Sunday, October 16, 2011

Lovecraft's Lactantius

My friend H.P. Lovecraft begins his excellent short story, "The Festival" (1923), with a Latin quotation:
"Efficiunt Daemones, ut quae non sunt, sic tamen quasi sint, conspicienda hominibus exhibeant." - Lactantius
As a beginning Latin student I remember having trouble translating it. Now I can do that–
Demons have the ability to cause people to see things that do not exist as if they did exist.
–but I have a new difficulty. Lactantius is not one of Lovecraft's inventions. He was a Christian writer working in the time of Constantine; thanks to his eloquent Latin he became known during the Renaissance as the Christian Cicero. I want to find the place in Lactantius' writing where the sentence quoted by Lovecraft occurs. Yet, though I have access to a searchable database of Lactantius, none of my searches turns up the sentence. Why can't I find it? And where did Lovecraft find it?

Lovecraft's indefatigable editor S.T. Joshi claims that the epigraph is from book 2, chapter 15 of Lactantius' Divinae Institutiones. Not quite: that chapter of Lactantius contains nothing like our mystery sentence. But Joshi goes on to say that Lovecraft got his quotation not directly from Lactantius, but from Cotton Mather, who quoted the sentence himself in an appendix to his ecclesiastical history of New England, Magnalia Christi Americana (1702). Lovecraft owned a copy of Mather's history. If Joshi is right, then Lovecraft's quotation is tralatitious (*), that is, he borrowed from Mather rather than going back to the original source.

I can locate the sentence in Cotton Mather. He attributes it to Lactantius but doesn't provide any more specific citation. So where did Mather get it?

Quite possibly from his father, Increase Mather. Increase printed the same sentence on the cover page of his Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men (1693), a pamphlet printed together with Cotton Mather's The Wonders of the Invisible World (the cover is page 219 of the document in Google Books). Increase attributes the quotation to Lactantius, Divinae Institutiones, book 2, chapter 15. Aha! Now we have a source for Joshi's mistaken citation. But it's still mistaken. Where did Increase find the damn thing?

I think I know. We need to look into Nicolaus Remigius' Daemonolatreia, a 3-book treatise on witchcraft and demon worship published in 1595. Remigius was a judge and self-styled expert in the prosecution of witches, a topic of interest to both Mathers. Here's a passage from book 3, chapter 11 (p. 385):
iam dubium nemini esse debet, quin quoque se videndi, aut non videndi, quibus velint, copiam facere possint: Nam & quod studendum magis est, hoc praeterea efficiunt (inquit Lactantius 3.) ut quae non sunt, sic tamen quasi sint, conspicienda hominibus exhibeant.

3. Lib. ii. de Origi erro. cap. 15

At this point no one ought to doubt that they [Demons] can also allow whomever they wish to see them, or not to see them: For they also–a thing that is even more worthy of attention–have this ability besides (as Lactantius says 3.), to cause people to see things that do not exist as if they did exist.

3. Book 2, De Origine Erroris ["On the origin of the error" = the title of the second book of Lactantius' Divinae Institutiones] chapter 15
The part in bold matches Increase Mather's tag precisely. Now, Remigius is citing Lactantius as an authority for the idea that demons can make people see things that aren't there. He isn't claiming to quote Lactantius, just to paraphrase him. Increase Mather took Remigius' paraphrase; made it a self-sufficient sentence by supplying the subject Daemones ("demons") and removing both the connective praeterea ("besides") and the anticipatory hoc ("this"); and then attributed this new, hybrid construct to the chapter from Lactantius that Remigius had cited. No wonder I couldn't find this "quotation" in Lactantius: it's a paraphrase masquerading as the author's original words.

The next step is to pinpoint what Remigius was paraphrasing. Actually there's nothing in Div.Inst. book 2, chapter 15 that resembles his summary, but the previous chapter, chapter 14, has this:
magorum quoque ars omnis ac potentia horum adspirationibus constat, a quibus inuocati uisus hominum praestigiis obcaecantibus fallunt, ut non uideant ea quae sunt et uidere se putent illa quae non sunt.

All the art and power of the mages too consists in the influences of these beings [= Demons]: when invoked by the mages, they deceive the sight of men with blinding tricks, so that they do not see the things that are there and suppose they see those things that are not.
The last part of this sentence must be Remigius' source. Since chapter 15 of Lactantius starts off with a summary reference to "all these deceits" (Quarum omnium fallaciarum), it's not so surprising that Remigius' reference was one chapter off.

The interesting thing about tralatitious quotations and citations, gentle reader, is that as they're handed off from one author to another, the precise nature of the original tends to drop out of sight, like in a game of telephone. From Increase Mather to Cotton Mather to S. T. Joshi, no one bothered to go back and verify the source. This is excusable in the colonial-period divines, less so in the modern scholar.

I don't include Lovecraft in my criticism of the Mathers and Joshi because it's just possible he knew better. In an early scene of "The Festival," the narrator looks through a pile of old books:
when I sat down to read I saw that the books were hoary and mouldy, and that they included old Morryster's wild Marvells of Science, the terrible Saducismus Triumphatus of Joseph Glanvil, published in 1681, the shocking Daemonolatreia of Remigius, printed in 1595 at Lyons, and worst of all, the unmentionable Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, in Olaus Wormius' forbidden Latin translation;
Remigius is there! The narrator could have found in that book the Latin tag that opens the story he's in. (It might have warned him that Kingsport's oddly anachronistic cityscape was not what it seemed to be.)

Is it just a coincidence that Lovecraft mentions Remigius here? Or was he signaling his awareness of the true source of his Lactantius "quotation"? I have no idea, and couldn't answer without more research into Lovecraft's personal library. It doesn't seem likely that he read Remigius' Latin text cover to cover...

...and yet, the Mathers punctuate their version of the quotation with a comma between tamen and quasi, which clarifies the syntax a bit. Lovecraft's version is lacking this comma–just like Remigius. Could this agreement with Remigius in punctuation suggest that Cotton Mather wasn't Lovecraft's only source for his epigraph?

One last thing. In Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi, the Lactantius "quotation" is buried in an appendix; in Increase Mather's Cases of Conscience (published along with Cotton's Wonders of the Invisible World), it's on the title page. If Lovecraft had access to Increase's work, I'd say it's a more likely source for the epigraph than Cotton's Magnalia. Lovecraft does at least mention Wonders of the Invisible World in "Pickman's Model."

* I'm a bit surprised that "tralatitious" is not in my computer's dictionary.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Necronomicon in English, Latin and Greek: A comparison

Because I do not believe that knowledge of earlier editions of the Necronomicon should be so thoroughly concealed from interested parties by our institutions of higher learning, I group together in a single post the English, Latin and Greek versions of the famous couplet quoted by H.P. Lovecraft. Discussion of how the newly discovered Latin and Greek verses differ from the English, and how I came to transcribe them, may be found here and here.
That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.

Illud non moritur quod polleat usque morari:
temporibus miris, Mors, potes ipsa mori.
(Olaus Wormius the Elder, 1228)

οὐκ ἔλαχον θανάτοιο μέρος κατακείμενοι αἰεί·
καινοτέρων ἐτέων καὶ θάνατος θάνεται.
(Theodorus Philetas, ca. 950)
The eighth-century Arabic original is still lacking and may be lost for good (unfortunately I have no knowledge of the relevant language).

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Greek version of the Necronomicon also discovered!

What strange events have made possible the tale I now share! A few days after making the find described in the previous post I was once again in Houghton Library and saw the cursed book on the same desk, being pored over by a tall gentleman of repellent aspect. He looked up at me as I entered and, without taking his eyes off me, opened the tome with great deliberation to one of its middle pages. Then, seeming almost to smirk, he abruptly stood up and, after speaking animatedly with the librarian in charge of the reading room for some minutes, exited the room followed by the librarian himself. I was left alone.

As I peered a second time into that volume of eldritch horrors, I noticed that a much older sheet of parchment had been bound in among the printed pages! The text on the parchment was handwritten and much worn, but I could make out Greek characters scrawled in a hideously crabbed script! This is doubtless a fragment of the Byzantine Greek translation of the Necronomicon, produced around 950 in Constantinople by Theodorus Philetas but lost since the 17th century.

With no idea of how much time I'd have to spend with the fragment, I immediately fixated on a portion of the text set off from the rest and written somewhat more clearly. It was the Greek version of the famous couplet, composed in rough elegiacs that I hurriedly scribbled down on a stray sheet of paper:
οὐκ ἔλαχον θανάτοιο μέρος κατακείμενοι αἰεί·
καινοτέρων ἐτέων καὶ θάνατος θάνεται.
Transliterated and translated:
ouk elakhon thanatoio meros katakeimenoi aiei:
kainoterōn eteōn kai thanatos thanetai.

They have no share of death who always lie:
In stranger years to come, e'en death shall die.
The Greek dispels a potential ambiguity in the last word of Lovecraft's "that is not dead which can eternal lie": katakeimenoi in the first line refers to those who are "lying down" or "lying hidden," and confirms that "lie" in the English does not refer to untruth or falsehood (which was never very likely anyway).

The verb thanetai, "will die," is quite unusual. This form occurs only once in all of Greek literature, in one of the Sibylline oracles where it's part of a prophecy. So the wording of the Greek couplet suggests it's making a prediction: death will die during the "stranger years."

Theodorus's choice of meter reflects the revival of interest in the elegiac couplet during the reign of Constantine Porphyrogenitus. That he didn't quite attain to Classical standards of versification is understandable: he produced his translation under severe constraint, with continuous threat of persecution if he were discovered, and of madness if he were too successful in unlocking the book's secrets.

What consequences will ensue from my own perusal of these secrets, it is too early to tell. I hear footsteps behind me when I walk home at night, and turn to glimpse shadows of unwholesome outline.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Motto for my coat of arms


"Deemed wise by the ignorant, not ignorant by the wise."

It isn't true.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Latin version of the Necronomicon discovered!

I came across it in Houghton Library at Harvard, which houses the university's collection of rare books. I was consulting a different book but noticed that a tome resting on the reading desk near my own bore the title Necronomicon on its spine. The person consulting it had stepped out of the reading room, and I furtively moved to his desk and sat at his chair. I opened the book to find myself faced with a 17th century edition of the medieval Latin translation that some have claimed does not exist.

Eager to retain some evidence of my encounter–for I know that the university librarians seldom even admit this hideous book is among their holdings, much less grant access to it–I leafed through the first few pages, and my eyes fell upon a piece of poetry set off from the rest of the text. It was the Latin version of the famous couplet that H.P. Lovecraft once quoted in English, and that I now transcribe from memory:
illud non moritur quod polleat usque morari:
temporibus miris, Mors, potes ipsa mori.
The meaning is a bit different from the lines given by Lovecraft. Loosely:
That does not die which may linger for aye:
In strange times, Death, e'en you can pass away.
Notice that the Latin version addresses a personified Death in the second line. There's a play on the sound of the word for "death," mors: that which escapes death has the power to "linger," morari, continuously; in times that are "strange," miris, Death itself can die.

The two words that end the first line, usque morari ("linger continuously"), are a reminiscence of Vergil's Aeneid, book 6, line 487, where Aeneas wishes to linger in the underworld to speak with the ghosts of his dead countrymen:
nec vidisse semel satis est; iuvat usque morari
One look is not sufficient to allay
His wish that he might linger there for aye.
The Latin translator of the Necronomicon must have perceived a connection between the mad Arab's couplet, and Vergil's description of the realm of the dead.

Given the sound play and the allusion to Vergil, it's likely that the Latin takes considerable liberties with the original. If only we had the earlier Greek version...

Monday, October 18, 2010

Deriving the Necronomicon

H.P. Lovecraft's most famous foray into ancient Greek is the title he coined for the Necronomicon. Nothing scyptic about this word: it's correctly and transparently formed from nekros ("corpse") and a root nom- related to the verb nemō ("distribute; hold sway over, manage") and the noun nomos ("tradition, custom, law"). -icon is just an adjectival suffix, though somewhere HPL tries to connect it with eikōn ("image") instead.

And what precisely does Necronomicon mean? Compounds ending with -nomikos are pretty versatile, semantically speaking, though they tend to derive their meaning not from the noun "law" but from the verb "manage." So it's not so much "law of the dead" (which is what HPL wanted) as "pertaining to the management of the dead," ghoulishly modeled after oikonomikos, "pertaining to the management of the house" (the source of our "economics"). Or maybe it refers to the "science of the dead," in the same way astronomikos does to astronomy, the science of the stars. Do we want necronomics or necronomy?

At any rate the title has nothing to do with "names" of the dead (that would be -onomastikon), or with a "knower" of the dead (the ending -on isn't right for denoting a person).

Though I haven't seen it mentioned in this connection, HPL must have been inspired by the title of Petronius' Satyricon. Which may actually be a genitive plural (Σατυρικῶν), that is, the title means "[book] of things-pertaining-to-satyrs." "[Book] of things-pertaining-to-the-science-of-the-dead"?

HPL outfitted the Necronomicon with a pretty wonderful textual history. The tome started in Arabic and went through Greek and Latin translations. This makes me wonder. The most famous lines quoted by HPL from the Necronomicon are
That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.
A rhyming couplet of iambic pentameter. And what would it be in Greek and Latin?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Scyptic responses

A while back, I got interested in the word "scyptic." I decided that it probably owes its existence to a misprint of the word "cryptic" in a work by H.P. Lovecraft, though I made up a suitable definition for it anyway.

I just discovered that someone has actually commented on my definition. Trevor thinks that HPL would not have let a misprint stand, and suggests instead that he might have coined "scyptic" as a kind of ancient Greek portmanteau, say a combo of skia ("shadow") and kruptos ("hidden").

HPL did dabble in ancient Greek neologism (more on this in a later post). But I'm not sure he'd have cut-and-pasted two words together in such an impressionistic and (from the Greek standpoint) incorrect way: how could he have expected anyone to understand the meaning? The misprint of "scyptic" for "cryptic" might have happened after HPL died. We'd have to check the earliest publications––but that's what S.T. Joshi presumably did for his critical edition, and Joshi prints "cryptic." I do wish that Joshi had said something about the scyptic variant.

But this is beside the point. Ghost-words become real words when people start using them, and Trevor has a post-HPL, genuine appearance of "scyptic" (as an obscure word without a definition!). I'm very happy to let Trevor's derivation from skia and kruptos stand as the pseudo-etymology for my pseudo-definition.