How the four Elements rule over the Zodiac signs
Each and every of the four alchemical Elements — namely Fire, Earth, Water and Air — have rulership over corresponding Zodiac signs. But if we ask the question “How does it work?” it suddenly becomes not so simple. This exploration of the mysteries of the Elements and the Zodiac wheel will lead us to understanding of the principles of Cosmic Fire and Cosmic Waters.
Each of the twelve Zodiac signs are traditionally said to be ruled by one of the four alchemical Elements — Fire, Earth, Water or Air. This approach divides the Zodiac wheel into four groups of three signs — four Fiery signs, four Earthy signs, four Watery signs and four Airy signs.
It is simple and natural to think along the lines:
- Aries is a fiery sign, it is also ruled by Mars
- Taurus is an earthy sign, ruled by Venus
- Gemini is an airy sign, ruled by Mercury
- Cancer is a watery sign, ruled by the Moon
… and so on.
But there is a catch! It is not so obvious why the Zodiac signs were assigned rulership of the Elements in that specific order. What’s more, if we attempt to do it ourselves, we’re likely to not produce the same result… at least from the first attempt.
The four Elements
Many an alchemical treatise state that there are four Elements and all things made out of combination of those. Every body is a combination of certain amounts of fire, earth, water and air.
Some time ago we have discussed the Elements in the story “The four Elements and their powers”. The story touched upon the basic qualities of the Elements: Fire is hot, Earth is dry, Water is cold, Air is moist.
The Elements are not static, they are transmutable, meaning that applying certain forces one element can be transformed into its neighbour:
- Fire when cooled becomes Earth
- Earth when dissolved becomes Water
- Water when evaporated becomes Air
- Air when kindled becomes Fire
Is reverse possible? Yes, it is possible albeit not as “natural”. This is what the modern physics is dabbling with:
- Fire when extinguished becomes Air
- Air when condensed becomes Water
- Water when hardened and thickened becomes Earth
- Earth when shattered via nuclear power becomes Fire
The natural cycle of
Fire ➝ Earth ➝ Water ➝ Air makes sense from the physical standpoint:
Fire ➝ Earth ➝ Water ➝ Air sequence is the basis of many natural cycles:
- seasonal cycle
- day and night cycle
The story about “ubiquitous cycles of everything” has explored this topic in depth.
Now that we are equipped with the
Fire ➝ Earth ➝ Water ➝ Air (or FEWA) sequence, let’s try to wrap it around the Zodiac circle.
First attempt to assign the Elements
As we always do, let’s begin from Aries since it’s the Vernal Equinox sign and is usually associated with the number one.
Using the usual
Fire ➝ Earth ➝ Water ➝ Air (FEWA) sequence gives us a problem right away: Gemini isn’t watery and Cancer isn’t airy! Cancer is ruled by the Moon and is watery, while Gemini is airy.
The correct sequence turns out to be
Fire ➝ Earth ➝ Air ➝ Water (or FEAW). But this sequence “breaks” the natural order of the transmutations of the Elements. Where is the problem?
The unity of Cosmic Fire and Cosmic Waters
It turns out that the key to solve this Zodiacal puzzle is contained in the story “How the classical planets rule the zodiac signs.”
In anything metaphysical or alchemical, a useful reminder is to always start with the state of unity and then gradually introduce duality.
Unity is represented by a circle, it has no beginning and no end, no side can be truly left or truly right. The circle symbolises a state of undifferentiated equilibrium.
To achieve the state of duality and thus “kickstart” the manifested universe, we need to draw a line that would split the circle into two halves, or polarities. Those polarities will represent light and darkness, day and night, masculine and feminine, fire and water principles.
Symbolically this line can be drawn between the signs of Cancer and Leo. It makes sense since Leo is ruled by the Sun and Cancer is ruled by the Moon. This way we are beginning with the two luminaries that rule over both day and night.
The Sun entering the tropical sign of Cancer marks the beginning of summer (the 22nd of June) when the warmth arrives. Then follows the tropical sign of Leo (the 23rd of July) with its heat.
Equipped with this new model, we can venture forward and make the second attempt at distributing the Elements along the Zodiac wheel.
The sign of Cancer ruled by the Moon receives the Water Element. The sign of Leo ruled by the Sun receives the Fire Element. What’s next?
Following the circle of transmutations of the Elements, fire gets cooled into the earth, water gets evaporated into the air.
And that’s pretty much it, we can repeat the letters around the circle to get the full mapping of the Elements to the Zodiac signs.
This method also produced a nice three-fold division of the circle along the fire-water boundaries. In ancient mythology the two core principles — one of Cosmic Fire and another of Cosmic Waters — are seen as the foundational forces out of which everything has been created. Both duality and unity of God-father and God-mother.
Grouping of the twelve Zodiac signs in accordance with the four Elements produces four groups of three signs that are called the triplicities.
Each triplicity corresponds to one of the Elements. The Zodiac signs within each triplicity are ruled by the Elements and receive their energy in a distributed manner:
Aries is the beginning of fire, Leo is the progress and increase, Sagittarius is the end.
Taurus is the beginning of the earth, Virgo is the progress and increase, Capricorn is the end.
Gemini is the beginning of the air, Libra is the progress and increase, Aquarius is the end.
Cancer is the beginning of water, Scorpio is the progress and increase, Pisces is the end.
An interesting observation is that this time fire starts with Aries, how come? It does make sense since Aries, being the sign of vernal Equinox, marks the beginning of spring when the fire of the Sun starts to melt frozen waters. The sign of Leo, or rather Leo – Cancer boundary, marks the culmination of the movement of fire.
Two lines to remember
A good reflection that follows out of this story is that in astrology we tend to mostly take the Aries – Pisces division as the foundational “zero” point. Bringing the Leo – Cancer dividing line into our awareness enables astrologers to fully address the notions of unity and duality — as well as masculine – feminine dialectic of cosmic creative principles behind any astrological chart.
Appendix: A printable triplicities infographic
Click on the image below to download a high-resolution poster image of the Zodiac triplicities. Print it and use it to memorise the triplicities and dive deeper into the Zodiac signs.
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Hi A very interesting article but how does it work for the southern hemisphere and tropics? Astrologers seem to forget or dismiss the reality of the southern hemisphere south of Tropic of Caprocorn and at the tropics between Cancer and Capricorn where seasons don’t really exist.
Astrology belongs to the category of metaphysics, as opposed to the hard-fact science. Hence all of astrological principles are of symbolical nature and thus don’t have 100% translation into the physical reality.
Discovery of the Zodiac happened in the Northern Hemisphere where the obvious fact of having four seasons and transitions between them was a great help to establish the four elements and cyclical relationship between them.
Astrology is the study of time where different periods bring forward different qualitative experiences. For obvious physical reasons the Norther Hemisphere reflects those principles in a direct inconspicuous manner as opposed to the tropical equatorial regions. The Southern Hemisphere simply didn’t have landmass that was populated enough.
The Zodiac represents the archetypal cosmic movement that is more evident in the Northern Hemisphere. So it got noticed and formalised that way. The Four Elements is an elegant model and so far hasn’t seen a more compleling alternative, but that may change in future, who knows!
The reason the zodiac favors the northern hemisphere is simple.
All of India, all of China, the top half of Africa and the top third of South America are all above the equator … thus historically 90% of humanity lived north of the equator and they could see the northern pole star … but not the southern pole star region.
China has four houses for the northern constellations and did not add a fifth house for the southern constellations until I believe the 11th century AD.
Another simple fact is that before the zodiac even existed the northern pole stars were revered. The northern pole star was the immovable center around which all other stars rotated … UNTIL that fateful day somebody noticed that the immovable center moved and hence a new narrative was needed to account for what one day in the future would become precession of the equinoxes.
The shifting of the immovable center from the celestial axis to the ecliptic axis identified the ecliptic onto which the 12 signs of the zodiac are placed …
But first you needed a POLE star as reference … long long long before the zodiac was even considered by the imagination of man …
Great article, thankyou for your insights. I enjoy the depth to which you explore these topics.
I found it interesting to observe that, when regarding the triplicities and the 4 “ending” signs (Sagittarius, Cap, Aquarius, Pisces,) the two signs which are sandwiched in the middle of this “matured” section of the Zodiacal wheel are Capricorn and Aquarius. This seems fitting when considering the Saturnian traits the two signs take on from their Ruler. (Its also intriguing to notice how Aquarius-Capricorn is positioned opposite Cancer-Leo on the line of duality you’ve shown in this article)
Equally, I envision Sagittarius and Pisces, being ruled by equally wise Jupiter, taking on more of a youthful and outgoing air of the “beginning” and “staying” energies of their neighbours Aries, and Scorpio. This seems to correspond with Jupiter’s archetype nicely.
Just some musings I wanted to share after reading this article! Thanks again!
Great high quality content, thank you!