|The Four Elements|
Symbolically, the number four finally brings us to the level of manifestation, matter and substance. The word 'nature' means 'that which is born', and all birth into nature is symbolised by the crossing of opposites. This is why we use the term the 'cross of matter', which limits us to our finite physical existence in both time and space, symbolised by the symbol for the Earth itself - the cross within the circle:
It is the four primary orientations, north, south, east and west, which give us our bearings and which make space and time comprehensible. Every birth chart is also a reflection of the symbol for the Earth, describing precisely the nature of the specific material, solid, concrete world into which each of us is born and through which each of us must manifest ourselves. Our astrological birth chart describes the moment in time and space when each of us takes on a separate physical existence. Whether or not we remain connected to the realms of spirit and soul, from this moment onwards we are literally physically alone in our separate bodies and physically mortal, which implies that one day we will die. The moment of birth is therefore a monumental event, and the moment when our birth charts become 'quartered' by two pairs of opposites - the east/west horizon (ASC/DES) and the north/south meridian (MC/IC).
It was the Greek philosopher-mathematician Empedocles (c. 450 BCE) who first established the system of the four primary elements, fire, air, water and earth. Drawing on the work of his predecessors, his proposal was based very simply and rationally on observation of the qualities of the physical world, which fell into two pairs of opposites: wet and dry, hot and cold. Fire was considered to result from the combination of dry and hot, air was created from the hot and wet, water from the cold and wet, and earth from the cold and dry. Each of the four elements was also associated with one of the four seasons. The earth was seen to be the densest and heaviest element, upon which the water - the sea, lakes and rivers - lay. Both earth and water have mass and weight, and their direction is downwards, which explains why these two elements came to be associated with negative, feminine, yin attributes. Above the earth and water is the air with its natural movement upwards, and above the air are the fiery heavens, the Sun, stars and planets, which explains why the elements of air and fire came to be associated with positive, masculine, yang attributes.
The Greeks considered that life itself depends upon a combination of these four elements. Earth is the substance or physical body, and the food which is needed to maintain this existence. Water is essential for life, and the major component of our bodies and of the earth itself. Respiration, breathing in an out, is another central condition of life, as is the warmth and light of the Sun. Since these four elements existed in the external world, it followed that they also existed within each human being. The life force itself, the force which holds all these four elements together in a discrete living being, is the quintessence, or the fifth principle, or prana, or whatever term we use to describe the life force. It was understood that when a living being died, each of the elements returned to its physical source and the quintessence, or life force, escaped back to its eternal source. This is the basis of the system of the four elements.
Audience: Sorry, Clare, but you mentioned five elements, not four.
Clare: The fifth element is known as the 'quintessence', the force itself which holds all of the four elements together in a living being. We could describe the quintessence as including both the spirit and the soul, which are described in the first three levels of the Tetractys. At death, the soul is released from the body and is reunited with spirit, with the source from which it originally emerged. These ideas belong to the Hermetic and Neoplatonic schools of thought, and have been carried down through the ages by the wisdom traditions. Physical and psychological health was considered to be the result of an elemental balance within the individual, and illness the result of a marked imbalance. The horoscope indicates the natural emphasis of elements we were born with - and any marked imbalance goes a long way towards describing our particular mode of functioning in the world.
The elements and the four humours
The idea of the four temperaments, or humours was established around 400 BCE by Hippocrates at the great medical school on the island of Kos. Greek medicine was based on the four humours, a system which was also used to describe the human temperament, psyche and psychology. This system has found its way into our language and, although they are gradually becoming more archaic, we still use the words phlegmatic, sanguine and melancholy to describe someone's 'temperament' or when we refer to someone as being 'temperamental'. Likewise, we still describe a person as being 'in their element' or 'in good humour' or 'out of humour'. You can see from this model how well the psychosomatic connection was originally understood.
Audience: But don't we generally use the term 'psychosomatic' to describe an imaginary illness?
Clare: Yes, that's right, and the term 'psychosomatic' is often used in a derogatory way to describe someone who we believe is a hypochondriac. However, the word literally describes the fundamental connection between the 'psyche' and the 'soma', or the body and the mind, or soul. The Greeks would never have thought of separating the physical from the emotional condition of a patient, and in this sense their medicine was truly holistic. This system of classification was used throughout medieval and renaissance Europe and sits very comfortably alongside astrology. Indeed, it was a requirement for physicians to study astrology as part of their training.
Audience: They still do that in some places.
The four elements in astrology
Clare: Now that we have reached the level of the four elements, we can add the final layer to the descriptions of the twelve zodiac signs. Once again, the descriptions of our elemental and psychological typology are reflected in our language. The element of earth is literally tangible, solid, stable, dependable, reliable, supportive, heavy and concrete. And these are the same words we might use to describe a person with an emphasis of planets in earth signs. We might even say that they are 'well-grounded' or have their 'feet on the ground' or are 'down to earth'. Equally, in birth charts where the earth element is weak or absent, we might be tempted to suggest that they 'get real' or that they are 'unearthed'. Fire is literally hot, devouring, radiant, volatile, expansive and explosive. All these words can be used to describe a person with an emphasis of planets in fire signs. Air can be breezy, draughty, dry or stale, words which can be used to describe a person with an emphasis of planets in air signs. Such a person might be 'a breath of fresh air' or 'full of hot air' (a combination of fire and air) or have a 'dry sense of humour'. Water is wet, fluid, flowing, dissolving, flooding, dripping, stormy, supportive and healing, all words which describe a person with an emphasis of planets in water signs. Such a person might be described as 'a drip' or 'wet' or 'fluid'.
The four elements in alchemy are portrayed in Johann Daniel Mylius' Philosophia reformata (1622) as representing the four stages of the alchemical opus. From left to right are earth, water, air and fire.
Jung's psychological types
For Jung, the number four, or the quaternity, provided a description of the way the conscious mind takes its bearings:
Jung's model of the four psychological types is expressed as two pairs of opposites:
As you can see from this diagram of the fourfold structure of the psyche, the intuition function is the polar opposite of the sensation function and the thinking function is the polar opposite of the feeling function. Although there are undoubtedly strong parallels between different fourfold models of the psyche, it is important not to try and reduce them to each other, since each has its own internal integrity. For Jung, 'It is one's psychological type which from the outset determines and limits a person's judgment.'  Psychological types are classes or groups of people with similar reaction patterns, typical attitudes that constitute:
Jung believed that if a particular psychological function was conscious and well developed, it was likely that the opposite function would remain unconscious, unknown and undifferentiated, containing powerful 'shadow' qualities which can often end up dominating the life of that individual. Intuitives are therefore likely to have a sensation shadow and vice versa, and thinking types are likely to have a feeling shadow and vice versa.
There is an analogy between this system and the psychological expression of the four elements in astrology. Strongly developed fire types will often have an earth shadow and vice versa, and strongly developed air types will often have a water shadow and vice versa. We will look at this more closely when we come to study the particular elements themselves. Of course, if we are lucky enough to have two opposite functions well-developed and conscious, then they can function very, very effectively together. However, as is normally the case with opposites, one side of the spectrum tends to be either projected, or unconscious, in which case it will often fall into the shadow.
Audience: You are using the term shadow to describe something which is unconscious.
Clare: Yes. Given that the psyche is, in principle at least, capable of being in balance and harmony, anything which remains unconscious does not simply go away, but falls into the shadow, from where it takes on a life of its own, unmediated by the ego. Our shadow qualities are often extremely obvious to others but, unfortunately, never to ourselves. Alternatively, we will 'project' our shadows onto the world or onto other people, not seeing these qualities as parts of our own psyche, since anything which we don't recognise in ourselves we tend to meet in the outside world.
Audience: So our task is to make all the elements conscious, whether or not we have planets in each of the elements?
Clare: Yes, that is true, assuming we are all striving to become fully conscious, whole and complete - although whether this is actually possible is another matter! Certainly we can become much more self-aware by knowing our own personal psychological biases, and less likely to blame the world or other people for our own failings, but this is very difficult indeed to do.
Audience: So we cut off our shadows, and then find that we are confronted with them anyway?
Clare: Exactly. Now, at the risk of overwhelming you with too many fourfold models all at once, there is one more I want to introduce before we move on to discuss the signs of the zodiac. It provides a further dimension, a description of four different types of truth, which I think is very valid to astrology. This is found in the quadrant model devised by the contemporary writer and integrative psychologist-philosopher Ken Wilber.
For Wilber , the quest for knowledge "has almost universally consisted of two different and apparently conflicting paths", our subjective experience of the world and our objective descriptions of the world, which appear to be at odds with each other:
For Wilber there are two different types of subjective experience, individual and collective. Individual, subjective experience refers to personal meaning, interpretation, values and truth. Collective, subjective experience refers to our shared sense of belonging, shared values and mutual understandings. The right hand side of this model describes two different approaches to objective reality, one individual and one collective. Individual objective reality arrives at the truth via 'empirical deduction from objectively observable facts'. Collective objective reality concerns whole systems such as large organisations, field theory, and so on.
The quadrant model above appears to provide a remarkably accurate description of the relative 'truths' of each of the four elements, which I have added to the diagram above. Wilber writes that each of these quadrants has its own truth and its own language, which form a crucial part of the whole picture. Each has its particular contribution to make and its particular weaknesses. The aim of the integrative approach is to become aware of each of these domains. 'If any system of thought attempts to ignore or deny any of the four validity claims, then those ignored truths actually reappear in the system as an internal and massive self contradiction.'  If we can understand that each of these orientations is equally valid and that none of them possesses the whole truth, then we are much more likely to be able to understand both ourselves and others, and less likely to judge or blame others for not being like us.
Now that we have set the scene by exploring the general meaning of the polarities, modes and elements separately, we are ready to move on to explore the zodiac signs themselves.
Copyright ©2005 by Clare Martin.
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