Review | Carmen Astrologicum of Dorotheus – Ben Dykes Translation

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The Song of Astrology

2017 saw the publication of a new translation of one of the oldest and most important texts from the Hellenistic period of astrology. Carmen Astrologicum (song of astrology) is the name given to the five books of Greek verse written by Dorotheus in the late 1st or early 2nd century CE. This work was arguably the greatest single influence on the practice of medieval astrology. It was translated into Pahlavi (a Persian language) in the 3rd century, and then into Arabic in the 8th century.

A Key Text

I have argued that the five most important “texts” of Hellenistic astrology are those of Dorotheus, Valens, Ptolemy, Firmicus Maternus, and Antiochus (as paraphrased in Porphyry and Rhetorius). The works by Dorotheus and Valens though are particularly pivotal, as both men were early in the tradition and were active astrologers who provided chart examples in their texts. Additionally, many key astrological predictive techniques survived only in those texts. Valens is our only source for a great many predictive techniques. Dorotheus is the source for all later electional astrology and provided the foundation for horary astrology

While the definitions of Antiochus are a pivotal reference work of Hellenistic astrology, it is absent predictive techniques. Firmicus was later in the tradition (4th century). Ptolemy, while influential, sought to reform Hellenistic astrology, so he has at times an altogether different approach to delineation. In conclusion, if you’re going to study just two Hellenistic texts, it should be Dorotheus and Valens (there’s a free English translation of Valens available by retired classics scholar Mark Riley).

Contents

I mentioned that Dorotheus is our source for electional astrology, and in turn laid the foundation for the development of horary astrology. It is Book V of Carmen that pertains to electional and event chart astrology. That work is also referenced in Book III of Hephaistion’s Apotelesmatics. Therefore, those two works (Carmen Book V and Hephaistion Book III) are the two most important foundational works of Hellenistic electional astrology.

The other four books of Carmen pertain to natal astrology. Books I and II are primarily concerned with principles and natal chart delineation, while Books III and IV are primarily concerned with predictive techniques, though there is some overlap. There is a particular emphasis on upbringing, family, eminence, relationships, children, and illness in the delineation material. Predictively, Dorotheus incorporate early primary directions with solar returns, profections, transits, and a little bit of planetary years. Special techniques for eminence and longevity are dealt with at length. Dorotheus was known to make significant use of triplicity lords and the lots in delineation and prediction.

Sources and Translations

The original Greek and Pahlavi versions are lost, so our earliest surviving complete translation is the 8th-century Arabic version. Dorotheus’s work also survives in a number of Hellenistic and medieval sources who quoted and paraphrased him. Most notably, the Hellenistic work Apotelesmatics by Hephaistion of Thebes (5th century), the Greek Excerpts (69 prose summaries of statements by Dorotheus), and the Greek and Latin Fragments.

The 8th-century Arabic translation was by the Persian astrologer Umar al-Tabari.  The first English translation of the 8th-century version (from the two surviving manuscripts) was by notable science historian David Pingree, published in 1976.

Issues with the 1976 Translation

The 1976 translation by Pingree is widely available and is the one I have heretofore referred to on this site. However, it has a number of issues. Importantly, it is a translation performed by a non-astrologer. It was also done prior to the translation wave of the last few decades in which many of the doctrines and principles of Hellenistic astrologer were rediscovered.

At times there is a lack of regard for interpretive clarity, creating undue confusion. For instance, Pingree adds text that was not in the original in passages relating to lot calculations. If one were to follow these passages explicitly, it would lead to miscalculation of the lot positions.  The translation is also difficult to read, lacks explanatory footnotes, and overestimates the amount of material that was added by later translators.

The Ben Dykes Treatment

Ben Dykes holds a PhD in philosophy and entered the world of translation with a bang in 2007 with his publication of the complete Book of Astronomy by Guido Bonatti. I was a student of Robert Zoller’s natal course on traditional astrology at the time. Zoller drew heavily from Bonatti in his course. At the time, Zoller’s course was the only point of access to the traditional astrology of the High Middle Ages. Zoller’s own translations were limited and at times clumsy. The translation by Ben Dykes was complete, clear, with a brilliant introduction, and extremely helpful explanatory footnotes. Techniques which were lost in vague terminology quickly took form and could be grappled with, tested, and analyzed.

Since that time, every Ben Dykes translation has represented the highest form any astrological text can take in the English language. Dykes knows traditional astrology like no one else. He is well studied in Hellenistic astrology and has translated volumes of medieval Latin and Arabic works. His texts included introductions that discuss the key issues and questions, lay out important points of reference, and grapple with practical considerations. The texts brim with explanatory footnotes that reveal connections to other works, clarify confusing passages, and discuss alternative translations. His translations are the versions that astrologers should dream of having. When he tackles an important work, like Carmen, it is an event to celebrate in the astrological community.

Peeling the Onion

Ben’s works have loosely followed a path in which subsequent translations elucidate mysteries brought forth in earlier ones. For instance, much of Bonatti’s work was based on those of earlier Persian astrologers. How close did Bonatti follow in their footsteps? With Dykes’s translations of their works (Persian Nativities volumes I-III), the rich sources upon which Bonatti relied became laid bare. Now we didn’t need to simply rely on Bonatti, who sometimes got it wrong, but could investigate what his sources had said.

With his current translation of Dorotheus, this process continues. Dorotheus was the central Hellenistic influence upon the Perso-Arabic works that have been the focus of Dykes’ translation efforts over the last decade. Dykes has also translated the key early medieval works in electional astrology and horary astrology. Additionally, Dykes published the first English translation (by Eduardo Gramaglia) of Hephaistion’s Book III. Hephaistion’s Book III is a Hellenistic work on elections which draws heavily on Dorotheus. Now we get to the root, with the clearest and most accurate English translation of Dorotheus to date.

Features of the Dykes Translation

Introduction

This new translation features an enlightening 60 page introduction. In addition to dealing with the typical translation matters of terminology, sources, and editions, this introduction elucidates a number of technical features. It is refreshing to have the most confusing parts of a familiar text demystified. This is something we’ve come to expect from Ben’s translations.

Dykes presents a table of the lots used in the text and discusses issues of calculation and textual interpretation concerning them. He illustrates the charts used in the text with explanations regarding dating and positional errors. Ben thoroughly deals with the matter of triplicity lords in Dorotheus, providing a table of the types of triplicity lords analyzed in the text and delving deeply into the matter of triplicity lord interpretation. He even provides a technique to analyze whether triplicity lords are advancing by primary direction according to the fifteen degree rule given by Dorotheus. Additionally, Dykes tackles the predictive techniques, with a thorough analysis of the full annual predictive system. This material on triplicity lord interpretation, the lots, and the predictive system were the highlights of the introduction for me. It is refreshing to have the most confusing parts of a familiar text demystified in this way.

The introduction also touches on some of the issues raised by Book V. Is this electional astrology? Is it something else? Dorotheus intermingles elections with event (and event-awareness) charts, a form of astrology best characterized as inceptional astrology. This style of inceptional astrology paved the way for the later use of astrology to divine the answers to questions (horary astrology).

Glossary

There is a list of useful terminology in the introduction, but there is additionally a full glossary of the vocabulary of ancient astrology (over 20 pages). The original Greek, Arabic, and/or Latin terms are often included in the entries for reference.

Appendices

The most important appendix is Appendix C, which is The Dorotheus Excerpts. I had not read the Excerpts before and there was a lot of interesting material there. For instance, we find Dorotheus using the Lot of Eros (Love) as it was also described by Valens (Fortune to Spirit from the Ascendant) for delineating friendship, rather than using the hermetic lot given by Paulus Alexandrinus (Spirit to Venus from the Ascendant). I can’t wait to explore this material more deeply.

Appendix B is a valuable reference for electional and event astrology. It’s a table of all the Dorthean inceptional material organized by topic. I hope to deal with some of these topics in my ongoing series on early electional astrology. This table is a time-saving resource for anyone who wants to study the Dorothean approach to a specific type of election.

Appendix A is useful for those familiar with the Pingree text and/or wishing to compare the two translations. It is a list of the corresponding sections between this translation and the one done by Pingree.

Additionally, there is a bibliography and an always useful index.

The Translation

The translation itself is careful and clear. Footnotes are abundant and are varied in type. Some footnotes compare passages with similar ones in later texts. Others clarify more difficult or opaque passages with necessary historical, linguistic, or astrological context. Still others grapple with technical and interpretive matters where one single approach is not clear.

In addition to being a high-quality translation, the text is made clearer through the addition of subheadings where appropriate and the inclusion of numerous charts and figures.

Conclusion

This translation of Carmen by Ben Dykes is the deluxe edition that astrologers have been waiting for. If you’ve tried to study Dorotheus in the past and have been put off by a confusing translation then this is for you. I highly recommend this text. As Dorotheus is arguably the most influential of the Hellenistic astrologers this wonderful treatment of his text is truly worth celebrating!

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Anthony

Blogger interested in all things astrological, especially Hellenistic, medieval, Uranian, and asteroid astrology.

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