Book Review: Biographical Dictionary of Western Astrologers by James Holden
Biographical Dictionary of Western Astrologers by James Herschel Holden, American Federation of Astrologers, Tempe, AZ, 2013. Hardcover – 792 pp. – $79.95 (ISBN 0-86690-641-X). Available through Amazon.com.
James Holden spent the vast majority of his life studying the history of astrology, and his Biographical Dictionary of Western Astrologers represents the culmination of more than 70 years of research in the field.
The book consists of a series of biographical entries for over 2,200 astrologers, ranging from the 2nd century BCE through the 20th century CE. Holden limited himself mainly to astrologers who were born prior to 1936, with only a few exceptions for some astrologers who were born after that date.
Holden is generally regarded as one of the leading historians of astrology. His Biographical Dictionary acts as a nice complement to his earlier work A History of Horoscopic Astrology (American Federation of Astrologers, 1996), which is still one of the best books available on the history of astrology nearly 20 years after it was originally published. While there is some overlap between the two works, generally A History is better at providing a concise technical overview of the history of astrology, whereas the Biographical Dictionary generally provides more extensive and in-depth treatments of individual astrologers and their works. There is a lot of valuable historical information to be gained from reading the entries in Holden’s Biographical Dictionary, though, because as he says at one point in the introduction, “History is made by people, so biography is the basis of history.”
Holden’s knack for languages and fluency in ancient Greek and Latin allowed him to read many of the primary source texts of the early western astrological tradition. He was also fluent in a number of modern European languages such as French, German, and Italian, which gave him the ability to read much of the modern astrological literature that has been produced in different languages over the past few centuries as well. His fluency with languages combined with his three decade long position as the Research Director of the American Federation of Astrologers (AFA) gave him access to a wide variety of astrological texts, which he drew on while doing research for the book. He acknowledges that the entries for some of the more recent centuries are skewed towards authors who wrote in English or were associated with the AFA, although his coverage is quite impressive nonetheless.
Naturally given the scope of the work, the book itself is physically quite big. It is a large hardcover book, measuring 8.4 x 10.9 inches, and weighing about four and a half pounds. With nearly 800 pages, the book is undoubtedly the most comprehensive biographical treatment of western astrologers ever published at this point in time.
It is more of a reference work than a book that is meant to be read from start to finish, since the entries are listed alphabetically rather than chronologically. So, for example, the entry for the 16th century astrologer Luca Gaurico comes right after the entry for the 20th century astrologer Michel Gauquelin.
The entries for individual astrologers vary in length and depth; some simply containing a list of books the astrologer is known to have published, while in other instances Holden is able to go into great detail about specific facts that are known about the life of the astrologer. In some of the longer entries for major astrologers Holden delves into interesting and important historical issues, for example as with the question of the extent to which Aleister Crowley helped to ghostwrite parts of Evangeline Adams’ two well-known books on astrology. In these instances Holden both demonstrates his familiarity with the secondary literature that is available from other scholars who have talked about the issues, but also contributes a useful analysis with unique insights of his own. The end result is a massive compilation that presents not just the result of Holden’s own research, but also the research of hundreds of other scholars and astrologers whom he drew on during the course of his long career.
Sadly, James Holden died in August of 2013, only a month after the publication of his Biographical Dictionary of Western Astrologers. With this book he left a lasting legacy of research and scholarship that will be studied and emulated for many years to come, and the astrological community owes him a debt of gratitude for doing so much to reconnect us with our history.
This review originally appeared in the February/March 2014 issue of The Mountain Astrologer magazine.