August 17, 2008 by Nina Gryphon
The 5th and last part of GA’s interview with astrologer and translator Benjamin Dykes, where he discusses his upcoming translations. To catch up, read Part 1, Part 2 , Part 3 , and Part 4 of the interview.
NG: That actually leads to my last question. I was curious what your next publications are going to be and why you’re going that direction?
BD: My next book is going to be called “Revolutions and Nativities.” It will be a collection of Arabic astrologers writing on nativities and solar revolutions—both of the native and of the world. While I was writing the Sahl and Masha’allah book I was disappointed with the natal material in it. It has largely to do with life expectancy and then a little bit about some general issues in the native’s life. But other than that there’s not much there. And there’s almost nothing on the revolutions of nativities. So, since most traditional astrologers practice horary or native astrology, and there aren’t a lot of books on natal astrology out there, I wanted to devote my next volume to that.
I’m very excited because several of these works have never been translated out of Latin. And some of them were never even printed: they’re still in manuscript form. But I’m really excited about them. There will be works by Sahl, Masha’allah, Abu Ma’shar, Abu Bakr, and others.
NG: That’s wonderful. So I take it you’re still working with the manuscript collector that you met or have you now branched out to other ways of obtaining manuscripts?
BD: I’ve branched out. I have slowly been collecting my own printed editions and manuscript editions for the last few years. I have plenty of material to work on for years to come.
NG: That’s great. I think the traditional astrological community and really the whole astrological community owes a lot to you and your efforts because only now is someone putting these works out in a very accessible form.
BD: It’s very fun for me and I hope I’m performing a good service for other astrologers. I’m learning a lot ,so I’m going to continue doing it.
August 13, 2008 by Nina Gryphon
This is Part 4 of Gryphon Astrology’s interview with astrologer and translator Benjamin Dykes. To catch up on prior parts of the interview, read Part 1, Part 2 , and Part 3 here. In Part 4, Benjamin discusses traditional thought and its application to astrology.
NG: It seems like in some ways it’s almost not possible for us to get away from traditional thought. We can maybe layer it over or twist it but you can never really get away from certain concepts entirely.
BD: Yes. Traditional thinkers worked for a couple of thousand years on a set of themes and questions that were of interest to people in many different times and many different places. And in order to get these conversations going we need to know what they said. There are a lot of fantasies that modern people have about themselves and about what it means to be modern. And traditional thought can sometimes be a corrective that can help dispel these fantasies.
NG: I think conveying that traditional knowledge back into a modern person’s language might be a challenge. Have you experienced that? Or do you feel, as you said, that people just kind of naturally are open to what you’re saying?
BD: It depends. I have met both clients and people in social settings who are modern astrologers, and even if they don’t take on clients themselves, they’re modern people who have mainly studied modern astrology and understand its ethical, cosmological, and social claims. And when I can look at their chart and speak frankly about both good and bad things that are going on in their lives it comes often as a breath of fresh air. They are appreciative. There is a belief out there, and part of it is because of modern fantasies, that you can’t ever say anything bad to the client, because the client is so fragile and probably has so many traumas and so many potential mental illnesses that are just waiting to be unearthed, that you might scar them forever—so someone comes to you for advice but you are not supposed to recognize conventionally bad things in their lives. But clients, even those studying modern astrology, often know the bad things that are present or on the horizon, and they themselves consider it bad, and they are pleased when you acknowledge that. That is one of the things I mean about modern people being receptive to traditional thought: because in traditional thought we can say something is conventionally good or bad.
NG: Perhaps that is why for many people that’s a relief when they start studying traditional techniques that hey, you are allowed to acknowledge the whole of the life or the whole of the person rather than just start working with these fantasies about everything about being good or beneficial.
BD: Or even indulging in fantasies, as I said, about most people having mental illnesses and neuroses and having all sorts of traumas that you have to tiptoe around.
NG: I suppose people are slightly hardier than modern thought would allow them to be. What do you think the current revival of traditional astrology, where do you think that fits on the astrological timeline? At first, we have traditional thought, then for a few hundred years it really goes into dormancy, and now we’re experiencing this revival. Why do you think that is happening now? And where do you think it might go from here kind of on a very large timeline? What do you think it means?
BD: I think several things are happening. First, there are issues of modern culture in general, having to do with people not really being sure what value system they hold, or who are even afraid to say what is good or bad. And I think this leads to people feeling adrift and alienated: so they might naturally turn to traditional thought. And then in various New Age, occult, magical, or astrological circles there are trends back to traditional practices. I’ve met a lot of modern astrologers who say that after studying and practicing for a long time, they’re exhausted with modern astrology. And I think it is partly because astrologers are experiencing some of the same problems that are in the culture in general. There’s always a new technique, always a new vision of the universe, but very little agreement on how to even read a chart.
And so what traditional thought does, I think, is to help ground us. You don’t have to believe everything that medieval people did in order to feel a lot more grounded and confident in talking about stuff in ways that they do. You don’t have to stop being a modern person. But a traditional dialogue on matters of good and bad, or of fate and freedom, helps to articulate issues and values in ways that modern people often have not been prepared for, because we have modern myths that blind us to alternatives. In one sense modern conservatives are right about how an extreme multiculturalism and de facto moral and intellectual relativism has bad effects on people. But you don’t have to be a judgmental jerk in order to cure yourself of that. Traditional thought often has a very realistic, down to earth way of dealing with these issues.
NG: I think one of the things that people find perhaps confusing with modern astrology is they find issues of morality or things not being right or wrong. In that sense, the traditional astrologers can be very refreshing. They say this person is going to be on the evil side and they don’t have to tell you what exactly evil means because we all understand some of these basic concepts.
BD: And it’s not only more refreshing but it’s more helpful. For example, a modern astrologer recently wrote that we should not give bad news to a client if we see something terrible in the chart about the native’s relationships. Now you wouldn’t even treat your best friend that way, leaving them in the dark about something important like that. But there is a certain strand in some modern astrology that says we just can’t talk about that stuff. Someone comes to us for help and we just can’t talk realistically about it.
The issue of good and bad is also interesting because there are a couple of ways that we can look at matters. In traditional astrology, when you look at the houses, the houses are filled with things that are conventionally good and bad, and I think that’s the key. They’re conventionally good and bad: wealth is good, God is good, death is bad, slavery is bad, friends are good. These are conventional values and they are the ones embraced by a philosophers like Aristotle and most of the astrologers in the tradition. The chart, in essence, presents conventional, Aristotelian values.
But there are other ways of looking at things, and this is where you can adopt different philosophical views and adopt a different cosmology. You can say that from God’s perspective, none of this is good or bad. The planets are doing nothing more than carrying out their natures as God has willed their natures to be. Mars, from a God perspective, is not evil. Mars does what he does. But what he does may be conventionally bad for us.
You could take this further in a Stoic direction, a philosophy which is implied but not often articulated well in many Hellenistic texts. This could be useful in astrological therapy. The Stoics disagreed completely with how Aristotle grouped values together. And their whole attitude towards philosophical therapy and healing emotional problems had to do with realizing that what we conventionally recognize as good and evil are not good and evil in themselves; they’re things we should select or deselect in accordance with our natures and what the situation requires. But getting too wrapped up in conventional values sets you up for either misery or false happiness.
So when we’re talking about good and evil with a client, we can talk about conventional good and evils, but we can also talk about—and I think in the future we need to start doing this—something more of a Stoic approach, in which we realize that we are part of a universe in which everything acts according to its nature. And if we can get a bit of critical distance from these conventional values we’ll be a lot more happy and relieved and confident about what we get or do not get, than if we only think our happiness has to do with having these conventional values, and either get scared out of our wits when we lack them or have a false sense of joy when we have them.
You asked about where are we going in the future. I don’t know about the reception of traditional astrology among astrologers generally. But I am confident that within the next five years we will have all of the major and most of the minor works of these key medieval astrologers translated. And we will have resolved issues like whole-sign houses versus quadrant houses, and other matters. I think we’ll have resolved all the main issues and have all the material there. The next step will be to train a new generation of traditional astrologers to work with it.
[Read part 5 of the interview with Ben Dykes.]
August 6, 2008 by Nina Gryphon
For those of you just checking in, this is part 3 of 5 of an interview with Dr. Ben Dykes, the noted traditional astrology text translator and astrologer. Read part 1 and part 2 of the interview before continuing here.
NG: [Changes in astrological meanings, terminology, and concepts are easy to miss] especially when you follow a certain thread of a concept from one book to another. And then perhaps to yet another text. Unless you are a professional I can’t imagine that you would pick up on that.
I think over time your translations are going to really change the way that astrology is practiced and also what our understanding of traditional astrology will become. Is that something you were conscious of when you were doing this? What is your very big picture of where you see your translations making an impact?
BD: My big-picture goal is to make sure that more people who are interested in traditional astrology can practice it and read it, and can both appreciate and communicate the riches that are there. I found that for many people who maybe have some modern astrological training, when they’re presented with traditional ideas and rules, rules of interpretation, they get very turned on and they get very excited. I think this excitement has a good chance of spreading amongst astrologers generally.
One thing I would suggest is that modern astrologers have spent a lot of time focusing on their vision of the universe, their vision of the mind, their cosmology. But my feeling is that they are not as good on techniques. There is not as much discipline with regard to techniques, among other things. On the other hand, while traditional astrology is very heavy on techniques, the traditional astrologers are not very strong on communicating their vision of the universe. Now, some do communicate this. Abu Ma’shar communicates this in his Great Introduction. But it often falls to other kinds of writers who are astrology symphathizers to express what this vision of the universe is.
I think there is work we need to do in traditional astrology to articulate its vision, but one thing we can do is show how these techniques will work for modern astrologers.
NG: It sounds like the techniques are what gets people interested, and then hopefully they absorb some of the traditional world view along with it.
BD: Right. Because by and large, the traditional astrological writers only give a few statements here and there about what their vision of the universe is; but once you start practicing the techniques you’re almost forced to sit back and ask yourself: “Well, what kind of world do I live in that makes these techniques work?” It forces you to look at your view of the universe.
NG: Is that something that happened to you as you got involved in traditional astrology? Was there a moment that you had that you thought: “I’m really not in Kansas anymore?”
BD: It was a shift that took place for me when I was studying under Zoller, because Zoller thinks this is very important. I was already undergoing this shift. I was lucky because I was already teaching traditional philosophical materials from Aristotle and the Stoics to college students, and was personally adopting some of the ideas. I was already prepared to undergo this shift, but I still had to go through it. I
n earlier years, when I had tried to study horary and tried to study Lilly, I found that no matter what ancient or traditional material I was teaching or studying in other parts of my life, whenever I approached the chart, I had my modern psychological hat on. I became easily frustrated because I found that the interpretations didn’t seem to be working. And what I didn’t know until I was studying under Zoller, and was able to blend this traditional material with astrology in my mind, was that in order to practice traditional astrology you really need to take a whole different attitude towards the chart. If you can’t adopt this attitude and make this shift and make certain value judgments the chart will never work out for you.
NG: That’s very interesting. I mean on one hand it’s perhaps the most ephemeral part of being an astrologer and practicing traditional techniques. On the other hand, it sounds like it really does underlie everything else that you do in your practice. Do you think it’s one of the biggest things that traditional astrologers face today?
BD: I think it is. And I think one reason is that the traditional attitude forces you to adopt a kind of critical distance from the chart. When you are trying to analyze planetary strengths and weaknesses, what signs they’re in and so on, and especially when you assume that the houses and the planets refer to objective facts—that’s a very different approach from what some modern astrologers do, which is to rely on their intuition or on associations of psychological ideas in their own minds. Because then the astrologer’s psyche and whatever is bumping around in the psyche is going to insert itself into the judgment. The traditional attitude forces us to have a critical distance. That doesn’t mean there aren’t better and worse traditional astrologers. And that doesn’t mean that traditional astrologers don’t talk about the mind, because they do; but they talk about the mind in a different kind of way. This traditional worldview and how it forces you to approach the chart can’t be underestimated, I think.
NG: How do you think we modern people living today can achieve that paradigm shift? Is that something that simply comes from trying to work with the techniques until your mind is made malleable enough?
BD: I think that most modern people have a lot of junk ideas in their minds about the world. We get them from many different places. But I think that, underlying these ideas, modern people have a natural receptivity to traditional ideas; so often it’s just a case of trying to appeal to what’s already there. So for example, when I taught Stoicism to college undergraduates, I would start out by listing a number of things that the Stoics taught. I would list maybe ten things and present it in a way that seemed incredible and absurd. At first Stoicism seemed like an insane philosophy.
But then once we actually got into how the Stoics think the world works and how the psyche works and how emotions work, I was often able to convince students that they already believed the things the Stoics were teaching. But they hadn’t been taught how to pay attention to it. So in some ways we need more formal instruction and that is something that I’m very interested in doing.
The issue of fate and free will often comes up when we talk about modern-versus-traditional attitudes. And it’s definitely relevant. But unfortunately, very few people who actually talk about the topics have done the research and have actually read traditional authors to figure out what exactly is meant by fate and free will. For example, there are many people who consider themselves modern and atheist in thought who will very vocally insist that we have free will.
But the fact is that our notion of the free will was invented by a set of Jewish and Christian theologians, and they had theological and biblical reasons for inventing this notion. So even people who consider themselves modern and not traditional at all, and are maybe disdainful of traditional attitudes, often hold on to ideas that they don’t know the source of. I think we need broad and detailed discussions by people who are studying this, and who have done the research, to reintroduce and reacquaint us to traditional ideas, many of which I’ve said modern people are already receptive to.
One of those ideas is that people’s lives are to a great degree fated (depending on how we define fate), and that the so-called free will is very rare, if it even exists at all. There are good reasons to think it does not exist, and we see ambiguous attitudes toward it in the astrological texts.
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.
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.