Astrologer Interview: Benjamin Dykes (Part 1 of 5)
August 2, 2008 by Nina Gryphon
I was delighted to speak with Dr. Ben Dykes, a traditional astrologer and translator of ancient astrology texts. He published a comprehensive translation of medieval astrologer Guido Bonatti’s Book of Astronomy last year (a first in English), and, just last month, Works of Sahl and Masha’allah, two 8th-9th century astrologers. I will be reviewing his latest book this coming week.
Ben Dykes studied astrology with Robert Zoller, earning his AMA degree. A traditionalist through and through, he also taught philosophy at the University of Illinois. He currently practices astrology and translates texts full-time from his home in Minnesota.
NG: I would like to talk to you about why you started doing translations and what you envision the overall plan for your translation work to be? What do you hope to achieve?
BD: Some years ago I was studying under Robert Zoller and practicing medieval astrology. I had studied Latin for a number of years in high school and college, and I was interested in seeing what other translations were out there, since not a lot of medieval material had been translated at that point. In 2004 or 2005 I found out that a local university library had a copy of Abu Ma’shar’s Flowers in Latin. And it had never been translated. I decided to experiment and have some fun, and I found that translating it was really enjoyable. I thought this it would be useful to a lot of astrologers and myself if I started doing translations. Speaking of which, a totally revised version of the Flowers will be included in my next book.
At that time I had also met a friend who had been a collector of Arabic and Latin manuscripts for about 20 or 30 years. And he had tried at various times to get some of these manuscripts and printed editions translated, but had run into various problems. I had expressed an interest in translating Bonatti, and it turned out he had a copy of the 1550 edition of Bonatti: so he gave me a photocopy and encouraged me to work on it. I found it totally engrossing, really had a wonderful time with it, and that’s how I got started.
Along the way I was researching some of the citations that Bonatti had made from other works, and I found I could get a lot of them on microfiche and microfilm from various libraries. So in the course of translating Bonatti I suddenly found myself doing partial translations and examinations of a whole bunch of other works. This spawned an idea in my head that in addition to doing charts, I both needed and wanted to continue to translate. It was partly because of my own interest and partly because I was presented with this opportunity, but also there were very few medieval sources out there in English.
NG: I assume it was the translation process you found enjoyable. What about it do you enjoy? What about it was particularly fulfilling for you?
BD: First it was uncovering a lot of material I had not seen before. In Zoller’s course for example, there are some partial translations of some material in Bonatti and other works, but you don’t get the full scale treatment of every possible topic. This is not a criticism of his course—it’s just that a full-scale translation would be so huge, there would be no room for the course lectures themselves without making it impossibly large.
I was discovering new things. I was discovering more of the traditional cosmology and concepts, and that interested me, too. When you translate you have to be very careful about every word that you’re writing, which means you are paying very close attention to exactly what the astrologer is saying. You’re not just looking a topic up in the book and skimming it. You have to examine carefully how each part of the book relates to other parts. So it’s a little bit of detective work. Some of it is just straightforward learning.
The other thing I found really interesting and important is that there are certain technical terms we take for granted in astrology, which, if you look at them from the perspective of the original languages, although they are still used as technical terms they have really concrete meanings that make the text and the techniques come to life in a way that you won’t necessarily see if you are not paying attention to them.
One easy example is the word “Ascendant.” In Latin, the word literally means “what is ascending,” and in Arabic they call it “the rising.” Normally if we just take “Ascendant” as a straightforward technical term in English, you often think that it’s the degree of the Ascendant. But the medievals often made clear distinctions between the degree of the Ascendant and the Ascendant pure and simple: when they talk about the Ascendant pure and simple they often mean the entire rising sign.
So if you’re paying attention to the grammar and what the word actually is, you find that the meaning is not always the same. A planet in the ascending sign is going to be described as being “in the Ascendant,” but you won’t necessarily understand that fact if you’re not paying attention to the language.
Another example that I recently discovered, which I wrote about in the introduction to the Sahl book, is the idea of the angles. The Greeks used the same word to talk about both the axial degrees (let’s say, of the Mid-heaven) and the whole-sign angles (the first sign, the tenth sign, the seventh and the fourth). The Greek word actually has sticking or stabbing connotations.
Now in Arabic, the word that they use is watad, which means a “stake”: like a stake or a pole you stick in the ground. Actually, a tent stake is specifically what it meant. But when you get to the Latin, the authors do not use the normal words for stakes, pegs, poles, that kind of thing. They usually use the word angulus which we translate as “angle.” Now the thing is that an angle or angelus in Latin means a “corner,” like the corner of a room. There is no relationship between that word and the very concrete idea of sticking something in the ground or having a point which the degrees of the Mid-heaven and the Ascendant are. So there is a distortion involved. There’s a distortion about what is really meant. When we say “angle” does it mean the axial degree itself? Does it mean some space around the angle or following the axial degree? Or does it mean the whole sign itself? This is going to affect our interpretations.
I have an idea about why some of the Latin authors were using the word angelus, and that is if you look at a square medieval chart, you see that the houses of the Ascendant and the Midheaven and the other angles form square corners. But since those corners are defined by the axial degrees, there’s a distortion involved that doesn’t capture some of the meanings already there in Arabic and Greek.
So those are some of the things I’m uncovering that I’m very excited about. It means we’re going to have to look at some of our techniques differently. And it means that some of the ignorance about these issues was passed on to later Renaissance and early modern astrologers.