The four elements in 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.

The four elements: fire, earth, air and water

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:

  1. Fire when cooled becomes Earth
  2. Earth when dissolved becomes Water
  3. Water when evaporated becomes Air
  4. 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:

  1. Fire when extinguished becomes Air
  2. Air when condensed becomes Water
  3. Water when hardened and thickened becomes Earth
  4. Earth when shattered via nuclear power becomes Fire

The natural cycle of Fire ➝ Earth ➝ Water ➝ Air makes sense from the physical standpoint:

The cycle of the elements and their qualities

The 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.

Distribution of the Elements along the Zodiac circle, incorrect version

Distribution of the Elements along the Zodiac circle, correct version

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.

Zodiac ruling planets

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.

Distribution of the Elements around the Zodiac wheel, step 1

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.

Distribution of the Elements around the Zodiac wheel, step 2

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.

Distribution of the Elements around the Zodiac wheel, step 3

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.

Introducing Triplicities

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:

  1. Aries is the beginning of fire, Leo is the progress and increase, Sagittarius is the end.

  2. Taurus is the beginning of the earth, Virgo is the progress and increase, Capricorn is the end.

  3. Gemini is the beginning of the air, Libra is the progress and increase, Aquarius is the end.

  4. Cancer is the beginning of water, Scorpio is the progress and increase, Pisces is the end.

The Zodiac triplicity of Fire. The signs of Aries, Leo, Saggitarius.

The Zodiac triplicity of Earth. The signs of Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn.

The Zodiac triplicity of Air. The signs of Gemini, Libra, Aquarius.

The Zodiac triplicity of Water. The signs of Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces.

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.

The Zodiac sign triplicities of Fire, Earth, Air and Water