Friday, June 14, 2013

Preliminary notes on the "Laonomicon." Or: Forbidden Knowledge in Laos?

Low-light detail of a painting by Vongduane Manivong, ca. 2010

One of the poems included in DEMONSTRA, Laonomicon, is a nod to a famous text named by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft in the early 20th century. This year is the 75th anniversary since the publication of his short essay, "A History of the Necronomicon." 

Among the classic themes of Lovecraft's work is forbidden knowledge, typically contained within cursed books and manuscripts found around the world, often locked away in libraries or obscure locations beyond ordinary reach. The most famous of these works is a book called the Necronomicon, the dreaded Book of the Dead, supposedly an encyclopedic tome written by the Mad Arab, Abd Al'Azred or Abdul Al'Hazred, among other spellings, who was torn apart in a souk by invisible demons in 738 AD. (1281, Year of the Earth Tiger, by the Lao astrological reckoning.)

Copies of his book circulated in different hushed corners and shadows, but most of the originals were believed destroyed. Eventually, a few were translated into Latin and select other languages, but most of the owners met terrible fates, and remaining copies were hunted down and destroyed. However, karma and darker forces of the world being what they are, a few copies and fragments continue to turn up throughout history. 

So what are the theoretical conditions under which a copy of the Necronomicon would have made it to Laos?

Working with the more commonly accepted literature regarding the Necronomicon, numerous reports suggest a Greek edition was printed in Italy in early 16th century. Is it possible such an edition traveled with the men accompanying the Dutch explorer Gerrit Van Wuysthoff as he traveled to Laos in 1641?  Van Wuysthoff was making his voyage on behalf of the Dutch East India Company at the time.

Historically, 30 people traveled with Van Wuysthoff in 12 boats, including a barber, or what we would consider a surgeon today. Van Wuysthoff recorded at least 1 interpreter, 2 carriers and a group of Lao merchants with him. Is it possible there may have been others who were accidentally or deliberately left out of the account?

The Van Wuysthoff journey began during the rainy season on July 20th, 1641. He was seeking to establish a monopoly on goods from the King of Lane Xang, but found the voyage too difficult to make establishing a permanent trading port worthwhile. For unknown reasons, 8 of Van Wuysthoff's crew stayed behind in Vientiane for 8 months after their arrival in 1641.

After Van Wuysthoff's expedition to Laos, there are no records of European contact or missions afterwards until the 1800s, with one notable exception. In 1642 AD, the Jesuit missionary Father Giovanni Leria reached Vientiane, and would spend 5 to 6 years in what would eventually become Laos, although he was not allowed to proselytize.

If not a member of Van Wuysthoff's entourage, might Father Leria, or more likely, his assistants, or an undocumented visitor some time afterwards, have brought a copy of the Necronomicon to Laos?

Notably, for Lao, by the end of the 1600s, the kingdom of Lane Xang collapsed and splits into 3 realms. The Necronomicon, and the Great Old Ones are often never mentioned a "LIKELY" factor.

For those who consider Father Leria a figure of interest, there are some things to consider from his writings. Father Leria, an Italian, was, on paper, very opposed to the lifestyles and beliefs of the Buddhist monks of Laos, and considered them immoral, although he was very impressed with the opulence of the rest of the kingdom.

According to Justin McDaniel's 2008 work, Gathering Leaves and Lifting Words: Histories of Buddhist Monastic Education, Leria's journals described the Buddhist monks as "the most treacherous of the whole kingdom, the scum and dregs of society, the most horrible and lazy and the greatest enemies of work. Their monasteries are like so many universities of very vicious men, affiliates of tramps and mercenaries and schools of all kinds for bad deeds and abominations... they have hearts of bronze and are merciless and cruel like wild beasts."

McDaniels notes that evidence suggests during this time that although Father Leria railed against the 'laziness' of the monks, in fact, there was significant manuscript production and monasteries were filled with students. But why might Father Leria or his assistants have a copy of the Necronomicon in their possession? It might be better to simply rule it wholly implausible.

During the civil wars that tore Lane Xang into three separate realms in the 1700s, all other records of travelers successfully making their way to the region are lost. This does not strictly mean travel did not take place, but for some reason those who would have spoken of it have not. What could possibly have drawn someone to the region with a copy of the accursed grimoire? What arcane zones or locales of mystic power might have necessitated bringing the Necronomicon there after an arduous journey? One can only speculate.

It seems unlikely for the mystic John Dee's 1586 reputed English translation of the Necronomicon to have made its way to Laos, as most travelers from Great Britain were focused on engagement with Siam, and did not make significant journeys to the region until the 1820s.

Might a French or Latin version of Necronomicon be found, especially one translated from the Greek in Laos? A French version might have arrived with travelers during the 1900s, but to date, no major sources suggest a French version exists either in Europe or abroad.

Historically, I would speculate that the three main cities where a copy might be found are Luang Prabang, Vientiane, or Champassak if we are presuming a copy comes into the region thanks to traveling missionaries or traders. Vientiane and Champassak seem the more likely candidates of the three.

The interesting question is, might a palm-leaf manuscript edition of the Necronomicon exist? Palm leaves are among the first materials used in history to write on. There are sources who suggest more than 6,000 years ago, Sanskrit was first written on this material. In Laos, most of the texts are Buddhist and religious texts and it is a time-consuming process to make them.

It seems more likely among the established tomes of the Cthulhu Mythos to find either the 7 Cryptical Book of Hsan, the Book of Dzyan, or the Book of Eibon/Livre D'Ivon in Laos. But that's a discussion for another time.

Typically, a palm leaf manuscript is created by inscribing them with letters from left to right using a needle-like tool to cut into the leaf's surface. The result of the scratches are nearly invisible, but then one improves the clarity of the text by covering the leaves with soot or other pigments. Occasionally the soot and pigments are mixed with certain oils. The leaf then has the excess pigment wiped off so that a dark residue remains in the etchings, and they are bound into books, most often strung together with two cords. Some of the palm leaf manuscripts are illustrated or gilt, and covered with panels of hardwood, ivory, or a similar material to protect them. One would expect one of two extremes for decorating a palm leaf edition of the Necronomicon it would either be extremely modest in order to hide the true nature of its contents from those who would disapprove, or it would be elaborately carved with ornate but repellent iconography.

To some, it seems highly unlikely a Necronomicon would exist in a Lao or Sanskrit edition on palm leaf.  But we know that it has already been translated into Greek, English, Italian, and Arabic. Why should Sanskrit or Lao be beyond consideration?

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