There will be stars: the life and death of Robert H. Schmidt

Ancient technical texts are very hard to work with.  Not merely do you need the usual Greek and Latin language skills, and a feel for the customs of the ancient world.  You also need a specialised understanding of the discipline in question.  Not many of us have knowledge of alchemy, or farming methods, or architecture.  So the manuals on these subjects tend to be understudied and few are translated into modern languages.

I’ve written a couple of posts about Project Hindsight.  This is a project undertaken by people interested in astrology in modern times, but consists of translations of ancient astrological texts.  Such an enterprise can only be valuable, and the collection of translations deserves to be more widely known.  Most are out-of-print but can be obtained as PDFs.

But this week I learned that the principal translator, Robert H. Schmidt, has died.  He was only 67.  He was an independent scholar, and he did the sort of things we do here, so it is very much appropriate for us to commemorate him.

He dedicated his life to ancient astrology, and especially hellenistic astrology; to understand what it was, and translating the primary sources so that others could work.  In most cases he prepared the first ever translation of the sources into a modern language.  He self-published his translations, which inevitably means that they did not find their way into academic research libraries.  This is unfortunate, and it means that they remain obscure.

The funeral home has a web-page with an obituary here, written by Bill Johnston, who also supplied me with some additional information.

Born on December 22, 1950, Robert H. Schmidt obtained a scholarship to study mathematical physics at M.I.T. But he chose instead to go to St John’s College in Annapolis as part of their “Great Books” programme to read philosophy.  There he was a student of Jacob Klein, one of Heidegger’s students.  But he also learned the importance of reading primary texts in the original language and “discovered his love of the Greek verb”.  Instead of pursuing an academic career, he chose to become an independent scholar, and to translate ancient astrological texts.

He settled in Cumberland, in Maryland.  To support himself he initially worked as a printer, and in a range of other blue-collar jobs, but by middle age he was well-enough known to support himself through his publications and recordings of lectures and seminars – presumably on the subject of astrology, although Mr Johnston does not say so.

A draft of one of his papers, The Problem of Astrology (2000), may be found online here. It repays reading by those seeking to understand what he did intellectually.  At one point he says something which perhaps explains how a university-trained philosopher came to be interested in astrology. He asks what we actually mean by the word “astrology”?

Why the title “Metaphysics of Metaphysics?” [as a description of astrology] Now I chose that title very deliberately because, in my mind, metaphysics has two completely different meanings. My background being in the study of ancient and modern philosophy, when I heard the word metaphysics, I always understood it to mean the study of Being, as it was for the Greeks. It was a great surprise to me when I first went into a bookstore and looked for the metaphysical section expecting to find some new books on Aristotle, and found instead books on crystals, out-of-body experiences, meditation, occultism, and astrology. This was long before I was involved in the astrological world, by the way.

…  There is a statement by a Neo-Platonist philosopher named Iamblichus in a strange book called On The Mysteries. In this book another neo-Platonist Porphyry is directing a number of questions about the Egyptian religion to an Egyptian priest.

In the course of the answering of these questions the priest says that the men who translated the Egyptian sacred writings into Greek — and these sacred writings included the their magical, alchemical, and astrological writings, all generally attributed to one of their sages names Hermes — the men who translated these sacred writings into Greek were men who were trained in Greek philosophy, presumably the philosophies of the Athenian Greeks Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics.

Now, this is a very astonishing statement and it made a great impression on me.

Such are the chances of life.

Another article is here.  More materials can be found on his website, Project Hindsight.

Robert H. Schmidt died on December 6th, 2018. Mr Johnston writes:

A GoFundMe site has been set up on Ellen’s behalf to help with medical bills and funeral expenses at https://www.gofundme.com/support-robert-schmidt039s-medical-costs. We would like to give our sincere thanks to the many people who have contributed so far, and for the outpouring of condolences and expressions of appreciation for Bob and his invaluable contributions to the art and science of astrology through his remarkable research over the last two decades.

Few of us would find it possible to read an ancient astrological text with any enjoyment.  Yet he evidently did.  Most people who read such a text would find themselves baffled by the technical language.  But he was not baffled.  I do not myself possess any overview of the subject of Hellenistic Astrology; and evidently Mr Schmidt found the same, for he composed one.  He made all these translations, and did so from hard, granite-like material in Greek and Latin.  The world owes him a debt for so doing.  Few professional academics have ever even attempted such a  thing.  He did not receive recognition or honour for what he did.  But I suspect that little that has been written on astrology in the universities in the last 30 years will be half as useful or well-informed as his little series of self-published books.

Thank you, Mr Schmidt, for all your efforts.  You sought truth in the heavens.  May you find mercy and the real source of all heavenly truth on the Last Day.  Requiescat in pace.

The “Apotelesmata” of Apollonius of Tyana – now online in English

Anthony Alcock has sent in a translation of a curious anonymous Greek text in 8 chapters, concerning the Apotelemata (Talismans) of Apollonius of Tyana.  The content is astrological, concerned with names and words.

The work appears in medieval Greek astrological manuscripts, but also in a Syriac version as an appendix to the gnostic apocryphal Testament of Adam, itself perhaps dating from the 2-5th centuries AD.  There are also Armenian versions of part of it, themselves clearly translated from an unknown Arabic text.[1]

A Greek text was printed with Latin translation by Francois Nau in the Patrologia Syriaca 1, pp. 1362-1425, back in 1907, and another by Franz Boll in Codicum Astrologorum Graecorum 7: Codices Germanici, p.174-181, in 1908.

The translation is here:

I was able to find some discussion of this work in an article by Christopher P. Jones, “Apollonius of Tyana in Late Antiquity”, in: S.F. Johnson, Greek Literature in Late Antiquity: Dynamism, Didacticism, Classicism, 2016, p.57 f. The article is online here.

Jones writes (paragraphing mine):

“… Boll thought the work an ‘impudent fiction’ composed shortly before Eusebius’ Reply to Hierocles, while Nau was inclined to defend it as genuine; the obviously later ingredients, such as the reference to a church built by Apollonius in Tyana, he explained as later interpolations. The work cannot be by Apollonius and, as Speyer has noted, must be much later than Boll supposed, though it is still an interesting document deserving of consideration here. …

The writer reveals his Christianity at every point, both in his subject-matter and in his choice of words. He thinks that Apollonius was born early enough to predict the birth of Christ, and even (if the obvious interpretation is correct) that he founded a church in Tyana.

As for language, ναός denoting a Christian church is first apparently found in Eusebius, and προσκυνητός seems almost entirely a Christian usage. For στοιχειόω in the sense of ‘enchant’, ‘perform talismanic operations upon’, Sophocles’ Greek Lexicon of the Roman and Byzantine Periods cites no example before Theophanes Continuatus (not earlier than the ninth century).

A span of 800–1200 is presumably about right for the composition of the work. It may be relevant that Tyana was an episcopal see as early as 325, and after being lost to the Arabs was recovered for the Byzantine empire in the tenth century; the site has also produced remains of a church datable to that same century. 

Though irrelevant to Apollonius’ fortunes in late antiquity, therefore, the treatise shows the same acceptance of him into Byzantine Christianity that is implied inter alia by his appearance in art as a prophet of Christ.

Thank you, Dr Alcock, for making this interesting text more widely accessible.

  1. [1]M. E. Stone, Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and Armenian Studies, 2006, p.473 f.

New book on Hellenistic astrology

Chris Brennan has written to tell me about his new book, on Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune.

Ancient astrology is something that I ought to know about, but don’t.  There’s a whole class of ancient texts like Vettius Valens which incorporate information.  Probably if we knew more about it, we would see references to it in all sorts of works.

Chris himself is an astrologer, and well aware of the hostility that the profession attracts.  But a book written by someone who actually knows how to cast a horoscope, ancient or modern, must be a useful insight to those who need to know.

Here’s the description.

Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune is a survey of the history, philosophy, and techniques of Hellenistic astrology, which is a tradition of horoscopic astrology that was practiced in the Mediterranean region from approximately the first century BCE through the seventh century CE.

Although Hellenistic astrology is the source of many of the modern traditions of astrology that flourish around the world today, it is only recently that many of the surviving texts of this tradition have become available again for astrologers to study.

During this process many techniques and concepts have been recovered that were lost in the transmission of astrology over the past 2000 years.

The product of over a decade of research, this book provides one of the first comprehensive treatments of Hellenistic astrology in modern times. … Learn the history and origins of western astrology. Explore the philosophical foundations of astrological practice. Become acquainted with the works of the most influential astrologers of antiquity. Understand the original conceptual motivations for many techniques that astrologers use today. Recover powerful timing techniques that were lost during the transmission of astrology. 50+ diagrams and tables, which provide rich visual illustrations of the concepts covered. 100+ example charts, which demonstrate how the techniques work in practice. A detailed bibliography of works related to the study of ancient astrology.

A table of contents is available at the site, and the price is $48.  Worth a look for those interested in ancient Astrology!