September 4, 2008 by Nina Gryphon
This is the second part of an interview with translator James Herschel Holden, an astrological author and translator. If you are just joining us, read Part 1 of the interview here.
NG: You have a book that just came out, The Five Medieval Astrologers [read the Gryphon Astrology review], and you have picked the very books that I would have wanted in that one book. I’ve always wanted to read The Book of Flowers, but as far as I know it doesn’t exist in English right now other than in your translation.
JH: Well, this is true, but if you read the preface you could see that I actually translated that thing a long time ago. It’s been sitting here in my house and I never had a chance to get it published until recently. And when the executive secretary of the AFA said: “Jim, have you got any books that we can publish?” I said: “Yeah, I’ve got some.”
And I thought immediately we can put The Book of Flowers in there because I think the thing’s interesting. If you’re interested in mundane, I think we’re [AFA] going to publish a book in a few months that will probably interest you. I have translated half a dozen or so of the Jean-Baptiste Morin books from his Astrologia Gallica. Book 25, I have translated that; it’s on mundane and meteorological astrology.
NG: Other than mundane astrology, my other favorite topic is weather astrology, so I’m looking forward to it.
JH: You’d probably like that book, and I would think that maybe by October we may have it published. Right now, we’re working on Sahl’s book on horary and elections. And also, I have translated [Astrologia Gallica] Book 16 on aspects and Book 17 on astrological houses. Both of those will be published later this summer.
When they publish Book 25, we will have nearly all the books from 13 down to the end. The last book, number 26, is on horary astrology, and elections. And I’ve translated the first half of that. And I don’t know whether I’m even going to finish it or not. Morin didn’t like horary astrology. He thought it was silly rubbish that the Arabs had invented. I have a great deal of respect for Morin. A lot of his stuff is good and his Astrologia Gallica is good. But if you think about it, the main emphasis in the Morin Method is on what you would call accidental significators, that is, rulers of houses and things like that, rather than on universal significators.
For example, if you read some of the older books, you find that Mars rules warriors and Venus rules women, and so on like that. And that if you have a chart and you’re reading the thing. and you want to know something about a woman, well you look at Venus. And like if it’s a marriage question, well, look at Venus. Well, Morin says, No, look at the seventh house. See what’s in the seventh!
See what the ruler of the seventh is and how it’s related to all the other planets, then you can look at the fifth house too, but look at the seventh mainly. And what he’s doing that he didn’t seem to understand, is that he’s applying the horary method to natal astrology, because that is exactly what you do in horary if somebody comes in and says; “I have a question about my son,” what do you do? You look at the fifth house. And this is precisely what Morin says to do in reading a natal chart. If you want to know something about money look at [house] two. If you want to know something about marriage and business relations and open enemies you look at [house] seven and so on like that.
And this is exactly the horary method, and yet he says horary doesn’t work. But the reason he said that was two-fold. First, though, he didn’t know anything about the history of astrology. People didn’t in those days.
The old standard was Ptolemy, and they didn’t know there was anything else. And most of the books that were available were books that had been translated from Arabic in the 12th century, and he read those things, and he knew that those books had been written by Arabs. Morin didn’t like the Arabs because he was a devout Catholic, and those people, to him, were infidels. Also, Ptolemy never mentions horary astrology any place in the Tetrabiblos. So plainly it must have been invented by those wicked Arabs.
I think that this is one thing that sort of illustrates the advantage of knowing something about the history of the art. If you know the overall history of astrology, you know where the different techniques came from; you realize that people were making horary charts back in the days when astrology was a Greek science. And that it was medieval, and it wasn’t something the Arabs invented. Arab astrology is basically Greek astrology, because if you read my history book, in the 8th and 9th century Arabs got hold of Greek books on astrology and translated them into Arabic and that’s where they learned the business.
But Morin didn’t know that. And in one place, I think it’s maybe it’s in Book 16 or 17 some place, he even accuses Firmicus Maternus of having copied the Arabs. Well, Firmicus lived in the 4th century, and the Arabs didn’t know anything about astrology till the 8th century. So that didn’t make any sense, but like I said, he plain and simply didn’t know the history of the thing. Nobody did in his day. It wasn’t that he was ignorant and other people were aware, because it hadn’t been studied. This is why I think that it’s important to know something about the history.
Now back to The Five Medieval Astrologers. I had gotten a copy, I guess thirty, forty years ago of a 17th century book that had translations of the three Centiloquies in it. And I’ve been using that all along but I got to thinking, well, if we’re going to put The Book of Flowers out, well, maybe we ought to print all three of the Centiloquies too, because otherwise, let’s say you wanted the Centiloquy of Hermes where would you have found it?
You would have had to have located some old, out of print book or something to get the thing. Henry Coley had translated all three of them, and they’re in his book that was published about 1660 or the late 1600’s. And you can get a copy of that. Maybe you’ve got one. You can get a copy of his book.
NG: I did, before yours came out, but yours is much better, because he translated, but often he just paraphrased and it’s not the same.
JH: He not only paraphrased, but he actually left out about a fourth of it. He didn’t even have it all in there. And that one’s hard to read; I think the Latin’s bad. You can see in the footnotes that I had to struggle with part of it, too. Anyway, I thought to myself it would be nice to have all three of those things in one place. And then also there was The Hundred and Fifty Propositions of al-Mansur, which I don’t know where you’d ever find that. I have never seen it any place, so I thought we’re going to put all this together, and if anybody is interested in this old stuff, there it is all in one book.
NG: That’s wonderful. I’m really glad that you did, because I think a lot of people just don’t know it’s out there.
JH: I guess you read the little thing I put down there about why would anybody want to read a thousand year old book. But anyway, some of these books that I put out, well, I have to think about what Mark Twain said about a book once. “ This is a good book for people that like this kind of a book.”
[Read Part 3 of the interview with James H. Holden.]
September 2, 2008 by Nina Gryphon
Last month, I spoke with James Herschel Holden, M.A., author of A History of Horoscopic Astrology (now in its 2nd edition), and translator of countless astrological texts, including a dozen or so by Jean Baptiste Morin, and texts by famed astrologers such as Sahl ibn Bishr, Albumasar, Abu ‘Ali, and Masha’allah. Mr. Holden has been Research Director of the American Federation of Astrologers since 1982.
NG: What got you interested in the history of astrology and how does one kind of get into working with these texts as you have?
JH: Well, all my life I’ve been interested in history, history of everything. When I was in school I didn’t care anything about modern history but I was interested in ancient history. If you say why was that, the answer is I don’t know; that’s just the way I was. And I guess it was perhaps a little exotic, and so it appealed to me more than every day things that you see around you.
And when I first learned something about astrology; I got interested in where it came from, how it got started, and that led me back to the origins of it in the old books and so on
I was about eighteen when I ran across a translation of Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos and I read that. And then about the same time I found a Latin text of Julius Firmicus Maternus. And since I could read Latin, that was another one that sort of whetted my appetite for the old stuff.
NG: So you were hooked. Is there a particular era in the history of astrology that you find interesting? It sounds like you’re very interested in the ancient texts, even before the medieval era, is that accurate?
JH: Well, not to the exclusion of anything else. I would say that I’m interested in all periods of astrology, except maybe what somebody thought up last month. I can say that I’ve been more interested in the older things than I have in a few of the modern things that have come up. But I don’t have any particular [favorite] period. If you’ve got my history book [History of Astrology, 2nd Ed., AFA] you saw how it was divided up into sections.
And each section in that is interesting to me; I’m interested in the classical section, also in the medieval section, what the Arabs had to say, and early modern, and so on. And there’s a whole lot of material to read in each one of those eras.
NG: I saw you have a new edition of your History of Astrology. I know it’s one of those books that it seems everybody I know has it and has read it.
JH: Well, I hope they like it. That’s the distillation of many years of reading about astrology and thinking about it. And you asked the question about the 2nd Edition whether there was any significant change, and I guess the answer is No
What had happened, is that the first one sold out, and we had noticed maybe as many as eight or ten typographical errors in it; most of them trivial, so we had a chance to correct those, and I was also able to correct some omissions that were in the 1st Edition. One of them was rather significant. Being a member of the American Federation of Astrologers, I had written that 1st Edition and never even mentioned our President, Doris Chase Doane.
I just forgot about it. I think the reason is that of the modern people that were alive today, or we’ll say the 20th century people, I was trying to think of those who had done something a little bit different or had acquired some notoriety in recent years or something. And Doris wrote an awful lot of books, but she hadn’t written any very recently at the time that I was putting that history together, and for some reason I just didn’t think of her. And I know the lady personally, or rather knew her. She passed away a couple years ago but, this is one of those things you slap yourself with your hand on the forehead, and you think how in the world could I have forgotten her.
In the 2nd Edition Doris is in there, and also I had left out three or four Europeans that I think were of some importance, and I simply forgot them the same way. So they’re in there now. And one of my friends in Greece, Thomas Gazis, was kind enough to rewrite the whole section on modern Greek Astrology, so that’s revised from the 1st Edition.
And I have a little bit more information about astrology in other countries. And of course in the ten years that went by, some of the people mentioned in the 1st Edition had passed away, so I’ve got their death dates in there.
I think there’s five hundred and some odd [people] in there. And so percentage wise…leaving those few out was a small error, but I regretted it.
NG: What do you think are some of the biggest changes in our knowledge, what we’ve learned in the last ten or twenty years that we didn’t know about the history of astrology before?
JH: I would say that maybe going back as far as thirty years ago we began to get some old books, and I’m talking about English speaking countries, I think what I’m saying is largely true of foreign countries too. But in this country, if you go back about thirty years, about the only old book you could get was Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos. And many astrologers, not being aware that anything else existed, assumed that Ptolemy invented astrology and that everything that was original about it was in that book, which isn’t true.
Ptolemy was a science writer. He was like Isaac Asimov who wrote books on practically everything. I suspect that Ptolemy had been hired by some rich man who said: “I’ve got a nice, private library in my house and I’d like to have some books on the sciences. And I’ll pay you good if you’ll write them.” So Ptolemy wrote him a book on astronomy, and he wrote one on geography, and he wrote on two or three other subjects.
And then the man said: “Oh, and astrology; write something on astrology.” So Ptolemy wrote something on astrology. But if you look in the very first chapter of the Tetrabiblos, Ptolemy says he has left out a whole lot of what was current in his lifetime, and he said: “My book is not complete, I’ve left out a whole lot of things because it’s a big subject and if I wanted to put everything in it, it would be a whole lot bigger book.” Why, I think hardly any astrologer after his time ever bothered to read that part of it. Most of them assumed that he was first so he must have invented the whole thing.
For example, there was a man who was a professional astrologer, named Vettius Valens who was living in Alexandria from about 150 to 175 AD, which would have overlapped Ptolemy’s lifetime. He didn’t know Ptolemy and never mentions him once.
I’ve written a paper on this that hasn’t been published yet, but I think what happened is that Ptolemy wrote his books for a client or a patron whose name was Syrus. All Ptolemy’s books are addressed to a man named Syrus who is otherwise totally unknown.
When he finished he gave all the books to Syrus, the guy stuck them on the shelf, and they sat there for 150 years. They were not published or made available to the general public until around 300 AD. And Valens lived in the same town with Ptolemy and never heard of him, though Valens was a professional astrologer and also had a school of astrology. He would have known if the Tetrabiblos had been available; he would have had a copy; and he would have known all about it. And yet Valens’s book is true to what was going on at the time. For example, I think it’s got almost a hundred example horoscopes in it. Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos doesn’t have a single one.
So one is a theoretician, and the other one was a practicing astrologer. Ptolemy went down to the Alexandrian Library and got out two or three books on astrology, read through them, and then thought, well, I’ll talk about this part of it, and wrote the Tetrabiblos. Now, what he put down there is good, there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not complete, that’s the point I’m trying to make.
And yet, I don’t think up until thirty years ago, hardly anybody knew about that. But since that time, various people have translated some of the old books. I think Robert Schmidt translated all or most of Vettius Valens, for example. A translation of Firmicus came out in 1974, I think. People little by little began to get some of the old books and found out, hey, there was more to it back then than we thought.
Then, in the last ten or fifteen years, why there have been people who got interested in medieval astrology and began to read the medieval books. And that opened up a whole new field too. So those are things that have happened in recent years that have expanded our knowledge. Now, if you are a working astrologer and you’re dealing with clients and so on, you probably don’t have time to sit around and devote yourself to reading the history, and as a result many astrologers today haven’t read any of the old stuff. They havn’t read my book. They haven’t read any of those old texts either. So they’re not familiar with that. I think it’s good to know how things started.
Did you ever see the movie Fiddler on the Roof? Well, there was something very significant in that. At one point some fellow says to Tevye the dairyman, “why do we do this particular thing?” And Tevye says, “it’s tradition.” And the man says, “Why do we have this tradition?” And Tevye says, “I’ll tell you, I don’t know.” That’s kind of situation that I think many astrologers are in. They learn the rules and they even learn to read charts pretty well, and so on. But if somebody said: “why do we do it this way?” all they could say is: “Well, that’s the way I learned it.”
And where did the rule come from? It says that Mars rules Scorpio? They were using Scorpio, and so on like that. Well, somebody made that statement 2000 years ago and we’re stuck with it.
I think that’s interesting, but most people don’t. I guess I could say that if you have any interest in the old stuff, I think my book is helpful because it not only mentions a lot of the old timers, but it gives some excerpts and it gives you a lot of footnotes and refers you to where you could find additional material.
[Read Part 2 of the interview with James H. Holden here.]
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.