Life and Work of Abu Ma’shar

The Persian astrologer Abu Ma’shar  (787-886 AD) had a profound effect on Western astrology and the modern-day student of the Western Predictive Tradition will be well rewarded by close study of his works and their influence.1

With these words Robert Zoller begins his treatise dedicated on the life and work of the wonderful astrologer by name Abu Ma’shar.

In my study of traditional astrology so far, there are few astrologers who were able to take my attention for a closer study and Abu Ma’shar is one of them. His astrology is very insightful, concrete and rational. Once you try to incorporate it in your astrological practice tools, it is hard to forget about it, jut because it is so natural and fluent.

This will be the first of the series I’m planning to write on Abu Ma’shar’s approach to astrology.
In this article I will try to give a broader scope of his life and works, his influences and influences on him, and in the later series I will give practical examples of his delineation style and approach.

His Life

The full name of Abu Ma’shar is Abu Ma’shar Ja’far ben Muhammad al-Balkhi, was born 10th of august in year 787 in town Balkh, an ancient city on the territory of today’s Afghanistan. Today it is a small city in the province of Bakhl, which is one of the 34 provinces in Afghanistan. But once it was a great city in the then famous Khorasan. Marco Polo says that Balkh was “noble and great city”. Khorasan was a name of territories during the caliphate in 750 AD. It was part of Persia, and bordered with Hind (Sind, which was culturally connected mostly to India [Hindustan]) on north-east. Hence the influence in Abu Ma’shar’s mundane (and natal) works from the Hindu’s Siddhantas in which the entire system of Hindu’s chronology was preserved. Abu Ma’shar used this chronology in his mundane calculations,  but I will speak more on this in the future series.

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Abu Ma’shar entered into the world of Astrology in his late years (around 47). He was at first criticizer of the subject but his teacher – the great polymath Al Kindi –  told him that a wise man should not criticize any subject before studying it.
It was this decisive moment when Abu Ma’shar decided to study Astrology and become his life since.

One of his students wrote about his master depicts him as an “omniscient wise men”.

There is an interesting anecdote written in the medieval treatise “Albumasar in Sadan”:

“Abu Ma’shar said that when a native’s 2nd house is impeded at birth and its ruler also unfortunate, the native never prospers. When asked why he never mentioned this in his writings, he said: “The sage who writes down all he knows is like an empty vessel. Nobody needs him and his reputation declines. He should keep some secrets to himself and communicate them only to his closest friends.”2

Abu Ma’shar died on 9 March 886 in Wasit, Iraq.

 

Abu Mashar’s works

  1. The Greater Introduction to Astrology (as I’m aware, no full translation of this work is made in English)
  2. The Flores Astrologicae (translated in English by Benjamin Dykes)
  3. On the Great Conjunctions and on the revolutions of the world (translated in English by Keiji Yamamoto and Charles Burnett)
  4. On the Revolutions of Nativities (translated in English by Benjamin Dykes as the third of the  series of Persian Nativities).
  5. Thousands (translated in English by David Pingree)
  6. The Abbreviation of the Introduction to Astrology (there exist two translations, one made by Burnett,Yamamoto and Yano, and the newer made by Benjamin Dykes compiled together with Al-Qabisi)

Abu Ma’shar’s works served for a greater part of the Guido Bonatti’s monumental work Liber Astronomiae. He often quotes him using his Latinized name Albumasar.

In 1489 at Augsburg, Erhard Ratdolt published three of his works, the Greater Introduction to Astronomy in eight books, the Flowers and 8 books concerning great conjunctions and revolutions of the years.
John of Spain and Hermann of Dalmatia translated the Introduction and the French translation of Hagins the Jew made in 1273 (from which Peter of Abano translate portions for his compilation): “Le livre des revolutions desiecle”.

Another work cited by Peter of Abano and other medieval authors is “Albumasar in Sadan”, also called “Excerpts from the Secrets of Albumasar”. The famous orientalist and biographer Moritz Steinschneider is of opinion that the Latin translation of this work is a shortened or incomplete version of an Arabic original entitled al-Mudsakaret, or Memorabilia by Abu Sa’id Schadsan (corrupted into ‘Sadan’) who wrote down the answers of his teacher to his question. (Lynn Thorndike p.651).

There is also a work called Mysteries, in Greek “Musteria”, also preserved in Byzantine versions of Shadhan’s Mudhakarat and of Abu Ma’shar’s Kitab al-madkhai al-kabir.
Giuseppe Bezza has Italian translation of fragments of this work preserved in the Angelicus Graecus 29. The translation into English by Daria Dudziak can be found here:
http://www.cieloeterra.it/eng/eng.testi.metafore/eng.metafore.html

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(Albumazar: woodcut from his ‘Introductorium in Astronomiam’, Venice, 1506.)

Indian influence on Abu Ma’shar

The Art historian Aby Warbug gave a lecture dating in year 1922 on a congress in Rome on the study he had made on the eerie frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoja of Ferrare.
In that lecture he claims that the key to ‘read’ these images is astrology!

Abu Ma’shar was mentioned in this work of Amy Warburg as a “principle authority of medieval astrology”, whose work “Introductorium majus” (The Great Introduction) served to the compilation of Peter of Abano by name “Astrolabium magnum”.
In the lecture Amy Warburg is tracing the chronology of migration of the Sphaera Barbarica, and states that it was Abu Ma’shar’s work which is deserving praises for surviving of the decanic images which later on served to the mentioned compilation of Peter of Abano.

Amy suggests that the Sphaera was traveling from Asia Minor by way of Egypt to India, and found its way to Persia through the work of Abu Ma’shar (Great introduction).
This text was then translated by a Spanish Jew by name Ibn Ezra (supposedly John of Spain?). Then, his translation was translated into French by a person named Hagins, a Jewish Scholar, and Amy suggests that this French translation served as a basis for the Latin translation made by Peter of Abano in 1293.

In investigating the source of the decanic images, Amy is of opinion that Abu Ma’shar had an ‘unacknowledged’ Hindu source. This is the sixth century Indian author by name Varahamihira “whose Brihat jataka was Abu Ma’shar’s unacknowledged source”:

“The first Drekkana of sign Aries is a man with a white cloth tied around his loins, black, facing a person as if able to protect him, of a fearful appearance and of red eyes and holding an ax in his hand. This Drekkana is of the shape of a man and is armed. Mars (Bhauma) is its llord”.

Abu Ma’shar (Boll, Sphaera 497) writes:

“ The Indians say that in this decan a black man arises with red eyes, a man of powerful stature, courage, and greatness of mind; he wears a voluminous white garment, tied around his midriff with a cord; he is wrathful, stands erect, guards, and observes”.
(German Essays on Art History, Amy Warburg: Italian Art and International Astrology in the Palazzo Schifanoia Ferrara, Continuum International Publishing Group, Jun 1, 1988 edited by Gert Schiff p.242)

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(Decans of Aries from Astrolabium Magnum)

Lynn Thorndike in his “A history of magic and experimental science” says that although he was the most celebrated astrologer of 9th century Bagdad astrologers, he was also accused for plagiarism (p.649).
Some things never change?!

David Pingree, in his article published in Viator Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Volume 1, by name “The Indean and Pseudo-Indian Passages in Greek and Latin Astronomical and Astrological texts” compares texts in Abu Ma’shar’s “On Solar Revolutions” in the section dedicated to the Novenaria with that of the Hindu “Navamsas” as explained in III.9 of this book. I here refer to the translation by Benjamin Dykes in his series of Persian Nativities, but Pingree discusses the Arabian original by name “Kitab ahkam tahawil sini al-mawalid”.
Abu Ma’shar in that particular chapter tells us that in determining the ruler of the year, the Indian astrologers used the lord of the first navamsa in the sign in which the revolution of the years of the nativity has reached.

Pingree says: “Abu Ma’shar frequently in his other works in Arabic refers to Indian theories of one sort or another, but little of this material was translated into either Greek or Latin”. (p.173)

Pingree argues that Abu Ma’shar was one of the most important transmitters of a knowledge of Indian astrology among the Arabs. His pupil Shadhan says that his teacher had some direct contact with India.

Conclusion
Abu Ma’shar was highly influential in the years to come after his death.
He influenced as we said, Bonatti’s monumental work Liber Astronomiae, but he also influenced Morin even though Morin was probably not aware of the fact that he is reading and quoting an Arabian astrologer.
In quoting him in his Astrologia Gallica nr.23 dedicated to the Solar Revolutions, Morin thinks that he quotes some person by name (or pseudo-name) “Hermes the Philosopher”. At this moment I’m not sure whether Morin knew who the author was but decided not to quote the name due to his despise of Arabs (political reasons), or he truly didn’t knew about the fact that he is quoting the famous Abu Ma’shar.
Morin’s delineation style of the Solar Revolutions depends a lot on this treatise of Abu Mashar.
We saw also how Abu Ma’shar’s works was important for the persevering the ancient decanic images, which he probably took from Indians through some corrupted version of the original Greek or Babylonian sources. He has tremendous importance for the preservation of the knowledge of mundane astrology practiced in Perso-Arabian times, and has great value for us today.
It is important to note though that Abu Ma’shar preserved the ancient tradition of Hellenistic Astrology migrated through the Sassanian sources. Abu Ma’shar got his basics in astrology from Valens:

And when Abu Ma’shār transferred to the Great Introduction the elements (of astrology) from al-Bizīdhaj (The Anthology), he mentioned that the Persians called the first type which is equipollent (lit. corresponding in strength) potent, and the type which is corresponding in ascension he called corresponding in course, and he left the third type as it is. And when Abū Muḫammad al-Saifī has mentioned it and called the first type equipollent and he called it also corresponding in course. And he judged Abu Ma’shār (adversely) for calling the second type the ones corresponding in course, and he ascribed it to ignorance of the heavens. And in spite of his (Abu Ma’shār’s) telling the truth, he (Abū Muḫammad) still degrades Abu Ma’shār, and he does not give him his due esteem. For after all Abu Ma’shār does not deserve all this attribution of ignorance, even though he erred in his nomenclature here and followed partially the author of al-Bizīdhaj. (Valens)

This is documented in Al Biruni’s On Transits; but this can be observed as correct by knowing the similar approach to certain techniques Abu Ma’shar had with that of Valens. For example, taking into consideration the planet present into the sign in which the annual profections (or Solar Return Ascendant) came as a Lord of the Year, instead of the Ruler of the Sign. There exist other similarities of which I will talk in the next series dedicated on Abu Ma’shar.
If we trace this thread of influences, we can draw an interesting line between Valens, Abu Ma’shar and Morinus, who even though didn’t incorporated the “non-natural” segments of the astrological tools (such as the lots for example, which are numerical fractions and not real astronomical phenomena) into his Astrology, it is obvious that the approach in delineating is very similar.
I hope I was able to spark your curiosity for this very important astrologer, and your impatience to read some of my further articles on this subjects🙂

Footnotes:
1.Robert Zoller – Abu Ma’shar: Prince of Astrologers, p.4.
2.Thanks to Steven E. Birchfield for pointing me out this and the quote from Al-Biruni [later in the text].

Sources

– Robert Zoller – Abu Ma’shar: Prince of Astrologers (A New Library Publication, electronic edition 2002)
– German Essays on Art History, Amy Warburg: Italian Art and International Astrology in the Palazzo Schifanoia FerraraContinuum International Publishing Group, Jun 1, 1988 edited by Gert Schiff.
– Lynn Thorndike – “A history of magic and experimental science”. (Volume II, Columbia University Press,1923).
– David Pingree – “The Indean and Pseudo-Indian Passages in Greek and Latin Astronomical and Astrological texts”, published in Viator Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Volume 1.
– Abu Mashar – “On Solar Revolutions”, translated by Benjamin N. Dykes PhD, Persian Nativities III (The Cazimi Press 2010)
– Al-Bīrūnī on Transits – A study of an Arabic Treatise entitled Tamhīd al-mustaqarr li-taḫqīq ma´nā al-mamar (5:10-19 p6.), By Abū l-Rayḫān al-Bīrūnī Translated by Mohammad Saffouri & Adnan Ifram With commentary by Edward S. Kennedy, Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science, At the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, Islamic Mathematics and Astronomy Volume 33 ©1998

© Beyond The Heaven, Oct. 2012

 

6 thoughts on “Life and Work of Abu Ma’shar

  1. Hello!
    Of Albumasar in Sadan there is a complete Italian translation, and Thorndyke wrote an abridged version.

    About decans, the chapter (I have translated from Latin so i know quite well) it is divided into three parts, the decan according Persians, according Indians, according Greeks. So Albumasar in effect quotes his source. You can find tons of quotes about this, because after Warburg’s lecture, the story became very famous.
    margherita

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