Works of Sahl and Masha’allah
translated by Benjamin N. Dykes, PhD
, (Minnesota, 2008)
624 pages; Hardback. RRP: $91.95
Reviewed by Deborah Houlding
In 2007 Benjamin Dykes published his voluminous edition of Guido Bonatti's Liber Astronomiae. As the first complete translation of this 13th century text out of Latin, Dykes made a major contribution towards the current understanding of the development and application of astrology in medieval times. Bonatti is an especially important source for astrologers studying traditional techniques, partly because of the incorporation of his material in later texts which are still used to inform our techniques. William Lilly's 17th-century Christian Astrology, for example, draws heavily upon it.
However, it is clear that Bonatti claimed very little original development of the techniques he described. He too was dutifully playing a part in the transmission of time-honoured passages of instruction, which can be seen to originate in the works of older authors dating back to Dorotheus and beyond. Of these, two of Bonatti's main sources were the late 8th / early 9th century Arabic astrologers Masha’allah bin Athar (c.740-815) and Sahl ibn Bishr (c. early 9th century).
Sahl (whose name might be more familiar to traditional astrologers in its Latinized form: Zael or Zahel) and Masha'allah were both Jews of Persian descent who contributed to the flowering of early Islamic science. The 9th century was a particularly important period in the history of astrology, which is often identified as a time from which early medieval Arabic astrology rises fully formed, so that its texts can easily be seen as a store house for many of the techniques, principles and aphorisms that are transmitted through the medieval period up to the Renaissance.
In what seems to me an amazing investment of energy and dedication, Dykes took barely
a year to follow up his publication of Bonatti's works, with a new volume which pulls together a compendium of 16 Works of Sahl and Masha’allah (5 from Sahl and 11 from Masha’allah to be exact). Not only do we get access to the works of both authors, but we get a good distribution of technique across most of the main branches of astrology, covering aphorisms, introductory material and specialist techniques related to horary, nativities and mundane predictions; and also philosophical texts which explain the worldview of that period. This is obviously a book aimed at the serious and committed student of traditional astrological technique, but within that genre it has a very broad appeal. These are the texts where Hellenistic material fuses with the medieval mind, so it is hard to imagine that any traditional astrologer will not wish for a longer life in order to spend more time with this kind of material!
At the end of this review I will list the translated material in the book, because the nature of the works included speaks for itself - you will either want this material or not. But in addition to this main content Dykes contributes a sizeable introduction of his own, and it is clear that he has reflected sincerely upon some of the concepts that underlie the techniques; that he has a philosophical love of the material which allows him a deep insight into the significance of the terminology used. This is something I like very much about his work. Dykes has a background in philosophy and it shows. Most of his points drive home very securely, and although I cannot say that I agree with every point he makes, for the most part he seems to be striving to develop understanding, rather than claiming it to be fully formed and absolute. In his introduction to this text he has revised some of the introductory opinions that he made in the Bonatti text, and I have no doubt that further revisions will continue as he expands his knowledge through future projects. It is encouraging to see that he is willing to keep his mind open and not fixing his position too strongly, because Dykes has the potential to make a brilliant impact upon the historical understanding of astrology, but with that significance comes a responsibility to weigh words carefully, and to take a cautious stance towards the areas that need further research.
Unfortunately I come close to the conclusion of my review with a minor grumble. I would have preferred to have seen reproductions of the charts as they were given in the Latin manuscripts - in just the same way that we were treated to scanned reproductions of the diagrams. Failing that, it makes sense to reproduce the chart data exactly, and not to publish a hybrid between an artistic representation, and the closest computer match. This means that what we sometimes get (for example, p.449 and p.455) is a translation of the text that tells us that the planets are in a certain position, but a redrawn diagram that shows them in a different position. I am sure this must have been an oversight, and as grumbles go, it is a small one - the best I can manage to help balance a review for what I believe to be an extremely important publication which I would sincerely recommend.
As an astrologer I want to offer my own congratulations - and personal thanks - to Benjamin Dykes for producing a book that is so attractive in both its content and presentation. It is good to see that this is more reasonably priced than the Bonatti text, and I believe it was a wise decision to issue this in a hard bound volume, because it is a serious and credible piece of astrological literature which deserves to look good on a bookshelf. I am pleased that the gilt lettering and overall look of the book sits so well at the side of my copies of Bonatti, and I have already cleared out some space for future publications in the 'Dykes' Collection'. Given the astonishing speed by which Dykes is personally making these precious texts available, it is exciting to wonder what comes next!
The 16 translated texts include:
Sahl: The Introduction
Sahl: The Fifty Judgements
- Sahl: On Elections
- Sahl: On Questions
- Sahl: On Times
- Masha'allah: On the Knowledge of the Motion of the Orb
- Masha'allah: On the Roots of Revolutions
- Masha'allah: Chapter on the Rains in the Year
- Masha'allah: On Rains
- Masha'allah: On the Revolution of the Years of the World
- Masha'allah: On the Significations of the Planets in a Nativity
- Masha'allah: On Nativities
- Masha'allah: On the Interpretation of Cognition
- Masha'allah: On Hidden Things
- Masha'allah: On Reception
- Masha'allah: What the Planets Signify in the Twelve Domiciles of the Circle