Astrology Book Review: The Introduction to the Science of the Judgments of the Stars (Sahl Ibn Bishr/trans. James Herschel Holden)
December 26, 2008 by Nina Gryphon
Another fascinating translation from James Herschel Holden, M.A., this time of a key horary and electional work by Sahl Ibn Bishr. The Introduction was written in the ninth century by the Court astrologer to the rulers of Baghdad during its heyday. It is a sourcebook for later Western horary astrologers, specifically Bonatti and William Lilly, both of whom borrowed liberally from the text. Holden translated this text from the 12th century Latin version, presumably the same version drawn upon by Bonatti when he wrote his Book of Astronomy 100 years later.
The Introduction is for intermediate astrologers, who are comfortable with the basic concepts of traditional horary and electional astrology. The beginner may easily be overwhelmed by the complex terminology Sahl uses to describe the various relationships between planets, such as deterioration, return, giving virtue, and other now-uncommon terms. However, a more skilled horary astrologer may also have difficulty with these terms, because they represent many subtle gradations of planetary strength and differences in relationship, which we are unaccustomed to making today. Reading this book will require an open mind, unencumbered by more modern variations on horary techniques and a willingness to think through the author’s reasoning. The time and effort invested will bear rich dividends of knowledge for the careful reader.
Contents & Structure
One feature of Sahl’s astrology that bears mention. As Holden notes in his thorough introduction, the whole sign method of house division is used. This means that the entire rising sign is the first house, though with special attention paid to the rising degree; that is, there is no distinction between the fourth house and the fourth sign of the chart.
The text is composed of five books. Book 1 is the introduction, common in many ancient astrological texts, which reiterates the basic building blocks of traditional astrology. The usual impulse of more practiced astrologers may be to skip these introductions, but they can be quite useful in familiarizing the reader with terms that the author later takes for granted, that may be unique to that author. For example, today we consider the signs Gemini, Leo, and Virgo barren; Sahl lists Aries, Leo, Virgo, Sagittarius, and Capricorn as the sterile signs. We can see here that the tradition, while unchanging in its broad strokes, was also changeable, and the details were not identical from place to place and throughout history. The introduction also lists the meaning of each house,the aspects, and the relationships among the planets, such as translation of light, separation, reception, and others.
Book 2 is called “The 50 Precepts,” and contains a list of the meanings of planetary behavior and relationships. As we see often in older astrological texts, the behavior of the planets takes on almost anthropomorphic qualities with a high level of specificity about the situation. For example, Precept 48 says that a planet in its first station about to go retrograde signifies the destruction, tardiness, and dissolution of the matter, while the second station “signifies the renewal of things and their suitability and strength or directness.” Today, astrologers might take note of the planet being in station, but may fail to tease out the specific nature of the situation with the kind of detail we see in Sahl.
Book 3 is called “Questions or the Book of Judgments of the Arabs,” which contains methods of answering specific horary questions arranged by houses. There is a heavy emphasis on seventh house matters; women, commerce, theft, and wars, and a lengthy series of questions on letters, their senders and recipients, their contents, and rumors. The 21st-century reader will get a strong sense that we are in a different place and time, when we get to the section entitled “If a Slain Person Will Be Avenged or Not.”
Book 4 is entitled “The Book of Elections,” and contains some good information on the natures of the signs (cardinal, fixed, and mutable), and their influence on elected events. There is also a good section on the impediments of the Moon to watch out for when calculating elections. The usual topics are covered, such as travel, war, medicine, and the buying and manumission of slaves – the latter may not seem very appropriate today, but we could likely use similar electional rules for purchasing animals, whether as pets or working beasts.
Book 5, entitled “The Book of Times,” provides additional guidance on horary and electional astrology, mixed together. It is kind of a grab bag of useful astrological knowledge that did not fit readily into the other books. There is also an appendix on questions about visions or dreams, which helps the astrologer identify and interpret a questioner’s dream.
Holden’s translation is very lucid and accessible, as always, in easily understandable language. It is no small task to make a 1200-year-old text reader friendly, but the translator does so with aplomb and copious but straight-to-the-point footnotes. He frequently refers to parallel passages in Bonatti, and points out where the two differ. A highly recommended source text for fans of traditional astrology, and those curious about the source of more recent horary writers’ material.
The Introduction to the Science of the Judgments of the Stars
By: Sahl Ibn Bishr (author), and James Herschel Holden, M.A., trans.
American Federation of Astrologers, 2008
Available at astrologers.com and astroamerica.com.
December 9, 2008 by Nina Gryphon
Astrology isn’t just about the planets. We use the fixed stars frequently in our work, and this handy sourcebook collects the ancient writings on the myths associated with various constellations. This translation of primary sources, including The Constellations by pseudo-Eratosthenes (1st/2nd century A.D.), and Poetic Astronomy by Hyginus (1st century B.C.), is very helpful in interpreting the deeper meaning of the fixed stars, without relying on modern sources who conveniently digest but also distort the information. It is said that only the fixed stars elevate from the depths of poverty to the heights of fame, but the planets do not do so. To achieve mastery in astrological interpretation, it behooves us to know the fixed stars well, an excellent reason to read Star Myths.
A historical compendium of astronomical myths, straight from the Greek and Roman sources. The ancient sources give interesting shadings to the Star myths, helping the astrologer understand the more subtle nuances of the stars’ symbolism. Because fixed stars have a strong say in a person’s character and destiny, understanding the stories behind the stars is very helpful in natal, electional, and mundane astrology. This book summarizes the stories clearly and with substantial detail. The author often adds useful astronomical tidbits about the behavior of each constellation, and its ancient use, such as the rise of the Pleiades indicating the beginning of the ancient sailing season.
Contents & Structure
For practical study purposes, one will want to read Star Myths with a star atlas or a book on the fixed stars, such as that by Vivian Robson. The reason is that Condos does not always identify each star, inserting a question mark where the original sources are vague as to the specific identity of the star.
The book begins with a preface identifying the tactics used in this compendium, including the translations that condos used to get a consensus of interpretation. The introduction places the two source texts, The Constellations and Poetic Astronomy, in their historical context, though unfortunately Condos takes the modern view that the star myths were somehow superimposed on the celestial canopy as a way of honoring ancient heroes, gods, et cetera. A more traditional approach would view the stars and the myths as existing interdependently, one reflecting the existence of the other, in accordance with the Hermetic maxim “as above, so below.”
The main body of the book consists of an alphabetical collection of some 40 plus constellations. Each constellation is described in the two ancient texts, followed by the translator’s commentary. For example, the chapter on Canis Major (The Great Dog) goes through the several associations of the dog in Greek and Roman mythology – because the symbol of the dog has appeared in various myths, the classical sources may reference more than one as a possible origin of the star myth. Canis Major has several characteristics salient to astrological interpretation; it was appointed by Jupiter to guard Europa, and later was used as a hunting dog because it “had the power to outrun any wild beast.” This constellation contains the brightest star, Sirius, which will indicate jealous guardianship but also great athleticism. We may think back to the horoscope of tennis ace Roger Federer, who has his Mars on Sirius.
The main body of the book is followed by an appendix listing the Greek and Latin names of mythological/astronomical characters, a list of the constellation names and abbreviations, followed by a couple of star charts. There are extensive endnotes here, most of which refer to classical sources for mythology. Because this is an academic book (it began as a doctoral dissertation), there is an extensive biography for those interested in additional information.
A useful book for the astrologer who wants to go back to the source for astronomical myths. The author often makes references to myths and mythological characters that are not developed, so it would be useful to have a mythological dictionary handy, particularly for the minor characters, to fully understand the import of each story. A great resource to keep on the shelf and commit to memory. The old engravings of each constellation and its image are a delightful touch.
Star Myths of the Greeks and Romans: A Sourcebook
By: Theony Condos
Phanes Press (rights: Red Wheel/Weiser), 1997
288 pages, paperback
Available at amazon.com and weiserbooks.com