In addition to being divided into qualities, the zodiac is also divided into four substances or "elements": fire, earth, air and water.
According to Greek philosophers of the 5th century BCE, the four elements form the basis of all being, although Aristotle (4th century BCE) added a 5th element, "ether", the substance from which the heavens were made. The four terrestrial elements originate from the archetypal qualities of dry, wet, hot, and cold. Fire is dry and hot, air is wet and hot, water is wet and cold, whereas the earth element is dry and cold.
The four temperaments are also reflected in the elements. The choleric equates to fire, sanguine to air, phlegmatic to water, and melancholic to earth. Greek astrologers assigned the twelve signs of the zodiac to the four elements, too. This classification still remains valid in western astrology.
Fire and air are classified as masculine elements, embodying the active and positive principle; with earth and water embodying the feminine, receptive "negative" pole. The terms "positive" and "negative" are not used in any kind of judgmental sense, however; but simply as contrasts between two polarities.
Fire is associated with the signs of Aries, Leo and Sagittarius. Fire stands for dynamism, energy and power. Fire is the initiator of actions and a force for change. It transforms matter into energy, a process which can result in the radiation of pleasant warmth or destructive heat. On a spiritual level, fire symbolises the divine spark or spiritual purification. This idea finds expression in the image of the fires of purgatory as a place of transformation.
The element that comes after fire in the zodiac is earth. This principle is embodied in the signs of Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn. Earth forms the material basis for all human life, including physical well-being. The challenge facing the earth signs is to find appropriate expression for material needs beyond mere avarice on the one side and disdain on the other.
Air is represented by Gemini, Libra and Aquarius. Air stands for contact with others, intellectual capacity, as well as a way to higher spiritual understanding. Air stimulates clarity of thought and the ability to make decisions. Without clarity of thought no insight is possible, and this is one of the elements of meditative contemplation in many wisdom teachings considered to be a necessary prerequisite to gain access to spiritual dimensions.
The water signs are Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces. Water stands for the emotions and intuition. In nature water is the origin of all life. It is the only element symbolised in astrology exclusively by animals, an allusion to the fact that in water intuition and instinct are more powerful than intellect. On a spiritual level, Water becomes the carrier of the all-encompassing divine love. The ancient myth of the holy grail is an expression of this.
The Elements in Eastern Astrology
Chinese astrology uses five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Wood is the first element which, when burned to ashes through fire, becomes earth. The earth brings forth veins of metal out of which water flows, which in turn nourishes the earth which brings forth wood and other plant life. Each element equates with one of the five classical planets: Jupiter with wood, Mars with fire, Saturn with earth, Venus with metal and Mercury with water.
Hindu astrology also uses the elements of ancient Greece, but in somewhat different ways.  A fifth element, akasha, translated as Aristotle's "ether" or "space", is similar to air in western astrology, but specifically indicates the creative principle. People's temperaments and phyical health may be described as kapha (earthy and a bit watery), vata (airy, with some ether), or pitta (firey). Akasha relates to the planet Jupiter yet is ruled by Venus. The firey planets are the sun and Mars. Mercury is earthy (cf. its rulership of Virgo); whereas the "feminine" planets, the moon and Venus, are watery. Saturn is the air planet (the traditional ruler of Aquarius in western astrology.) The Hindus' system of assigning different elements to people's health conditions is the basis of their Ayurvedic system of nutrition and medicine.
- Wikipedia: Astrology and the classical elements
- The four Elements and the Signs (Astrodienst - brief Introduction)
- Psychological Types (According to Carl Gustav Jung; Astrodienst)
- Hippocrates, Humours & Temperament-Theory in the Traditional Teachings of Astrology and Medicine (Deborah Houlding on Skyscript, 2013)
- As a Lute out of Tune Robert Burton’s Melancholy (Noga Arikha on Robert Burton's theory of melancholy 1621; 2013)
- Wikipedia: Wu Xing (The five-element theory of Chinese philosophy)
- Stephen Arroyo: Astrology, Psychology & the Four Elements 191 pages. CRCS, Reno (Nevada) 1975; 1979 ISBN 978-0916360016
- Dorian Gieseler Greenbaum: Temperament - Astrology's Forgotten Key 236 pages. The Wessex Astrologer, 2005 ISBN 978-1902405179 Excerpts Review
Notes and References
- William Levacy, 1999, Beneath a Vedic Sky: A Beginner's Guide to the Astrology of Ancient India, Hay House.
- Meaning "Go away, melancholy!" ("I" is derived from the Latin word "ire")