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Modes/Elements: Part 2 of 12

Even more fundamental than the signs of the zodiac, which were covered in Part 1 of this series, are the elements and modes. In fact, the elements and modes come together to create the signs, as you'll soon see. The elements – fire, Earth, air and water – are, simply put, the raw materials that make up the natural world. Stephen Arroyo wrote, "the four elements are not merely symbols or abstract concepts, but rather ... refer to the vital forces that make up the entire creation that can be perceived by the physical senses ..." (1) These forces are very deep and rich, and enliven human consciousness as well. It's essential, then, that you immerse yourself in the elements, both experientially and mentally, to build a strong astrological foundation. Before reading on, try to come up with a few verbs that describe each element; for instance, water merges, air rises, fire warms, Earth stabilizes. This kind of simplicity will help when you try to relate the elements to human personality.

Elements/Modes Fire Earth Air Water
Cardinal Aries Capricorn Libra Cancer
Fixed Leo Taurus Aquarius Scorpio
Mutable Sagittarius Virgo Gemini Pisces

The four elements manifest in humans as core energy patterns and states of consciousness, certain ways of being. Everyone has all four living in their psyches, as represented by the birth chart, but usually only a few are strongly emphasized. Here's a general overview of each elemental type. Fiery people are motivated by their aspirations and ideals, and exude a great deal of inspiration, warmth, and energy. Active and self-sustaining, they have much confidence in and enthusiasm for life, although they may be impractical and sometimes insensitive, lacking a solid connection with their bodies and emotions. Earthy people are drawn to explore and utilize the material world, and are mainly concerned with concrete details and results. Attuned to their physical bodies, they are often rational, disciplined, and outer-directed, finding it difficult to relate to the intangible realm of ideals and dreams. Airy individuals live and breathe to make connections, both social and conceptual. Living primarily in a world of ideas, they are verbally expressive, endlessly curious, and have rich inner lives, but may have trouble translating their inner world into tangible accomplishments in the outer world. Finally, the watery souls are moved by the ebb and flow of emotional currents, and often respond to what's going on under the surface of outward appearances. They are sensitive, receptive, and very accepting of other personal realities. They can also be moody, irrational, and extremely emotional due to intense passions, unconscious motivations, and deep fears. Consequently, they may suffer from low vitality and may lack objectivity about their lives and relationships.

It gets even more interesting when you discover the art of blending elements that are not comfortable together but are still happening within the same person (or chart), such as someone with a strong fiery streak and an equally strong infusion of water. What you may end up with here is a good head of steam, or much emotional intensity. Or try the fire-Earth combination, which, in some circles, is lovingly referred to as The Steamroller; such individuals keep marching into the future, accomplishing the impossible. If you think the water element is sensitive, what about the water-air combo? These beings are reputed to have the most delicate nervous systems in the galaxy. Of course, there are more comfortable pairings, such as fire with air, and Earth with water, which may be more easily integrated and expressed. Think about it: fire consumes air and air feeds fire; Earth absorbs water and water shapes Earth.

And now for the modes. Because the elements are the essential energies permeating all of existence, they are, in a way, timeless. The modes – cardinal, fixed, and mutable – introduce the dimension of change, anchoring the elements to the Earth plane, and creating the twelve signs or personality types in the process. To explain the nature of the modes, Steven Forrest writes: "The core features of any life cycle are identical. Something is born. Something exists for measurable time in some relatively distinct form. And something dies." (2) The cardinal mode represents the birth process. It is a creative, initiating, and ambitious energy that radiates outward in a definite direction. The fixed mode takes that new energy and builds a recognizable, mature entity or form. It is a determined, purposeful, and strong-willed energy that radiates inward, creating a strong center that resists change. During the mutable mode phase, the entity becomes more adaptable and less well-defined in order to move the fixed nature toward a new level of consciousness or action. It is a spiraling energy that alternates between moving outward and inward. These modal energies also pertain to individuals who have strong cardinal, fixed, or mutable natures. Each of the four elements manifests in all three modes. For instance, there is cardinal fire (Aries), fixed fire (Leo), and mutable fire (Sagittarius). Hence, the twelve signs are born, creating a more refined typology than the elements or modes could alone. Make it a point to solidly memorize the elements and modes of each sign (see chart on page 3), and it will help you to quickly determine the strength of the elements and modes in any birth chart. This will give you a strong foundation from which to view the more complex aspects of the chart.

You can tell a lot about a person's basic modus operandi way before you get to a more complex level of interpretation if you just focus on the elements and modes. If a person is very fiery and strongly cardinal (Aries), you're probably looking at someone who has a strong vision and can initiate projects easily, but does not have the staying power to handle the details and hard work required to produce results. In another vein, if a person is watery and strongly fixed, they will be more emotionally realistic than the watery mutable type who may succumb to fantasy all too easily in relationship issues. Play around with all the combinations and have fun.


1. Stephen Arroyo, Astrology, Psychology and the Four Elements; CRCS Publications, 1975, p. 87.

2. Steven Forrest, The Inner Sky, ACS Publications; Inc., 1988, pp. 33-34.


The only book we know of that focuses almost completely on the elements is Stephen Arroyo's Astrology, Psychology and the Four Elements (see ref. 1). It is very good reading for both beginners and more advanced students, and is highly recommended. What follows are a few more book suggestions, but there are probably some that we are unaware of, so check your local metaphysical bookstore for further selections.

Katharine Merlin, Character and Fate: The Psychology of the Birth Chart; Arkana Publishing, 1989, chapter 5, pp. 92-107.

Lindsay River and Sally Gillespie, The Knot of Time: Astrology and the Female Experience; Harper and Row Publishers, 1987, chapter 5, pp. 109-124.

Virginia Kay Miller, Key Elements of the Zodiac; Stellar Communications, P.O. Box 1403, Nashua, NH 03061, 1988. This one is more experiential.


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