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The Book of Nativities and Revolutions by Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, translated by Meira B. Epstein

Book Review

The Book of Nativities and Revolutions by Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra - translated from the Hebrew original by Meira B. Epstein

Arhat Publications, (April 23, 2008)
ISBN: 978-1-934464-01-4
120 pages; paperback. RRP: $24.95 + P&P

Reviewed by Deborah Houlding

That is the opinion of the ancient scientists, but I, Abraham, the compiler of this book, disagree with them.
Avraham Ibn Ezra, Beginning of Wisdom (ch. 7)

This is one of the comments from Ibn Ezra's Beginning of Wisdom that first endeared me to his writings. Meira Epstein's subsequent translation of Ezra's Book of Reasons developed that affection, and her latest translation of The Book of Nativities has cemented it. I have a real enthusiasm for Ezra's work and would personally place this 12th century Jewish Rabbi as one of my top all-time astrological authors. Ezra gives us something that we rarely encounter in historical sources: a robust account of traditional theory, written by someone with a passionate interest in his subject, yet with a suitable balance of expertise and independence of mind to raise sensible objections and throw in the valuable benefit of his own experience. Ezra exhibits a similar attitude to that which we encounter in the works of Morin, where the author displays more than a willingness to perpetuate a body of teaching, and is clearly pursuing a personal quest for deeper 'understanding'. Although Ezra teaches us about traditional astrology (or rather, the contemporary practises of his day), there is something in his style that is uniquely his own; a reflection, not only of his astronomical/logical knowledge, but also of his Jewish faith, his extensive travels, his medieval perspective, and his boundless intellectual interests.

Avraham ben Me'ir ibn Ezra (a.k.a. Avenezra, Avenaris, Ezra, Abraham Judeus: ca. 1092-1167) certainly had a 'high mind', with intellectual interests that extended into all areas of 'twelfth century science' (mathematics, geometry, astronomy, astrology, and the mechanics of the calendar). He was also a respected linguist and grammatist, a renowned Biblical commentator, a philosopher, and a much loved poet. His sometimes self-deprecating poems reveal him to have been down-to-earth, liberal, and even jocular in his outlook on life. This rare combination of informed passion, humanity and character have left a timeless impression upon his works; the result being that they retain a great sense of mental engagement, which might explain why Ezra became such an important influence upon later astrologers. Even William Lilly paid him the honour of mentioning him as one of eight named astrologers whose works he consulted with when composing the horary volume of Christian Astrology.

Ezra's series of astrological books were written to create a comprehensive corpus of astrological knowledge, with each subsequent publication building up the knowledge of nativities, horary, elections, decumbiture, and mundane influences. The Book of Nativities is the third in Meira Epstein's series of English translations, following (in the correct sequence) The Beginning of Wisdom, (offering an introduction to the fundamentals of astrology), and The Book of Reasons, (offering further theoretical explanations). With The Book of Nativities we now begin to study 'working' astrological doctrine, by looking at the techniques employed in natal analysis. Ezra refers to a variety of ancient authors but it is clear that Ptolemy is the main influence upon his work. To some extent this book offers an abbreviated route through Ptolemaic doctrine, and I found it extremely useful to read it hand-in-hand with Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos. Ptolemy discusses some of the techniques more fully, helping to illuminate and add detail to the methods described by Ezra, whilst Ezra, being more succinct, highlights the passages that became more heavily popularised in later medieval and renaissance astrology. This text also helps to demonstrate how some of Ptolemy's techniques have distorted over time, because with Ezra we recognise a close association with the original Ptolemaic doctrine, but we start to witness gradual shifts as new terminology creeps in, and small but significant changes appear, (such as the accidental dignity of phase being replaced by the essential dignity of face).

Being written at a time when an altered foundation for renaissance technique begins to present itself clearly, students of the history and development of astrology will always find Ezra's work to be of value. For me, it is not so much his explanation of technique that I appreciate, but the little comments and interjections, where he offers an opinion regarding the rationale behind technique, or shares the results of his own experiments. After explaining the Nimodar method of rectification, for example, he unflinchingly adds

...they are false equations as I have tried them many times with a perfect astrolabe it became clear to me that these equations are nonsense. A Hindu astrologer mentioned three other equations, and they are all useless (p.8).

I particularly like the fact that we get an explanation of the technique as well as his opinion on how useless it is. I came to the same conclusion myself a few years back, (based on only one or two attempts), but it is good to be informed on the technique for those occasions when we run across references to it.

In this book Ezra covers most of the terms and techniques used in determining the length of life, though I have to say that, by itself, this would probably be an inadequate textbook for a new student looking to learn the methodology. Its greatest value lies in being an accompaniment to other texts, because there are little snippets of information presented by Ezra that we tend not to find elsewhere. For example, the introductory passages were very thought-provoking, and helped to underline the importance of recognising how one chart is never entirely free of another. To explain: Ezra dwells upon the issue of the fate of the individual within that of the collective, and this is obviously a significant introduction to what follows in the rest of the book. Ezra highlights the fact that the fate of the individual can only be truly understood by comparison, or in relation to the collective of which it is a part. When we undertake natal work without this prior consideration we are only working with a fragment of the relevant information - and this offers the same argument for why a natal interpretation can be subject to error as that we find with elections that are not referred to the natal chart.

As well as considering the astrological influences upon the national collective, of which we are a part, we also need to consider individual birth charts within the constraints of tribal or family limitations. In that way the signature of, let's say 'rising in rank', is appropriately judged to mean rising to a better professional position than would be expected given the family background or social status of the parents. Ezra says, for example, that the son of a servant might rise to become a merchant, whilst the same indication in the chart of the son of a minister could indicate a rise to become the king.

In a similar vein, and again following Ptolemy, Ezra's work proposes the idea that physical characteristics (such as height, colouring etc) are judged in connection to the established features of the collective. It is foolish to believe that we can pick up a chart of an unknown individual, without any knowledge of gender or culture, and from this provide a detailed and reliable physical profile. We need to know these conditions to provide the appropriate context. Although I now see this is implicit in Ptolemy's work, Ezra's is clearer in emphasising the importance of comparison to parental features in judging physical features from natal charts. In talking about signs of long ascension on the ascendant, for example, Ezra does not simply say that this indicates the native will be tall, as most texts might, but that the native "will be taller than his parents". This need to place physical descriptions and life-themes against prevailing expectancies obviously makes a great deal of sense and is generally underestimated elsewhere.

As I obviously treasure this text, I was pleased to see it presented in an attractive binding with well set pages. Astrologer and Hebrew scholar Meira B. Epstein is uniquely qualified to undertake the translation, and to know where astrologers would most appreciate a useful footnote or cross-reference. Her notes throughout, her introduction to the work, and the editorial additions by Robert Hand, all add to the value of this text as the ideal 'astrologer's edition'. Most pleasing of all is to see a translation of an astrological text made by an astrologer, with no obvious preference or inclination towards championing specific technique. Epstein's hand is informed but light, and never detracts from what Ezra was trying to say for himself. At a price that will not break the bank, I heartily recommend this text to all lovers of traditional astrological texts. And as we move further into the territory of practical astrology with each subsequent text, I eagerly look forward to Meira Epstein's next translation in the series!

Deborah Houlding
July, 2008