book reviews

Book Review: The Fated Sky by Benson Bobrick

Benson Bobrick: The Fated SkyBenson Bobrick, The Fated Sky: Astrology In History, Simon and Schuster, 2005.

I’m going to get it out of the way and just say right from the onset that I did not like this book. I was actually quite excited when it first came out in late 2005 because there was a lot of hype surrounding the book in the astrological community since it was supposedly written by a neutral historian named Benson Bobrick who was going to write a popular book on the history of astrology. As someone who is interested in the history and transmission of astrology I was pleased to hear that there would be a new book on the market that would presumably incorporate much of the new research and discoveries that have been made about the history of the subject over the past century or so. Unfortunately I was quite disappointed when I eventually obtained a copy and started reading it in early 2006.

I guess that the reason that I am writing this review is because there are a number of other really good books on the history of astrology written by both astrologers and academics that don’t make the same mistakes that this book does, yet for some reason this book is being trumpeted by people in the astrological community at the moment as this great masterpiece even though it is not.

I’ve read several overly favorable reviews of the book over the past year from astrologers in various sources online and in print that I would rather not cite, and it is kind of frustrating. I guess that part of this is just the result of this notion that we have to ‘support the team’ somehow, and we should root for one of our guys when they make it into the mainstream. I think that this is a faulty approach to take though, and I don’t think that astrologers should commend a work simply because it speaks favorably about a subject that we think highly of. I think that it is actually quite healthy to critique works like this because it forces us to do better and to tighten up our positions on certain matters, just like in any other academic field. Simply giving the book a passing grade because it is pro-astrology actually causes more damage to the community, in my opinion, because then any issues that are present in the work are left unaddressed and they subsequently find their way into the contemporary historical narrative and are repeated by other astrologers unknowingly.

While I would never simply tell someone that they shouldn’t read a certain book, I do think that some people would be better off without knowing about this particular book because then the same mistakes and misconceptions wont be repeated over and over again by astrologers and researchers alike over the coming decades. I would much rather recommend more well researched books by scholars such as James Holden, David Pingree, Nick Campion, Peter Whitfield, or Jim Tester.

In order to keep this review pithy I will just say that Bobrick’s book suffers from a number of issues such as an over reliance on secondary and tertiary sources, a few apparently bogus citations, what appears to be religious favoritism, overtly biased pro-astrology reporting to the point of fanboyism, and generally poor organization.

One of the more egregious, if not hilarious, examples of the types of mistakes contained in this book is on pg. 20 when he starts talking about “Palchus”

On the morning of July 14, A.D. 479, a worried client sought out an Egyptian astrologer in Smyrna by the name of Palchus and, at 8:30 A.M., asked whether a ship that he was expecting from Alexandria, now way overdue, would eventually arrive safely, and, if so, when…

The problem with this story is that “Palchus” is merely a pseudonym of a late 14th century Byzantine astrologer-scribe named Eleutherius Zebelenus of Elis, and not a 5th century Eyptian astrologer, as Bobrick would have you to believe. The horoscope that he is referring to is actually from a group of genuine charts from the 5th century that Elutherius gathered together and edited under the name of “Palchus”. It is ridiculous that Bobrick simply attempted to turn “Palchus” into a living Egyptian astrologer from the 5th century when this was merely the handle of this Byzantine scribe. I have my own issues with the supposed horary charts that are collected together under the name “Palchus” to begin with, but that is sort of a side issue that I can’t really fault Bobrick for since a number of other people made this mistake, or at least what I suspect is a mistake, long before he did.

Still, it seems like if he had really done his homework he would have realized how faulty this statement was, in addition to a number of other statements. It is possible that Bobrick was aware of these issues surrounding the fact that Palchus was the handle of this 14th century scribe and he decided to elaborate the story a bit anyways by taking a bit of artistic license, as he does in a few other parts of the book in his somewhat dramatized style of presentation. I don’t really know.

I realize that he was trying to spice things up a bit because he knew that he was writing to a large audience, but still… It is supposed to be a history book. The majority of people in the astrological community don’t really know that much about the history of astrology because it is seldom dealt with in astrological texts, so its not like they are going to call him out on this, but the problem is that these are the people who he his is informing with this book. The academic community isn’t going to be reading it because actual scholars who are familiar with the history of astrology would drop the book after a couple of pages because of the overt bias and historical dramatization of the subject.

The astrological community was swooning over him for a little while last year because he was supposedly a neutral historian who wrote a book that was going to be kind of favorable towards astrology, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. He is so biased in his coverage of astrology that he actually makes mistakes in reporting the history of the subject because of his overt fondness of it. I have heard rumors that he is actually a student of John Frawley’s, which actually makes a lot of sense because the entire book reads as if it were written from the perspective of a 17th century Christian astrologer- even when it is talking about other traditions of astrology! Now, I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with practicing 17th century astrology, or being a Christian. I am just saying that the author’s perspective on astrology is clearly highly influenced by that particular tradition, and there are a number of instances where it skews his ability to accurately report the astrological notions that were held in other traditions of astrology.

Some might say that any book on the history of astrology written by an astrologer is going to be biased, but to that I would reply that they should compare Bobrick’s work with the work of other astrologer/historians such as James Holden and Nick Campion and then you will understand the difference. There is a line between reporting about something that you actually practice and perhaps endorse, versus this sort of overt fanboyism where you are simply raving about how great astrology is and downplaying anything negative to the point where you are actually skewing and distorting the historical record. I see no reason to advocate such an approach, especially when astrologers have been trying so desperately to regain some degree of respectability for their practice.

I apologize for the rant here. I’ve just been meaning to write a review of this book since I read it early last year because I was so excited when it first came out but then so disappointed when I actually got into it. I am open to feedback and counterarguments on my critique if someone would like disagree with my assessment of the book though.

11 replies on “Book Review: The Fated Sky by Benson Bobrick”

Hi Chris,

My wife Susan pointed out your review, as we had a lovely dinner and a number of extensive conversations with Bobrick and his wife last year. Your points are well-taken from the point of view of specific accuracy calls, and of perhaps liberties Benson took in the interest of dramatizing the historical story. He indeed was a student of Frawley, and clearly he knows the Lilly period best. Only “Christian” in that sense though, I would say, as anything further never struck me.

If he had grossly misrepresented major factors in astrological history, I might be more critical, but I have to join the fan club to the extent that the book has increased the general audience interest in the subject, which will only bring more thoughtful readers to address the area. I have my own similar reservations about Tarnas’s Cosmos and Psyche, another mainstream author who is fast becoming an icon among astrologers for helping “legitimize” the art when, in fact, he may not have done that at all. For more on that at length, see my review of the book later this week on our website But, if it attracts more consideration and, dare we hope, more funding to the subject, even some fundamental flaws in analysis may be temporarily overlooked and corrected later, as here, at our leisure…

Hi Chris. I understand your objections stated in your review of The Fated Sky and while I agree with most, if not all of your objections and frustrations, I have to say I wrote a positive review of this book for my state organization of astrologers. I was especially bothered by his sourcing, or lack thereof, but I think that many rank-and-file astrologers would find this book easier to read and digest. That’s why I gave a positive review of the book, which I hope will encourage the average astrologer to read it for themselves. In my opinion there is too much ignorance of astrological history and tradition, and even with its failings, I feel this book makes a good entry point to the subject for the average person. I much prefer Holden’s A History of Horoscopic Astrology, but I can see where his scholarly approach might be a barrier to many people.

Hi John,

Thank you for your feedback. I will concede that Bobrick’s book is probably more beneficial for astrology overall than it is negative because he is exposing a lot of people outside of the community to the subject, and also educating many astrologers within the community about their heritage. I guess that I just had really high expectations when the book came out. I’m interested to hear your take on Cosmos and Psyche. I’m going to check out your review now.

You are right as well Doug. The book may provide a good entry point for astrologers into what would otherwise be an overlooked area of the art; its history and origins. I just wish that the opportunity would have been taken to make it really awesome, instead of sort of second rate.

Agreed Chris. But his missed opportunity still leaves the field wide open for you! 🙂

You know what they say… if you want a job done right…

This is a great review, imo.

And can I say, for the record, that I am sick to death of astrologers refusing to acknowledge (not to mention address) critical errors in writing/research written by astrologers and non-astrologers alike, for the sake of “promoting astrology?” Well, I said it anyway.

I generally “liked” Broderick’s book, because it did seem that he made a good-faith effort to do some serious research. But that should not make the flaws of the book unmentionable.

And why do we lower expectations for “rank and file” astrologers, so that books about the history of what they themselves practice needs to be watered down, to make it palatable. The answer to the lamentable ignorance in the astrological community is not to foster more misconceptions.

I am glad you honed in on the “Palchus” part, because I remember that when I read the book, I was like wtf–I had never heard of such a 5th century Egyptian astrologer–an era that I know “something” about. I never got around to doing more research, so thank you for enlightening me (and others) on that point.

As for Cosmos & Psyche. Dear God, what a mess. One doesn’t know where to begin, and of course it doesn’t help that one has t wade through all the flowery (and repetitive) language in order to address some of the crap in that book.

I am going to say something here that I would never dare to say in public (given the nature of astro-politics, wherein one does not speak about sacred cows or invisible elephants). Not only is Richard Tarnas a crappy astrologer, he is an even crappier historian of astrology. Which is inexcusable for someone whose claim to fame is as a historian of ideas.

“The answer to the lamentable ignorance in the astrological community is not to foster more misconceptions.”

I couldn’t agree more.

An apt and insightful review.

On 22 December 2005 I wrote a review of this book for (the link to which I append below).

I received this book as a gift from a client. I had truly hoped to be anything but disappointed with it. Certain passages in “The Fated Sky” seemed strangely familiar to me, and upon comparison with some older texts I soon discovered that … I will just say that some of the sourcing might indeed prove to be problematic.

I am reminded of the statement made by a well-known astrologer that “Chiron is presently used by three out of four astrologers, with only 10% not using it.” If such a statement had been submitted to a reputable journal, the astrologer would have been asked to source his statement, since he makes a claim that appears to be amenable to verification. Had I been his editor or advisor, I would have asked him, “Where does this figure come from? What is the source for this information? Are you referring to all astrologers everywhere, or just to the circle of astrologers with whom you are personally familiar?” Given that the number of practitioners of Hindu astrology probably exceeds that of Western astrology, such a claim is unlikely in the extreme.

On the hand one, some astrologers complain that they are not taken seriously by the scientific or academic communities. On the other hand, they write articles that often include assertions which would not pass muster as legitimate journalism, let alone be considered for publication in a reputable mainstream journal. I can claim that most astrologers use this point or that point, or that my research has confirmed the influence of planetary radiation on flowers or metals, but I am unlikely to be taken seriously by anyone other than those who happen to share my convictions, unless I can verify my assertions by the accepted parameters of journalistic inquiry or substantiate my claims by the recognised methods of scientific research, however much I might be averse to them.

In other words, some astrologers as well as historians of astrology need to qualify their statements before they make them if they are to be given any credence beyond the self-referential confines of esoterica. Otherwise, they are just preaching to the converted. It seems to me that your approach to astrological interpretation is well-tempered and evenly considered, in that it makes carefully qualified claims on behalf of the art and respects the integrity of the discipline from within its own parameters. It sets a fine example for others to follow.

Good to hear your thoughts on this, Chris, because I’ve seen this book around and considered picking it up. I would have liked to have heard more of the areas where there are inaccuracies in the book, though. Is it just a lot of various details? Major errors in the big picture of transmission of astrology throughout history? If so, what errors are in the book that we might begin to see uninformed astrologers beginning to mention?

I would suggest just reading the book and then giving me your take on it Moses. I would be interested to hear what you have to say about it. I will try to go back at some point and gather up more specific citations of issues that I had with the book, but at the moment I’m kind of focused on some other projects, including my own book.

No problem. I’ll skip reading this one, because I wouldn’t necessarily catch the errors in it since astrological history is not my forte, and I wouldn’t want to pick up any false ideas from it. I just wasn’t sure from your review if it was a lot of details that were off or if it was big picture stuff too. No worries if you’re busy.