Musings of an Astrologer

Musings of an astrologer

The methods used in mundane delineation are old and with their entrance into Europe in the 12th and 13th century via Spain some have been significantly revised. One of the last and perhaps most popular of the medieval Persian astrologers to use these techniques with real results was Abu Ma’shār.

When his works were translated into Latin, the translators and religious censors working with the translators were faced with some very real problems. The first was the lack of practical knowledge of the application of these techniques. They were first of all scholars, translating texts whose subject matter was totally outside their experience. As far as I have been able to see, not a single one was in fact a practicing astrologer. The second and probably the most critical, was the philosophies on which these techniques were based. In order to translate these texts and to receive acceptance by the religious authorities, compromises had to be made. Most often it was the text that was compromised. This particular problem was discussed by both Richard Lemay and Charles Burnett; both have written and given lectures on the corruption of certain Arabic texts when they were translated and transmitted into Europe. I’m not going to go into the details of these translation practices here, but it is quite well documented now that the original Arabic texts are being translated and compared to the same Latin translations. I can refer you to these articles though and particularly one by Dr. Charles Burnett:

“The Strategy of Revision in the Arabic-Latin Translations from Toledo: The case of Abu Ma’shār’s On the Great Conjunctions” by Dr. Charles Burnett in the publication, “Les Traducteurs au travail: leurs manuscrits et leurs methods”, ed. J. Hamesse, Turnabout, 2002, pp.51-113 and 529-540.


“A Group of Arabic-Latin Translators working in northern Spain in the mid-12th century” published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1977, pp.62-108

Most of the current consensus is documented in articles in obscure journals, publications and University lectures. But I can assure you the evidence is quite authoritative!

Now the reason I’m beginning with this point is because it had a great influence in what later astrologers would have to rely on – which in many cases was not the original practice. But thanks to certain scholars today, such as Charles Burnett and Michio Yano (among others), we are gaining manuscripts and translated texts which reveal what was corrupted and where and when! I’ve personally devoted the last couple of years to these texts and practices and with the support and cooperation of scholars; (in particular I can thank Dr. Michio Yano and the Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa in Tokyo, who more than graciously obliged my studies by supplying me with texts) I’ve been trying to restore these techniques and the full picture of what these things entailed.

Now, having said this, I can lay no claim to having a complete or full understanding of these things. I do have certain convictions about these things and having struggled with these texts, am convinced that there is more than simply meets the eye. Mundane astrology was one of the matters of which Abu Ma’shār claimed “was a secret of science”. This is a theme running throughout Abu Ma’shār’s works. Abu Ma’shār was fond of secrets. He was quite fond of speaking in riddles and metaphors. For instance, in discussing the relationship of Jupiter and Saturn to war, he refers to the square of these two superiors as “The Fortitude of the Sword.” Secrecy was a necessary part of Abu Ma’shār’s astrological practice. He worked for the secular and religious authorities from Egypt to Persia and India. It is to be assumed that he was exposed to or came in contact with secrets, both personal and political in the course of his work. We are not surprised when we read the following anecdote in Lynn Thorndike’s article, Albumasar in Sadan, which is the only biographical treatise ever written about Abu Ma’shār by his student Abu Ṣāʳid Schadsan, which was corrupted into Sadan in Latin.

«Abu Ma’shār said that when a native’s 2nd house is impeded at birth and its ruler also unfortunate, the native never prospers. When asked why he never mentioned this in his writings, he said: “The sage who writes down all he knows is like an empty vessel. Nobody needs him and his reputation declines. He should keep some secrets to himself and communicate them only to his closest friends.»

When you look at the written evidence alone, it is very clear that few, if any Medieval Western or Arabic authors give exhaustive expositions. As Robert Zoller wrote in a yet unpublished article,

“Certain parameters are given (in these texts) and the reader is left to figure out the rest himself. The reader is likely to conclude that none of these authors really knew how to predict. However, two facts mitigate this conclusion: 1) there are numerous reports of astrologers successfully predicting the death of this or that native. 2) The common experience of contemporary practitioners of this Medieval Astrology is that such predictions can, in fact, be made. 3) Errors in prediction can come from numerous causes, but incomplete or faulty knowledge of the proper technique is certainly a cause of error.”

Now these things are true, and for anyone spending any amount of time in these original texts, it becomes very obvious! I appreciate that there are people out there who are not rejecting some of these original concepts but instead are making sincere efforts to use them. However, as has been the case of the last thousand years, the foundations are still not recovered so that often those efforts are much the same as a “craps game” and the odds are very small that we can restore a functioning method by chance alone!

Thus I have to start at the beginning! In order to make heads or tails of these ancients methods, then we have to understand something of the foundation philosophy. In Abu Ma’shār’s case, his methods reflect the basic philosophy that the first thing to appear in universal political and social matters is the prophet and “the law” of the Prophet. Because of changes in ‘religion (philosophy)’ there arise new dynasties and kings.

«Since we have already provided in the first Part the means to know the matters that needed explanation concerning prophets, their Shariahs (Laws), and the like, let us mention, in this second Part, how to know the matters of dynasties and kings, and let us begin in this chapter with how to know the change of dynasty from one nation to another, and to which nation it comes, since the rank of kings follows that of prophets.»

Now the ancients’ use of conjunctions is very much built on this foundation! It was not just any conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, but it was especially those conjunctions which occurred at the beginning of a shift of the conjunction into a new triplicity. This is where it becomes very difficult. I struggled for a long time with this conception because 1) all of these astrologers used a theoretical conjunction based on the mean motions of these two planets and 2) these ‘mean’ conjunctions do not occur in reality! The whole of these considerations is based entirely on a ‘theoretical’ conjunction! Were they aware of this fact? Absolutely! In the introduction to this chapter On Conjunctions in his text book, Kūšyār Ibn Labbān writes;

«[1] Many people of this art have another method in general judgment. It is by means of the conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn. The Persians are the wisest of them in their conviction, and the most devoted to bringing together happiness and misfortune through it, according to their claim, from the conjunctions of these two planets. They set in motion each one of Jupiter and Saturn with their mean motion and they lay down the following scheme – the two ‹planets› make twelve conjunctions in each triplicity and sometimes thirteen conjunctions; what is between two conjunctions is roughly twenty years. They fix chronology by it from the conjunction occurring at the beginning of a triplicity to the conjunction occurring at the beginning of another triplicity.

[2] If this method were correct for us, we could spare much trouble in worrying about the equations of the planets and their correction. When there is dependence on the corrected positions of the two ‹planets›, the number of the conjunctions of the two ‹planets› in the triplicities could not be grasped, neither could the days and years which are between the conjunctions nor the ascendant of the time of the conjunction of the two planets be obtained, because of the slowness of their motion and because of the difficulty of inquiring into their conditions which are dependent on precise observation.

[3] Thus they made the ascendant of the year in which the conjunction occurs the ascendant of the conjunction, and they judged what things are caused by the conjunction from this ascendant, just as judgments are made concerning the other things that happen from the ascendants of beginnings of these ‹happenings›. When we are true to ourselves we know that this ascendant is artificial, but we follow the people in their opinion, and we are polite to them in associating ‹with them› and we support them concerning their belief, and we do not think it utterly impossible that a conjunction of the two spheres of the orbs of the epicycles of two has influence in the world. Thus we choose from their sayings what is closer to ‹our› thought and what is more inclined to analogy. »

In this text we’re made to understand a couple of things; first that these astrologers were quite aware of the fact that the physical positions of Jupiter and Saturn had nothing to do with their conceptual positions through their ‘mean’ motions. Second, that the actual degree of the conjunction had nothing to do with the casting of the chart of the conjunction and that they used the ingress chart of the year of the conjunction. In other words, these astrologers willingly and knowingly used an ‘ideal’ conception to make delineations. As I said I had a very hard time coming to terms with this thought. By profession I am a Civil and Structural Engineer. I deal with physical laws and mathematics on a daily basis. For me to accept this conception was certainly a trial for my ‘scientific’ sensitivities. However, come to terms with it I did! The main reason in coming to terms with it was the fact that this is not the only place in astrology where an ‘ideal’ conception lies at the roots of delineation! The zodiac in its beginning and end is an ‘idealised’ conception! The signs are not nicely distributed in handy 30° increments! Aspects between planets are an idealised concept based on the totally natural human attribute of vision. The dwads or dōdekatémoria are 2½° conceptions that idealise the physical relationship of the Suns ‘mean’ motion and the moon’s ‘mean’ motion! The various lots are mathematical constructs based on longitudinal positions and their relationships. So there are many such ‘ideal’ conceptions. All of these things made me realise that perhaps there was a lot more to astrologers like Abu Ma’shār; especially with regards to ‘influence’ of the astrologicals.

A lot of people are going to say that these methods are too complicated and there are too many factors to consider. This has always been the complaint over Abu Ma’shār’s techniques in natal astrology. I’ve heard individuals say if we practiced what he taught it would take months to delineate a chart. First of all that is not true although it cannot be done overnight either. Secondly I marvel that people spend years in educating themselves in secondary schools and universities and if we hear of a doctor, lawyer, engineer or any other professional getting ‘certified’ without that kind of education then we are sceptical about their ability, and for good reason. Yet when it comes to the complexity of delineation, well we so easily accept ‘hobby’ astrology. As an engineer and I am working on a complex building project it takes me weeks to months to calculate the static forces that affect that construction and arrive at a structure that will handle the various forces that affect all buildings. I didn’t learn this as a ‘hobby’. Why people would expect delineation of a natal or mundane chart to be a simple 1-2-3 process when it contains so many relational and proportional elements is beyond me! An individual is a complex being! A society and culture is complex and more importantly the variables that contribute to the rise of cultures, societies and nations and religions are complex. I should expect that the methods of determining outcomes would also reflect to some extent the complexity of the system it describes. I have often marvelled at how similar my profession is to that of an astrologer where we have to demonstrate with the conceptual language of mathematics the relationships existing between so many variable physical factors!

To explain a little of the levels of this complexity with regards to the ancient’s methods of delineation let me try and put it into a schematic but I am going to work backwards from the simplest element. We have the individual and we are told by several of the ancient texts that that individual must be seen in the context of his mundane situation! How can you predict long life and riches to a man whose home is invaded and bombed by a rival nation or ethnic hate or political machinations? The natal delineation must be seen in the context of other greater ‘universals’. This native is a member of a cultural nation. What happens to that nation is predisposed also to ‘greater’ universals.

Steven Birchfield A.M.A.

3 comments on “Musings of an Astrologer

  1. Tom Callanan says:

    >Thus they made the ascendant of the year in which the conjunction occurs the ascendant of the conjunction, and they judged what things are caused by the conjunction from this ascendant, just as judgments are made concerning the other things that happen from the ascendants of beginnings of these ‹happenings›.<

    My understanding is that they did this because they could not calculate an accurate perfection of the conjunction. Any ascendant they did calculate would be hours off. Morinus complains about the lack of precision in the 17th century. He would use the rough position of the planets and from that determine a ruler of the chart (as did Abu Mashar and others), and the prediction would be built around that ruler, but no ASC or MC. Being cranky when he discussed the Arab astrologers, he flat out rejected the use of mean conjunctions. If it didn't occur in nature, it didn't belong in astrology.

    However, we do have the ability to make accurate calculations to determine "true" conjunctions as well as the mathematical ability to determine accurate "mean" conjunctions. We can calculate an ascendant for any conjunction with great accuracy. I wonder if we might be better off applying the traditional techniques to those charts, rather than simply repeat what they were forced to do by circumstances beyond their control.

    • Steven Birchfield A.M.A. says:

      Hey Tom

      Well actually they could calculate the day hour and minute of their mean conjunctions. In fact there is a lot that Abu ma’shar lists that requires the astrologer to use the degree of the conjunction to the ascendant of the conjunction and cast it out from the ascendant of Ingress of the year of the conjunction. They just didn’t use the chart of the conjunction.

  2. Thanks Steven for a very stimulating article!
    As for accuracy of calculations, it got probably lost (although we don’t know for sure) long before Abu Ma’ Shar’s time, but the reconstruction of the Antikythera Mechanism dóes show what degree of finesse the “Elder Ones” could achieve!

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