The Names
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".

Hearty thanks go out to Christophe Thill for providing the gifs of Greek words used on this page.

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 follows:

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, however).

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.

Embarrassingly enough, after having the above placed on this website for several years, I have discovered that azif is in fact a legitimate Arabic term, with precisely the meaning that Henley and Lovecraft ascribe to it.

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.

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