The Astrology Podcast
Transcript of Episode 218, titled:
With Chris Brennan and guest Benjamin Dykes
Episode originally released on August 9, 2019
Note: This is a transcript of a spoken word podcast. If possible, we encourage you to listen to the audio or video version, since they include inflections that may not translate well when written out. Our transcripts are created by human transcribers, and the text may contain errors and differences from the spoken audio. If you find any errors then please send them to us by email: email@example.com
Transcribed by Andrea Johnson
Transcription released February 9, 2022
Copyright © 2022 TheAstrologyPodcast.com
CHRIS BRENNAN: Hi, my name is Chris Brennan, and you’re listening to The Astrology Podcast. In this episode, I’m going to be talking with Dr. Benjamin Dykes about his new translation of the work of Abu Ma’shar who was an astrologer that lived in the 9th century, and this book is titled, On the Revolutions of the Years of Nativities, which is a Medieval approach to doing solar return charts.
So this episode was recorded on Friday, August 2, 2019, starting at 4:19 PM in Denver, Colorado, and this is the 218th episode of the show. For more information about how to subscribe to the podcast and help support the production of future episodes by becoming a patron, please visit TheAstrologyPodcast.com/subscribe. Hey, Ben, thanks for joining me today.
BENJAMIN DYKES: Thanks for having me.
CB: Yeah, so you’re back again already. We just talked a few months ago about your landmark translation of the Book of Nativities of Sahl ibn Bishr, and you’re already back with another huge translation, this time of the main work on solar returns by Abu Ma’shar.
BD: Yeah, it’s been a number of years that I’ve been working on both of these books.
BD: Happy to have it done.
CB: When did you start working on this book—this translation?
BD: I want to say maybe three or four years ago.
CB: Okay, so three or four years. Yeah, because a friend sent me a text today—when I posted I was doing this interview on Instagram—saying something to the effect of, “How does he translate books faster than I can read them?” But the answer to that is that not that you’re—I like to say—‘a machine sent from the future to translate all the existing astrological texts’, but you just are actually working on them behind the scenes over a very extended period of time, and then sometimes they just all come out relatively close together.
BD: Right. Yeah, I usually have about three things in the works at any given time.
CB: Okay. All right, well, let’s jump into it with this book. So this is a book by the 9th century astrologer Abu Ma’shar. For listeners who aren’t familiar with that astrologer, who is Abu Ma’shar?
BD: Well, he was a Persian astrologer who was writing in the 800s AD during the Abassid Caliphate or Dynasty. So this is the famous dynasty in Baghdad that the earlier generation before him had included people like Masha’allah and Umar al-Tabari. So Sahl ibn Bishr would have been a contemporary of his, maybe a slightly older contemporary in Baghdad.
CB: Okay, so he’s living and working in Baghdad. And he became—from my understanding—the most well-known and perhaps the most prolific astrologer of the Middle Ages, right?
BD: Yeah, so many of his works are preserved, whereas even people a generation before him, we only know the titles of some of their works. But he was famous enough and his works were popular enough that a lot of his material has survived.
CB: Okay. And I’ve seen a list that says there’s maybe over 40 titles, or something crazy like that, that are known that he was said to have written.
CB: Okay, but some of those are longer books and some of those are shorter books. But I think there were at least three major, really long and detailed works that he wrote, right?
BD: Well, there was The Great Introduction, which is a very famous one that was translated into Latin. The Book of Religions and Dynasties, also known as On the Great Conjunctions, that was also translated into Latin; that’s a mundane book and then there were a bunch of others. This one that we’re talking about today was only partly translated into Latin, but some other ones were as well.
CB: Okay. And this is a book primarily on solar returns, or what you call solar revolutions, but it actually contains his treatment of a number of different timing techniques, right?
BD: Yeah. Ever since antiquity—and Ptolemy talks about this—astrologers would use several techniques every year, or they would check in on the same techniques from time to time, and so, by Abu Ma’shar’s day, there were several techniques that they would look at every year. So when they talk about a solar revolution, it does mean a solar return—or a solar return chart specifically—but it’s really several techniques at once.
CB: Right, because it’s not just the return, but he’s also doing profections and primary directions and sort of variations of transits and a number of different things.
BD: Right, and distributions through the bounds or terms, along with some other things that I have a feeling he didn’t practice, but in at least one case, he says he wants to include it “in order to be complete.”
CB: Okay, brilliant. And here is—just to share the cover—this is what the cover of the book looks like for those that are watching the video version. And so, this is similar to Sahl. And for those that didn’t listen to the Sahl episode, maybe we could recapitulate some of that.
Your original language background was in Latin, and for a number of years, you were translating Medieval astrological texts from Latin. But you, in the earlier part of this decade, decided to go back and learn Arabic, so you could go back and start translating some of the earlier sources that the Latin translators were drawing on, right?
BD: Yeah. And I won’t say that I won’t translate Latin anymore, but for so much of this material, there were things that were lost in the translation from Arabic to Latin. And in Arabic, you get more of a richer vocabulary and a more accurate picture of what they were doing because you’re reading the actual works that the Medievals only knew in Latin translation. So my main project now is to continue in Arabic.
CB: Right, because I was reading Burnett and Yamamoto’s introduction to The Great Introduction today, and they were saying there were two separate Latin translations of The Greater Introduction in the 12th century and that the styles of both the translators were markedly different, and it was interesting how they were describing them.
But that really sort of explains why it’s important to go back to the original source because sometimes the original language—there can be a lot of subtleties and nuances that are lost in the translation when the translator has to make judgment calls or brings their own sort of stylistic approach to things.
BD: Yeah, and in some cases, the information is the same, like if you were saying, “If Mars is in the 7th, then the spouse will be like ‘this’,” that’s a pretty simple thing. But when you get to some of the technical stuff, like when planets are angular or succedent or cadent and other things like that, the Arabs and Persians were sometimes very precise in the language that they used, but the Latins were not so precise.
So there are several different terms that in Latin are called ‘cadent’ or ‘falling’, and if you only read the Latin, you might think they’re all talking about the same thing. But in the Arabic, they’re talking about totally different things, so it’s good to go back and understand earlier vocabulary.
CB: Sure. And so, that’s part of what you did here. Because this is a book that you translated partially from the Latin years ago, back in 2010, and that was originally part of your Persian Nativities series, which is Persian Nativities III: On Solar Revolutions, the green book, or one of the green books. But that was a translation of portions of Abu Ma’shar’s solar return work from the Latin, right? Not from the original Arabic?
BD: Right. The original Arabic has nine books in it—nine parts to it—and only five of them, and a little bit of the ninth one, were translated into Latin. So books six, seven, eight, and most of nine were completely missing and they were unknown to the Medieval Latins, where some of the most interesting material is.
So I had translated Persian Nativities III—I had translated that partial Latin version. Now in Persian Nativities IV, this is the complete version from Arabic, and I was in some cases really surprised or blown away by the material that was in here.
CB: Okay, so it was not just that there were several books missing for the Latin versions, the one you did previously was incomplete and wasn’t the entire work. so this represents almost like twice as much information as the previous book. But there were also a lot of subtle linguistic nuances and details in the original Arabic that were not in the Latin that surprised you and that were like a welcomed thing that you found in doing this translation.
BD: Yeah, we can see from the Arabic that Abu Ma’shar has some very interesting and sophisticated ideas about predictive techniques. He makes a lot of thoughtful observations about life. And the way some of his examples come out in the Arabic with a clarity that was missing in the Latin, the Latin would be kind of garbled and you weren’t sure what he was getting at. But everything is so clear and vivid in the Arabic edition.
CB: Okay, and let’s place this in a historical context. Because I think one of the things that’s most important and most interesting is this is probably the most important book on solar returns in the history of astrology, which sounds like kind of a big statement, but I think that might arguably be true.
Because one of the issues you run into when you’re studying the Hellenistic tradition—which I specialize in, which is like the first thousand years of Western astrology—is we see these little references to solar returns in passing, but there’s no surviving treatments of the topic that are super detailed or go into all the details about how exactly solar return charts were treated so that it was always kind of a mysterious topic.
And I think Robert Schmidt—who translated a lot of the Greek astrological material—ran into that issue. So in the late ‘90s, he decided to translate part of Abu Ma’shar that survived in a Greek translation and publish that in 1999 as a partial translation of Abu Ma’shar on solar returns, so that he could get to some of that solar return material with a treatment of it. Yeah, so that’s probably good evidence that Abu Ma’shar is probably one of the first really major, comprehensive works on solar returns, right?
BD: I think definitely—we can definitely see that from the Arabic. And he, himself, in a couple of places in the book says as much. Now he is not known for his modesty, but he does say that his predecessors have all done little, partial treatments of solar revolutions, but they often have not coordinated the techniques together or talked about the differences; or let’s say with monthly revolutions—that is, not just annual techniques, but monthly techniques—some of them would only make references or it was incomplete.
And so, he says, “I’ve looked at all of the material, and what I’m doing is something that no one has ever done before.” We don’t know exactly how much he was taking from his predecessors—because that would have been common—but looking at this I take him at his word that he is doing something new and thorough in a way that I don’t think has been done since. I can’t think of a book on these predictive techniques that matches this.
CB: Yeah, so not just in terms of the earlier tradition—this would be one of the first great works on solar returns—but also in terms of the tradition after him, after the 9th century, this still is the major, probably most comprehensive or most detailed work on solar returns even for many centuries after that.
BD: Yeah, and it’s a terrible shame that some of the later books were just missing and never made it into the Latin West, because it meant there were centuries of astrologers that were missing out on techniques that he had very well developed. So it’s a shame that for such a contribution to astrology, practically half the book was missing.
CB: Sure. And it was not a light book. This is like a really—in your translation—a thick, 600- or 700-page book dealing with solar returns in pretty much every way that you could possibly approach the subject.
And you also wrote a really detailed hundred-plus-page introduction in order to try to sort through it because he’s so comprehensive. It seemed like you were almost nervous that readers might get lost, and so you tried to write a guide to how to approach and how to tackle this book in the beginning.
BD: Yeah, I felt like if I just kind of translated the book and sort of dumped it on the public, people would get confused and frustrated. So the introduction—it’s a long introduction to all the techniques, but also as I went along, I coordinated lots of different passages and sentences together and put them into what I call ‘reading tables’.
So as you read my description of the technique and how he thinks about a technique, I then give you a table that tells you which sentences and paragraphs to read in the book, so that you can dip in and out of the book and read what he actually has to say along with my guide.
CB: Okay, that makes sense. Yeah, and I found that really helpful and useful, especially for later reference. I can see how that’s going to be useful when people want to focus in on specific techniques or specific approaches to solar return charts. Having that list of which chapters and which paragraphs or passages to focus on is going to be really handy.
So let’s see, where should we start here in terms of this and in terms of approaching solar return charts? Maybe we should define our subject in terms of the whole technical approach here. What is a solar return chart, and how do we calculate it according to Abu Ma’shar?
BD: A solar return chart—and all the techniques that we, again, revisit every year—it takes place at the moment that the Sun returns to his natal position. So if your natal Sun was at 15 Gemini, then every year when he returns to 15 Gemini, you cast that chart. And that is the chart taken in real time at his return, and other techniques like profections begin at that moment as well.
CB: Okay, so this is the astrological birthday chart basically.
CB: Not necessarily always your exact calendar birthday, but it’s your astronomical birthday, when the Sun returns back to the exact natal position it held at the moment of your birth.
BD: Yes, exactly.
CB: Okay, so a chart is cast for that. And then what is the motivation for this? One of the interesting discussions you have at the beginning of the book is Abu Ma’shar actually defends why solar returns are necessary and it has this sort of elaborate philosophical backdrop, right?
BD: Yeah, his idea is that you have your nativity, but in order to check in on the nativity again, you need to have something that is like a completed cycle in which the real-time chart that you’re using—like a revolution—has enough similarity or conceptual similarity to the nativity that you can say that the natal topics are being renewed, that it’s a good time to revisit them.
And so, one of the things he says is that the Sun goes through a full cycle of seasons, and so when the Sun returns to his natal position, you are renewing the chart. So that’s one of the things that he says. Some people do lunar return charts. He doesn’t agree with that kind of thing. He thinks you need to use the Sun, because the Sun’s motion defines the year.
BD: And the parts of the year.
CB: Got it, okay. And there was sort of this breakdown about time and notions of the nativity being on this level of timelessness, profections having a sort of symbolic approach to time, and the solar return and transits having a sort of real-time approach to time, right?
BD: Yeah, I wonder, before we get into that—because that gets into his theory of what prediction is—there are some other things that people talk about with solar revolutions, and that is things like where do you cast the chart for, do you precess the chart. So as long as we’re talking about the mechanics of it, there’s no evidence that they relocated charts. It looks like they used the natal location for all of the solar returns.
CB: Okay. So is relocating charts more of like a modern development in the 20th century, perhaps?
BD: I don’t know if it’s 20th. I’m trying to think if Morin—the French astrologer from the 1500s—I think he might have relocated his solar revolutions, but there’s no evidence I’ve ever seen that the ancients or Medievals did.
CB: I noticed you referenced Morinus at one point in this text. Have you read that entire thing in Latin? Just as a side note.
BD: No, not the whole thing.
CB: Okay, I was just curious if that was ever on the docket as a thing to do at some point—some of those later Latin Renaissance era works.
BD: Some of the later Latin stuff, but I’m not sure yet. I’ve got a big docket of other things that I’m working on especially in Arabic first.
CB: Yeah, there’s no shortage of other texts you’re trying to translate.
BD: Yeah, and also, there’s plenty of stuff. James Holden has translated a lot of the Morin material, along with Anthony Louis, so I’m not in a rush. I would like to translate some of that material, but I’m in no rush. I’d like to explore some of this new, unknown Arabic material before I start thinking about that.
CB: That makes sense. All right, so no relocated charts. He doesn’t relocate the solar return chart, he uses the natal position for the solar return, and then the other one was to do precession correction or not.
BD: Right. And again, there’s no evidence that they did precession correction.
CB: Okay, that makes things much simpler. I’ve heard somebody say at one point if you’re going to do precession correction that you might as well just be using the sidereal zodiac at that point.
BD: Yeah. Yeah, there’s no evidence that they did that. The zodiacs that they used—that’s a little controversial. Sometimes they used tropical. Some used sidereal because they were combining old Indian tables with Ptolemaic tables. Sometimes they would have a sidereal zodiac that they seemed to apply little corrections to. But I’ve never seen any discussion—not Abu Ma’shar certainly—about how you need to precess a revolution. It’s just every year at the return, natal location.
CB: Okay. And that brings up an interesting point where you were pointing out that they were drawing on sometimes Indian tables and Persian tables and Greek tables for different things. And Abu Ma’shar, it seems like even more than any other astrologer is drawing on so much of the earlier tradition and synthesizing pieces of the Hellenistic and the Persian and Indian and early Arabic traditions into one sort of synthesis, right?
BD: In terms of techniques?
CB: Yeah, just in terms of the period that he occupies, the roles that he occupies in history, and the extent to which he’s drawing pieces almost from a number of those different traditions.
BD: Yeah, in terms of astronomy, he discusses and talks in this book about some of the astronomical values in the Sindhind, which is an Indian book of tables, Ptolemy, the Zij al-Shah, which is a Persian zij that went through some editions.
So he knew all about these and is said to have written his own zij, or book of tables. But in terms of techniques too, he talks about something called the ‘9th parts’, and he claims that he is working from Indian books, which I don’t even know if they exist anymore.
CB: Yeah, I mean, the navamshas are still a huge subdivision. That’s like the main subdivision used in Indian astrology.
BD: Yeah, I don’t know anything about how Indian astrologers use it, but the way that he describes it—very intricate. I have no doubt he was working from real books from the time. It’s an interesting technique.
BD: But yeah, he was aware of everything that everyone was doing and had access to all of these books.
CB: Sure. Are there any other in terms of calculation? I guess that’s the basic thing. We also know about that weird solilunar return that Valens does, and it shows up as a fragment that got inserted into Dorotheus. But that’s not something that Abu Ma’shar does, right?
BD: In one part of the book, he talks about some monthly methods and he rejects them, and one of them is Ptolemy’s—he rejects Ptolemy. One of them I believe is that Valens—or maybe Valens’ version that you see in Dorotheus; I believe he rejects that. So he talks about some methods that he rejects and then others that he sort of offers as like a menu of many things that many people have said.
CB: Okay. Are there any other things in terms of the calculation or the basic erection of the solar return chart? I thought it was interesting at the very beginning of the text, he says, “Cast a circle chart, or cast a square chart,” which I thought was interesting because so much of the later Medieval and Renaissance tradition got into using square charts that it was almost assumed that that was the standard traditional layout. But right there in the text, he sort of leaves it open and says it’s like a stylistic choice, you could do either one.
BD: Yeah, so people must have been doing different shapes of charts for whatever reason. I don’t know which one would have been more popular, but certainly in the manuscripts that got passed on, I think they’re all square.
CB: Okay, cool. Let’s see, so is there anything else about calculating the solar return chart?
BD: No, I think that’s it for the mechanics of it.
CB: Okay, so should we step into interpretation? Where would you start with interpretation? Are there any other philosophical bases that we should cover first?
BD: No, I think his theory of prediction starts to get right into it.
CB: Okay, so what is that? What is his theory of prediction for solar return charts?
BD: Well, let me start by saying that nowadays, we have a kind of ‘live and let live’ attitude towards predictive techniques—people sort of gravitate to the ones that they like. Now that we know about all sorts of time-lord techniques, some people just like using a time-lord technique. In fact, in Book I, he talks about people—other astrologers—who don’t believe in using things like solar revolutions and think that you can just stick with time-lords.
CB: Right, which is sometimes a debate that comes up today, like, “Do we even need to do solar return charts?”
BD: Mm-hmm. So apparently, this was a debate that was happening in his day and parts of Book I are his response to this. In fact, throughout his whole book, he returns to this theme. So his basic message is that you need both time-lords and a solar revolution; you need at least—and I would say you need at least one of each.
You can think of all of these in three categories. Think of three different types of techniques or charts, each one has its own kind of time. The nativity is a chart taken at birth, and we can think of it as timeless in the sense that it doesn’t change; it’s there with you for your whole life; it is static and unchanging.
Then at the other extreme, you have real-time techniques like solar returns (revolutions) and transits. Those are real-time techniques taken later on in life at certain times. Then in the middle, you have your time-lords. And time-lords, although they’re in the middle, they’re more closely aligned with the nativity, because what they do is they apply symbolic time to the natal chart. So with the natal chart, you have the timelessness natal chart, but then you have these time-lords that symbolically apply time to them.
So the classic example would be profections. In profections, we take some place in the chart—usually the Ascendant—and we just move it forward by one sign, for one year at a time (one sign per year), and we keep going around the chart. Now nothing in the natal chart changes. We are just, so to speak, pointing our finger at a different thing each year as we move around—that’s applying a kind of symbolic time. So the nativity and time-lords are very closely connected, but at the other extreme are the, we’ll just say, solar revolutions and just assume that transits are part of it. Those are the real-time techniques.
So this is the basic structure he has. And the way to understand—for the skeptic of solar revolutions, which he was referring to, he was debating—this is the basic idea: your natal chart is only a picture of birth; it only indirectly refers to later events and what their qualities will be. But a lot of things in life take place over time, or they happen once or twice; they might repeat at different times.
So if we’re looking at the nativity and trying to predict something about life generally, well, events only happen when the real-time conditions for them are right; the only way to measure real-time conditions is with a real-time technique. So therefore, in order to refer to anything that will actually happen later in life, you need an astrology technique that will assess what is actually happening at that time; so you need revolutions in order to even understand whether and how the natal promise will be activated.
CB: Right, that makes sense because the birth chart is like this fixed thing from long ago that was promising something at the moment of birth, or oftentimes promising very specific things. But 30 years later, the question is what are the present circumstances, or what is the weather outside, and how does that relate to the potentiality that the birth chart held?
BD: Right. Or for example, you might have a technique like ‘distributions through the bounds’. Now these are time-lords, let’s say, for a period of six years; you might have the same time-lord for six years. Well, six years is a long time for a certain event to be predicted, and over six years conditions can change a lot. So we need a real-time technique to see what is actually happening during those six years to pinpoint whether and how the conditions are right for it to happen.
So the solar revolution—these real-time techniques—act as a kind of filter for what is projected out of the nativity. If the conditions in the solar revolution are contrary to what you’re predicting, then you’re looking at an event that is maybe hindered or doesn’t turn out quite how you think even though it’s happening. But if the real-time conditions are very good, you might end up with a situation that is even better than you expected based on the nativity.
CB: Okay, so the solar return kind of becomes the last or the third point in a succession of things that you’re looking at. It’s like you have the natal chart, then you have the time-lords, and then you have the solar return chart. And the solar return chart can help to confirm and accentuate certain things that might be indicated by the previous two.
BD: Yes, and what we then need to do is give an explanation for why time-lords are necessary. But there’s kind of a strange consequence that comes from this idea of needing a real-time technique, and the first one—it might be kind of unsettling at first—is that we can never actually experience our nativity.
CB: What do you mean by that?
BD: The nativity is, again, in a sense timeless. The conditions of the nativity only exist at birth, after that, things change. So although the nativity is describing the kind of life you, so to speak, ought to have, we humans live in the flow of time, from one moment to the next; and so we can only experience things in real-time and under real conditions.
There might be something about your nativity, let’s say, that describes your marriage, but if your marriage lasts 20 years, you can never fully experience your marriage at any given time. We can only experience that year by year and moment by moment.
So there’s a strange, almost metaphysical divide that opens up between what the nativity is and our real lives as described through the solar revolutions. So we can never fully embody at any given time our nativity. All we can experience is either parts of it moment by moment, or we can experience it in greater or less degrees at any moment.
So it’s a life we’re supposed to have—you could say it’s decreed by the mind of God—that’s a reflection of our place in the universe, and yet, there’s a kind of division between us and the nativity because we live in time.
CB: So it’s like you’re only experiencing those parts of your nativity that are activated in the moment, in the present, during the course of the unfurling of time.
BD: Right, exactly. So you might fully live out whatever your nativity promises, let’s say, for a marriage, but it unfolds over 20 years so you can never experience it as a whole at any given time. And in each year, what you’re seeing is that it is being expressed to a greater or lesser degree, or better or worse; it will never match exactly the static quality described in the nativity.
CB: Okay, interesting. Yeah, that’s getting to the heart of why the solar return is important and why it’s sort of like a necessary technique in order to understand the unfolding of time and the immediate experience of it in terms of short increments of time in the native’s life, like one year.
BD: Yeah, and it means that if you want to get more Platonic or Neoplatonic about it, you could say that the nativity exists on a higher level of reality. Obviously, it took place at a certain time, so it’s not completely timeless, but it’s relatively timeless. And so, we can never quite grasp it or experience it fully. We are on the other side of a kind of metaphysical divide—we are fully in the flow of time.
CB: That makes sense.
BD: But what it also means is that prediction becomes inevitable because your nativity can never fully make sense unless you compare it to the actual lived conditions in time, so you need a technique to do that. Prediction becomes inevitable.
CB: Yeah, it makes me think of that piece of artwork that AT Mann made back in the 1970s that showed the unfurling and the movement of the planets in the solar system projected through time. I’m going to actually share that from his website really quickly for those watching the video version of this.
Because the natal chart itself is just like a snapshot, like a slice of where the planets are at that specific moment in time at the moment of birth. I think Bruce Scofield calls it a ‘time slice’ sometimes.
CB: But what happens is that after that, the planets keep moving. And they’re not just moving relative to each other in their circles around the Sun, but it’s like the solar system itself is also moving through the galaxy, or moving through the universe in time and space as well.
BD: Yeah. And what I think the Neoplatonists would add, and probably Abu Ma’shar would add since he was in this kind of tradition—he would probably add that when you’re talking about something like a natal chart, you’re talking something that is—you called it a ‘time slice’.
It’s a ‘time slice’ that’s a projection of the Divine Mind, that is a picture of your place in the Divine Mind. But the Divine Mind is static. The nativity is a temporal picture of that complete, Divine Mind. But because it has less time, or a different kind of time, it exists at a higher level of reality.
CB: Right, like the fourth dimensional aspect of things, if time is the fourth dimension.
BD: Well, I guess there might be a lot of ways to characterize it, but it’s one that we can understand, but we can’t fully experience because we live in the flow of time.
CB: Right. Okay, that makes sense. Yeah, we live in the flow of time, and therefore, we’re just experiencing things moment to moment and not in their totality in seeing the entire birth, growth, and then decay and eventual death of the human over the course of a century in its totality.
BD: Yeah, the nativity would be like a totality, but we can only experience that moment by moment and in terms of the more and the less.
CB: Got it, okay.
BD: So that’s the difference between the nativity and the real-time techniques. But then we have to look at the time-lords because you might ask, “Well, why do we need time-lords then? Why don’t we just start casting solar revolutions or ongoing transits if we’re in the flow of time?”
And I think there is a good argument to be made for why we need these time-lords, and it’s that if you didn’t have time-lords—remember, time-lords tell you when certain places or planets become active or are the focus of attention.
Without that, if you just had ongoing transits or a solar revolution, life would be like a blooming bush sort of casting out in every direction all at once. If you didn’t have an astrological way of saying that first you need to be a young person and then be educated—first this happens, then the next—there would be no astrological way of determining what things are happening in what order in life.
And so, you could say of a baby—if you looked at the 7th house and it’s lord—you could say that a baby at all moments is being married, divorced, having relationships, or the 10th house, is having a career, losing a career, having a reputation. Everything would be happening simultaneously if all you had was unlimited, real-time techniques all happening at once.
So we need some way of taking that total nativity, and we need some kind of symbolic time filter on it to say that, no, first this thing is important, then this thing is important; so that we can say that some things happen before others. And that gives an intelligible order to life instead of everything all happening at once.
CB: Right. You’ve got to set up the table of contents of the book, or you’ve got to know which chapter that specific thing is going to take place in in the book before you can really set up the sequence of the person’s life.
BD: That’s a good way to put it. Sure, yeah.
BD: You don’t really have a proper biography without time-lords. Otherwise, everything is sort of happening all at once.
CB: Yeah, and that’s one of the issues with natal astrology in its modern versions, where you basically just had the natal chart and you had transits, and transits were the primary timing technique, and it was always the first timing technique everyone would go to; and it’s something that new students of astrology get tripped up on, which is reading a delineation.
And sometimes, especially if they’re younger and not really resonating with it at first, or maybe thinking, “That doesn’t fit me,” then 10 or 20 years later, as the person gets older, suddenly that position gets activated by a time-lord technique and that delineation and that placement fully comes into and manifests in a person’s life and suddenly makes perfect sense; but it’s something that might not earlier on, before they’ve reached that chapter of their life.
BD: Yeah, exactly. And this helps then explain why he says that time-lords are closer to the nativity because they’re taking the natal chart and identifying natal things in a certain order. So time-lords are in the middle of the three kinds of charts, but they’re more closely aligned with the nativity and show which parts of this totality are active in what order.
CB: Okay, got it. So I don’t know if it makes sense—if this breakdown would make sense, this analogy—but maybe it’s like the nativity is the book of the native’s life (which you can kind of read the description on the back of the book and get a sense for what it might be about), the time-lords divide up the chapters of life. But then it’s almost like the solar returns and the transits are the individual sentences within those chapters that tell you what specifically then takes place within the individual chapters.
BD: Yeah, and maybe the specific ups and downs of that time of life. You might have, for example, say, a biography and you’re describing someone’s years at school, and you could say that it’s successful and they get honors. But year by year in that experience, there will be ups and downs, kind of like solar returns show ups and downs, even though at the end the final judgment of it all is it was successful and there were honors.
CB: Okay, right. And we’ll get into some specifics about—in terms of the techniques—how he actually has ways of determining that, like how there might be ups and downs in a more localized time frame just based on the solar return chart itself, in terms of emphasizing or deemphasizing certain placements in the birth chart.
So this discussion is funny—the fact that we’re going into this whole philosophical discussion first, and the fact that he does of course. Because what little we know about him, he was supposed to be a religious scholar for the first several decades of his life until he was somehow converted to astrology through some sort of connection with al-Kindi, who was one of the major Arabic philosophers, right?
BD: Yeah, al-Kindi had his own little translation circle going. He was a famous philosopher and philosophical writer and did some astrology writing. Seems to have maybe cast some charts, not sure how many, but there are a couple of examples in one of his books of horary charts.
CB: You’ve translated one of his books.
BD: Right. In The Forty Chapters, there’s a couple of horary charts. I believe I timed them to sometime in the 800s during his life. And it’s said that he was challenged by Abu Ma’shar before Abu Ma’shar understood astrology, and somehow al-Kindi got him to study astrology and that changed everything.
CB: Then he became one of the most famous and influential astrologers ever.
CB: But there’s some ambiguity—which you talk about in the introduction—about his time frame or his birth date. He, unfortunately, doesn’t use example charts in this book. There’s just one chart that he uses, which one scholar, David Pingree, thought might be his birth chart. But you’ve argued against that being the case in your introduction, right?
BD: Yeah. So there’s a chart example he uses with distributions, and the person was born in I think 786 or 787. He doesn’t say whose chart it is. And then al-Nadim, a compiler and biographer, said that…
CB: He was like a bibliographer, like a book salesman or something, right?
BD: I can’t remember. But he wrote a big compendium of Arabic literature—all the authors and what were the names of their books and anecdotes about them—and he says that Abu Ma’shar died in about 886 at 100-years-old. So Pingree concluded that this was Abu Ma’shar’s nativity—this example chart—and I took Pingree at this word when I translated Persian Nativities III, but I no longer believe that.
CB: And why is that?
BD: Well, one reason—there are a couple of reasons. But one of the main reasons is that Abu Ma’shar’s student—a guy named Shadhan—wrote a book of anecdotes about Abu Ma’shar. Abu Ma’shar used to teach—I don’t know if you’d call them master classes—but he would take clients and he would have a circle of students in the room with him who would watch him interpret charts, and then they would ask him questions afterwards. And then Shadhan was writing down some of the charts, so we have some client charts from these experiences and some of the dialogues they would have with Abu Ma’shar. And he says that…
CB: Which is amazing, by the way. You shared your preliminary translation of that with me and it has these great anecdotes, like Abu Ma’shar was not a fan of Scorpios, for example. And he tells this one story about making a prediction that this caravan or this group of people should not depart on this trip because the Moon was void of course or applying to Mars or something, and then they were attacked by bandits. And when they came back, they were angry with Abu Ma’shar and accused him of using magic or being involved in the attack somehow. It has a lot of great anecdotes that make you realize this is a real person, a real astrologer—just like you or I—living in the 9th century in Baghdad doing astrology.
BD: Yeah, there’s an example where I think he was predicting length-of-life—he was interpreting a chart for a client. So the client was there and he was interpreting the chart. And after the client leaves, the students turn to Abu Ma’shar and say, “Why did you tell him that? That’s not what the rules say. You’re not supposed to say that. Why did you?” And he gives a, “Well, this is why I say these things. Sometimes you need to tell the client this.” And so, you’re really getting an intimate view of the student-teacher relationship in these live consultations.
Well, Shadhan says that Abu Ma’shar did not know his own nativity. Now you could say, well, maybe, maybe not. But Shadhan then follows up and he says, “Abu Ma’shar had some health problems. And it was because he didn’t know his nativity, he had to cast horary charts—or a horary chart—to diagnose some of his problems.”
So this wasn’t just a statement about him not knowing his nativity, Shadhan then gives an explanation and says what Abu Ma’shar had to do because of that—and that’s a pretty strong statement. And there’s other reasons to think that this is not Abu Ma’shar’s chart or to doubt it, but to me that’s one of the strongest.
CB: Okay, got it. Yeah, I mean, Pingree had maybe just noticed in the Hellenistic tradition how common it was for astrologers to include their own charts. And I think Valens’ chart is not even explicitly said to be Valens, but Pingree inferred that that was his chart because he kept using it over and over again for very specific things, but oftentimes, it’s like we never know for sure.
BD: There was another problem too, and that is that in the various manuscripts that describe this chart and give the positions—the planetary positions—the manuscripts give contradictory positions. And I don’t just mean that one of them says the Sun is at 2° and the other says 3°; I mean that in some cases, the planet is in totally the wrong sign or is 20° away.
And the example itself that he goes through contradicts his own method. He goes through an example chart and doesn’t use the very method that he describes in the rest of the book. So something’s really wrong here, and it could be a chart that was reworked later, or he was adapting it from a previous book. The date on the chart also is very close to the dates of some earlier caliphs that he knew personally or were alive in his lifetime. So I’m going to go with Shadhan and say this is not Abu Ma’shar’s chart until further notice.
CB: Okay. Well, we’ll have to check in in a few years and see how you feel about that. Maybe it was rectified or something. Maybe that’s a rectified chart, but who knows.
BD: That’s interesting. Oh, that could be too.
CB: You know, that’s one of the biggest things that plagues a professional astrologer that doesn’t know their chart. That becomes one of their lifelong things, trying to figure out their own nativity. And they rework it at different times in their life based on different criteria, but who knows.
One of the things—and I don’t know if we can jump to this already—but a huge thing that you deal with in the introduction is the house division issue and Abu Ma’shar’s role in it, and the importance of this text in terms of some of your ongoing research surrounding what happened with house division in the Medieval period. It seems like this is a very pivotal text in terms of that, right?
BD: Yeah. One of the amazing discoveries when I translated one of the missing books—it’s actually both in Books 6 and 7 which were not translated into Latin—he addresses house division, and we can see him, I would say, struggling with whole sign houses versus quadrant divisions. And for quadrant houses I’ll just say ‘divisions’. To make it clear, I’ll say ‘signs’ and ‘divisions’.
There was confusion in various treatments in the ancient literature, but now, in Abu Ma’shar, we see him really grappling with this. For example, profections are a sign-based technique, everyone agreed on that, and Abu Ma’shar himself says that. And yet, they’re also using divisions. And the cusps, as we know, don’t always fall on the expected sign: there’s intercepted signs; there’s two cusps on one sign.
So these passages are about, well, what do you do? What do you do if the sign that you want to work with has its associated cusp on a different sign? What do you do? And he goes through a number of examples and different techniques of what you should do.
CB: Okay. And it seemed like from what I understood from your introduction, he was trying to use both whole sign houses and quadrant houses and kind of reconciled them. But then it gets kind of messy kind of fast in different areas, and he had a tendency eventually to sometimes to default to using quadrant houses when there was a conflict, which then naturally means that later astrologers following him would probably start preferring quadrant houses ultimately from that point forward as well. Is that right? Is that a good synopsis of your introduction?
BD: Yeah, it gets messy quickly, it’s not fully consistent; or at least when there’s a conflict, he seems to go to cusps and divisions. One example—this is his example—is he says the 5th house (the 5th sign) would be the normal sign you’d want to profect for profecting the 5th house. But he says, what if the cusp is on the 6th sign? So you have two signs involved.
Well, they also wanted to use primary directions with houses, and for that you need a degree, like a cusp. So here’s his answer: he says profect from both the 5th sign and the 6th sign—because that’s where the cusp is—and then do primary directions from the cusp.
CB: Okay, so do everything, or do both.
BD: Yeah, you kind of do both. With the profections, you do both signs. And you can figure out pretty quickly that this is not going to work. Because suppose the 5th sign is Scorpio, but the 6th is Sagittarius? You’re talking about very different planets, very different types of signs, and when they profect, they will land at different kinds of places every year.
So it gets to be a mess, it’s not consistent, but we can see him leaning towards cusps. But I think what we also need to say is the fact that he needed to explain this shows that there was no agreed upon answer in those days.
CB: It was something people were wrestling with. He has to defend and explain a tradition he’s drawing on where profections are by sign—and potentially by whole sign houses—and how to use them also partially in this other quadrant framework, and what happens when that runs into conflict with the sign-based framework.
BD: Yeah, so he needed to explain this, which means there was no agreement. There was a conflict here between some of the techniques, how they worked, and what they wanted to do with them, and so he was trying to give his answer, because if everyone was doing quadrant divisions for everything, they wouldn’t have to explain anything.
But there’s inconsistencies too because at the same time that he’s trying to combine signs and divisions, you also have to ask, well, how do we apply this to the nativity? If we were using quadrant divisions, let’s say, to interpret transits, what are we doing in the nativity? Are we using signs or divisions? And he doesn’t give a complete answer, there are big blanks. To be consistent, he would need to fill in all the blanks, and there are blanks in his theory.
CB: So maybe he was still working some things out.
BD: Working some things out. Things were in flux at that time. And to me, it’s an amazing thing to discover because it seems that by the time we get into the Middle Ages, the days of whole sign houses are pretty much over; and they’re over in a way that people might not have known there was even a problem because they didn’t have these books of Abu Ma’shar that explained that there’s a problem.
CB: Right, and there’s reasons for that. Because you said in the introduction that by the 12th and 13th century, whole sign houses is largely already out the door and it’s largely already quadrant houses. And part of the issue that you discovered is in this Latin translation of Abu Ma’shar—or in the Arabic translation, he has this whole discussion of this issue.
But then when the Arabic text was translated into Latin, those specific chapters were not in the Latin version, they didn’t make into the translation, so that the astrologers of the later Medieval period—from the 12th century forward—would not be aware that this was a debate that Abu Ma’shar was dealing with and wrestling with.
But then, secondarily, you said that when you translated the Arabic that he has specific terms that he uses, and his terminology is subtly different when he was talking about whole sign houses versus quadrant houses, so that if you’re reading the Arabic, it becomes very clear. But if you’re reading it in the Latin translations, a lot of that nuance and detail just drops out of the text, right?
BD: Right. In Arabic, they had a clear distinction and vocabulary that shows you they absolutely knew the difference, and in chart examples, they would use this vocabulary. So when they would talk about whole sign houses, they called it ‘houses by counting’ or ‘by number’, because once you know what the rising sign is, you just can count with your fingers, so to speak, sign by sign; so those are houses by counting. But for quadrant divisions, they called them ‘houses by division’—that’s one word—or ‘by equation’. I know there’s at least one other term.
So in some chart examples, they’ll say, “Well, this planet is in the 9th by counting, but it’s in the 8th by division,” and that only happens when you are trying to combine both systems or taking note of both systems.
CB: Okay. And all this is really interesting to me because it feels like to me then we’re back in this situation. I know very early on, like 20 years ago, Rob Hand, in this monograph on whole sign houses, in his little, short booklet—I think it was a Mountain Astrologer article originally—speculated that Abu Ma’shar was the turning point where quadrant houses seem to take over past that point forward.
And it seemed like a speculation at the time that he thought Abu Ma’shar was the pivotal figure in terms of influencing that. And based on this text, it almost seems like that might be partially the case, partially due to some deliberate decisions on Abu Ma’shar’s part in sometimes favoring quadrant houses when there was a conflict; but also perhaps due to some accidents of history as well, such as portions of his discussion not making it into the Latin translations, or the language getting sort of flattened when it was translated from Arabic into Latin in some instances.
BD: Well, yeah. I mean, think of how some of the Medieval astrologers might have approached things if they knew there were alternatives. Some of them might have debated whether he was right or wrong, or tried to complete his theory or something like that, but they would have known that something was happening. Instead, they didn’t know anything was happening.
CB: Okay. I mean, that makes more sense then in terms of why the shift was so sudden because they were just drawing on a part of this massive book that was like ‘the’ book on solar revolutions, and as far as anybody knew, it was all just largely quadrant houses.
BD: Could be. Could be. Could have played a role certainly, yeah.
BD: Now we have to admit—not admit—but we have to acknowledge that this whole sign and division issue is a permanent one because of astronomy. It’s the fact that the zodiac or ecliptic is oblique from the celestial equator. So signs rise at different angles, and so they’re not always going to fall on the expected or associated axes, and that’s an inevitable part of astronomy.
It could be that signs and divisions are used for different reasons. It could be, for example, that in a horary chart—let me just kind of propose this—they had a different and specialized terminology for whether a planet was moving towards an axial degree, like the MC, and if it was moving past it. They had a different terminology and they explicitly associated that with things in time; how things come to be in time and pass away over time.
And in horary charts, we are not generally talking about the whole life, we’re talking about something that’s happening right now in the time. Well, it could be that quadrant divisions are especially appropriate for horary astrology because it has to do with something that’s happening right now in time.
So divisions do something special by themselves, but they especially do it in a branch like horary, whereas they don’t act in the same way in a natal chart. Those are just some ideas, and I’m actually working on what could be a solution. But these are some things to think about, and it doesn’t have to be all one or the other.
CB: Right. And I was just thinking in response to that, though, about Masha’allah and Sahl and how they’re often using whole sign houses in the early part of the horary tradition. So it’s a little bit mixed there even in the horary tradition.
BD: Mm-hmm. It’s mixed, but actually there are passages in the Sahl book that show, I think, an attempt to solve the problem. And I’m working on that right now, so we’ll see what happens. But it’s good to know that we are not just plucking this out of the air and making this up. This is a major astrologer with lots of students, a famous guy, and he is recognizing—along with his colleagues—that there is a problem and he’s trying to solve it.
CB: Yeah, and we’re just picking up on that issue that was left unresolved, or where somebody was trying to resolve the issue back in the 9th century. And now, that issue has suddenly come back into the community and astrologers are once again wrestling with it in the same way that he was.
BD: Right. And maybe with the benefit of hindsight and with access to more texts, we can find a kind of solution.
CB: Sure. So let’s get back to solar returns, and let’s get into the specific techniques, and let’s talk a little bit about some interpretive principles if we can. Do you think it’s time to jump into that? What are some of the rules that we can take from Abu Ma’shar about how he might approach a solar return chart in terms of some of the basics?
BD: Yeah, so one of the main principles is that in order for something from the nativity to flow on through into real-time, you want there to be some sort of repetition or reinforcement happening in the real-time technique that repeats or draws out features of the nativity.
So this can happen in a number of ways, for example, let’s say you have Venus in your natal 10th. Now that’s something that is there for all of life. But in the solar return, if the solar return Venus is in the solar return 10th in that chart, then we have a repetition. We have a continuity of meaning between two charts, and so you might expect that some of that natal 10th house Venus becomes expressed in that year. So that could be an example of repetition and reinforcement.
CB: Okay, so ‘rule one’ is look for repetitions across the natal chart and the solar return chart, because if that happens sometimes it’s going to accentuate or draw out those placements that were promised in the birth chart and perhaps mean they’re going to be more prominent in that specific year.
BD: Mm-hmm. Another example is suppose that by profection you have the profection come to your natal Saturn (this is an example he uses). So it comes to your natal Saturn and let’s say your natal Saturn is in Gemini. So that means that Saturn—the meaning of natal Saturn—will be activated because the profection is telling you this is one of the time-lords this year.
But as we know from the ancient rules, one of the ways in which a planet’s expression is more consistent is if they can see their own house—see their own sign. So for example, he says if this profection comes to your natal Saturn, well, the natal Saturn will be activated, but a lot depends on whether Saturn in real-time at the solar time is aspecting Gemini. Because if he can see his natal position, then he can sort of actively manage and monitor and modulate that natal meaning and sort of bring it forth; whereas if he’s in a sign where he can’t see his natal position, he’s not able to properly manage it.
So something Saturnian will happen. It will be at least part of the natal meaning, but maybe not exactly how you expect, or it won’t be fully manifested, or it will only appear for a time and then disappear. So configuration, how the solar return planet compares to its natal position, that will matter.
CB: Okay, so if you have a planet activated as a time-lord, then you next want to see if that planet in the solar return chart is aspecting by a major aspect its natal position in the birth chart.
BD: Right. And then there’s other things that, again, follow general principles. You might have some planet that’s activated as a time-lord in the nativity. Well, in the solar return, find that planet. If it is highly-angular—let’s say near the Midheaven—that shows that it’s not only a time-lord, but it’s highly-stimulated for that year because it’s in a stimulated position in the solar return.
But he says if it’s cadent—if it’s past the Midheaven, so it’s become weak—it might be something like a plan that you have, but you never really put the effort to make it happen. It might only be a wish or something that you’re thinking about, but it doesn’t fully manifest. So it’s activated, but it kind of stays at such a low level of energy, it doesn’t rise to the level of action.
CB: And that’s if what again?
BD: If that planet is angular—moving towards one of the axes in the solar return—versus being dynamically cadent.
BD: So things like whether the time-lord in the revolution is in its own dignity or not, if it’s harmed by a malefic or not—all of these things will tell you how well and fully that natal promise can get passed on into real-time.
CB: Okay, so a lot of this is just relating it back to the natal chart and figuring out whether the solar return positions are accentuating and almost enabling the promise of the planetary placements in the birth chart, or whether they’re somehow negating or not supporting. I’m trying to think of other terms for that—rebuff the positions or the promise that the planet wants to signify in the birth chart.
BD: Right, and you can see this follows directly from the theory of prediction. Because if you need a real-time technique to describe the real conditions of the event, you need to compare real-time to the nativity, and that’s exactly what you’re doing when you’re seeing how the time-lord compares to its position in the revolution.
CB: Okay. And another thing that’s really important is the solar return Ascendant, right?
BD: Yeah, the solar return Ascendant, first of all, it will activate some natal position. So if your solar return Ascendant is Sagittarius, then you have to see what your natal Sagittarius was. Was it the 9th house? 11th house? Because it means those topics will be arising this year. So it’s one way of activating things in the nativity. It also has to do with the person’s outlook, mood, and sense of well-being in that year. So it’s a temporary Ascendant for them.
CB: Okay, so it’s a temporary Ascendant, and it’s activating the natal house. It’s also activating natal planets in that sign?
CB: Okay. And what about the ruler of the Ascendant in the solar return chart? Is that given more weight?
BD: Yeah, planets in it of course, you’d look at first, but the lord of that Ascendant would show more of what the native is interested in and is doing. And again, you have to compare those charts because suppose the lord of that Ascendant is in the solar return 9th. So that shows an interest, let’s say, in travel and foreigners and education. Well, that solar return 9th was a natal house.
Again, let’s suppose that the solar return 9th is Gemini. Well, Gemini occupied a natal position. Suppose it was the natal 5th. That means that the native is interested in travel, or something about the native’s life has to do with travel—because it’s the solar return 9th—but because that Gemini was the natal 5th, the children are involved too.
So this comparison and what’s being activated, what’s being drawn on, it’s like a back-and-forth process, going back and forth between the two charts. And it can get complicated and overwhelming if you aren’t disciplined with it.
CB: Yeah, that’s one of the things with this book. He uses so many different techniques, and there’s so much going on that there’s a potential to get a little bit overwhelmed just in terms of the number of different angles that he approaches things.
BD: Yeah. In fact, in the book on monthly techniques, it gets so complicated because you not only have natal things that you are profecting and doing annual revolutions, but you’re also casting monthly charts. It can be so complicated that at the end of the chapter, he gives three quick and dirty methods to kind of get you in the chart real quick, look at a few major things, and then pull out before things get too crazy.
BD: Which I think is really nice because it shows that he was thinking like an astrologer. He wasn’t just copying down techniques and kind of elaborating on some notion he had, he knew you had to get into the chart with a client, get into the essentials. So that’s another window into his thoughts as an astrologer.
CB: Okay. Should we talk about that a little bit, his treatment of monthly techniques?
CB: Okay, so this is mainly dealt with in Book 9, right?
BD: Yeah, one of the missing books.
CB: That was missing in the Latin version, but that’s in the Arabic version.
CB: Okay, so this is new material.
BD: Yeah, it’ll be new for everyone except for a few people who have read it in the last thousand years.
CB: Right, so anybody that hasn’t read it, that doesn’t read Arabic basically and hasn’t been reading the Arabic text. So what’s the approach? Or what does he do in order to approach monthly predictions within the course of a year?
BD: He has actually seven special indicators. I’ve added tables that explain each one, so that you don’t get lost. Some of these monthly techniques come from the nativity or the solar return. So for example, you do annual profections one sign per year. Well, once you get to one sign—let’s let it be Scorpio—Scorpio is not only the sign of the whole year, but it’s also the first month of the year, then the next sign will be the second month of the Scorpio year.
CB: So he uses that monthly approach to profections that Paulus does, instead of some of the other variants. Like I think Ptolemy does something different, right?
BD: Yes, he rejects Ptolemy’s method; he explicitly rejects it. So he does monthly profections with the nativity, but then you have a natal chart—or the solar return chart. Well, the solar return chart is both an entire year, you can also profect from its Ascendant. But then the whole solar return is also the first month of the year, so every month you can cast a new monthly revolution chart.
CB: Okay, so the solar return chart at that point is like the birth chart in that it’s giving indications for the entire year. But then the question that you sometimes have is, well, when are those specific things going to happen during the course of that year?
BD: Right, with each of these charts, we’re narrowing down the smaller amounts of time. So in any monthly chart, you’re dealing with four different Ascendants, for example, all at the same time: a monthly profection in the nativity, a monthly profection in the solar return, an Ascendant in the monthly revolution and—so maybe it is only three.
So it can get kind of crazy, so you need rules to tell you where to start and where to go from there, so that’s partly why I’ve added these tables. And he’s explicit about ‘here are the rules that you follow’, how can you tell when something in the solar return—and which month—will manifest.
CB: Okay, got it. And how is the monthly return chart calculated?
BD: It is calculated for the time when the Sun comes into the corresponding degree of every other sign. So if your natal Sun is at 15 Gemini, then every solar return will be when he returns to 15 Gemini. But every monthly chart will be when he’s at 15 Cancer, 15 Leo, 15 Virgo, so the corresponding degree in each of the other signs.
CB: Okay, so he’s not doing a lunar return chart.
BD: Right, he’s not doing that.
CB: Okay. Does he do any other planetary return charts, or is that more of a modern notion as well?
BD: Not like that. He notes when planets return to their natal position at a solar return, but he doesn’t do something like a Venus return chart—he doesn’t do those.
CB: Okay. And that’s actually treated as really important, though, when a natal planet does return back to its natal position in the solar return chart.
BD: Yeah, it’s kind of surprising. He explains what it means when a planet returns to its natal position or even its own sign, and what it means if it’s applying to its natal position or separating, how close it is. And he even has some timing techniques for how long that planetary return will last for, including combinations of transits. I haven’t worked out those techniques in practice yet, but he has some very interesting things to say about them.
CB: Okay. And you mentioned applying aspects, and that was something that was mentioned at one point—that there’s certain things that are taken into account to help prioritize what’s more important versus what’s less important. And that’s one of the things taken into account in—was it just the solar return charts—that applying aspects tend to be given more weight and more focus.
BD: Yeah, an applying aspect, especially the conjunction we’re talking about. So an applying conjunction is going to be more actualized than a separating one. The closer it is, the stronger, especially if it’s within orbs or within the same bound.
CB: Okay. Yeah, and there’s a lot there. One of the other things that this book deals with that’s very unique and important and influential is also the technique that’s sometimes known as firdaria, right?
CB: Okay, what is that? That’s like a Medieval time-lord technique essentially, right?
BD: Yeah, it seems to be a Persian technique. It’s a time-lord technique that separates people out into day (or diurnal) births and nocturnal births. And for diurnal births, you have a certain series of time-lords that start with the Sun, and the Sun is a time-lord for a certain number of years, then Venus, Mercury, and so on.
And for nocturnal births, it starts at the Moon—she’s your first time-lord at the beginning of life—then Saturn, Jupiter, and so on. So it’s a different order of time-lords based on the sect of your chart, and this technique also includes the nodes as time-lords, which is a good indication that it might have come from India.
CB: Right, where the nodes were given more importance relatively early on, as well as in the Persian tradition. It was then sort of influenced by the Indian tradition.
BD: Right, some kind of Persian-Indian crossover—that’s probably the origin of this technique.
BD: So unlike the Greek techniques that are based on the motion of the heavens—like distributing through the bounds or profections that go sign by sign—this is a sect-based approach, and it goes in the Chaldean order of planets in order of speed.
CB: Okay. And really quickly, the years of the planets, the Sun is 10 years, Venus is 8, Mercury is 13, the Moon is 9, Saturn is 11, Jupiter’s 12, Mars is 7, the North Node is 3, and the South Node is 2, right?
BD: Yeah, it makes 75 years. I can identify what could be the reasons for some of those years, but also if you pair up the planets in certain ways, you will get the number 19. So if you line up the planets—and I have a diagram where I sort of fold them over themselves—you’ll see that there are recurring patterns in the numbers that someone was inspired to do this.
Some of the numbers I can’t explain, like the Mercury number. But yeah, in a way, I want to say it’s, for lack of a better word, a more ‘cosmic’ conception of the human being. Because, again, it’s not based on the actual order of the signs and planets in your chart, it’s based on the cosmic scheme of the heavens and day and night.
BD: But he emphasizes that you do need to pair it with profections. So it’s not totally abstract, you are supposed to combine it with profections and revolutions. And I don’t know if that’s just his idea—because he wants to kind of do everything at once—or if that was what the originators of the technique wanted.
CB: Okay. And does he become one of the primary sources for that time-lord technique basically, or one of the most influential sources?
BD: I think he did for later people, but we know that he did not make up most of these delineations. Charles Burnett and a guy with the last name of al-Hamdi translated passages from a later compiler who attributes most of these paragraphs—some of them read almost word-for-word—to al-Andarzaghar who was an earlier Persian astrologer.
So what seems to have happened is that al-Andarzaghar was part of a Persian tradition where they either inherited or invented firdaria (or firdars) and that was passed on and preserved by Abu Ma’shar, but then he added some of his own paragraphs to some of the interpretations.
CB: Okay, got it. Yeah, because it works very similar to a time-lord technique. But it’s not—at least as far as the surviving sources that we know of from the Greek and Latin tradition—a technique that existed there, so we just sort of assume that it was developed in the Persian tradition.
BD: Right. But because this later compiler clearly attributes a lot of this to al-Andarzaghar, it’s pretty much confirmed that it was Persians who were promoting this. But by the time of Abu Ma’shar, I think a lot of al-Andarzaghar’s work was lost or people didn’t know they were reading al-Andarzaghar, so a lot of the firdaria material becomes identified with Abu Ma’shar.
CB: Okay, cool. One other area, one other topic that’s really fascinating—because Abu Ma’shar has some personal discussion to the student in this section—is he does talk about longevity and the length-of-life technique at one point, right?
BD: Yeah, this also was missing in the Latin, and it’s really too bad, because it’s both personal and kind of funny in a way. It’s a chapter on longevity techniques, predicting the length-of-life—and not just the length-of-life, but also years in which there could be problems even though it’s not fatal.
And the chapter begins where he’s directly addressing the reader—who I guess was his students—and he says, “You’ve been asking me to explain these techniques to you and tell you all about this.” But then he admonishes the students, saying, “You want to know all of this, but what right do you have to go rummaging around in people’s charts looking for this, when all you’re trying to do is satisfy your curiosity? All you’re trying to do is look for something that’s terrible.”
And it shows that in a lot of ways, people don’t change, because, I mean, how many astrologers, when they hear about something terrible on TV think, “Oh, I wonder what the chart looks like?” and they’re only doing it to satisfy their curiosity. And so, he’s pointing out that you shouldn’t be so excited and so curious to look for disasters in people’s charts, but since you at least have to know about this, here is how you go about it.
CB: Okay. That’s really interesting as a warning that you might not be happy with what you find, or that you really need to reflect on your reasons for wanting to have that knowledge. It’s interesting to hear that coming from a 9th century Medieval author.
BD: I mean, it’s the attitude of before you do this, who do you think you are to ask these questions. But one of the valuable things about this chapter is that he not only adds some new things and new reflections and combines techniques and adds some fixed stars, but he says it’s good for you to know the difference between a truly dangerous year and just an unpleasant one. And that’s a very valuable thing to know.
CB: Right, because astrologers can sometimes get messed up by that, or get obsessed about a year that doesn’t look very good, but sometimes their expectations of how bad it’s going to be are way off.
BD: Right, exactly. You can get a little too upset and worked up about a difficult year, and so he’s trying to explain the difference between them.
BD: And he starts out by acknowledging the traditional longevity method of finding the ‘releaser’ and ‘house master’, often called the hyleg and the alcocoden. He acknowledges that, but he says that’s not enough. You have to look at things like revolutions and make these comparisons too.
CB: Okay, so he’s sort of walking that line between the traditional approach versus this other approach that he’s advocating in the book that’s focusing on the importance of the real-time action of the solar return chart in manifesting the transits basically.
BD: Right, that the traditional technique of the house master and releaser—the way I put it in the book—is like actuarial tables, length-of-life tables used in insurance. You have your expected life expectancy—which could be very close to the truth—but there’s lots of things that can happen to lengthen life or cut it short, so you can’t just rely on that one thing to understand people’s course of life.
CB: Right. But otherwise, his approach is relatively standard in terms of determining the releasing planet that is prominent in the chart—that represents the vitality or life force of the native—then directing it using primary directions until it hits the rays of a malefic or something like that.
BD: Yeah. So you find that planet that represents the life force and you use primary directions—or distributions really—with it until it comes to something that looks real bad. But again, to return to his theory of prediction, distributions are a time-lord technique, and time-lords are not enough; we need a real-time technique as well. So that’s why we can direct to something that looks bad, but then we need the real-time techniques to see in actuality how bad or good is it.
CB: Right, because then the real-time techniques—like the solar return chart—are also going to be activating and accentuating whatever the natal promise is. And so, there’s already a question set up there of what is the natal promise of the birth chart. Does the birth chart say the person’s going to die 80-years-old, when they fall asleep in their bed peacefully, or are there indications for a more difficult end to the person prematurely?
BD: Mm-hmm. And the real-time conditions should help time that and describe that. And after having translated all of this material, I started using this, and it looks like this is really valuable advice that could help explain some things in charts when you’re looking at longevity that the other authors don’t talk about.
CB: Okay, awesome. So this doesn’t become his primary treatment of length-of-life, right? He has other treatments, I’m sure.
BD: Yeah, he talks about it in other books. But I feel this is really valuable because he says a couple of times in this book, “I’m writing this in my old age.” So he’s writing this at the end of his career, he’s giving you his fully thought-out techniques.
And I think also with this treatise 9—or this last part with the longevity stuff—because he’s responding to students, he’s going to be more direct and kind of sum it up, sum up his approach; whereas in other books, he might just be copying a technique from someone else.
BD: There’s something about the personal touch—and he’s explicitly giving advice in response to students—that I think makes this special.
CB: Okay. Yeah, so maybe this was written later in his career than some of his other 40-some odd works may have been. And that’s so fascinating just thinking of him as a teacher and him writing some of this for his students, and keeping the student in mind as he was trying to explicate some of these complicated doctrines.
BD: Yeah, I think between his student Shadhan—which I will translate those anecdotes and that material. Between that and some of these other personal comments that he makes, I think Abu Ma’shar comes alive in a way that you don’t really see in most of these older astrologers. We just don’t have access to their everyday lives and biographies like we do with him.
CB: Yeah, definitely. Because the further and further back you go in the history, it’s like the less and less we know about some of these authors. Even the really important ones like Dorotheus, we have almost no information about his life. Or you have somebody like Ptolemy, where we have his written works, but otherwise, we don’t know much else about him.
And the later and later you go, you start to get more information about them, like the fact that Abu Ma’shar had a student who records his anecdotes about him, or he wrote all these books and talks about different anecdotes about being in his old age or what have you.
And then later, I’ve been studying the Renaissance tradition more, and it’s fascinating getting to Lilly and actually having somebody that wrote a separate autobiography of his life.
CB: And it’s interesting just getting into the more modern period how you learn more and more about astrologers the further you go, but Abu Ma’shar is in this interesting middle-ground in terms of that.
BD: Mm-hmm. And I think as I translate Sahl’s mundane works—which have mundane charts in it from his lifetime—that will help put him in a certain place. That will help put him in the midst of events, like we talked about in our Sahl interview. And then in the Masha’allah horary books that I’m going to translate, the new ones, we’ll learn maybe more about his clients and where he was and who he was dealing with. So we can get a more personal view somewhat, but it’s not on the level of what we’re getting with Abu Ma’shar.
CB: Yeah. Well, that’s really fascinating, and he’s one of the most influential astrologers. I mean, I think Holden or somebody refers to him, or cites him as being referred to as like ‘the prince of the astrologers’ or of ‘the medieval astrologers’ or something like that. Is that one of his titles?
BD: I think so, yeah.
CB: Yeah, okay.
BD: Well, ‘prince of the astrologers’—I think Ptolemy might also have been called that too.
CB: Oh, yeah. Well, Ptolemy had a lot of titles, especially once you get to guys like Hephaistio and he’s like ‘the truth-loving Ptolemy’ and other stuff like that. But it seems like this is like an interesting month (July-August) where Abu Ma’shar is having a bit of a revival.
We have your book coming out which is about to be released on August 9—that’s the electional chart we picked for the release of the book, as well as the release of this interview—but then we also had just in the past couple of months the full translation of Burnett and Yamamoto’s translation of The Greater Introduction as well. So it’s like two of his biggest and most influential astrological works are suddenly coming out around the same time, relatively close together.
CB: I don’t know. There’s something weird about that that’s kind of interesting historically. And who knows if he has some sort of long-term, 1,000-year time-lord thing being activated at this time.
BD: Right. Well, we’ll have to find a solar revolution or a transit. We’ll have to use his principles to see if we can make sense of it.
CB: Yeah, exactly. We’ve got to rectify that chart for him and see if we can solve that mystery 1,000 years later. Are there any other topics related to this, related to Abu Ma’shar, or just this approach to solar returns that’s demonstrated in this book that’s unique or useful that we should mention especially to modern astrologers who might be curious about why this is important or valuable?
BD: Well, one thing, once I started working out his theory of prediction based on statements that he makes, I hope that it will inspire people who don’t use time-lords to use them. Find one, at least one that you like. Profections are the easiest, but find one. And then if there are other people—especially traditionalists—who only focus on time-lords, you need to find a real-time technique.
It will round us out better as astrologers, but also if he’s right, we’re dealing, so to speak, with three levels of reality. And if we don’t understand all three levels and coordinate them together, we’re not operating on all cylinders as astrologers. So I hope it will inspire people to explore techniques that they haven’t learned before and make them feel like they could gain something important as astrologers from it.
CB: Brilliant. I think that makes sense. Awesome. So where can people find this book? How can they get it?
BD: They can find it on Amazon. Probably other online bookstores, but on Amazon. And if you are not in the United States, there are other Amazons in your country or in your region that you should find because shipping from the US internationally is very expensive. So find it at your own country’s online bookstores.
CB: Okay, so just do a search for Abu Ma’shar: On the Revolutions of the Years of Nativities, and the book will be available online everywhere from August 9, 2019 forward.
CB: Cool. What else are you working on? What’s your next project now that you’ve just published two major, huge translations of Arabic texts in the past few months?
BD: Well, my main project I’m working on now is trying to finish my natal course, which I’m hoping will be done by the end of the year—maybe. And this Abu Ma’shar book and the Sahl book—the two books behind me—those are the two required texts. So the Sahl book is for the delineation part of the course and the Abu Ma’shar for the predictive part.
But I’m also working on a translation of Firmicus, a translation of The Great Introduction by Abu Ma’shar of my own, and several other things. So I’ve got some big things coming, but the main thing is my course, hopefully, in the next six months.
CB: Brilliant. Yeah, I’m looking forward to that. I’m definitely looking forward to your translation of Firmicus. And I noticed in your introduction—you have such a lengthy introduction here—that it’s clear that this is like a preparatory text that is meant to be read alongside your course. So that’s very exciting that this is like the final piece that you needed to put in place in terms of required reading for the students of Medieval and traditional astrology.
BD: Yeah, some people have asked why I didn’t do a course earlier, and I guess there were a number of reasons for it. But when I finally did this book and realized that the students needed a guide to understand the techniques—especially since there’s so much more—I realized it was good that I waited. It’s almost like this book and the way I did the introduction, it’s designed for students. So I couldn’t have done it until now anyway.
CB: Yeah, and like every new translation, it’s always something new that you’re learning about the history of astrology and some things become clearer or more refined. And now you’ve really gone back as far into the early sources as possible by going back to the original text—and bypassing large parts of the Latin tradition—by going straight into the Arabic. So it seems like it was really worth it ultimately and that was a good call to make when you started heading in that direction earlier in this decade.
BD: Yeah, for the natal material, I was thinking, “Well, what would be a good book?” And I knew that The Book of Aristotle—the so-called Book of Aristotle—in Latin had all this good material in it, but the Latin style is so awkward and a problem. But when I discovered Sahl’s book on nativities, I thought, “Well, this has all of it,” but I couldn’t have translated it until the last few years.
So again, maybe it’s all happening in its own good time, and it’s happening at the right time now. So I’m very excited that these are coming out now, and we’re getting such a rich view of what was going on in this key period among these famous astrologers, and hope to teach a new generation of students how to do all of this.
CB: Yeah, I mean, it’s a very exciting time to be alive as an astrologer. Because I was just thinking yesterday that we have access to more texts now from different eras of the astrological tradition than at any other time in the history of astrology, which is just overwhelming to think about, especially because it wasn’t that way three decades ago. We didn’t have a lot from prior to the 20th century.
And now, suddenly, due to people like yourself and your efforts and other people—like James Holden or Robert Schmidt or what have you—we just have tons of texts. All of the most important texts from the past few thousand years of the history of astrology are suddenly available again for astrologers to study, and there’s something incredibly unique and exciting about that.
BD: Yeah, it’s exciting. And at the same time, I think we’re at a transition point—and it’s not only your course, it’s Demetra’s book that’s come out recently, and it’s my course. We’re producing the translations, but at some point, the student really needs a guide to digest it all to understand many authors and to practice it. In the last few years, we’ve gotten to the point where we can really start doing that in a way we couldn’t before.
CB: Yeah, definitely. Because some of us have been putting this stuff into practice for a decade or two now, and so it’s become alive again. The tradition isn’t just like this dead thing that exists in books, but life has been put back into it and it’s breathing again.
BD: Well, and I notice that even among many astrologers today—including younger astrologers who have learned some of the tradition—they have not been working with the material on an everyday basis the way I have and you do and Demetra does, and other practicing traditional astrologers, especially the natal material. The horary folks—especially in England—they don’t have that problem.
But with the natal material, there’s fewer people who have been working with it on a daily basis. And so, now’s the time for people who are interested in traditional—now’s the time to jump in and start claiming it for yourself and really working it.
CB: Definitely. Well, this will give people a lot to work with. It’s like I said 700 pages. It’s packed with a ton of techniques that we sort of touched on in passing here and gave an overview in this interview. But I can’t really even accurately convey the scope of this book and just how much it goes into and how much detail it really gets into. It’s quite amazing in terms of that, so I definitely would recommend everybody get it.
I also can’t believe how available this is, like the fact that you can go to Amazon and buy this book for like $35 or whatever it is. And this is literally the most important and influential text on solar returns in the past 2,000 years, and suddenly it’s just available again, and you can order it and get it delivered on Amazon Prime or what have you in two days is just mind-blowing.
So thank you for doing that and all of the work that you put into this over the past three to four years, as well as the past 10 years of learning Arabic so you could translate it. I think it was worthwhile. And just on behalf of the astrological community, thanks for doing that for all of us.
BD: Oh, I’m having a ball.
CB: Cool. All right, well, I look forward to having you back again next time for whatever your next text is. I hope it’s Firmicus. I’ve been wanting a Firmicus translation forever because I know there’s a lot of good stuff in Firmicus that you’ll be able to draw out in terms of the language that nobody else could. So we’ll return again next time for whatever your next book is.
BD: Sounds good. Look forward to it.
CB: All right, well, I guess that’s it for this episode of The Astrology Podcast. So thanks everybody for watching or listening, and we’ll see you next time.