September 6, 2008 by Nina Gryphon
This is the third part of an interview with astrologer, author, and translator, James Herschel Holden. Mr. Holden has a number of translations coming out in summer and autumn of 2008, including Books 16 and 17 by Morinus, and a collection of ancient astrological texts in Five Medieval Astrologers. To catch up, read Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview.
NG: I was curious what prompted all your recent translations.
JH: There is one thing that’s causing some of them to come out pretty close together. I don’t know if you’re aware of it but the AFA was reorganized last year. And now we have a new chief executive officer, Kris Riske. For about six months or a year before last summer I don’t think the AFA had printed very many books. And this was partly because people hadn’t offered any and said, “Hey, I’ve got a book; would you like to print it?” And then when the AFA was reorganized, why it took six months or a year to get the office straightened out, because there were a lot of things that needed to be done with a leadership change. So during that time they didn’t publish any books, because they were busy doing other things. And it’s just in the last few months that Kris Riske, who also is the principal editor, has had time to deal with anything like that.
And so some of the things that she’s done for me, I had done in earlier years, but they’re coming out close together now, not because every month I did something new, but they’re just kind of sitting around waiting to be published. And there’s more to come.
If you’re interested I can tell you a little bit about the Morin Method. Twenty years ago, and for two or three decades before that, there were only two people to my knowledge in the United States that knew anything about the Morin Method and they were the only ones that had ever even heard of it, except for the Morinus system of houses which is kind of a joke. But anyway, one of them was Zoltan Mason, and he was in New York City. And the other one was a man named Gerhardt Howing who lived in Dallas. I used to be in Dallas. And I attended some classes with Gerhardt and he taught the Morin Method. Now those to my knowledge were the only two people in the United States that knew anything about it. And both of them taught classes. And Bob Corre was a student of Zoltan Mason.
Mason died a couple years ago I think. And he hadn’t been teaching any for the last few years of his life. But Corre has picked up where Mason left off and he is a very active teacher of the Morin Method. He travels all over the world. He’s lectured all over Europe and Australia and every place else on it. And he also has a correspondence course over the Internet that you can sign-up for. And Corre has encouraged me to translate a good many of the books of Morin’s Astrologia Gallica.
And that’s what caused me to do most of those. And I think the method is good, and Corre finds them useful in his course so I havel translated aquite a few of them.
I have a new translation of Firmicus, for example, that I hope we can get printed this year. And I think it will be a considerable improvement over the Bram translation that’s available now.
And also, there’s several other things. Like I said, Book 25 is going to come out on Meteorology and Mundane Astrology, which I think people that are interested in either one of those will like.
Incidentally, if you are interested in Meteorology, Kris has written a book on that. Kris did something that I think a lot of people didn’t do. She actually collected statistical data on notable hurricanes and all kinds of storms and things like that and studied them astrologically. And [she] took some of the old rules that were in the old books; and well, she tried them out to see if they work. And so the book that she wrote is based on practical experience, and she gives a whole lot of examples in there. So, if you’re interested in that subject, I recommend that book.
NG: Are you also a practicing astrologer, whether amateur or professional?
JH: No, I’m not. Actually, I’m a retired telephone engineer. I worked for the phone company all my life. And I was a senior engineer, and then I got put in charge of the engineering budget for the state of Texas. That was when I was living in Dallas; I’ve only been here in Phoenix since `93. And prior to that, I was living in Dallas. And I would say that I never did practice professionally to amount to anything. I have read charts and answered questions for friends and family, for free of course. I think we all do that. And I had have done some work for pay in the past. Nothing in recent years. But if somebody came up to me that I hardly knew and wanted me to do their chart or answer a question or something, I charged those people. And I did it partly for this reason: I thought, well some other professional might have gotten this job and if people get the idea that they can get it done for nothing, why then I’m sort of knocking somebody else out a fee. And since I was a Professional Member of the AFA, I thought I guess I really ought to charge people that weren’t close friends.
But as far as having a standard practice or putting my name on the door and having the public come in, I never did that at anytime, because I didn’t have time, for one thing. And after I retired, I spent most of my time studying and writing books. That’s all I did.
JH: You were curious about how I got started in astrology. You’ll laugh at this. I think I was about twelve when I got interested in astronomy. And I studied up on the planets and their orbits and the stars and eclipses and all that kind of stuff. And the next year I took note of a publication that we got every year which was an almanac that was printed by the Telephone Company. And on the front, they had the figure of a man with the signs of the zodiac all around, Aries for his head [and so on]. And then they had some Sun sign material. I think they had one page of that in there; and I read that,and I got fascinated by that. I thought, hey, this is something really interesting.
And then that was age thirteen. I guess when I was thirteen and maybe early fourteen, I used to occasionally go to the beauty shop with my mother; she would pick me up at school, and then stop off at the beauty shop to get her hair done, or something like that. And here I am a teenage kid sitting there with nothing do. They had two kinds of magazines. They had movie star magazines and they had astrology magazines. Well, at thirteen or fourteen, I couldn’t care less about reading about movie stars. But I began to read astrology magazines. They had Horoscope. They had American Astrology. I think there was one that used to be called World Astrology, and there were two or three others. Back in those days there more of them than there are today.
And I read those and I looked at the charts and I got fascinated. And I found out they were sky maps and I looked at the numbers around the edge, the cuspal numbers. And I wondered how they figured those. And I got real interested in all of that, and I guess in a way, that’s what really sucked me into astrology. Like I said, when I was around eighteen I got hold of a copy of Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos. And about the same time I found the Latin text of Julius Firmicus. I’d had four years of Latin in high school so I could read Latin pretty well. And at the University I had had nine hours of Latin, in which I guess would be fifth year and first half of sixth year. So I could read the Latin without much trouble. And both of those books fascinated me. And they got me interested in the old stuff, and then I began to apply the astronomy that I had.
Well, I did quite a bit of those things like you saw in the introduction to The Book of Flowers, I was working on that thing back in the sixties. When I’d get bored with doing anything else, I’d say oh, I’ll get that out and translate another page or two, something like that. And also I had in the late fifties and early sixties begun to acquire the Greek texts of some of the classical Greek astrologers that had been published in Europe. And I taught myself Greek and I began to translate some of those.
NG: You must have a real gift for languages.
JH: Well, I guess I do or I wouldn’t have been able to have done it then. I can’t take any credit for it, I guess you’re born with that sort of thing. I have thought to myself sometimes, and I don’t say this as a piece of braggartry, but just as a fact. I think of all the people in my high school that took Latin I’m probably the only one that ever did anything with it.
To show what you can do, I got that Latin text [Guido Bonatti’s Book of Astronomy]; I guess I’ve had that thirty years or so. And I sat down one day and I made a table of contents for it. The pages aren’t numbered, but they ave what they call folio numeration every fourth page: why, you’ve got B and then you’ve got one, two, three, four and then you’ve got C, and so on. And I made a complete index of the whole thing, so now if I want to look up something, well I get that out. I can open up the book and find a page that’s got that information on it. So it’s kind of handy. And then I discovered the Universal Bookstore (or something like that) up there in Canada that reprints old books. Anyway, they’ve reprinted a lot of the old books,and they offered Coley’s book, for example. And I bought that thing, oh, I guess twenty-three years ago.
I got several other of the 17th century English books that they reprinted, and those are very handy. You can find a lot of stuff in there that you’d be hard put to locate in the modern books. Like I said, Coley had done the three Centiloquies, and that was the only place I knew where you could find all three of them. And I don’t know that anybody ever did al-Mansur, or I guess somebody must have translated it, but I’ve never seen it. Anyway, that’s some of the stuff that I put together over the years.
[Read the final Part 4 of the interview with James Holden.]
August 7, 2008 by Nina Gryphon
Last month, Ben Dykes published a new translation of the works of 8-9th century Persian astrologers Sahl and Masha’allah. The book is a compilation of 16 shorter astrological works. As Dykes pointed out in his interview with GA, this is not an exhaustive collection of Sahl and Masha’allah’s works. The works that are included have dual value: they are of use to a practicing astrologer, and provide insight into the practice of astrology by the Arabs.
Dykes translated Guido Bonatti’s Book of Astronomy last year, and because Bonatti refers to Sahl and Masha’allah very frequently as his sources, Dykes sought to make the works by the two authors more available to the English-reading public. If Bonatti was only sparsely translated into English (such as his aphorisms, by Henry Coley), Sahl and Masha’allah were translated even less frequently, despite their importance in early medieval astrological practice.
Works of Sahl & Masha’allah is a difficult, dense, but extremely rewarding text. The astrological concepts themselves are not terribly complicated, but we would recommend a working knowledge of planetary dignity and reception, planetary movement, and astronomical phenomena like eclipses. Dykes’s introduction to the text is a must-read, because he explains several specific concepts/phrases recurring frequently in the texts that the reader is unlikely to have encountered before.
Readers interested in the nitty-gritty practica of horary, electional, political, and weather astrology will find very useful material here. However, there is also a nice balance of more theoretical texts on the building blocks of astrology, such as Sahl’s Fifty Judgments, or Masha’allah’s On Reception. Dykes’s easy-to-read translation is a fine addition to a library of the intermediate/advanced working astrologer or astrological history enthusiast.
Book Contents and Structure
The book begins with a listing of text or reference abbreviations, of which there are plenty, Arabic transliterations, and a table of figures. The 80-page introduction by the translator is a must-read, not only for key phrase definitions, but also for a succinct comparison of techniques used by Sahl, Masha’allah and other ancient astrologers, and an explanation of frequently used sources in the text.
Because a book with just one introduction is for weaklings, the book proper begins with Sahl’s Introduction, which is essentially Astrology 101, medieval-style. Here we get the meanings of the signs, houses, aspects, and astrological concepts such as reception. This is followed by On questions, an horary treatise organized by house. Astrologers familiar with William Lilly’s Christian Astrology will see similarities in organization, but the substance is rather different. Topics such as “on a commander setting off to war, or another worried person when he asks about him,” are covered, often in great detail, along with “a question about the age of the winning beast,” such as in horse races.
A short work On the elections, follows, again organized by house-related topics. The last of Sahl’s works in the book is On times, which is a work on methods of timing events in horoscopes. These methods seem most obviously applicable to horary charts, but they could be applied to natal horoscopes as well.
The Masha’allah part of the book begins with “on the knowledge of the motion of the orb,” a cosmological, astronomical, and physical treatise. This is followed by a short work called On the roots of revolutions, and On rains, the former introducing key concepts in mundane astrology, such as solar and planetary ingress charts, and eclipses, with the latter treatise showing how to apply the methods to astrometeorology.
A useful and information-rich treatise, On the revolution of the years of the world follows, focusing on mundane astrology and specific positions of planetary significators, and their meanings. Two treatises on nativities follow, one more of a planet-in-terms cookbook, the latter containing lots of example charts in traditional square format with a paragraph of analysis each.
To shorter treatises follow, On the interpretation of cognition, and On hidden things. The former gives hints to the astrologer for discovering the intention of the questioner, and the latter text is about finding lost objects. The next text is on reception, first discussing the theory, and then its applications to various topics, such as financial questions, and “will I get the kingdom” kinds of questions, with example charts. The last text is What the planets signify in the 12th domiciles of the circle, a kind of cookbook, which could be applied both to natal and horary charts. For example, Saturn in the 12th house gives “impediments which happen in connection with the King, and he will be strong and bold in this, and he will be captured by enemies, and he will be afraid in all of his matters.”
Finally, we are treated to a multipage bibliography and detailed index.
As noted above, Works is a very dense, rich book. The ideal way to read it is in small pieces at a time, to better experiment with unfamiliar techniques and concepts. The sheer magnitude of information can be intimidating, though the astrology itself is pretty accessible to a modern reader.
The translator does not pull any punches, and obviously enjoys bringing to light forgotten techniques and astrological concepts. He does not bend the text to shape it to our modern preconceptions. This is good, because it preserves textual integrity, and bad, as many readers might benefit from more familiar terms to help ease into a very different text than they might be used to. Ultimately, however, a translator has to balance integrity with accessibility, and Dykes’s choice, though more demanding of the reader, leaves us with the sense that justice was done to the text.
Works of Sahl & Masha’allah
Translated by: Benjamin N. Dykes, Ph.D.
The Cazimi Press, 2008
Available from the translator at www.bendykes.com. 532 pages, hardcover.
(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).
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.