
   Magic (1956). This text is mentioned in both the Simon
   Necronomicon and the Hay-Wilson-Turner-Langford Necronomicon.
   Have any further information on the matters discussed here?
   Please inform me:
   Copyright (c) 1997 Dan Clore.


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