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Definitions and Foundations by Robert Schmidt
 



Book Review

Definitions and Foundations. Vol. 2 of The Astrological Record of the Early Sages

(TARES), (www.projecthindsight.com) Cumberland, MD: Golden Hind Press. (2009)

Retail Price: $145 softcover - $155 hardcover Subscriber Price: $40 softcover - $55 hardcover

Reviewed by Joseph Crane


Most people want a "bottom line" when they read a review.

After a preliminary reading and study of Definitions and Foundations, I have found this book to be the most interesting and exasperating astrological work I have read in a very long time. I appreciate the hard work done by Robert Schmidt and Project Hindsight to produce this large and complex work. I hope that many of its conjectures and assertions prove to be correct.

I will discuss the context for Definitions and Foundations, its style of presentation, and some of its content. What ties these matters together in a basic question for traditional astrologers: how do we know what we know about the traditions we use?

First we need to ask ourselves about our primary sources for the astrological tradition we use For modern astrologers this is not as much of an issue.

The basic text for many traditional astrologers is William Lilly's Christian Astrology, perhaps supplemented with writings from some of his contemporaries like Gadbury and Culpepper. In addition, one can also work with astrologers whose works have been translated from the Latin, such as Guido Bonatti, Ibn Ezra, Johannes Schöner and Johann Kepler, or even touch upon the eighteenth century. Although traditional astrologers have different areas of emphasis, all have common sources for their astrological understanding and craft.

Those who desire to work with earlier Hellenistic sources have more problems. Many works have been translated unreliably (Firmicus) or are difficult to practice from (Ptolemy), or have somewhat questionable dating (Dorotheus). Ancient authors often did not present their material systematically and clearly. Even if they had, many of their notions seem foreign - or incomprehensible - to the modern astrologer. Accompanying any translations from the Hellenistic material must be insightful and useful commentary.

In the mid-1990's Project Hindsight stepped in to help solve these problems by having expert astrologers doing the translating and commenting. Translators added many useful commentaries that helped open up new dimensions of astrological understanding. Although it originally translated Latin as well as Greek texts, within a few years, only translations from the Greek by Robert Schmidt remained.

Until the publication this year of Definitions and Foundations, very little had come from Project Hindsight for some years. During this time I continued to find previous translations from Project Hindsight valuable and used them for my own work. Others like James Holden and Dorian Greenbaum have proceeded with their own translations and writings.

Robert Schmidt's premise, following the late David Pingree's conjecture, is that Hellenistic astrology was established by one person or a small group of people. Although its original work was lost, one could reconstruct an Urtext, a foundational source for the later tradition, from later citations and commentaries, combined with creative reconstruction. In this view, the originator or originators of Hellenistic astrology had to have been philosophically sophisticated to come up with an astrology with such a strong philosophical context.

Schmidt's vision has important virtues and potential flaws. On the one hand it has allowed him to approach the Hellenistic astrological material in a serious and insightful manner, pursuing the material closely until it finally yields its underlying structures. This can lead to a completely new perspective on ancient and on modern astrology. On the other hand, it may also invite one to force-fit some things together, ignore parts of the tradition that vary with preconceptions, divide Hellenistic astrology into the "authentic" and the "deviant" and misrepresent the nature of astrology as part of syncretic Hellenistic philosophy and culture.

Over the past several years Schmidt has been working on Definitions and Foundations and this year it has finally come out. The book is Volume Two of thirty (30!) books that will contain definitive translations of and commentaries on the works of Hellenistic astrology. Definitions and Foundations gives an understanding of the astrological terminology that future translations can build upon.

Definitions and Foundations derives from an incomplete work, a Byzantine summary of an earlier work by a person named Antiochus. Schmidt adds definitions and explanations from similar passages by Porphyry, Rhetorius and others. (An early translation by Project Hindsight attributed to "Antiochus of Athens", The Thesaurus, is actually a compilation by Rhetorius of the sixth century of an earlier text by Antiochus. Schmidt uses it here under the label "Rhetorius"; this text also appears as Rhetorius the Egyptian by James Holden.) Cobbling material from these authors and a few others, Schmidt presents his best attempt, in his view, at restoring a lost original.

Who was Antiochus? James Holden'sA History of Horoscopic Astrology and a previous translation by Project Hindsight reflect a common understanding: the author is an Antiochus of Athens from the second century. Schmidt thinks that this could be actually Antiochus of Ascalon, founder of the Platonic Middle Academy in the second century B.C.E. This is a very interesting conjecture and a potential bombshell.

No writings by the philosopher Antiochus of Ascalon survive. As Schmidt notes in a CD accompanying this book, it would be indeed ironic if the surviving writings by this philosopher were astrological. However tantalizing this possibility may be, there is only circumstantial support: the authorities Antiochus cites are all before the Christian era, and there is some material in Antiochus that has a Platonic spin. Valid evidence of a link between this work and Antiochus of Ascalon would be an outstanding contribution to our understanding of the transmission of the philosophy and the astrology in the Hellenistic era.

Now, let us move on to the texts themselves. However, before going any further, I need to address the writing style of this work. I quote a paragraph on page 122 in its entirety.

It is a striking consequence of the distribution of domiciles and exaltations among the seven planets that each of the two domiciles of a planet will have exactly the same joint domicile masters as long as we take the two lights Helios and Selene as equivalent. Thus Hermes and Kronos are the joint domicile masters along with Aphrodite for the Bull, but they are also the joint domicile masters with Aphrodite for the Balance. Again, Helios and Ares will be the joint domicile masters for the Archer along with Zeus, but Selene and Ares will be the joint domicile masters of the Fishes along with Zeus. Similarly, Zeus and Ares will be the joint domicile masters with Selene, but these same two planets are the joint domicile masters of the Lion along with Helios. And so forth.

Note: this is not primary text but Schmidt's commentary. The primary texts are even denser.

The language for both translation and commentary is highly stylized and difficult to get through at the beginning and this book contains over 350 pages of it. (Becoming accustomed to the facsimile edition of Christian Astrology may be more difficult.)

When we read Schmidt's commentary above slowly, here's what we get.
  1. Taurus has Venus as its domicile lord; the lords of the signs of its triplicity (or trigon) are Mercury with Virgo and Saturn with Capricorn.
  2. Venus, when she is in Libra, has that triplicity's domicile signs also governed by Mercury (Gemini) and Saturn (Aquarius).
  3. For Sagittarius the other lords with Jupiter are Mars (Aries) and Sun (Leo).
  4. For Pisces the other lords with Jupiter are Mars (Scorpio) and Moon (Cancer).
(You may also notice that there is no mention of our standard elements of air, fire, water, and earth. The elements were not part of the standard thinking about triplicities in the ancient world - they seem to have emerged later.)

You will notice above that the names for signs are English versions of the original words. (This requires that Schmidt renders Capricorn "Goat-Horned") The names for the planets are not Latin but Greek. (This forces some adjectival awkwardness like "heliac" instead of "solar" and "seliac" instead of "lunar".) Schmidt insists that all this is necessary to render not just words but the mind of the original tradition.

Two words appear in the text that may cause the reader to wince: Schmidt translates astrological "sign" not into z?idion as in previous translations but into "image." He translates the word "degree" as in "7 degrees Aries" into "portion", so that he would render "by degree" as "portionally."

In the accompanying CD, Schmidt makes an important distinction between transliteration and translation. In the former, we adopt the previous word and bring it into our terminology: hence traditional astrologers use words "almuten," "hayz", "dustoria" and others. In this way, Schmidt contends, we add words to our astrological vocabulary but do not add an understanding of their meanings. A translation, on the other hand, will find an approximate semantic field in English to reproduce the original meaning of the word.

Schmidt finds hidden strata of meaning from original meanings of words: this is a feature of much continental philosophy that has influenced him. The alternative Anglo-American approach is that "meaning is use," plain and simple. One could liken this division to the philosophical controversies about "realism" and "nominalism" from the medieval era. If your approach is closer to Anglo-American nominalism, Schmidt's translations will drive you absolutely nuts.

As is clear from its title, Definitions and Foundations deals with important concepts in Hellenistic astrology. Here we find perspectives on rulership and dignity, much about the relationships between planets we call "aspects", a fresh analysis of the important concept of "spear bearing," a look at houses or places including an eight-fold formulation, harmonics and the Lot of Fortune. There is important material on determining the potency of planets and methods for finding different kinds of lords of a nativity. Some of this material displays a fascinating continuity with the later medieval tradition.

Clearly there is much in Definitions and Foundations that is important and worth spending time with and this will provide the interested reader much to research and ponder.

To my mind the most interesting writings in Definitions and Foundations concern aspect doctrine. Up to this time we have not had a clear understanding of how the Hellenistic astrologers thought of aspects or how they used them. We know that they were interested in sign-to-sign contacts between planets but this yields a large number of planetary relationship relationships.

In Hellenistic astrology many words are used that relate to aspect and they are usually translated as "testify," "behold," "look forward", "scrutinize", "witness." How do all these words stack up with one another? What do all these words mean, anyway?

According to Schmidt's commentary in Definitions and Foundations, planets testify to each other if they are going to join each other in the zodiacal signs they currently occupy. This is the major class of what we would call "aspect." However, for two planets to be engaged with each other, for one planet to "look upon" or "watch over" other planet, for a true aspect to occur, the application must be within three degrees. As one planet approaches an exact aspect to another, they are in the process of "figure formation." The three-degree condition for aspects, as opposed to testifying, also seems straightforward.

I am not yet clear about how "testifying" is a weaker relationship than the more active "looking upon" or the other seeing-words. Yet Schmidt's reading of the doctrine seems straightforward. If this holds up it will be an important addition to our understanding of Hellenistic astrology.

To me the doctrines of aspect become murkier as we continue with its presentation. Schmidt feels that the confusion may be deliberate on the part of the original author. Much investigation needs to be done with this material.

I'll take one example. In Hellenistic astrology there is an aspect relationship called aktinobolia, translated by Schmidt as "striking with a ray." Here is definition thirteen by Antiochus.

"That a star strikes with a ray, the one leading the one following according to figure; for example, a star in the Ram strikes a star in the Goat-Horned with a ray, and in similar cases. The star following looks upon the one leading and overcomes it [in] moving toward it, but does not strike it with a ray; for, of every beam the sight moves backwards. Striking with a ray is said both zodiacally and proportionally." (p. 202)

The first sentence seems clear: proceeding along the signs of the zodiac, a planet in Aries leads a planet in Capricorn and the planet in Aries strikes the planet in Capricorn with a ray. This looks like a simple relationship between signs and their locations relative to one another. So far so good.

The second sentence states that the leading planet in Capricorn looks ahead to a planet in Aries and overcomes it (see definition 10), and the planet in Aries strikes it with a ray. Comparing planets in these two signs, the passage states, sight moves forward and the ray moves backward.

What is forward and what is backward that would account for sight and striking with a ray? Are we talking simply about the counterclockwise direction of the signs? Or, is looking ahead and striking with a ray really about what we would call applying and separating aspects? Or, are we discussing the "waning" half of a synodic cycle where the faster planet will also move toward the slower planet and the slower planet strikes with a ray? Different factors may apply.

Schmidt favors the possibility of the following planet applying to the leading planet, that the leading planet has more degrees in the zodiac than the following planet (p. 210). However, "overcoming" (it was previously translated as "predominating") may relate specifically to the second half of the synodic cycle between the two planets. Schmidt asserts that in the context of the other definitions (spear bearing, for example) striking with a ray is about figure-formation or application, yet the first sentence only mentions signs involved.

Schmidt posits that Antiochus, whoever he was, deliberately created interlinking definitions so that some definitions can only be understood in the context of others. The sequence of definitions is not an orderly exposition but a teaching manual to lead the student gradually to clarity. The student will have to work very hard at this, though.

Generally I do not find this kind of deliberate opacity in astrological texts. I do not know whether a closer investigation of this text will yield insight (whether one agrees or disagrees with Schmidt's specific conclusions) or muddle.

If the testifying and aspecting doctrines (including striking with a ray) are accurate as Schmidt presents them, he has given us an elegant and useful set of methods for understanding planetary interrelationship in ancient astrology. I would find this very helpful to my own astrological work. Some suspicions remain, though. One is a general concern about the whole work.

I find many of Schmidt's assertions plausible and I want them to be correct. How would we verify their validity?

We would need to look at the Greek grammar and Schmidt's translations very closely. There may be ambiguities in words denoting processes and states, so that "assuming a figure" may be less of a dynamic process than Schmidt contends.

We would also have to ascertain that others in the ancient tradition worked with aspects in the same way. Can this theory allow other primary sources of Hellenistic astrology become clearer and shed more light on the practices of other astrologers?

The real author and date of this work may not be such an important issue. Antiochus of Athens from the second century could have written down astrological practices that were already there. That would not make this text of any less practical value.

Could we use a text like this to determine an authentic Hellenistic tradition? Let's pretend that after some apocalypse all the records of our astrological culture were lost except for some fragments. However, the astrological works of one author - like Noel Tyl - survive in pretty good shape. Perhaps as astrological scholar from the distant future could present Noel Tyl's approach in a complete way and also note that his approach differs in certain ways from, say, Deborah Houlding or Liz Greene. If Schmidt can present Antiochus and others as a set of baseline doctrines and practices and note alternatives, that would be fine with me. It should not be a question of whose astrology is the "real" one; in the long run this only promotes dogmatic slumber.

Thirdly, do they result in techniques that an astrologer can use? We shall see. As a modern astrologer who wishes to employ Hellenistic concepts and techniques, I expect them to make my astrological work more accessible to accurate interpretation and prediction. If it is not the case, either our information about or understanding of the tradition is at fault. This is what differentiates my work and others from scholarship for its own sake.

On two occasions during his "talking tour" CD's, Schmidt remarked how little he has gotten from scholarship on Hellenistic astrology and how their contributions have been worthless and often misleading. He stated that if he had used lengthy citations and covered all his bases in terms of the conventions of scholarship his work would be twice as long and would have taken him far more than the five years he took to write it. This may well be. He also said that the purpose of scholars' lengthy citations mostly served for them to show off their erudition.

I disagree with this last notion. It also points to a major weakness in Schmidt's presentations here and elsewhere. The reason that people painfully cite sources and place their work within a community of scholars is for other people to replicate their research. If I am going to adopt some of Schmidt's assertions as true, whether it's the identity of "Antiochus" or the direction of an aspect ray, it is because I could go through the same process and check the same sources and come up with the same result.

Do I recommend Definitions and Foundations? As an astrologer who is inspired by astrology's ancient roots, I anticipate spending a lot of time and effort working with it. I add that going through and using Definitions and Foundations is a task only for the motivated. If you are so motivated, you can learn much from this book. I indeed recommend that you work with it - but not uncritically.

In part because there are so few available translations of the Hellenistic astrological literature, and in part because of the effort needed to produce Definitions and Foundations, I applaud Schmidt's new contribution to the literature on Hellenistic astrology. I welcome further contributions by him -- and by many others.

Joseph Crane
September, 2009





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Most Recent Reviews:
   Campion: Astrology and Popular Religion in the Modern West
Cossar: Using Astrology to Create a Vocational Profile
Graves: Godfather of Modernity: The Alan Leo Legacy Vol. One - Early Astrological Journals 1890-1912
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