Astrological Roots: The Hellenistic Legacy
by Joseph Crane
The Wessex Astrologer
, ISBN 978-1902405247, 336 pages. £22.50/$43.00
Reviewed by Garry Phillipson
We should first consider competitive diving. The sport has two elements in its scoring system: Judges score each dive; and this figure is multiplied by a factor representing the 'degree of difficulty' for the particular combination of twists, turns, flips and so on in the dive. The final score thus rewards divers who succeed with complex and audacious moves.
With this book Joseph Crane gets a very, very high score for 'degree of difficulty'. His aim is to take the astrological techniques found in: Ptolemy, Vettius Valens, Dorotheus, Hephaistio, Paulus Alexandrinus, Anonymous of 379, Antiochus, Manilius and Montulmo (particularly Ptolemy and Valens), and present the most valuable of them in an organised way, making them accessible to modern astrologers. In chapters one through eleven, the book works through every aspect of the natal chart as seen in these sources, with transits, profections and other time-based methods covered in chapters twelve to fourteen.
This is a huge project, and I suspect that Joseph eventually handed the manuscript over for publication, not because he considered it to be completely finished, polished and perfect, but because he saw that it could quite easily swallow up the rest of his life. So for instance, although the prose is often lucid, there are places where it has a rather 'cut and pasted' quality, as though major structural work was going on until very near publication.
This said, I want to make it as clear as I can that this is still an excellent piece of work. Its value to astrologers means that on balance, it counts as a very good book, one that anyone serious about natal astrology should have.
What is the target audience? With an optimistic flourish in the Preface Crane says,
The astrology I introduce here is refreshingly straightforward and its techniques are easy to apply. (p.x)
If only! Whilst some of the individual techniques are simple enough in themselves, the impression of simplicity soon dissipates as technique is heaped upon technique. And then there are some techniques that are just difficult by themselves. This isn't the author's fault, it's just one of life's irksome facts; this stuff takes a lot of work to really get under your fingers.
In other words, although this book looks pretty big on the shelf, if you're anything like me you will find that it is a lot bigger when you start working through it. In order to really understand what is being talked about you will find that you have to try out each technique as it is presented, applying it to familiar charts and, through doing so, a) discovering whether you really understand it, and b) deciding whether to add it to your toolbox.
So I wouldn't recommend this book for a new student, unless they are an absolute brainiac. But for someone who has spent time shaking fruit from modern astrology's tree and now wants to explore its roots, this book is manna from heaven.
It's quite an odd thing to say about an astrology book, but I suppose that the major change I would like, would be for Joseph to express himself in a more opinionated and assertive fashion. He says at the outset,
My purpose is to get under astrology's hood, look at its different parts, and figure out how to make the engine work better (p.x)
and I would have liked him to do rather more of that. For example, he argues at pages 122-4 in favour of using whole-sign houses rather than a quadrant system, but the arguments he presents at that point are based in expediency: whole-sign means you don't get intercepted signs, you don't have to explain your choice of quadrant house-system to anyone, or even to choose in the first place. This takes place immediately after he has shown how radically different Elizabeth Barrett Browning's chart becomes under whole-sign. Surely it ought to be possible to use the differences that whole-sign brings to this chart, or one like it, to show why whole-sign is better? As it is we are left with this:
After working with [whole-sign] for a few years, I was not certain that this system worked significantly better than using quadrant systems… Today, after a decade of use, I am convinced of the superiority of a whole sign house system. (p.127)
This failure to really engage with the issue strikes me as a little bit odd, as if the author is holding back. My guess is that, in writing this book, Joseph found himself torn between two approaches: a) simply present the source material in a balanced and comprehensive way; or b) show how he uses and integrates some of these techniques in his own astrological practice. Personally, I would have liked more of b). I should acknowledge, though, that this would not be everyone's choice.
On the same theme, Joseph mentions (p.xi) that he is hardly going to mention the three outer planets (perhaps we have to say 'three major outer planets' these days), or the nodes. This is an attempt to keep focussed and to just use Hellenistic techniques. Laudable in a way, but I believe Joseph uses a mixture of ancient and modern techniques in his practice, so that you sometimes get the impression of a man trying to work with one arm tied behind his back during the discussion of charts. And in fact near the end of the book we see the outer planets suddenly appearing, like cavalry over the horizon, to make sense of secondary progressions in Churchill's chart (p.278).
Mention of Churchill brings me to two grumbles about the example charts. The first is about the reliability of the data of some charts. Churchill's chart is used throughout the book; yet his ascendant is moot. The time given by his father, 1.30pm, yields 29º 56' Virgo. Joseph chooses to rectify this forward by a minute, giving a Libra ascendant. Certainly plausible. But for a case-study that is going to be used repeatedly, it would surely have been better to take a chart which would not be dogged by the proviso, 'if this is the right ascendant' at every step. A few charts with Rodden ratings of B or lower are used, and here again I couldn't help feeling that it would have been best to stick to reliable data.
In general I think it's a good thing to use charts of famous people in this type of context. They have the major advantage over client charts that anyone can read biographies, do the astrology, and compare one against the other. But the downside is that the analysis can stay a little superficial, based only on obvious major external events in the person's life. For this reason I would have liked to have seen at least a few charts of clients included (I think there is only one - at p.291 - and that is only looked at briefly); and also more in-depth analysis of what was actually going on for people at key points in their lives, with serious recourse to biographies.
I return to my theme: the basic structure of the book, and the information in it, is great so far as I can see. But there are minor niggles. Oh look, here come some more…
For a book which aims to help people reconnect with the tradition, the book is rather poor at providing links and sources. A number of books cited in the text aren't included in the bibliography. Some books (such as Christian Astrology) are cited in out-of-print editions when it might be useful to let people know that they are actually available from other publishers. Many of the primary sources are Project Hindsight translations, and it would surely be useful to many readers to cite their website for updates on the availability of translations. You might even expect one or two other reputable websites for traditional astrology to be mentioned.
I am certain, however, that such omissions are due to nothing more than a lack of attention to detail. I know this because Joseph also fails to mention the existence of an organisation and website that he runs with Jill-laurie Crane and Dorian Greenbaum. Here is that website: http://www.astrologyinstitute.com/
I also feel a small glossary of terms would have been useful.
An Aside on Terminology
The need for a glossary brings me to another issue. Joseph favours accurate translations of astrological terms over current usage. So for instance, what most of us would call 'houses' are 'places' (p.120), the 'signs' are 'zoidia' (p.11) and so on. The argument is that this is a good thing to do because using accurate terms will help clarify and sharpen our astrological understanding.
Personally, I'm not convinced this serves any useful purpose. Here's why. Suppose you and I get into conversation; we discuss someone and I say, 'Ah well, he's got Mercury in the eighth house'. This means something to you, and a conversation ensues. What actually takes place in our minds a propos 'Mercury in the eighth house'? Do either of us have a mental image of an actual, bricks-and-mortar house at any point? Surely not. The words 'eighth house' summon up images which are astrologically-based - maybe an image of where the house falls in the chart, and a concatenation of thoughts and feelings about the meanings and associations of that area of the chart.
What is gained if we re-train ourselves to use the word 'place' instead of 'house'? Nothing so far as I can see. Whatever word is used, for the practising astrologer it quickly becomes defined by astrology and it points directly to astrology. So it seems to me that the only thing we gain by trying to change astrological terms that are in general use is a confusion of tongues.
I confess that I write this with the quailing spirit of someone who knows that he's disagreeing with a lot of very intelligent people! But if I'm wrong, I'd at least like to know why.
As I started out saying, I don't want my minor criticisms to get out of proportion. In the end, this is a very good book. Where else are you going to find the major techniques from Greek astrology set out, in plain English, between two covers? The revised second edition, though - if Joseph ever chooses to write it - well, that could be a masterpiece.
In the meantime, I take my hat off to Joseph for having the temerity to plan this book in the first place, and the stamina to pull it off. It seems about time, too, to say a word in praise of Margaret Cahill and her Wessex Astrologer operation. She is quietly getting on with bringing a lot of really serious, worthwhile astrology books such as this one to the press, and this is a huge service to the astrological community. With this in mind I would like to propose the institution of an annual Margaret Cahill award, to be awarded to Margaret Cahill each year for being Margaret Cahill.
So, in conclusion? A very good book. Minor issues, but very good all the same. If you want to rebuild your astrology along Hellenistic lines, I suggest you get hold of a Crane.