You are on page 1of 6


By: V.H. Frater I.C.L.

Numerous astrological and metaphysical books give the impression that the Elements are
more fundamental than the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac, because the Signs can be broken down into
groups of four elements. Identification of the Triplicities with the four Elements appears, however,
relatively recent: the Twelve-Sign Zodiac existed more than 1,500 years before Aries, Leo and
Sagittarius became the Fire Signs.
Ptolemy makes no reference to the Elements in his writings on Astrology. He speaks of the
trigons, or triplicites, but does not connect them with the Elements. He describes the planets in
terms of the qualities hot. cold, moist and dry. Mars for example, is hot and dry, which, in the
traditional system of correlation (see figure 1) , would correspond to Fire. Manilius and later
Fimmicus refer to the four Elements in philosophical terms, as the basic components of the world
and of humankind, but do not link them to astrological factors.
The link between the Elements and Astrology begins with the four humors of Hippocratic
Medicine. The Hippocratic writings of the 6th century BC had already related the four humors to the
qualities (see figure 1). By Ptolemy's time or just after the humors had been likened to the four
By the Middle Ages the planets had been allotted to the Elements. But the first references to
Fiery, Earthy, Watery, Airy signs appear in the work of Nostradamus, so the matching of triplicites
with Elements may be a product of the Renaissance. One German source from as late as 1495
describes Taurus, Aries and Virgo as Earthy Signs. Venus was also generally considered a Watery
planet and Jupiter Airy, though neither planet rules a Sign now of those Elements.
Sources give inequitable accounts of the four temperaments: Fiery, Earthy, Airy and Watery.
Figure 1. The humors and reasons related to the qualities established in the Corpus
Hippocrericum (5th Century BC) with the Elements and planets later attributed to them.
The notion that the universe is composed of the four Elements is by no means universal.
Certainly the Four Elements play an important role both in the Indian tradition, and the European
tradition derived from ancient Greece via Rome and Arabia. Whether the doctrine passed from West
to East or East to West, or possibly came from a late Babylonian tradition and spread both ways, it
forms no part of the known ancient mythological heritage of Mesopotamia.
The Chinese system employs five, and sometimes six Elements, with no Air, but includes
Wood and/or Metal. Elsewhere a fifth element sometime transcends, unites, or gives birth to the
usual four "Hindu aether" or the "alchemist's quintessence". In China all five Elements rank equal.
The Orient uses a subtler, pentangular framework to view the elemental composition of the universe
than the four-square vision of all points west. Sets of four, like the four directions, are common all
over the world, but not the Western Four Elements, the four roots, as Empedocles called them, of
the Western world's view.
The Elements, individually and collectively, have also provided a fruitful source of metaphor.
Mythology has numerous elemental figures like the Watery Deity Okeanos and Tethys. The classical
Greek Pantheon derived ultimately from the marriage of Heaven and Earth, Ouranos and Gaia.
Zeus ruled the sky, Poseidon the Waters, and Hades the depths of the Earth. The Sumerian triad

Anu, Enlil and Ea or Enki, ruled respectively sky, Earth and Waters. Marduk in Babylon,
Hephaestos, Greek God of volcanoes, and the Persian Ahura Mazda are all Fire gods. The
deification of the physical Elements embody the life principles which the Elements themselves
By the 6th Century BC the pre-Socratic philosophers of Greece were defining the nature of
the physical universe, although earlier mythological connotations echo through their theories, with
the Elements inspiring almost religious awe. By singling out one supreme Element from which the
rest derive, some of these philosophers perhaps afford a glimpse of their own psychological
inclinations. In Goethe's play Faust Part 2, set mostly in classical Greece, the philosophers Thales
and Anaxagoras debate the relative power of Water and Fire. Goethe clearly sides with Thales' nonviolent Water and Anaxagoras, the more violently-inclined proponent of Fire, fond of volcanic
eruptions, suffers defeat. Goethe's own horoscope shows five planets and the Ascendant in Water.
The first mention of the four Elements in the West comes from the Pythagoreans.
Pythagoras left no writings, and secondary sources of his life and teachings by later authors are
often biased. Living in the mental climate of the 6th Century BC, Pythagoras is said to have studied
in Babylon, perhaps the source of the doctrine of Four Elements. The Pythagorean world was
composed of four Elements, four seasons, while life had four stages. In the following century,
Empedocles first taught that each human being is likewise composed of the same four Elements.
The Elements exist both without and within. They were later combined into systems incorporating
the concepts of hot, cold, moist and dry with the four humors of Hippocrates.

The physical Earth underfoot is obvious, as Dr. Johnson demonstrated when outraged at
Bishop Berkeley's proof of the non-existence of matter "I refute it thus!" he said, and kicked a rock!
Earth is common sense; hard facts. The usual image of the Buddha, reputedly Taurean, has him
seated on, and with one hand touching, the Earth, thus calling the Earth to witness the reality of his
experience, which she does by trembling.
Earth implies a literal-mindedness: Jungian analyst James Hillman once remarked that
people "out of touch" with the Earth are told to dig the soil, but we don't tell people who "lack Air" to
fly in an airplane. Air is more subtle than Earth. The Greek philosopher Thales claimed supremacy
for Water. Anaximenes for Air, Heraclitus, and as Goethe claims. Anaxagoras for Fire. None
envisioned Earth as the first or most basic element. It remained for the alchemists to make solid
matter their primary metaphor, starting with the prima materia and ending with the Philosopher's
Stone. The early philosophers began at the other end, seeking to explain the solid in terms of some
higher principle.
No matter how basic, Earth is the mysterious mother of all physical being matter and
mother share the same etymological root. Earth is the dust we come from and go to, from which
everything physical is spun, the source of all productivity, lushness, wealth and beauty. The Western
Tradition identifies Earth with the Goddess, Gaia; Demeter, mistress of plant growth and material
welfare. It became obvious to identify as Earth Signs half of those already characterized as feminine
according to an ancient division by sex.
Earth also implies the inevitable limitations of physical existence, the birth into a physical
body, despised by those with transcendental aspirations, and thus grossly undervalued by the
alliance of Christian tradition and Aristotlean distinction between spirit and matter. Body and matter
must be worked and subdued, planted in rows and built into solid structures. Aristotle and the Stoics
after him, bearers of the astrological tradition, schematized the four Elements vertically with Earth at
the bottom, then Water, Air, and at the top Fire implying thus a scale of values, The qabalistic
scheme uses the same vertical orders. Earth lies at the bottom, the beast of burden and provider of

goods, which overvalued leads to materialism and undervalued becomes dreary necessity and
imprisoning flesh.
Humble Earth came to be associated with Saturn, once the Great Mother, then as old
Father Time, Lord of past time and memory. Of all the Elements only enduring Earth records time in
rock strata and fossils.

Thales of Miletus held that the Earth floats on Water and that all originates from it . This
view may have been derived from Babylonian traditions, which placed the Watery Deities Apsu and
Tiamat at the beginning of all things. In the story of Eridu, Marduk builds a raft on the primeval
Waters and a hut on the raft which becomes the Earth. In the Babylonian creation epic, Marduk
creates Heaven and Earth from the Watery body Tiamat. Psalm 136 states that God "stretched out
the Earth above the Water", while the Koran says that Water is the origin of all life. A Greek myth
makes Okeanos and Tethys, two Water deities, the original divine parents.
This image of Earth emerging from the Waters, evokes the emergence of life from the sea,
of the baby from the Watery womb, of Jungian islands of consciousness from the sea of the
unconscious. It refers to the dimly-remembered past where there was no separateness, fitting the
watery signs of the zodiac, and best the Moon's sign, Cancer. Water baptizes, like a second
emergence from the womb. It refreshes us and it washes us clean.
Heraclitus likens life to a river into which we cannot step twice. Water, the element which
most readily evokes impermanence, change, flux, instability. Verbs capture its essence better than
adjectives or nouns: flowing, surging, merging, dissolving, sprinkling. It is sensitive to the slightest
movement. Essentially chaotic and lacking inherent form it was less favored by the orderly
Confucius, whose genius lay in perceiving and prescribing structure, and want of definition and its
power to deceive the eye connects it with states confusion and psychosis.
To Lao Tzu, the mystical poet and philosopher of the Tao, however, "Highest good is like
Water" because it is noncontentious and settles in the lowest spots, follows the path of least
resistance, flows effortlessly into every available space and makes itself at home. Water might
rather fill the role of lowest element for it is as deep as depth itself: sea-level is the bottom line from
which we measure all geographical altitude.
Though there are some male Water deities, Water and moisture have mostly feminine
associations, Lao Tzu's high estimation of Water goes with a philosophy which counsels us to "keep
to the role of the female." Water moves downwards like Earth. They share the feminine, negative or
yin signs of the Zodiac. Traditionally the Moon and Venus are moist.
Like the Watery Signs and their corresponding Houses, Water has often has deathly
connotations. Heraclitus said "to the soul it is death to become water" and "it is delight, or rather
death, to souls to become wet."

The Elements associated with the sky and its fiery stars, have been allotted to the
masculine. The sexism of superior and inferior distinction derived from a value system which prefers
the masculine above the feminine below, and judges height more desirable than depth, has by and
large conferred greater value on the Elements of Fire and Air.

Most descriptions of astrological Fire stress its heating and burning power: ardor passion,
excitability The fiery type became the choleric, described by Culpepper: "hasty quarrelsome ireful,"
etc. Fire is also light, a fact often forgotten in the age of electric light. Culpepper describes qualities
more specifically Martian than fiery. Galen, on whose theories the system of temperaments is built
took a different view, For him the choleric type enjoyed "acuteness and intelligence of the mind."
Mythology distinguishes different kinds of Fire, not necessarily the same distinction as that
between light and heat: the Fire of sun and stars and sky gods above, the Fire that Prometheus
stole: and the Fire from below the Earth, the devastating Fire of Haephestus or Vulcan. Though
Haephestus fashioned the attributes of the Olympian pantheon on his forge, he did not rank very
high. The Fire of Mars seems more akin to this second kind. Mars or Ares was the son of Hera, in
origin an Earth goddess. Ares was conceived as an act of vengeance against celestial Father Zeus
without his aid. He comes from feminine rage, from the Elements of below.
The loftier connotations of Fire, the Fire the Stoics had placed at the top of their vertical
schema, had fallen from favor by the Renaissance. Only the more violent and male characteristics
of Fire remained. Heraclitus had a lofty vision of Fire when he described it as the basic stuff the
world is made of, meaning "the purest and brightest sort that is as of the ethereal and divine
An ancient Greek tradition held the aether, the fiery substance deemed to brighten the sky,
in especial reverence and many supposed that souls consist of this divine, heavenly Fire. The
Babylonians held a similar belief. A corpse is cold because the fiery soul, the spark of life, has left it
and returned to the stars.
If Fire means creativity, perhaps Prometheus' theft of Fire fits his role as creator of mankind
from clay: he had the power to animate, to create life and soul. His gift of Fire to men gave them,
too, creative powers. God, the biblical creator, likewise takes the form of Fire: He is in the burning
bush (Exodus, iii, 2-3) and descends as Fire from Heaven to consume his sacrifice in the new
temple (2 Chronicles. vii, I).
Zeus hurls thunderbolts of Fire from Heaven. When Semele pleads to see Zeus in his true
form he reveals himself as Fire and thus burns her to ashes. Mars, Sol, and Jupiter are all
considered fiery, the latter known as much for their light as their heat. Light is also a metaphor for
consciousness, for which Jupiter and Sol strive.
Fire most readily corresponds to our notion of energy, as pulsing physical force and animal
spirits or as divine creative principle. Perhaps thus they share the same ultimate nature.

Air suggests the principle of height. Astrological Air looks down on things from above,
detached, in contrast to the personal and often deep involvement of Water, seeing things in
perspective, with clarity and sharpness. It enables a broad overview, connecting it with the role of
Jupiter. It offers a sense of freedom. From detachment can arise abstract thought in the pure realm
of idea.
When Anaximenes, another 6th century BC Greek philosopher, declared that Air was infinite
and divine, the principle from which all things came into being it seems that he regarded Air as "the
breath of the world." Air shares with Fire, the other masculine element, notions of soul and
immortality. The Greek Spirit, "pneuma", and Soul, "psyche", and the Latin "spiritus" and "anima" all
etymologically mean breath.

Pneuma is the word used for the Holy Spirit which descends through the Air on the wings of
a dove. Similar to the Sanskrit prana and Chinese chi it implies the life-giving and life enhancing
force that enters the body with the breath. Prometheus in fact breathes life into his men of dust.
Artists sometimes portrayed the soul as a butterfly (in modern Greek psyche also means Butterfly)
leaving the lip of a dying person. How often to the winds blow from the lips of semi-divine beings,
like a global extension of the breath of life.
Galen attributed to the sanguine or Airy type "simplicity bordering on foolishness." But later
the Airy temperament took on superior qualities. In the 12th century, William of Conches identified
Air as the element proper to man, distinguishing humanity from the beasts who consisted only of
Fire, Water and Earth.
Animals presumably breathed then as now, but lacked souls. William believed all human
beings were originally created with the blessed sanguine temperament. He felt that since the
majority of people suffered from temperaments other than sanguine merely testified to mankind's
degenerate state. Although Gemini, Libra and Aquarius were not yet firmly classed as the Airy
trigon, they were represented by image of the human form and a man-made object rather than by
images of beasts. In William's day, the sanguine or Airy person, good-natured. good-looking,
cheerful and nearer to good, had the natal blessing of the Greater Benefice Jupiter.
Alchemy similarly implied that Air was the supreme element, connecting it with the final,
most spiritual of the four phases of the opus, the sublimatio, the stage of the hieros gamos the holy
marriage or ultimate conjuctio. Psychologically the sublimatio corresponds to the power of abstract
purpose and meaning from concrete reality; to experience joy relief, bliss.
A partial explanation of the elevation of the Airy type lies in the doctrine of the four humors
defined in the Hippocratic writings. Hippocrates, the great physician of the rich 6th century BC,
identified four basic humors or bodily fluids. However, while yellow bile, black bile and phlegm were
considered "surplus humors", blood was obviously a vital substance. Hippocrates had already
begun tentatively to link physical characteristics to the psychological and moral realm, but it was
Galen, in the 2nd century AD, who "emphasized more clearly than anyone else the direct causal
connection between bodily constitution and character."
It was from Galen's work that the system of temperaments (krases or mixtures) developed,
to traverse Arab culture before re-emerging in Europe during the Middle Ages, to then remain
fundamental to medicine and medical psychology until quite recently. In each temperament one
humor predominated, for example, blood in the sanguine type. Illnesses resulted from severe
imbalances, and each humor had precedence of the four seasons. An individual suffering from an
excess of blood was bled with leeches!
The four Elements, said by Empedocles to form the constitution of human beings, became
identified by one of his followers, Philistion, with four qualities. Later they formed a different
relationship by which Fire became hot and dry, Water cold and moist, and so on. By Galen's day
they had paired with the four humors (see figure 1). At some point the planets joined the system,
more or less in this schema.
Just as Fire and Air had vied with each other for pride of place, with Air victorious by the late
Middle Ages, Earth and Water vied for the bottom rung "so that in the 15th and 16th century
illustrations, the portrait of the melancholic frequently changed places with the portrait of the
phlegmatic, sometimes one and sometimes the other occupying the third place." The separating
"masculine" from "feminine" Elements, however, never blurred.

Four Elements

The Pythagoreans highly esteemed the number Four. The figure 4 basically forms a cross,
and the cross or square naturally represent fourness. The square and cross are artifices of
mindthere are no straight lines in nature because we live on a sphere. We live in the circle of our
horizon on which we impose the four points of the compass to orientate ourselves. Two pairs of
opposites make fourness. The square or cross in the circle forms a mandala, and figures of this kind
seem universal: the cross of matter and the circle of infinity which comprise our planetary glyphs.
Groups of four come in many forms: the four Tarot suits. the four horsemen of the
apocalypse, the four Evangelists, the four cardinal virtues, the four letters of God's name "the
Plato, seemingly under the influence of Pythagoras, connected the number with the
realization of the idea, represented by the number Three. In terms of astrological harmonics, David
Hamblin has assigned the 4th harmonic similarly to the principle of manifestation. Complete and
stable, the square-in-the circle mandala symbolizes wholeness and equal tension between
Liz Greene draws an analogy between Jung's four typological functions of consciousness
"thinking, feeling, sensation and intuition" and the four Elements. The opposites in this case are
more opposed in nature than in the traditional map, where the linkage between Elements and
qualities results oddly in Air corresponding to warm and moist. This fits Air as an extension of
breath, though the climate at the time was unlikely to have enjoyed constantly warm, moist
The connection of Air with the thinking function further suggests why Air is overvalued in the
West. Indeed there is a tendency to connate or confuse pneuma or spirit with intellect in both the
Western and Hindu tradition.

1. R. Klibansky, E. Panofsky and F. Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy, Nelson, 1964, p.10.
2. G.S. Kirk, J.E. Raven, M. Schofield. The Presocratic Philosophers. Cambridge
University Press, (2nd ed.) p. 89 ff.
3. Lao Tzu. Tao te Ching. Trans. D.C. Lau. Penguin, 1963 p. 64.
4. Lao Tzu. Op. Cit p. 85.