July/August 2016 Issue
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This article was written by Donald Tyson
posted under Occult
Every book has an author, though not every author is remembered by name. Some chose anonymity in their own times, particularly the authors of books on black magic, which tend to be attributed to Moses, Aaron, Enoch and other legendary figures long dead who cannot complain if their names are attached to works of suspect virtue. When the writer of horror fiction, Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937), came to compose his history of the imaginary Necronomicon, he deliberately swam against this current and fixed to his apocryphal grimoire the name of an individual undistinguished by any act apart from the composition of his book.
Abdul Alhazred is the author of the Necronomicon. In Lovecraft’s history of the grimoire that is all he is, and he has no other claim to importance. In my novel Alhazred he seizes center stage with the naked ferocity of a man determined to live in a world that lusts for his death, and we view the wonders described in the Necronomicon through his own living eyes as he encounters them for the first time over the course of his epic journey across the face of the ancient world.
Lovecraft composed a biographical note on Alhazred when he found himself integrating the grimoire into his stories as a kind of ornament. Often the Necronomicon plays no important role in the tales, but its mere presence lends his stories an air of brooding menace, an odor of evil. Because he was referring to it so often, Lovecraft decided to invent a background for the book and its author, and in his later stories he remained largely true to this brief history, which circulated in hand-written form for many years among his literary friends, including the writer Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961).
According to Lovecraft, the Necronomicon was the product of a mad Arabian poet named Abdul Alhazred, who wrote it as an old man while living at Damascus, shortly before his mysterious death. Almost all that Lovecraft revealed about Alhazred is contained in a single paragraph in a letter written to Smith that is dated April 27, 1927:
Composed by Abdul Alhazred, a mad poet of Sanaá, in Yemen, who is said to have flourished during the period of the Ommiade caliphs, circa 700 A.D. He visited the ruins of Babylon and the subterranean secrets of Memphis and spent ten years alone in the great southern desert of Arabia—the Roba el Khaliyeh or “Empty Space” of the ancients—and “Dahna” or “Crimson” desert of the modern Arabs, which is held to be inhabited by protective evil spirits and monsters of death. Of this desert many strange and unbelievable marvels are told by those who pretend to have penetrated it. In his last years Alhazred dwelt in Damascus, where the Necronomicon (Al Azif) was written, and of his final death or disappearance (738 A.D.) many terrible and conflicting things are told. He is said by Ebn Khallikan (12th cent. biographer) to have been seized by an invisible monster in broad daylight and devoured horribly before a large number of fright-frozen witnesses. Of his madness many things are told. He claimed to have seen fabulous Irem, or City of Pillars, and to have found beneath the ruins of a certain nameless desert town the shocking annals and secrets of a race older than mankind. He was only an indifferent Moslem, worshiping unknown entities whom he called Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu.
This is not a terribly detailed biography of Alhazred, but it contains several points of interest. We learn from it that Alhazred was native to the city of Sana’a in the ancient Arab nation of Yemen and died at Damascus in Syria, from which the Caliph ruled the entire Muslim Empire stretching from Spain to India. If we assume that Alhazred lived a normal span of years, and was an old man when he was killed at Damascus under such strange circumstances, we may conjecture his date of birth at several decades prior to the close of the seventh century. I wished to be more specific in the background to my novel Alhazred, and so purely for my own benefit I settled on his date of birth as 665, which would make him 73 at the time of his death.
Lovecraft described Alhazred as a world traveler and a wanderer of the secret places of the earth. It seems likely to me that Alhazred strayed further afield than Muslim lands, but Lovecraft does not specifically state it in his little essay. He mentions the Empty Space, which is the great desert that covers most of southern Arabia and lies out the back door of Yemen, and also Memphis in Egypt and Babylon in Persia. Because they are named, we must assume these places played significant parts in Alhazred’s history, and I have done so in my novel of his early life.
The Necronomicon was written when Alhazred was an old man, looking back into his past, but the experiences upon which the information related in the Necronomicon was based occurred while he was still a young wanderer. Roaming the ancient world, particularly its wild desert regions, was not the occupation for an old man, but for someone in the full vigor of youth. In my novel, Alhazred embarks on his adventures while only eighteen years of age. Maturity and manhood arrived earlier in those times than they do today, because death also came much sooner. Few men lived past their early forties, so by their late teens they were already married and raising families. When Alhazred had adventure thrust upon him, much against his will, he was already a man with a mature outlook on life, though he appears young by our perceptions.
There are tantalizing if vague hints in Lovecraft’s biographical note on Alhazred. He mentions evil spirits and monsters of death in the great desert, and also strange and unbelievable marvels. By name he refers to the fabulous city of Irem, called the city of many pillars. Like so much of the history of the ancient world, Irem was mingled with legends, so that in Lovecraft’s time it was impossible to know if the city had ever existed, or was only a fiction. In recent years archaeologists believe that they have discovered the very Irem that Alhazred is reported by Lovecraft to have visited—but whether they are correct or mistaken, it is impossible to be sure.
Lovecraft mentions along with Irem a certain nameless desert town, beneath which Alhazred encountered a strange race of alien beings. This town figures prominently in one of Lovecraft’s stories, which is titled The Nameless City (1921). It seems likely from Lovecraft’s separate references that Irem and the nameless town are to be understood as different places, but in my novel I have used creative license to fuse them into a single place, so that it is Irem of many pillars that becomes the desert city beneath which is located the ancient race of inhuman creatures.
How Alhazred lost his reason is not explained by Lovecraft in his biographical note. There is the suggestion that the poet of Yemen was driven mad by what he encountered beneath the nameless desert town, or perhaps by what he met while wandering the Empty Space. Because the cause of madness is not stated outright, I have felt free to create my own explanation, and in my novel the root of Alhazred’s madness is the key to an understanding of his entire character and his motivation as a human being. He does not remain mad in the novel, but is driven mad and slowly regains his sanity, or a kind of sanity that is peculiarly his own. In the Empty Space, Alhazred looks into the face of the abyss, and when the abyss looks back at him, he reaches out and embraces it as a lover.
Neither are we told how Alhazred happens to be a poet, but in those times poetry was an occupation for nobles with wealth and ease, or those with noble patrons willing to support the arts. We may reasonably speculate that Alhazred was well educated, and that he could read and write. This is in keeping with his interest in necromancy, which was a bookish study. He would have known several languages, and probably would have had skill as a singer, since poetry and song were closely related. In my novel, Alhazred was a precocious boy whose genius for poetic composition came to the attention of the king of Yemen, who adopted Alhazred and received him into the royal palace. In exchange for his poetry Alhazred was given a life of ease and an excellent education. Such arrangements were not unknown in history, when someone of extraordinary talent was recognized. I have made the king of Yemen an educated man who was able to appreciate Alhazred’s remarkable poetic gift.
The time adopted by Lovecraft for the life of Alhazred was uncommonly dynamic. His birth, as I have fixed it, comes only 33 years after the death of the prophet Mohammed (570-632), who conquered the Arab and Persian worlds by the force of his sword, and converted the people of the subjugated lands to the new faith of Islam. The conquest of Egypt, which had been Coptic Christian, occurred in 641 and was within the living memory of some of the men Alhazred must have conversed with during his exploration of “subterranean secrets” at Memphis. The Muslim conquests of North Africa, Spain, Afghanistan and parts of India took place during Alhazred’s adulthood. Indeed, the initial expansion of the Muslim Empire was completed only six years before his death. Alhazred lived in “interesting times” as defined in the Chinese proverb.
Everywhere the ancient pagan ways still survived, although they were gradually being eclipsed by the new and rapidly spreading religions of Christianity and Islam. In Egypt, embalming was still done at the time of Alhazred’s visit, just as it had been done for thousands of years, but it was in its last days and ceased not many decades thereafter. It was the final opportunity for a curious seeker after ancient and obscure wisdom to travel the world and acquire it from living sources, before they were swept away on the rising tide of intolerance against all things pagan. The old gods were being forgotten, but they were still worshiped in secret places.
By being an indifferent Muslim, as Lovecraft put it, Alhazred took an enormous risk. It was still possible to follow other religions, but increasingly these were being suppressed in Arabian nations such as Yemen. At times the suppression was violent. There were lingering pockets of resistance. The wandering Bedouin tribes of the desert were never strict adherents to the teachings of Mohammad, particularly those concerning dress and adornment. Even though Mohammed forbade the tattooing of the face, Bedouin women continued to have their lower faces tattooed with blue dye, just has they had for centuries before the birth of the Prophet.
There was local tradition, which the mullahs of Islam might be willing to tolerate, even if they did not like it, and then there was necromancy, which was punishable by death. In worshiping the Old Ones, Alhazred put his life at risk, and he would only have performed this worship in the strictest secrecy. Lovecraft mentions two of these terrible gods adored by the poet, Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu. Yog-Sothoth was known as the god of portals. By his power, transition might be effected between this sphere of reality and spheres of higher space in which dwell alien races. It is natural to speculate that Alhazred worshiped Yog-Sothoth to gain knowledge of these inter-dimensional portals, so that he could travel between worlds.
His worship of Cthulhu is more puzzling, since Cthulhu is a sea-god said to lie dead-dreaming in his sealed tomb beneath the Pacific Ocean in the sunken city of R’lyeh. Alhazred’s interest may perhaps be explained by the martial qualities of Cthulhu, who is of all the Old Ones the greatest warrior god, and who in aeons past exacted the most terrible destruction with his spawn, who are miniature versions of this gelatinous giant of the ocean. Those seeking great personal power or authority might worship him in the hope of obtaining it, or at least of turning aside his jealous wrath, for Cthulhu is not a god to tolerate rivals graciously.
Lovecraft makes no mention in his biographical note of another Old One, Nyarlathotep, who is also know as the Crawling Chaos, but it is my belief that Alhazred would naturally have had communication with Nyarlathotep, who sometimes appears in the form of a man without a face, and who walks the desert wastes of Arabia beneath the moon. It is this Old One who most often interacts directly with human beings. Humans amuse him. He regards them as his playthings and his property. He also presides over the gods of the earth, who are all the gods of pagan antiquity. Nyarlathotep rules the lesser gods and forces them to dance at his pleasure. He is like a spider at the center of his web, and the gods of the ancients are his flies.
In my novel, it is Nyarlathotep who takes a personal interest in Alhazred, much to the dismay of the poet, who prefers to choose his interactions with the Old Ones rather than have them thrust upon him. When Nyarlathotep comes to him in dreams and tells him what he must do, Alhazred has little choice but to obey, yet he is never the willing slave of Nyarlathotep but always looks for a way to escape his thrall.
The death of Alhazred is a mysterious event, for Lovecraft never expanded on his few cryptic words of description. It appears that in his old age, Alhazred’s life as a necromancer finally caught up with him, and a thing of higher space, invisible to limited human perceptions, picked him up into the air and proceeded to dismember and devour him, the way a man might eat a roast chicken. This happened before a gathered crowd, so it is not unreasonable to speculate that it may have occurred in the market place at Damascus. In my novel I have hinted at the identity of the being who will eventually cause the death of our world-wandering necromancer, and at the reason why this creature might bear Alhazred hatred, but his end is not a part of my story, for it happens when Alhazred is an old man, and in the novel he is young and strong, with a whole life of wonders stretching in front of his feet like a golden caravan road in the desert.
Donald Tyson (Nova Scotia, Canada) is an occult scholar and the author of the popular, critically acclaimed Necronomicon series. He has written more than a dozen books on Western esoteric traditions. Visit him online at DonaldTyson.com.... Read more
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