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The Astrology of Avraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164)
by Meira Epstein, NCGR-C.A
The new publication of Avraham Ibn Ezra's Book of Nativities provides an opportunity to take another look at the scope of his astrological work and feature one of the techniques used to evaluate strength and weakness in the chart.
a) His Life
Rabbi Avraham Ben Meir Ibn Ezra was a renowned Jewish scholar whose prolific writing encompassed Biblical exegeses, Hebrew grammar, personal, national and liturgical poetry, philosophy, mathematics, geometry, astronomy and astrology. In mainstream Judaism he is known and loved mainly for his Bible commentary and his poetry, whereas to the Christian European world he became known through his astrological and mathematical writings. In many ways, he represented his historic time which was the golden era for the Jews in Spain, who flourished economically, scientifically and culturally, and became instrumental in transmitting the Arabic sciences and philosophy to Christian Europe.
Ibn Ezra was born in Tudela, Spain, but spent most of his life wandering from one country to another, always restless, always spreading knowledge and writing his books, and always in great poverty, depending on people's patronage. There are many anecdotes and legends about his lack of practicality in worldly matters on the one hand, and his great wit and wisdom in intellectual matters on the other.
Wandering and material poverty was a way of life for Ibn Ezra. In his early years he traveled extensively throughout the Jewish communities in Spain and Northern Africa. Then, in 1140, at age 51, he left Spain for good and began his travels among the Jewish communities in the Christian world - beginning in Rome, Italy, moving north through France, all the way to London, England, where he most likely ended his life. During these extensive sojourns he wrote his greatest works, including astrology
b) His Astrological Work
Ibn Ezra wrote nine astrological treatises as well as translation from Arabic into Hebrew of two others, covering all branches of astrology - introductory, natal, electional, interrogational (horary), medical, and mundane. He was well versed in the different theories and sources. He knew his predecessors and compared their ideas, frequently coming up with his own conclusions. With proper acknowledgement, he refers to Hindu, Persian, and Arab astrologers, yet mostly following Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos. This last one is a bit problematic since, on some occasions it is clear that his source may have been a pseudo-Ptolemy, or the Centiloquy.
The contents is traditional Hellenistic-Persian-Arabic astrology, and except for a few instances, religion or mysticism are rarely mentioned.
His writing is concise, scholarly, analytical, critical and didactic, frequently pointing out how the inner logic of astrology is derived from its elementary components. He is also conversational - often speaking in the first person, addressing the reader directly. At times, his "Jewishness" shines through in small Biblical phrases, and in what can be called a Talmudic style, which is apparent in most of the texts.
For a full description of his life, his work and its historic influence, please go to my article on Ibn Ezra at http://bear-star.com . Here we shall provide a brief description of the astrological texts (also see bibliography list below):
1) The Beginning of Wisdom (Re'shit Ho'khmah) is Ibn Ezra's best known astrological text. It includes the fundamental astrological concepts: an extensive description the tropical and sidereal signs; the fixed stars; the decanates and the images contained in them as well as those that are co-rising, the division of the houses, the attributes of the planets and their orbital motions, the aspects and an extensive list of the Lots (a.k.a Arabic Parts).
2) The Book of Reasons (Se'fer Ha'Te'amim) is also about astrological essentials, written as a supplement and elaboration for The Beginning of Wisdom.
3) The Book of Nativities and Revolutions (Se'fer Ha'Moladot Ve'Ha'Tequfot) applies the principles expounded in the first two books, to the nativity. It consists of two main parts: a) the natal chart, b) the annual revolution and other matters pertaining to prognostication. In the first part we also find, by way of introduction, a philosophical-metaphysical discussion on the issue of the fate of the individual within that of the collective, which also includes astrology's answer to the controversial question of 'Nature vs. Nurture', or the relative influence of the environment. We also find there a discussion on the value of astrological knowledge as compared with the role of the religious faith. Under technical topics we also find a discussion on chart rectification, evaluating Ptolemy's Nimodar compared with the method base on the moment of conception (the Epoch, the Trutine of Hermes), and a discussion on longevity calculations, not only that of the native but also of the parents'.
4) The Book of the Luminaries (Se'fer Ha'Me'orot) is on medical astrology - analyzing the Decumbiture chart, based on the motions of the Sun and the Moon and their function in the chart, and judgment for the condition and recovery from illness taken from the Moon and eclipses.
5) The Book of Elections (Se'fer Ha'Miv'harim) is on electional astrology. The list of considerations is preceded by a discussion on the question: to what extent one can affect a desirable outcome by electing a good time to begin an endeavor. Another topic is the need to consider the nativity and what to do when it is not known.
6) The Book of Interrogations (Se'fer Ha'She'elot) is on horary astrology.
7) The Book of the World (Se'fer Ha'Olam) is about mundane astrology. Sampling the topics: The Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions; the accuracy of the calculations of the rising sign at the time of the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction and at the time of the annual revolution; using instead the time of the New or Full Moon before the Aries Ingress; the Firdar periods; the Lunar Mansions, and more.
8) Predictions Made In the Year 1154 (He'zionot Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra She'haza Al Sh'nat 4914 La'Ye'tsira). A very short treatise containing mundane forecast based on the great Conjunction of Jupiter-Saturn in Capricorn, which was coming up in 1166.
9) Horoscope Analysis for a Newborn (Mishpatei Ha'Nolad). A brief analysis of a nativity based on actual birth data from Narbonne, France. It seems to exemplify the techniques listed in The Book of Nativities, and includes topics such as intelligence, prosperity and longevity - also of that of the parents'.
10) The Treatise of the Astrolabe (Kli Ha'Ne'khoshet) describes the use of the astrolabe for chart computation and other uses. In addition to the technicalities of the instrument, we find a section on the Lunar Mansions, computation of the houses, how to determine the astrological aspects, description of fixed stars and computing their precession rate in the tropical zodiac.
11) Muhammad bin Almatani's Explanations For The Astronomical Tables of Muhammad al-Khwarizmi (Ta'amei Lu'hot al-Khwarizmi). A translation from Arabic into Hebrew and an introduction by Ibn Ezra. It includes an interesting account of the introduction of Hindu astronomical calculations into Islam. Discussion of the Precession error found in older texts in determining the position of the Fixed Stars and the Constellations. The text is interspersed with Ibn Ezra's additional explanations.
12) A Book by Mashallah on the Eclipses of the Sun and the Moon translated by Ibn Ezra from Arabic into Hebrew. The contents: The effect of the planets relative to the clime. Sign classification and their effect on the weather. Judging the weather and world affairs from the Aries Ingress and from eclipses. The mundane effects of the Great Conjunction of Jupiter-Saturn, the Medium Conjunction of Mars-Saturn, and the Small Conjunction of Mars-Jupiter.
c) Techniques: Astrological Strength and Weakness
In general, we can say that a principle is first presented, either fully or just mentioned, in The Beginning of Wisdom, then elaborated in The Book of Reasons, and then applied in The Book of Nativities, The Book of Elections and The Book of Interrogations. Even TheBook on the Astrolabe needs to be reviewed for this purpose. In most cases it is necessary to track it throughout all the books, in the above sequence, in order to fully encompass the subject.
The concept of planetary strength and weakness is fundamental to astrology, and affects every type of chart evaluation an astrologer is called upon to perform. Such considerations are pervasive throughout the astrological works of Ibn Ezra. In addition to the well-known five essential dignities, throughout his books Ibn Ezra provides an extensive list of factors that affect the strength, the choice and analysis of a significator planet:
- Sign placement - essential dignity-debility
- Position in its own wheel and relation to the earth & the ecliptic
- Relation to the ecliptic - latitude
- Relation to the horizon - above-below the earth
- House placement
- Mundane quadrants
- Solar phase
- The planets' elevation - inferior-superior
- The planets' essential, intrinsic character and malefic-benefic
- Gender agreement - by sign, quadrant and day-night
- Aspects relationship
Here is a sample of one property that is less known nor used, even by astrologers who are interested in the classical material: Strength based on the planet's position in it own wheel.
Before getting into this topic a brief astronomical explanation is in order. Two terms are used to define the position of a planet in relation with the earth:
Apogee - when a planet is the furthest from the Earth.
From the geocentric view, when the outer planets (Mars, Jupiter, Saturn) are at Perigee, they are retrograde and in opposition to the Sun, and at Apogee they are direct in motion and in conjunction with the Sun. (figure 1)
Perigee - when the planet is the closest to the Earth.
From the geocentric view, when the inner planets (Mercury, Venus) are at Perigee, they are retrograde and in an inferior conjunction with the Sun, and at Apogee they are direct in motion and in a superior conjunction with the Sun. (figure 2)
An obvious conclusion is that when a planet, whether superior or inferior, is in its closer position to the earth it is retrograde, and when further away it is direct.
In the geocentric Ptolemaic model the retrograde motion is explained by the Deferent and the Epicycle: The Deferent is the planet's principal orbit. The planet moves in the Epicycle, which is a smaller circle carried along on top of this Deferent. See figure 3.
The earth is not at the center of the deferent. The part of the Deferent that is farthest from the Earth is called the Auge, an Anglicized version of the Arabic awj, and is the equivalent of the Apogee. In this model the planet can be far from the earth by virtue of its Deferent position and additionally by its Epicycle position - sort of a "double Auge".
Another concept must be kept in mind: Planetary orbits were conceived not as flat horizontal concentric circles as modern astronomical models depicts them but as spheres within spheres, and when further away from the earth they are reaching higher up towards the heavens. In other words, it is not only about distance from the earth but also about elevation – lower or higher. Thus, a planet in its orbital motion is seen as 'ascending' or 'descending' in its wheels in more than one way. Further differentiation comes from the quadrant placement in the wheel.
This type of elevation and motion also becomes a consideration in assessments of strength & weakness, as well as in matters of the physical plane vs. the noetic or soul level. Incorporating this technique into astrology seems to begin in the Arabic era, as noted by R. Hand in Abu Ma'shar's Abbreviation.
Next we see how this concept is referred to and assigned an interpretive value by Ibn Ezra in his three major works.
The Beginning of Wisdom
In Chapter Two, which covers the twelve zodiacal signs, we find the current inferior or superior degree position of a planet, (Auge or its opposite), if found in the sign. Example, under Aries: '…the inferior position of Mercury at 25 degrees at the present time in the year 4908.'
In Chapter Five we find a total list of planetary conditions, one of which is strength 'when the planet ascends in the wheel of elevation and descent, whose solid [sphere] is distant from the solid [sphere] of the earth.'
In Chapter Six, under a listing of all the circumstances of planetary motions, we find more technical details:
In Chapter Eight, which deals with Inquiries, Nativities and Revolutions, we find an interpretive statement in the form of a metaphor for position of superiority, authority and dominance: 'A planet in its elevation is like a person on his horse.' In other words, not lowly and walking the road.
- 'A planet may be ascending in the wheel of elevation or descending in it, or at the beginning of the elevation, or descending from the middle of the wheel towards its nadir, or ascending from its nadir to the middle of the wheel, or at its nadir.' 'When a planet is 90 degrees away from the beginning of its elevation then it is direct in its motion and the reason is that it is [in an] intermediate [position], and so is its light and the strength of its body. When a planet is less than 90 degrees away from the beginning of its elevation and moving towards it then it is ascending [in the wheel] and decreases in its motion and light and strength of body. When it is in its place of elevation then the decrease is complete, and when it descends from the its elevation towards [the point of] its half-wheel then it increases in motion and light and strength of body; When it descends from that half-wheel towards its nadir it also increases in all [its attributes]. When it is in its nadir then it increases in all of these completely.'
The Book of Reasons
Under the topic of 'The Order of Strength' we find clear attribution to body vs. soul. The term 'fixed circle' is the deferent and the 'small circle' is the epicycle:
The following discussion on the Conjunction is in the context of assessing which party will prevail in a conflict situation when the ruler of the 1st house conjoins the ruler of the 7th house.
- 'When a planet is in its high position it is close to the zodiac wheel, and is like a soul, and when it is in its low position it is closer to the Earth which is like a body that is the vessel for the soul, for the body is a vessel.
- Regarding a planet ascending in the small circle whose fixed sphere is far from that of the Earth, there is a difference between the Hindu astrologers and Ptolemy. The Hindu astrologers say that when a planet is in the high position, it is like a man riding on his horse, whereas in the low position it is like the slave walking on the road. Ptolemy says that when a planet is closer to the Earth, it is much stronger, and the opposite when it is further away.
- In my opinion, both are correct, because when a planet is far from the Earth, it receives much strength from the superior ones, and if it rules the affairs of the soul, which is superior, then the native will have exceptional wisdom in all matters, and if it rules bodily affairs, he will be short and skinny and will not have sufficient strength.
- If the planet is in its low position and rules the soul it indicates that the native will be foolish and ignorant, and if it rules, the body it indicates a big and strong body.'
The quoted passage here is limited to our current topic. The book has an extensive list of structured considerations and their scoring weights:
- 'Application [to Conjunction]. Astrologers say that the beginning of a conjunction is 15 degrees, but Ptolemy said that it is according to the orb of light of the planet, before or after it, and that is correct in my view. …………… What is said about the light [planet] occulting the heavy one is true when the conjunction is in longitude and latitude, and all that it indicates will come true. And this is how you do it: Look to see if the two planets are on the Ecliptic — this is a true conjunction. If you wish to know which one is stronger, look to see whose wheel is higher — the bigger prevails over the smaller one, and this counts as 4. The one that is at the elevation of its small circle prevails over the other by a count of 3. …………… When you calculate all those counts of strength you will know which one prevails.
The Book of Nativities
In the chapter on the Seventh House, under 'Quarrels' we need to determine 'who will win' in the situation of a conjunction between the rules of the 1st and the 7th houses. The following judgments come after all other strengths & weaknesses have been exhausted. Both the deferent and the epicycle are considered:
- 'If the ruler of the nativity and the ruler of the seventh house are conjoined and you wish to know who will win, look to see which of the planets is closer to its elevated position vis-a-vis the solid wheel; it will overcome the one that is distant from its elevated position.
- Likewise, also observe [which] one of them is closer to its elevated position in the small wheel (the epicycle) for it will overcome the lower one.'
Bibliography: Ibn Ezra's Astrological Texts
1) The Beginning of Wisdom (Re'shit Ho'khmah). Edited from Hebrew manuscripts with cross-reference from an Old French translation (Hagin le Juif, Le Commencement de Sapience, 1273) and translated into English for the first time by Raphael Levy and Francisco Cantera, John Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1939. Second translation from Hebrew was done by Meira B. Epstein, ARHAT publications, 1998.
2) The Book of Reasons (Se'fer Ha'Te'amim). The short version was edited from manuscript by Naphtali Ben Menahem, Mosad Harav Kook publication, Jerusalem 1941. The long version was edited by Rabbi Yehuda Fleishman, 1951. Translated from Hebrew (short version supplemented from the long version) by Meira B. Epstein, Project Hindsight publication, 1994
3) The Book of Nativities (Se'fer Ha'Moladot). Edited from manuscripts and translated by Meira B. Epstein, Avraham Ibn Ezra, The Book of Nativities and Annual Revolutions. (Reston, VA: ARHAT 2008)
4) The Book of the Luminaries (Se'fer Ha'Me'orot). (Heb.) Edited by Yehuda Leib Fleischer, Bucharest, Romania, 1932.
5) The Book of Elections (Se'fer Ha'Miv'harim). (Heb.) Edited from manuscript by Yehuda Leib Fleischer, Timishuara, Romania 1939.
6) The Book of Interrogations (Se'fer Ha'She'elot) (Heb.)
7) The Book of the World (Se'fer Ha'Olam) (Heb.) Edited by Yehuda Leib Fleischer, Timishuara, Romania, 1937.
8) Predictions Made In the Year 1154 (He'zionot Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra She'haza Al Sh'nat 4914 La'Ye'tsira) (Heb.) Published by Meir Ben Itzhak Bakkal, Jerusalem, 1971.
9) Horoscope Analysis for a Newborn (Mishpatei Ha'Nolad) (Heb.) Published by Meir Ben Itzhak Bakkal, Jerusalem, 1971
10) The Treatise of the Astrolabe (Kli Ha'Ne'hoshet) (Heb.) First edited and published by H. Edelmann, at Königsberg, 1845. Published by Meir Ben Itzhak Bakkal, Jerusalem, 1971.
11) Muhammad bin Almatani's Explanations For The Astronomical Tables of Muhammad al-Khwarizmi (Ta'amei Lu'hot al-Khwarizmi). A translation from Arabic into Hebrew and an Introduction by Ibn Ezra. The full names in the text: Muhammad bin Mussi (Mussa) al-Khwarizmi, Muhammad Bin Almatani bin Abbed Albarassi Alkarrutz bin Ali Isma'il. Parma version, edited and translated into English by Baruch Rephael Goldstein, Urim veTumim Publications, New Haven & London, 1967.
12) A Book by Mashallah on the Eclipses of the Sun and the Moon. Ibn Ezra's translation from Arabic into Hebrew. Published by M. Grossberg, London, 1902.
Reference of the page:
Meira Epstein: The Astrology of Avraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164)
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