Reality-Checked by Abraham Ibn Ezra
The Book of Nativities by Abraham Ibn Ezra starts with what one can only call a stern reality check for the reader. Astrologer, theologian, poet, mathematician, and scholar Ibn Ezra (ca. 1089 – ca. 1161) was born in Islamic Spain and is in many ways the personification of the scientific and literary achievements of al-Andaluz and Jewish scholarship. After age fifty, he traveled through Italy, France, and England, functioning as an itinerant scholar, writer, and celebrity intellectual. It is perhaps unsurprising that given his intellectual reputation, Ibn Ezra had Views on astrology.
This edition is a scholarly comparative text of Hebrew and English of his Sefer ha-Moladot (Book of Nativities) and Sefer ha-Tequfah (Book of Revolutions), translated by Shlomo Sela. I am reading it to better understand natal astrology as practiced in the medieval Arabic tradition. Before we even get into the astrology, there are a few things that Abraham the Spaniard, as Ibn Ezra refers to himself, says we must keep in mind. I condensed and rearranged them as seemed logical:
1. The astrologer must know to which nation the native belongs. He uses the example of the Jewish people who in the twelfth century had no country of their own, and thus the indications of being a king in a Jew’s horoscope had to be tempered with reality, since a nation in exile could not have a ruler. Instead, Ibn Ezra writes that such a native could be an associate or advisor to kings, the highest achievable social status for a Jew of his time.
Ibn Ezra also advances the claim that Jews, as the chosen people, are exempt from astrological influence. This is a development of his theological writings that rest upon the Talmudic statement that Jews are not subject to mazzal (“destiny” or “constellations” in Mishnaic Hebrew). Despite this, he does say that the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Aquarius initiated the Jewish diaspora. Few astrologers would agree with the claim of exemption for Jews, but it’s interesting to note how Ibn Ezra attempts to keep his astrological writings consistent with his theology and philosophy.
He also says that it is impossible to interpret Saturn in the ninth house of religion in a Jewish horoscope as a sign of lack of faith (Saturn in the ninth is a traditional indication of atheism or apostasy). Again, this is demonstrably false but it is important for Ibn Ezra from an ideological perspective.
Similarly, Ibn Ezra later explains that the social status of a nativity will moderate the chart’s indications. Evidence of kingship will lead to the crown for the son of a duke, but merely merchant status for the baker’s son. I am in complete agreement with this point. The social and physical inheritance is an extremely powerful factor in natal interpretation, and there are only a few individuals who can rise above the limitations placed on them by their socio-economic status.
2. Climate and genetics play a role in the interpretation of a nativity, and Ibn Ezra uses the example of an Ethiopian with the Moon and Venus in the Ascendant who would only be pale (for these planets rising show a light complexion) relative to his ethnicity. He also claims that Mercury as ruler of the chart (what we today term the almuten figurae) for someone from a hot climate such as Ethiopia clearly cannot make a great scholar, for the Sun’s heat is bad for the brain. We will draw a curtain of silence over statements like this, much like when older relatives express distasteful political views.
3. A major point that Ibn Ezra reiterates throughout this chapter is the overwhelming power of the collective catastrophe over individual horoscopes. A city plunged into war will overwhelm the individual horoscope and even people with no indications of danger to their lives will die. He later makes the same point with the launch of a ship: though Jupiter and Venus rise in the launch electional chart, if the ship encounters a storm, everyone on board will die regardless of the individual nativities.
There are multiple problems with Ibn Ezra’s claims here.
One, there is just no evidence that everyone affected by a mass disaster such as war, a storm at sea, or the plague dies. In fact, statistics show the opposite: even in deadly mass attacks such as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki expressly intended to kill as many people as possible, approximately 1/4 to 1/3 of the people in those cities died in the bombings or of radiation-related disease in the following weeks. While the toll is unacceptably high, notice that most people still managed to survive the attacks. There must have been some difference in the indications of danger in the nativities of survivors and those who died. In more localized disasters such as shipwrecks with no survivors, it still seems probable that all those on board were brought together during a dangerous time indicated in each of their horoscopes. I do agree, however, that if the disaster is extreme enough, even those on board without terrible indications (merely bad ones) will die.
Two, I find it hard to believe that Ibn Ezra researched the nativities of all the victims of a mass disaster, especially in a time when most people did not have the time or even dates of birth. I know of few such projects today, when our access to data is far better. He may have looked at individual nativities of people known to him who succumbed to the plague, for instance, but his sample size would of necessity have been small.
4. The nativity of the king affects collectives even more than it impacts the king himself. Ibn Ezra gives the example of a king’s nativity showing he will go to war; he himself may not go fight, but his nativity will impact his subjects who do not have indications of going to war. Again, I believe that all subjects going to war will have some indications of leaving home, but Ibn Ezra’s larger point stands; the king is himself less directly impacted due to his social status and because his nativity becomes that of the kingdom during his reign.
5. Finally, we can take precautions against malefic influences as indicated by upcoming astrological configurations. For example, with Mars approaching the Ascendant (one possible manifestation of which is a fever), we can avoid hot foods or environments and instead eat cooling foods, so that when the transit or direction rolls around, we will have avoided exacerbating it. Trusting in the goodness of God to help us through difficult times is recommended as well, though Ibn Ezra is vague on the specifics and one expects that individual efficacy varies.
September 14, 2015 @ 4:01 am
I would like to debate a little the second point. So he considers that someone from a hot climate cannot be a scholar, even though Mercury might be Almuten Figuris in the native’s chart. The Sun burning the brain is a rather hair-brained argument, but I do see his point. I would argue that countries from hot climate, in Ibn Ezra’s time, didn’t have paper at all, and without paper you cannot read or write. They may use clay for writing, but I don’t know much about Ethiopia from a millennium ago. Let’s try to not judge from our modern perspective, but rather from an old point of view. The Sun’s heat being bad for brain is rather interesting to me. So he may refer to Sun’s combustion to the Moon, the natural significator of brain?
September 18, 2015 @ 8:52 am
Interesting point you raise, but not historically supported. One doesn’t need paper to read and write, as you say; see clay tablets dating back 6000 years. Ibn Ezra probably never made it to Lalibela in Ethiopia, which houses Bibles dating back at least to Ibn Ezra’s lifetime…