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.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The epigraph to Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum ("Impia tortorum...")

I've been reading Edgar Allen Poe, something I haven't done since high school. In my present, Classically educated state, all his tags in Latin stand out for me much more––such as the Latin verses that are the epigraph to "The Pit and the Pendulum" (first published in 1842):
Impia tortorum longas hic turba furores
Sanguinis innocui, non satiata, aluit.
Sospite nunc patria, fracto nunc funeris antro,
Mors ubi dira fuit, vita salusque patent.

[Quatrain composed for the gates of a market to be erected upon the site of the Jacobin Club House at Paris.]
I've copied this version of the lines, along with the explanation, from an edition of Poe's works that appeared in 1849, the year of his death. The Latin isn't quite right (more on that in a bit), but here's how the translation goes if we follow the punctuation given above:
Here an impious mob of torturers, insatiable, fed their long-lasting frenzies for innocent blood. Now that the fatherland is safe, now that the cave of murder has been destroyed, in the place where foul death once was, life and health are open to all.
The "impious mob" are the Jacobins, the political club responsible, during the French Revolution, for the mass executions known as the Reign of Terror. After the Jacobins were suppressed in 1794, the site of their old club became a market (marché Saint-Honoré), the market for which the verses were written. "Life and health" at the end is a reference to the good stuff you can buy there, presumably.

[By the way, most translations of those lines that you find online, and in print, are wrong.]

But where did these lines come from? Baudelaire translated the story into French in 1857, and he attached a footnote to Poe's explanation where he mentioned (and he would know) that the market in question had no gates, and no inscription.

Poe had printed these lines before. He was a contributor to a periodical known as The Southern Literary Messenger, and in volume 2 (1835-6) the periodical printed a miscellany of mostly Classical tidbits, preciously entitled Pinakidia (ancient Greek for "Little tablets"). Though the Pinakidia are apparently unsigned, Poe was the author, and he included the following notice:
Some one after the manner of Santeuil, composed the following quatrain for the gates of the market to be erected on the site of the famous Jacobin Club at Paris,

Impia tortorum longas hic turba furores etc.
This version of the lines agrees in spellings and punctuation with the version from "The Pit and the Pendulum." Both of them contain an error: the third word, longas, ought to be longos in order to agree with furores, "frenzies." Is this Poe's mistake or just an oddly persistent misprint? Keep reading.

The ultimate source of Poe's quatrain seems to be a collection entitled Le Réveil d'Apollon ("The Awakening of Apollo"), a literary journal that may have lasted for just one issue (published 1796). Google Books doesn't have the collection itself, but an 1801 travel guide, the Manuel du voyageur à Paris, attributes the verses to it and introduces them as follows (it's in French; I'll translate):
A decree of the national Convention, rendered in the month of Floréal year 3 [= 1795?], suppressed the too-famous club of the Jacobins, and reserved its site for a market. A Latin poet made the following quatrain that appeared to us worthy of Santeuil, and that we found in a collection of verse, entitled The Awakening of Apollo. The government could ("pourrait") have it engraved on the gate of the market. Here it is:
We'll get to the version of the lines printed by the Manuel in a minute. Notice that the guide mentions "Santeuil," just as Poe did in the Pinakidia. Jean-Baptiste Santeuil (1630-1697) was famous for his Latin poems that were inscribed on the fountains of Paris, so the point of the comparison is to suggest that the quatrain for the market also deserves to be inscribed. Poe must have gotten both the quatrain and the reference to Santeuil from a source related to the Manuel (not necessarily the guide itself).

The version of the quatrain in the 1801 guide has the third word spelled correctly (longos). It also punctuates the first couplet differently:
Impia tortorum longos hîc turba furores,
Sanguinis innocui non satiata, aluit.
Unlike in the version at the beginning of this post, here the words non satiata ("not sated," second line) aren't set off by commas. Instead they're put with the two preceding words, sanguinis innocui ("innocent blood"). With this punctuation the first two lines go as follows:
Here an impious mob of torturers, who could never get their fill of innocent blood, fed their long-lasting frenzies.
I think that Latin grammar pretty much lets you put "innocent blood" here either with "frenzies" (as in my first translation) or with "not sated" (as in the second translation just above–I finessed the English a bit to make it sound more natural).

I can find one other quotation of these lines that predates Poe, and it agrees with the Manuel in all respects (even mentioning Santeuil!). So the misspelling and the variant punctuation from "The Pit and the Pendulum" do seem to originate with Poe. He interpreted the lines differently from the person who wrote them, exploiting an ambiguity in whether "innocent blood" goes with the words that come before it or after it.

In his 1857 translation, Baudelaire printed the couplet in its original version (= the version in the Manuel), with longos and no comma separating "not sated" from "innocent blood." But Baudelaire doesn't seem to have known the origin of the verses, so he must have been relying on his own knowledge of Latin to correct and repunctuate the lines.

Truth be told, "not sated of blood" does feel to me like better Latin than "frenzies of blood" (the literal meaning of Poe's version). Poe's version also makes the couplet clumsy and unbalanced, because "not sated" is all by itself.

Should I sum up this endless post? In bullet points then:
  • The Latin verses at the start of Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum" ultimately come from a collection entitled Le Réveil d'Apollon, a literary periodical published ca. 1796.
  • Poe first printed the verses in The Southern Literary Messenger (1835-6), where the third word was misspelled and the lines punctuated differently.
  • Poe maintained the same (mis)spelling and punctuation when he attached the lines to his story. He must have interpreted them in a way slightly different from what their author intended.
[Metrical note: The lines are actually two elegiac couplets: lines 2 and 4 should be indented, but I couldn't make Blogger do that for me (the Manuel indents them, as does Baudelaire, but the English editions of Poe do not). Metrically, the couplets come off as a bit rough because they don't follow all the prescriptive rules for Latin versification. For example, a couplet is supposed to end with a two-syllable word (in Latin it gives a nice rhythm), but aluit has three, and the elision with satiata is unpleasant.]

* * *

I am like the Prefect of the Parisian police in "The Purloined Letter": "A certain set of highly ingenious resources are, with the Prefect, a sort of Procrustean bed, to which he forcibly adapts his designs. But he perpetually errs by being too deep or too shallow for the matter in hand; and many a school-boy is a better reasoner than he."

The sort of ingenious analysis I have performed in this post is often referred to as Quellenforschung, "source criticism," an occupation for erudite bookkeepers and intellectual pygmies. *sigh*

Friday, October 1, 2010

Symphonic Metamorphosis / Symphonic Metamorphoses

"Metamorphoses" is the plural of "metamorphosis," and my question is, did German composer Paul Hindemith name his best known orchestral work Symphonic Metamorphosis or Symphonic Metamorphoses? I'd thought it was "Metamorphoses," but a recent article in the NYTimes used the singular. Google turns up both titles in published reference works.

The answer is easy, but the source of the confusion is interesting. As reported by the official Hindemith website, the work is called Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by C. M. von Weber--the singular, as in the Times. Hindemith wrote the work in 1943 to be premiered by the New York Philharmonic, and the original title is in English.

When put into German, however, the metamorphoses multiplied. The German title is Symphonische Metamorphosen nach Themen von C. M. v. Weber, with the German plural Metamorphosen instead of the singular Metamorphose. (No one seems to use Symphonische Metamorphose, singular, as the German title.) The French follow suit with Métamorphoses symphoniques d'après des thèmes de C. M. von Weber, unmistakeably plural. If someone assumed (wrongly) that the German title was original, back-translating into English would give the erroneous title *Symphonic Metamorphoses.

Notice too how Hindemith's unassuming "of" becomes "nach" (= "after") in the German title. Still, you can see why whoever created the German title would have wanted to adjust the original: a direct translation from the English would give in German something like Symphonische Metamorphose von Themen von C. M. von Weber. That's one von too many for anyone's taste.

[German composer Sigfrid Karg-Elert wrote a Symphonic Metamorphosis for organ, completed in 1930 but not published, and rediscovered only in 1984. Did Hindemith know Karg-Elert's title? Or did he come up with Symph. Met. himself? Did they both get it from somewhere else? I'd like to know.]