Book Review: Works of Sahl and Masha’Allah by Ben Dykes
It was with great pleasure and excitement that I read Ben Dykes’ latest contribution to the field of astrology with his new book Works of Sahl & Masha’allah. Ben is well known in traditional astrological circles as an ambitious scholar who made his publishing debut in 2007 with his monumental 1500 page translation of Guido Bonatti’s highly influential 13th century astrological compendium known as the Book of Astronomy. Bonatti’s work was originally written in Medieval Latin, and it had never been fully translated into English (or any other language for that matter) until Ben brought his linguistic skills to bear on the text. Although Bontti’s work had a considerable influence on later astrologers, for example such as William Lilly in the 17th century, it wasn’t until just last year that the entirety of the work had been made available to those lacking the ability to read it in its original language.
After the publication of Bonatti one might expect that Ben would have taken some time off, but instead he launched into an equally ambitious project of translating 16 major works from two of the most authoritative and pivotal astrologers of the early Medieval tradition. If Bonatti’s work represents what is essentially the later part of the Medieval astrological tradition after the reintroduction of astrology to Europe during the 12th century translation movement, then Sahl and Masha’allah are representative of the earliest strata of the Medieval tradition that coalesced around the 8th and 9th century translation movement in Baghdad under the Abbasid caliphate. That is to say, what Dykes has provided us with his translation of these 16 works are the keys to the founding principles of the Medieval astrological tradition.
The Contents of the Book
The Works of Sahl & Masha’allah is an astrological tour de force composed of 16 separate books on different branches of Medieval astrology, ranging from natal, horary and electional astrology, to mundane astrology and weather prediction. There are 5 works from Sahl ibn Bishr (c. early 9th century) and 11 works from Māshā’allāh bin Atharī (c. 740-c. 815), both Jewish astrologers of Persian descent who worked under the early Islamic Abbisid caliphate during the great flourishing of astrology and science that took place in the late 8th and early 9th centuries. Some of the books translated in Dykes’ volume are rather short, such as Masha’allah’s On the Interpretation of Cognition which is only 8 pages long, while others are rather lengthy, such as Sahl’s On Questions which is about 120 pages long. Here is a list of the books contained in Dykes’ compendium:
- Sahl: The Introduction – An introduction to astrological principles, with important definitions of planetary combinations.
- Sahl: The Fifty Judgments – A set of fifty essential considerations for astrologers, an important source for Bonatti’s 146 Considerations.
- Sahl: On Elections – A classic work on elections, drawing on Dorotheus.
- Sahl: On Questions – Comprehensive horary treatments on all matters.
- Sahl: On Times – Collection of numerous predictive techniques, both general and topic-specific.
- Masha’allah: On the Knowledge of the Motion of the Orb – An astronomical work covering the elements, planetary orbs, eclipses and weather.
- Masha’allah: On the Roots of Revolutions – Also known as the “Letter on Eclipses,” this work introduces basic concepts in mundane astrology.
- Masha’allah: Chapter on the Rains in the Year – A work on weather prediction.
- Masha’allah: On Rains – A work on weather prediction.
- Masha’allah: On the Revolution of the Years of the World – A lengthy work on interpreting ingress charts and eclipses, both for political events and weather.
- Masha’allah: On the Significations of the Planets in a Nativity – Intriguing lists of planetary positions in the signs, houses, and the bounds, including a use of planetary periods for prediction.
- Masha’allah: On Nativities – An introduction to life-expectancy predictions and quality of life delineations.
- Masha’allah: On the Interpretation of Cognition – A work based on “consultation charts,” finding significators for the purpose and outcome of horary consultations.
- Masha’allah: On Hidden Things – A collection of techniques for finding hidden and lost objects.
- Masha’allah: On Reception – A lengthy, classic work on horary technique and the value of reception.
- Masha’allah: What the Planets Signify in the Twelve Domiciles of the Circle – Delineations for the planets in each others’ domiciles.
Each book was translated from Medieval Latin translations of the original Arabic text, and sometimes these were compared with extant versions of the original Arabic text when possible. In many instances the Latin translations of these works that were originally composed in Arabic are all that remain, their Arabic originals being lost long ago. Each book is fully annotated, and they contain copious amounts of footnotes and cross references with other works. There are PDF previews of certain portions of the book on Ben’s website.
Electional Astrology & the Chart for Baghdad
In his youth, possibly while he was only in his early 20’s, Masha’allah was part of a group of astrologers who were chosen by the caliph al-Mansur to select an auspicious electional chart for the founding of Baghdad.¹ Based on the chart that was selected by the astrologers, the city was founded on July 31, 762 at about or after 2:00 PM.
What is interesting and useful about these new translations of Sahl and Masha’allah’s works are not only that they provide us with the basic rules for natal, horary, mundane and electional astrology, but it also gives us quite a bit of insight into the rationale underlying the Medieval approach to astrology by allowing us to peer over the shoulders of two of the most prominent astrologers from that tradition and examine the charts that they themselves interpreted or elected. The electional chart for Baghdad above is a good example of this. We can see many of the rules outlined by Sahl in his book On Elections being employed in this chart. For example, on page 193 of Dykes’ translation, Sahl tells us to focus on connecting two planets in particular to the relevant significators in the election when you are electing a chart for specific types of people:
…if you want that which is connected with lords, and princes, and great men, and those put over cities, and visible people, and the masters of fights and wealth, then it is for you [to work] through the Sun; and what is connected to lofty people, then it is for you [to work] through Jupiter…
In the electional chart for Baghdad we see that both of these significators are rather well placed in the chart, with Jupiter ruling the ascendant, placed in his own domicile in the 1st house, and configured by a trine with the Sun who is also placed in his own domicile in the 9th house, the place of his joys, with both planets favorably placed in a diurnal chart. Indeed, both of the primary significators in this chart, in accordance with Sahl’s rules, are the planets that are placed the most favorably. We see similar accord with other passages in Sahl’s work on elections later in the book on page 200:
And let the Lord of the domicile of the Moon be aspecting her, likewise let the Lord of the Ascendant be aspecting the Ascendant (and they should be cleansed of the malefics): because if they did not aspect, its master will not stay in it.
An astrologer might object to the electional chart for Baghdad by pointing out that both Jupiter and Mercury were retrograde, although if you examine it closely you notice that even in this it is clear that the astrologers were being attentive, and they were careful to elect a chart very close to a date when both of these planets would station direct. In Sahl’s book The Fifty Judgments, on page 56 of Dykes’ translation, he outlines the distinction between the interpretation of a planet when it is stationary direct versus when it is stationary retrograde:
If a planet were to stand toward retrogradation (that is, if it were in its first station), it signifies the dissolution of a purpose, and disobedience; and if it were to stand toward direction (that is, if it were in its second station), it signifies forward direction after the slowness or duress of the matter. And every planet which is a significator and wished to go direct (that is, if it were in its second station) signifies the renewal of the actions of matters, and their action and strength or forward movement. And if it were in the first station, wishing to go retrograde, it signifies their destruction and slowness and dissolution.
Consequently both Jupiter and Mercury stationed direct within 2 days of the founding of Baghdad. This is no coincidence, but it is the result of a deliberate decision that was made by a group of astrologers to choose what they thought was the most auspicious time for the founding of the city based upon the rules and theories of the astrological tradition. Now contemporary astrologers have been given access to that tradition once again.
The Transmission of the Technical Terminology
There is another point of interest that emerges early on in the work from a more historical perspective. Dykes’ spends a considerable amount of time discussing some of the translation conventions that were employed by the early Arabian astrologers in the process of rendering the original Greek technical terms of horoscopic astrology into Persian and Arabic. Over the past 15 years part of the impetus behind the movement to recover and revive Hellenistic astrology has been the importance of recovering the conceptual meaning underlying the original Greek terms because this provides us with better access to the interpretive meaning underlying the astrological concepts that the terms denote. Robert Schmidt of Project Hindsight has gone as far as to argue that the original theoretical and philosophical principles of the Hellenistic construct were embedded in the technical terminology that was devised in the Greek language,² and he has argued that much of the conceptual coherence of the tradition was altered or lost as a result of the later translation moments when the texts were rendered into Persian and Arabic, and then eventually into Latin and other languages.
Part of the importance of Ben Dykes’ latest work is his attention to the technical terms and his discovery that the early Arabian astrologers (and even some of the later Latin translators) were actively attempting to find proper semantic equivalents in the their languages in order to retain the meaning underlying the original Greek terms. Dykes outlines his arguments regarding this matter rather well in part 6 of his introduction where he deals with the manner in which the Greek term for an angular house, kentron, was translated into Arabic as ‘stakes’. Dykes’ argument here seriously brings into question the common historical narrative that has recently come into vogue about the technical terminology of astrology decaying due to inadequate or improper translation conventions in the Medieval period, because in fact the astrologers do appear to have been paying attention to and actively trying to find semantic equivalents in their own language.
On the other hand, earlier in section 4 of the introduction, Dykes points out how other concepts such as the doctrine of ‘testimony’ underwent a change in the Persian and Arabic tradition likely due to cultural and conceptual issues. So, ultimately an argument about the original technical language of astrology being lost, changed or transformed is partially valid, although based on Dykes’ work such an argument would have to be tempered considerably by a closer examination of the transmission and translation issues involved. In this analysis Dykes has certainly paved the way for much future scholarship and research.
Aside from being an excellent collection of practical material on electional astrology, natal astrology, and other basic features of astrological interpretation, Dykes’ translation of these works proves to be a veritable goldmine for the study of horary astrology. Much of the usefulness of the work lies in the technical material presented in Masha’allah’s book on horary called On Reception and Sahl’s book On Questions, which outline an intricate and fascinating approach to horary astrology, although there are also a number of important historical and theoretical issues that these works address or help to clarify.
Last year I published a paper in the NCGR Journal titled The Katarche of Horary in which I argued that horary wasn’t in the Hellenistic tradition, but that instead it seems to have evolved naturally out of the use of consultation charts at some point in the later Indian or Persian traditions of astrology. When my paper was published last summer my argument about the transformation of consultation charts into horary was more of a hypothesis based on scattered clues and inference, but now, thanks to Dykes’ new translation, my initial historical hypothesis appears to have been validated. Sahl and Masha’allah are two of the earliest authors of texts on horary astrology, and in Masha’allah’s work On Cognition we can actually see the interface between the consultation chart framework and the horary framework. That is to say, we can see the transformation of consultation charts into horary taking place quite clearly at this early stage in the practice of Medieval astrology, whereas by later in the tradition horary almost completely displaces the consultation chart framework altogether.
Right at the beginning of Masha’allah’s On Cognition he outlines a three part approach to horary, with the first part dealing with determining the thoughts of the querent prior to the question, the second part dealing with the cause of the question, and the third part dealing with the outcome of the question:
First, for what reason the questioner has come, so that you might know [it] and about what he is asking. Second, that you should know what was the cause of the question. Third, that you should know whether it might be perfected or not, and what end it will have.
This three part outline may seem subtle and innocuous enough at first glance, but aside from the fact that the technical rules that Masha’allah subsequently outlines for determining these three things are incredibly interesting and useful in practice, this approach also has a rather important historical significance because it demonstrates that the consultation chart construct that had been employed in the early Hellenistic and Indian traditions had become the basis for the practice of horary by late 8th/early 9th century. The determination of what was on the mind of the querent and what caused them to seek the astrologer’s counsel at the time of the consultation was of prime importance in setting up the actual horary chart, and it was from that starting point that the astrologer could then attempt to determine the outcome of the question that was subsequently posed. This explains some of the later tenets of horary such as the reason why astrologer’s shouldn’t ask their own questions,³ why the location of the astrologer is to be used for casting the chart, and also why some of the ‘considerations before judgment’ were developed and the original purpose they served in providing pertinent information to the astrologer.
In providing us with translations of these works Ben Dykes has not only helped us to unlock the technical and conceptual secrets underlying Medieval astrology, but he has helped to reconstruct an important part of the history of astrology, and for that we should all be grateful.
¹ James Holden, A History of Horoscopic Astrology, American Federation of Astrologers, Tempe, AZ, 1996, pg. 104. This chapter from Holden’s book is also available online in an article titled Arabian Astrology on the CURA website.
² See Robert Schmidt’s article Hellenistic Astrology: An Overview (section 5: ‘Uncovering the Theory Underlying Hellenistic Astrology’), and especially his article The Challenges of Translating and Interpreting Hellenistic Astrological Writings.
³ On this see Masha’allah, On Reception, pg. 444 in Dykes’ translation: “…it is not consistent with the wise person that he should ask for himself, but it behooves him to ask another.”