Astrologer Interview: Benjamin Dykes (Part 2 of 5)
August 5, 2008 by Nina Gryphon
This is part 2 of 5 of our interview with traditional astrology translator and practitioner Ben Dykes. Read part 1 here, if you missed it.
NG: Since you started speaking about Masha’allah and Sahl, the most recent translation: one of the things that I noticed is that you pulled together a lot of shorter texts, even more so than the Bonatti. Bonatti has treatises but here there’s a bunch of books. I was trying to understand why you selected some of the texts that you did. Are these all of the ones available by Masha’allah and Sahl? What were your criteria?
BD: They were the most readily available for one thing. They are also among the most famous. But I do have some other works by Sahl, for example. There’s one on the magical use of precious stones, which I only have in one manuscript edition. But it’s hard to read and uses a lot of Latin terms for gems and minerals that don’t necessarily match up with modern terms you could simply look up in a minerology book now. So I didn’t feel like it was worth, right now, taking the time to do this short text and then end up delaying the entire book. There are other works that I have. There are two longer works by Sahl and Masha’allah that I’ll eventually get to. I plan on using at least one of them in my next book. But the ones I selected for Works of Sahl & Masha’allah are among the most famous, the most influential, the most quoted in the medieval tradition, and they were more readily available.
NG: When I first read your Bonatti translation, he cites a lot of older Arabic authors, and I wondered if that was the next logical step for you to then go a step back from even Bonatti’s sources.
BD: That was a big part of my reasoning. I wanted to know what the earlier authors had said, in part because people like Sahl and Masha’allah were active during the most fruitful period of Arabic astrology, and their texts were so central for later authors. There were also two other reasons. The first was that I had noticed changes between the two editions of Bonatti I worked on, concerning the question of whole-sign houses and quadrant houses. There had been editorial interference in the texts, so that in the earlier edition the text might speak of a planet in the fifth, let’s say, and it would be very clear from the Latin that we were talking about the fifth sign. But in the later edition, the word endings had been changed so that they referred to houses and possibly domiciles at the same time: so that there was some distortion involved. I wanted to know what was going on with the earlier authors. I had seen them use whole signs more, so I was very curious about that.
The other issue was that I’ve been very interested in the transmission of Greek material to the medievals, and I wanted to see to what extent Greek concepts had been communicated to the Persians and the Arabs, because some of these techniques and approaches are not as evident in the Latin period. So I wanted both to work back from Bonatti and forward from the Greeks, and see what was going on during this Persian/Arabic period.
NG: You started with Bonatti: is that just because that’s the text you encountered first and it was perhaps the most cohesive? Did you ever have the sense that maybe you should have done something else first?
BD: Several things had come together. Zoller makes extensive use of Bonatti in his course, so while I was already familiar with Bonatti I also wanted to know what else he said. It was also the text that was presented to me by this manuscript collector. Compared with some other translations that are available in Latin it was a very pleasing Latin style. It was easier to work with. There are other Latin translators like Hugo de Santalla and Robert of Ketton, for example, or Hermann of Carinthia, who adopt a very different Latin style from that of Bonatti or John of Spain. It’s slower going. You sometimes have to read between the lines, because sometimes verbs that are implied but not expressed. But Bonatti has a really pleasing Latin style. So a lot of things came together at once that made Bonatti the obvious choice.
NG: For you as an astrologer, what was the most exciting thing for you in each of those texts? Was there a method or technique or approach that you thought: “Wow, this is great, this will really impact my own practice and understanding of astrology in some way?”
BD: There are two recent things that both come from the Sahl and Masha’allah book. First, I think I have finally cracked the code for understanding the debilities of detriment and descension. I think I have figured out how they work and I have started to use them in this new way in charts, and they work. I’d always treated them as debilities, but you don’t always get a clear sense from every author what they think the differences between them are. But Sahl and Masha’allah say enough that we now know what they are. And some of it has to do with traditional attitudes towards physics, for example in the case of detriment. So that’s one thing I find very exciting.
The other thing, which comes from Greek concepts and was transmitted into the Arabic period, is the importance of the planets aspecting their own domiciles or signs. Planets that do not aspect their own sign have a harder time bringing about the matters pertaining to that house. It’s like they can’t communicate with it, they don’t receive support, they can’t support the house: so a planet not aspecting its own sign is going to show certain bad things for that topic. It’s something that is mentioned in Bonatti but he does not use it as consistently and clearly as they do, and this is something else that I think will be important for medieval astrologers in the future.
NG: One of the things that I found fascinating were the ways in which Bonatti texts really differ from the later authors. By the time you get to a few hundred years later you essentially end up with certain things are very different just like the issue you mentioned. I’m glad that you are reading the texts as an astrologer to bring out these threads that you feel have kind of been pushed in to the background but may be quite essential.
BD: Yes, there are certain things that I have to do solely as a translator, but I do think being an astrologer is useful. You notice things that might not seem to be of much importance if you were just looking at things from a translation perspective.