The Four Elements, as we find them in astrology, are a legacy from Ancient Greece. Hence, there are four groups of three signs, and each group shares some common characteristics. The great genius Plato had this to say about them:
‘Before the heavens there existed fire, air, water, earth, which we suppose men to know … wherefore we are compelled to speak of water or fire, not as substances, but as qualities.’8
This last part is crucial – the Four Elements stand for the essential descriptions of how things behave, and that includes human beings. Our very nature, our psychology can thus be considered in terms of elemental qualities – just as we describe someone as ‘fiery’, ‘earthy’ or ‘breezy’ this latter obviously alluding the element of air. To the ancient Greek mind, a thing’s overall characteristics could be both spiritual and physical – the abstract qualities of elements expressed in human nature were no different in kind to the concrete ones. Actual ‘fire’ for instance, was not just perceived as having a ‘hot’ or explosive nature – it could be ‘found’ in someone who was querulous, hot-tempered or volatile. To the ancient Greek mind, the qualities of Water could be observed in the type of person who seemed to behave like water – who was deep, reflective and adaptable (water assumes the shape of whatever its poured into). Of course, sometimes water people could be – like the sea – cold and icy, or stormy and unpredictable, by temperament.
As mentioned, in astrology there are four elements divided across the twelve signs, with three signs sharing the nature of one particular element:
The Fire signs are Aries, Leo and Sagittarius.
The Earth signs are Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn.
The Air signs are Gemini, Libra and Aquarius.
The Water signs are Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces.
When we describe the Fire type, or the Earth type below, we mean that there are significant birth chart factors (like the ascendant, sun, moon, Venus etc.) in signs of that element. Someone with their sun, moon and rising sign all in Aries will be extremely Fiery! Most people are a combination of at least two or maybe three elements (and you could only find this out by having your chart properly calculated and interpreted). Often, there is an element that we’re ‘lacking in’ too – we all have our Achilles Heel, don’t we? (Whilst we’re strong in certain characteristics and qualities, we seem to lack others.)
The Four Elements and your psychological ‘type’.
Fire you can consider as a metaphor for the ‘spark’ of life, or that which represents the vital spirit in all living things. Where Fire predominates in a birth chart, that person will be very energetic, vivacious, wilful, volatile and restless – just like Fire itself . It is a Masculine element, too – meaning that it needs to express and define itself in an overt way in the environment. Fire people are not shrinking violets! On the contrary, they possess the qualities we mostly consider as extroversion – a personality that is enthusiastic, socially outgoing, demonstrative, ebullient and ‘colourful’, something that can be seen in all three Fire signs. Just like the element, Fire people bring warmth, light and illumination into other people’s lives, that is, the ability to excite, invigorate even inspire them. There is something manifestly alive about Fire signs
But what is really driving them? Well, the image of ‘restless fire’ gives us some idea. There is an old folk saying that ‘it is better to travel hopefully, than to arrive’ and this simple metaphor reflects virtually Fire’s entire philosophy of life: be happy to live for the moment, don’t worry about tomorrow; or, just enjoy the journey whilst it lasts. What concerns Fire is usually all in the present moment, or Now, or at least the possibilities for the immediate future. Fire isn’t quite so concerned with mulling over specific details – these can be very boring indeed.
To return to our journey metaphor, Fire is less concerned with the how’s and why’s of the destination, than with the broad, endless potential of the journey itself. (Which might take on a different destination as one travels – Fire people are changeable, according whatever mindset or mood they’re in.) They don’t like planning too far ahead or in too much detail – this is confining and limiting, better go with the flow and just enjoy things, right? Simply put, Fire doesn’t feel the need to be ‘armed’ with worked-out strategies and plans for the future. This might be seen as impractical or even irresponsible by other elements (especially Earth, who would despair of such an approach) but to Fire it is imprisoning.
Fire equates to what we might call Spirit in esoteric philosophy, and Spirit does not like to be bound by Matter – by everyday restrictions, rules, practical considerations. These threaten its freedom to move around, to express itself. To be.
Earth symbolises the material plane, or matter, the substance of which we’re all made. Fire may have a more spontaneous, spirit-like view of the world, but Earth rules what we normally call ‘reality’ – the common sense, everyday world of objects, facts, details. Earth doesn’t need intellectual abstractions or soul-like intuitions to tell it what is real! All it needs is its own five senses, hence Earth’s love of security and tangible reality. So where we find lots of personal planets in Earth signs, that person (like the element itself) is ‘solid’, grounded, dependable, enduring and persevering – the practical type you can rely on in a crisis, or if something needs fixing or organising.
Temperamentally, they tend to be less outwardly demonstrative, less socially ebullient or dramatic than Fire; instead they’re more placid, thoughtful and conservative with a small ‘c’. All we’ve said here is basically true of all three Earth signs (though each Earth sign does have its particular differences). Like the realm of matter and nature itself, Earth signs are patient, usually slower to act and more methodical than Fire. (You don’t see one season hurrying to get to the next: everything in nature is cyclical and organisms – like us – have to develop and grow in order to function properly.)
And just as the land (i.e. the earth) literally gives shape to something and defines it (like the outer structure of a body of water, say) so do Earth types seek to ‘give shape’ to the raw stuff of life by carefully organising and working with it. For what ultimately drives them is the need for structure. Structure can mean emphasising hard reality over hopes and dreams; stability over insecurity; the realistic and rational over the romantic, and detail over vague generalisation or woolly abstraction. (It can even mean being politically conservative, too.)
In short, Earth seeks definiteness – a kind of ‘knowing where you are’ in the world, so to speak. Thus, if we return to our travel metaphor and modify it for Earth we might get: it is better to travel with a map, extra supplies and a clear idea of what one will do on having arrived … This only seems like common sense to Earth. And they’re full of that! But Earth is also quietly determined to succeed, and is especially effective at materialising plans or in pursuit of possessions or wealth. (They positively invented the classy, expensive status symbol!)
The element of Air in astrology equates to what has been called the ‘mental plane’ by magicians and occultists, a realm purely of ideas, thoughts, concepts. (Without which nothing in human life could exist – everything had to start as an idea somewhere, right?) If Fire is the realm of spirit, Earth the realm of matter, then Air is the realm of the mind, forever seeking make sense of the world, to rise above the lower self’ and human irrationality. It is thus associated with our highest and most civilised aspects: the rational principle, pure reason, logical thinking, compromise, fairness, equality, justice, democracy and moral issues. All the ideals that would seem to make for a better world.
We can also gain plenty of knowledge about the typical Air type by examining how the natural ‘element’ itself behaves. Air, to function best, must move around, often swiftly and extensively – Air stagnates if trapped in a closed environment and isn’t something you can pin down. This suggests the speed with which ideas and knowledge can be disseminated, but also what drives Air types themselves – they need personal freedom, change and variety. Then, they truly become the proverbial ‘breath of fresh air’ – a refreshing change, inspiring and uplifting, which is usually the effect Air types have on others.
Like Fire, Air types are usually light hearted, sociable optimists and extroverts, (though much less egocentric than Fire). Think of how air can cover a wide area, spread out and cross boundaries – Air types do this metaphorically, reaching out and making connections with others. Fire, Earth and Water can, in their own way, be quite self absorbed. Not so for Air, whose function is to harmonise and get beyond individual differences – they often make the first move in social encounters, for instance.
In short, they are the great communicators among the four elements. Put simply, they will talk to anyone! And they do it with a natural ease and cool diplomacy envied by the other elements. (In any case, they are usually genuinely curious about other people.) Yet, for all their social grace and consideration of others, their style of communicating is usually impersonal, casual and emotionally detached. (This is evident in all the air signs, even Libra with its reputation for personal charm and warmth.) And that is the point – Air feels uncomfortable with real intimacy and strong emotion from others. This interferes with the personal freedom and ‘space’ they require, not to mention all that lovely reason and clear-headed ‘objectivity’. This they leave to the Water element.
Water is primarily about the realm of the feelings and their workings, and those in whom this element are strong are, like the element itself, fluid, changeable, adaptable, and usually as deep as the ocean. No other element is quite so reflective when it comes to pondering their inner environment. (Or so fond of its privacy!) Water is also highly intuitive, with a ‘sixth-sense’ easily able to perceive what’s happening beneath the surface of others – they will have you worked out immediately. They just ‘know’, often psychically so.
For all their subtle tuning in to life’s undercurrents, Water can find it difficult articulating how they feel – emotions often don’t lend themselves easily to words. Not only that, but Water’s rich interior world can make the outside world unimportant by comparison – so long as nothing is disturbing their inner security and contentment. If Air has difficulty with intimacy and emotions, Water has difficulty with objectivity.
And if Air has some of the ‘left brain’ functions of fact-based rationality, Water is more like the ‘right brain’s’ feeling-toned consciousness, its tendency to see the whole picture and intuitively evaluate situations. As you can imagine, they’re rather introverted: usually gentle, soft-hearted, secretive, quietly charming and certainly moody! These adjectives apply to all three Water signs, for even Scorpio is not half as ruthless as old astrology texts would have you believe – its level of compassion for others usually rules out actual cruelty!
Water is also a Feminine element, a symbol of containment – a ‘vessel’ for the ebb and flow of feeling and hidden watery depths. This means they are also highly sensitive and receptive to other people’s energies, too – and as a consequence can be easily hurt. Though God gave them an emotional radar, they hide it from others quite well. But Water is the only element that not only takes other people’s feelings seriously, but understands them. (This you will rarely find in either Fire, Earth or Air.)
What really drives Water is the need for depth: this is a symbol of what we might generally call the soul. Fire is looking for meaning, Earth for structure, Air for equilibrium but Water is motivated by the need for a kind of emotional truth, using their hearts for guidance, rather than their heads. That, and enchantment – which really is a sense that (in contrast to stark, material forms) the world is essentially ‘ensouled’, a world of spiritual realities, a place where magic is not only possible but actually lies behind the workings of the Universe. Only those ignorant of real magic could deny it was so!
1. The Timaeus – The dialogues of Plato (trans. Benjamin Jowett), Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1875.