Astrology Book Review: Five Medieval Astrologers (by James H. Holden)
August 13, 2008 by Nina Gryphon
There has never been a better time for astrologers interested in adding time-tested astrological techniques to their repertoire. New English translations of astrological classics are popping up everywhere, and James Herschel Holden’s Five Medieval Astrologers is a recent addition to a growing genre.
Holden has been translating books for many years now, and is perhaps best known for his translations of Jean-Baptiste Morin’s Astrologia Gallica. In Five Medieval Astrologers, Holden pulled together five essential astrological treatises, none of which were readily available to English readers.
The Book of Flowers, a classic guide to mundane astrology, has not been translated into English until now. Three of the treatises were translated, or rather paraphrased, by Henry Coley, William Lilly’s amanuensis. Holden translated them more accurately, and added footnotes to show where the translations differ from Coley’s version. The result is a readable, accessible collection of short texts.
Five Medieval Astrologers is accessible to intermediate-level astrologers, or motivated not-quite-rookie beginners. The language is very accessible, and most cryptic phrases are explained in the footnotes, so we would recommend some familiarity with astrological concepts, such as solar ingresses, planetary latitude, and planetary dignities. Treatise 1 deals exclusively with mundane astrology, while treatises 2 – 5 encompass horary, natal, and electional astrology.
Astrologers familiar with modern techniques wanting to dip their toes into astrological tradition will be well served by this inexpensive but content-rich book. A word of guidance: the aphorisms found in Centiloquies are not necessarily meant to be followed slavishly, as some modern readers believe. Rather, aphorisms are educational tools meant to test and guide the reader’s reasoning. If we ask “why?” while studying these rules, they can greatly enhance our astrological reasoning and understanding.
Five Medieval Astrologers not only enriches our immediate knowledge, but steeps us in the tradition, as though we sat at lectures of five ancient master astrologers.
Book Contents and Structure
Each book begins with an introduction of varying length, explaining the provenance and translation history of the treatise. The contents are as follows:
1. Abu Ma’shar: The Book of Flowers. A collection of rules for mundane astrology. This book is a small treasure, written by the Afghani religious scholar and astrologer Abu Ma’shar in the ninth century. Having experimented with some of his interpretations, I can say that his guidelines are highly accurate. For the Aries Ingress set for Washington, DC prior to the 9/11 attacks, Abu Mashar says that Saturn as Lord of the year in terrestrial signs [it was in Taurus] “signifies troubles and injuries from tremors and earthquakes, and the destruction of houses, cities, and country places.” There is much more to be said about that chart, of course, but Abu Ma’shar’s pithy and minimalistic interpretations get right to the point. This treatise alone is worth the price of the book.
2. Pseudo-Ptolemy: The Centiloquy. A collection of astrological rules and aphorisms. This treatise is written to seem like one of Ptolemy’s books, but Holden says it is not authored by Ptolemy himself. He doesn’t state why, but it is a heavily Arabic-influenced text but also exists in a sparser, earlier version in Greek. The aphorisms range from natal to horary to electional astrology, with a little philosophy mixed in.
An example aphorism is #28: “When you’re not able to put the Moon to conjoin two stars [in an electional horoscope], put her to join a fixed star having the nature of the two.” According to the aphorism, if we want the Moon conjunct Venus and Jupiter, but are unable to wait for this configuration, we could simply find a fixed star assigned those two values by Ptolemy, and the Moon will draw upon the energies of Venus and Jupiter via the benefic fixed star. Indeed, this is a very useful text dotted with gems.
3. Hermes Trismegistus: The Centiloquy. Another collection of 100 astrological rules. This is an excellent collection of rules, again spanning several astrological disciplines, including astrometeorology, the forecasting of weather using astrology. One interesting aphorism is #33: “When Saturn is transiting from one sign to another, there are made in the sky shooting stars […] or some other celestial signs of the nature of fire.” When Saturn entered Virgo from Leo last year, this did in fact occur.
4. Bethen: The Centiloquy. A collection of 100 rules, including some quick electional guidelines. My favorite part of this text is the collection of 30 rules for daily elections. For example, see aphorism #49: “When the Moon is joined to Mercury, that day is good for every kind of action, especially bestowing dowries, to meet with writers and stewards; it is good to buy, sell, and make computations.” All major aspects to all the other planets are also listed. A dynamic collection of aphorisms.
5. Almansor: The Propositions. A collection of 150 astrological rules. Some of these aphorisms are obscure, and invite serious thought. Mundane astrology is addressed here, though not explicitly.
Some aphorisms in this treatise are veritable mines of pure astrological gold, such as #63: “The accidents of the body are known from the degree of the ascendant; from the degree of the Part of Fortune the essence of his personal assets is known. But from the degree of the Moon the essence of his body and mind is apprehended. Moreover, from the degree of the Sun, his health, but from the degree of the Midheaven his personal status and actions are distinguished; give one year to each degree.” Voila; natal astrology in a nutshell!
The texts themselves are fascinating, and I am thankful to Holden for translating them. The footnotes are extremely useful as well, and I learned at least one new thing from the footnotes. Ancient astrologers often make reference to planets “increasing in number,” which mystifies most of us today, because the reference is obviously not to planets moving forward by degree. Holden has a very plausible explanation that this refers to a planet’s swiftness — is the planet speeding up or slowing down?
The translation is simple and lucid, which I appreciated. I believe in making ancient texts as accessible as possible to a wide audience, without compromising the integrity and style of the original. Holden seems to have a similar approach. In a recent conversation, the translator indicated that he welcomes feedback or questions regarding the translations from his readers (he can be contacted via the AFA website). This is much appreciated when reading ancient texts, no matter how clearly translated.
Five Medieval Astrologers is a highly recommended book, whether for seasoned traditional astrologers, or those just dipping their toes into the vast pool of tradition.
Note: This is one of several forthcoming translations by Holden, with the AFA slated to publish a half-dozen of his others in the next six months.
Five Medieval Astrologers
Translated by: James Herschel Holden, M.A.
American Federation of Astrologers, 2008
148 pages, softcover.
(If you have written or published an astrology book you would like reviewed on Gryphon Astrology, please contact me at nina [at] gryphonastrology.com or write to me here (don’t forget to include your contact info).