Friday, January 8, 2016

Excerpts from Ruminations on the History of the Necronomicon

Excerpts from Ruminations on the History of the Necronomicon
Bobby Derie

"Why a poet?"

"Because Arabic poetry was the earliest form of Arabic literature, taken directly from the oral poetry traditions that predated Islam. It is often forgotten - or, perhaps, lost - to us today, that in the original Arabic the Al Azifwas rendered as a poem - something relatively difficult to render in Latin or English, though you can get a sense of it in the infamous couplet that is so often recalled from the Necronomicon. Indeed, the form of Al Azifis very similar to the qasida poetry which predated the creation of the Qu'ran; its language is direct and colorful, avoiding metaphor and simile, and there can be traced the influence of that great collection of poetry, the Mu'allaqat, which come from the pre-Islamic period of Arabia, the so-called Days of Ignorance."

"Why Sanaá then?"

"Sana'a was a great city under the Umayyad Caliphate; and a tumultuous time, around the Second Fitna, or civil war, and Abdullah al-Azrd would have pursued his studies under the reign of Abd al-Malik (685-705), who among other acts formalized Arabic as the language of the official language of the Caliphate and centralized its administration. The Al Azif was actually composed in Classical Arabic, the language of the Qu'ran, even though al-Azrd himself probably spoke a Yemeni Arabic dialect, and possibly South Arabian languages like Mehri or Soqotri. This speaks of both al-Azrd's background - a poet versed  in the literary language of the Caliphate - and for his intended audience: fellow intellectuals who expected to read such texts."

"So if Sana'a was so great, why Damascus?"

"Well, while Sana'a was the regional capital of Yemen, Damascus was the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate until 744 - and it is important to recall that Muslims were the minority in Damascus, despite the rule of the Umayyads, and it was predominantly inhabited by Christians and pagan Arabs. The decision to make Arabic the official language of the Caliphate gave Muslims an advantage over the rest of the population - which principally spoke Aramaic - and it is likely that al-Azrd found the cosmopolitan city an excellent location, easy for an 'indifferent Moslem' to hide his impiety while finding a place for himself as a trained, Arabic-speaking poet, probably catering largely to Christians and others who needed to interact with the Umayyads through letters or bills that must be written in Arabic. Of course, such a position would also allow al-Azrd to interact freely with various peoples that might otherwise raise the suspicions of both the secular and religious authorities."

"So who circulated the manuscript?"

"It's hard to impress how valuable manuscripts were, back in the days before printing - and this was several centuries before Gutenberg and movable type. Manuscripts rarely changed hands, and then for huge sums of money. At this point in the Middle Ages in Europe a library was a sealed wooden box or chest that held the books - possibly as few as four or five manuscripts for a monastery. It's why Christian monasteries focused so much on the production and copying of books, with a full illuminated manuscript representing the work of years and several scribes and artisans. Given the contents of the Al Azif, and the labor that went into making it, al-Azrd probably wrote no more than one to three manuscript copies during his entire life - if, indeed, he did copy out the whole thing, and the work was not compiled after his death by some anonymous scribe or acolyte from his surviving papers. Damascus might have been a good place for a wealthy individual to hire non-Arabic scribes to make copies of the manuscript - it was not uncommon for a scribe to work in an unfamiliar language such as Greek, if their task was only copying, though the stranger symbols and illustrations probably would have given some trouble, so the work would likely have been broken up. It is romantic to think that the manuscript or manuscripts would probably have passed largely among educated occultists, but a more likely survival is that it was sold to a scholar or clergyman and made its way to the Byzantine Empire, possibly the University of Constantinople."

"Where Theodorus Philetas translated it, right?"

"Right. Well, probably. Certainly, the Byzantine Greeks were critical in translating European Classical works for the Islamic world, and for transmitting Islamic science and philosophy for a European audience. It's one of the natural places for an Islamic manuscript to be translated into Greek - and from there for the Greek manuscript (which, again, might be copied several times) to find its way into various Christian monastic scriptoria or private libraries, especially after the Patriach Michael decided to suppress theNecronomicon - much better for an owner to sell or trade a valuable manuscript than consign it to the flames! So too, the vellum might have been scraped clean as a palimpsest, so some ancient gospel might have been penned on a sheet that once was inscribed with the contents of al-Azrd's book."

"Then it was Wormius' turn."

"Well, more or less. The Greek manuscripts of the Necronomicon might have filtered through a couple of Medieval monastic libraries, blindly copied by monks that knew no Greek. There remains the question of where Wormius - who was certainly not Ole Worm of Jutland, but some other author that had a similar name, or was identified with him - might have made his Latin translation. The first, perhaps obvious, choice would be Venice, which had close trading ties with the Byzantines, and most of the Greek Necronomicon manuscripts likely would have passed through Venice, or at least through the hands of Venetian merchants to other places. Some traditions have it that the translation occurred in Toledo, a prominent center of learning and occult tradition, though this might be a little too in keeping with the romantic notion of an underground network of necromancers. A third possibility is, of course, a northern city like Lübeck or Copenhagen, which could at least partially explain the identification of the author with Ole Worm."

"Wormius included a prefatory note, didn't he?"

"He did. And this is another thing people don't always think of when they consider the Necronomicon, all the little bits that must have been added as it was copied and translated through the centuries. Book curses, prefaces, corrections, expurgations, and all sort of messages that might have been added to the colophon, marginalia that the scribe might have dutifully copied or included as glosses in the original text - heck, errors that the scribe dutifully copied - each manuscript for the Necronomicon is unique, an expression of its history of transmission. It's one of the things I don't like about the modern Necronomicons, the hoaxes - they're reproduced a little too faithfully, there's no additions, no modifications...except in some of the foreign translations, which can be a bit interesting, but are just as often quite lacking."


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