Humours, seasons and cycles – the Elements in traditional astrology

The four Elements of Greek philosophy, Earth, Air, Fire and Water, are best known to astrologers as the Triplicities, the groups of three zodiac signs assigned to each Element. The Elements were conceived of as the materials which came together to form the building blocks of all matter, not in the contemporary sense of atoms aggregating to form the chemical elements of the periodic table though – in fact the term atomos, meaning ‘indivisible’, was originated by the Hellenic philosopher Leucippus and his protégée Democritus in the 5th century B.C. 

In Elemental theory, however, Elements were essences which gave rise to material objects, like the difference between a pure coloured light and a real-world pigment approximating the same colour. Real fire was predominantly made from Elemental Fire, but contained portions of the other three Elements too – Earth in its fuel and soot, Water and Air in any vapours or fumes produced.

Each Element was a product of two qualities: either of the active qualities of heat and cold, together with one of the passive qualities of moisture or dryness. Active qualities were described as such because they acted on matter to produce the passive qualities – heat makes dryness (as the sun’s heat dries up the earth), whereas cold creates moisture  (as the night’s cold produces dew and condensation). Also inherent in the theory is that prolonged exposure to one active quality would eventually create its opposite, via the agency of the passive qualities – thus excessive heat produces dryness, which is dispersive, and produces cold; the moisture the cold attracts is aggregative, and absorbs heat, which eventually neutralises the cold.

The Elements produced by the interaction of the four qualities were each thought to have one predominant quality – Fire was chiefly hot, Air was moist, Water was cold, and Earth mainly dry. The interaction of the Elements caused the ‘generation, duration or conservation, corruption, and destruction’ of everything in existence.

The Elements had paradoxical functions: despite its destructive potential, Fire caused ‘movement of nature towards generation’, as it was the source of inspiration, motivation, motion and desire. Earth caused ‘conservation or duration’, as its nature was solid, coherent and unmoving. Although Air is necessary for life, it was the source of ‘corruption’, just as warmth and moisture is conducive to decay.  And Water, though necessary for crops and people to grow and flourish, was the source of ‘destruction’, perhaps by allusion to the Biblical flood (1). Yet the astrological Water signs are also ‘fertile’, Air signs are ‘human and courteous’ (2), and the dry Fire and Earth signs were associated with the least altruistic temperaments, feisty cholerics and grumpy melancholics.

Further nuance is supplied by Arabic medieval astrology: Abu Ma’shar describes how Fire signs ‘come together and fill’, as opposed to Water signs, which ‘pour forth and take’; Air signs ‘give and empty’ whereas Earth signs denote ‘the giving of wealth and property’ (3). The Fire signs’ subtitle is suggestive of initiative, inspiration, collaboration, and enthusiastic creativity, whereas the Water signs’ soundbite resembles a perfect description of the healing potential of empathy or the destructive power of unbridled emotional response.

Earth’s association with wealth and property is the easiest to grasp, given Earth’s inherent materiality and the literal mining of precious metals from the ground.  Air’s ‘give and empty’ sounds like an allusion to commerce, transaction, and discourse; Air being the medium of speech, which contains nothing but imparts much. 

The Elements may also be arranged in order of density, or closeness to God in the Medieval worldview  – the most rarefied, and lightest, was Fire, descending through Air, to Water, then Earth as the densest and most compact.  While Earth supplied structure, Water enabled conduction and plasticity, Air permitted more fluid movement and exchange, and Fire animated and created porosity and physical transmutation.

The 16th century occultist Agrippa writes that Fire is constantly ‘secretly increasing of itself, and manifesting its greatness to things that receive it…it will of a sudden reduce things into obedience to itself’. He divides Fire into that ‘above’, perhaps analogous to the Sun, which gives light and life, and ‘infernal fire’, which seem to partake of a more Martial nature, which dries, darkens, and consumes. Thus Fire, like charisma or ego, can inspire or destroy.  Air, he says, is ‘a vital spirit, passing through all beings…Hebrew doctors reckon it not amongst the Elements, but count it as a medium or glue, joining things together…It immediately receives into itself all the influences of the celestial bodies, and then communicates them’.  He avers that Air rules all impressions of the mind, and is responsible for the transmission of dreams, thoughts, and impressions. Thus Air is the chief element of thought, sensation, and communication. 

Water, according to Agrippa, is the Element of ‘spiritual regeneration’: ‘it was the first of the Elements, and the most potent…it hath mastery over all the rest…waters swallow up the earth, extinguish flames, ascend on high, and by the stretching forth of clouds, challenge the heaven for their own: the same falling down become the cause of all things that grow in the earth.’ This may be interpreted as a description of Water as emotion – from lows to highs, capable of dousing rage or enthusiasm, exalting, oppressing, and giving rise via the medium of desire to the generation of new things or new life. 

Finally, Agrippa says of Earth that it is the ‘foundation of all the Elements’, and ‘contains the seed of all things…the mother of all things’ (4). It need only be ‘made fruitful’ by the other Elements.  Earth is the basis of any real-world achievement, but its otherwise dormant potential must be activated by the other three mobile Elements.

The Air-Fire-Earth-Water cycle

Elements constantly give rise to and destroy each other. The heat and moisture of Air eventually increases in dryness and heat (as heat causes dryness, which allows more heat to be produced), creating Fire. The heat and dryness of Fire eventually burns down as the dryness disperses the heat to leave a cold, dry residue of Earth; and Earth’s active coldness aggregates moisture, creating Water. Eventually Water, being moist, passively gathers enough heat to create Air, re-initiating the cycle. Think of a forest fire: warm, moist springtime foliage gradually dries out, catches fire; fire burns forest to ash; from the ash-enriched soil springs succulent new plant life. 

This Air-Fire-Earth-Water cycle was seen as analogous to the seasons, the four ages of man, the cycles of day and night, and human morphology, personality attributes, and susceptibility to diseases in the form of the ‘four humours’ of ancient Greek and medieval medicine – Blood, Choler, Melancholy, and Phlegm (see table below). Because the interplay of the four Elements was seen as the cause of all material things, knowing anything’s Elemental makeup enabled predictions about its function or behaviour.

Element Qualities Season Age Diurnal Humour Temperament Lunar phase Planets
Air Hot + moist Spring Childhood Sunrise-Midday Blood Sanguine New – waxing crescent– first quarter Jupiter
Fire Hot + dry Summer Teenage / young adult Midday-Sunset Yellow bile Choleric First quarter – waxing gibbous – Full Sun, Mars
Earth Cold + dry Autumn Middle Age Sunset-Midnight Black bile Melancholic Full – waning gibbous – second quarter Saturn [Mercury]
Water Cold + moist Winter Old age Midnight-Sunrise Phlegm Phlegmatic Second quarter – waning crescent – New Moon, Venus

The four humours are really analogies for physical processes, but came to be thought of as actual fluids or substances from which human and animal bodies were made. Different organs of the body had different qualities and abounded in one humour: the brain, being slightly cool and moist, contained and produced much phlegm, whereas the liver, being hot and moist, contained and produced much blood.

A person’s humoral balance – their Elemental balance – determined their Temperament: the foundations of their character, disease susceptibility, and clues to who they may or may not get on with – no synastry involved!  A choleric (Fiery) person may not get on with a Phlegmatic (Watery) person. However most people had compound Temperaments, so a Choleric-Phlegmatic (more Fire than Water) person might well get on with a Phlegmatic-Choleric (more Water than Fire) person, as like speaks to like, creating empathy.

Planetary symbolism

Here’s where things get more interesting for astrologers. In traditional astrology, the Temperament wasn’t calculated simply by looking at the zodiac signs the planets were in. The signs certainly symbolised Elements, but so did the planets. Cold and dry Saturn (Earth), cool and moist Moon and Venus (Water), hot and dry Sun and Mars (Fire), hot and moist Jupiter (Air) – plus Mercury, basically cool and dry (Earth) when left on his own, but like quicksilver, he could take on the attributes of the other Elements when heated or cooled by sign or planetary aspect or conjunction. 

Of these, not all were equal; the Malefic planets Saturn and Mars, in particular, represent extremes, whereas Benefic Jupiter and Venus represent temperate conditions. Thus Venus will provide a tasty ice cream on a hot day, the Moon supplies a cool glass of water, then Saturn comes along and shuts you in a meat locker. Jupiter gives a day of gentle breezes on a warm tropical beach, the Sun gives you a tan, then Mars arrives in the form of a hotel fire and gives you third degree burns. But of course The Sun and Moon, though they tend to good, can be intemperate: by conjunction, the Sun performs combustion, literally destruction by fire; and an extreme Moon can scald like water in a cooking-pot or chill like a polar sea.

Yet there are anomalies – much like the association between astrological houses and signs, the synonyms should not be overplayed, because the planetary symbolism has more complex derivations and overlays. Saturn, the planet of Melancholy, also rules old age, whereas the youthful planets Venus and the Moon are associated with Phlegm, the most dominant humour in old age. The Moon symbolises babies and those who care for them, and Venus, young women. Notwithstanding allusions to one’s ‘second childhood’, this is not a good argument for replacing Saturn as the chief planetary significator of the aging process. 

While the planet-Element symbolic crossover is reliable, the allegory should not be extended to all the other real-world manifestations of a dominant Element. Mars, which is Fiery and choleric, represents both young soldiers and middle-aged men in the most active phase of their career. Mars’ symbolic resonance with spirited youth supports the Elemental analogy to summer’s heat, but Mars’ second signification of middle age is derived from its position in the Chaldean order of planets, just below Jupiter and Saturn – life begins with the Moon, and climbs up to Saturn with age, via Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, and Jupiter. 

Similarly, signs and Elements are not always symbolically contiguous:  for example, the Fixed signs represent the middle of seasons of the year, yet the Sun is in cold and dry Taurus in the northern hemisphere’s Spring, not Autumn; and while this placement may work for the Southern hemisphere, the Sun in Aquarius is the middle of northern winter (cold and wet) and southern summer (hot and dry), neither of which match the symbolic Elemental nature of Aquarius. While the Elements were seen to be concentrated in particular planets and signs, planets and signs also carried other significations, to be interpreted independently of their Elemental nature.

Calculating Temperament

When calculating Temperament, the season and Moon phase were taken into account, as were prominent planets in the chart; the phase of the planet relative to the Sun was also seen as a modifying factor in the Elemental signification of a planet. There are various methods of calculating Temperament, which would be an article to itself – the most concise is to be found in Dorian Greenbaum’s excellent book on the subject, and this method produces fairly reliable results. The one refinement to this method (much more concise and carefully researched than many historical examples, whose results are demonstrably discontinuous with their interpretation) is that angular or prominent planets in a chart should also be accounted for – it’s not to be expected that a person with an angular Saturn will be a pure Sanguine type, even if they are a Springtime baby, born just after the new Moon, with every planet in air signs – there will be at least a smattering of Melancholy in the nature. 

The Sect of the chart – whether the chart is daytime (increasing heat) or night-time (increasing cold) is also another nuance – a night-time birth with angular Saturn would emphasise Melancholy much more than a daytime birth, for example.

Weather astrology

The Elemental symbolism of the signs and planets, and the clear Elemental association of the seasons was made use of in weather astrology. Weather was predicted chiefly using the Moon by sign and aspect, Lots, and planetary motion relative to the seasons (i.e. the Sun’s sign placement). So, for example, if the superior planets Mars, Jupiter or Saturn were retrograde in any of the three ‘summer signs’ of Cancer, Leo, or Virgo (5), their heat would be increased. This was because their retrogradation brings them closer to the Sun, and they are placed in the ‘summer’ signs. 

In combination with the season of the year, a consensus could be produced – thus Jupiter retrograde in Leo at the Sun’s ingress into Capricorn would indicate a milder winter, while Saturn direct in Leo would suggest a much colder one. In this technique, the planets’ essential Elemental symbolism is secondary to seasonal and epicyclic symbolism. But in general, the signs’ and planets’ Elemental nature was made use of: the Water triplicity and the wintry Air sign Aquarius were described as ‘rainy signs’, and ‘each Malefic will enhance the heat or cold of a sign that matches it, while counteracting the qualities of a sign which does not’.  Saturn in Air signs in an ingress chart suggests ‘cold winds’ for the season, while Mars in air signs, ‘hot or strong winds’ (6). So, taking the preceding information into account, we can view a chart through this traditional Elemental lens. 

Donald Trump’s chart and Temperament

We shall calculate Temperament, then – separately – look at the nature of prominent planets, and planets in signs; and, borrowing from weather astrology, use Malefics in signs to enhance similar qualities or repress contrary ones.  Let us look at the chart of a popular statesman.

There has been some debate about whether the new U.S. president’s birth time is correct. For those who have total sensory deprivation and may not know of Donald Trump, he is a very proud, ginger-toupeed politician, never shy of an opinion, extremely vocal, good with soundbites, who uses quite bellicose language and espouses some very divisive opinions yet has been known to adapt his public policy – at least apparently – very rapidly. He is hostile to foreigners and a fierce U.S. nationalist, and a very, very rich man.

This is the chart of a man with Leo rising and Mars, ruling the 9th house of foreigners and 4th house of land and heritage, conjunct the Ascendant. His Ascendant ruler is the Sun in Gemini in the 11th house of fortune, conjoined with the North Node – which inflates fortune, ego, and, in this case, volume – and Uranus, the contrary and individualistic planet.  He also happens to have the fixed star Regulus, signifying kingship, on his Ascendant, and the highly malefic fixed star Algol, signifying ‘losing one’s head’ – but also considered a star of wealth – close to the Midheaven.  Mr. Trump has had many failed business endeavours, and there are whispers of possible impeachment or legal trouble due to former shady business dealings; even Regulus is said to bring fame which ‘sets in a cloud’ (7). However – we shall focus on the Elements.

Temperamentally, using Ms. Greenbaum’s method, Mr. Trump is predominantly Choleric [Fiery]. He has some secondary Sanguine [Airy] attributes, as we may expect of a politician – being good at communication – but the Fiery element dominates. He has Mars conjunct the Ascendant, which would increase this tendency – especially in a daytime chart and a Fire sign, although Mars isn’t retrograde, being further away from the Sun, and is occidental (sets after the Sun), both of which factors slightly reduce its elemental heat,.  However this is a very Fiery, choleric man:

All violent and fierce and full of fire,
Of quick conceit and therewithal ambitious,
Their thoughts to greater fortunes still aspire.
Proud, bountiful enough, yet oft malicious,
A right bold speaker and as bold a liar. (8)

Taking another leaf from traditional astrology, we can look at the native’s manner – how they think and express themselves. A planet in the Ascendant is most representative, and again this would be Mars – thus Fiery exhortations to ‘come together and fill’ and ‘move towards generation’ are tinged with Agrippa’s ‘infernal fire’ of destructive Mars-nature: this man thinks and acts in ways that bring people together and motivate them with purposes which may be destructive or divisive.  With the significator of manners conjoined to Regulus, he ‘desires to bear rule, or is desirous of dominion over others’ (9).

Interestingly, if we pursue the modern method of counting planets in signs, there are 3 points of Fire (Ascendant, Mars, and Moon), 3 points of Water (Venus, Mercury and Saturn), 1 Air (Sun), and no Earth.  The Water element emphasis seems highly unlikely for Trump, but in traditional astrology, Moon and Mercury take second place as indicative of the native’s manner in this case. Mercury in the Water Element may designate someone who privately thinks with their feelings; who speaks with and from emotion, in speech the native may ‘pour fourth and take’, communicating with feeling. 

The Fiery Moon is stunted by her conjunction with the South Node; she may have promoted greater compassion, with the zeal to motivate others, but for this. Yet in terms of the native’s Wit – his intelligence – Moon on either of the Nodes produces ‘active spirits, prompt to any Science, best of all when she increases in light, and is not far from the full’ (9). This must be moderated by the fact that Moon and Mercury have no aspect to each other – being in aversion, they declaim ‘a dull and doltish Capacity or Wit’. Jupiter’s aspect to Mercury by whole-sign square will ameliorate this somewhat, but Saturn’s co-presence in Cancer would aggravate it, further darkening and chilling the speed of reasoning; as if his private thoughts are kept in a hidden tank of cold Water. So we may have a man who is inspired with an insatiable need (Moon in Fire on the South Node) and Fiery passion to absorb information and declaim it, with a faulty, emotionally-obscured Watery understanding of the same (Mercury in Water square Neptune, with Saturn, in the 12th sign).

The lack of Earth in Trump’s chart has been commented on by astrologers; the thinking is, perhaps he overcompensates by being rich? Certainly the traditional view of Earth as an element which contains the potential for creation, wealth and building structure would suggest it is a prerequisite for financial success.  But recall that Mr. Trump himself has not had an untarnished record with fiscal dealings – rather like a paper fire, he has burned bright and flamed out on a number of occasions.  Perhaps the idea here is a lack of stability, or of having no foundation – the Earth which he waters to garner his wealth is not his own, but inherited, and the lack of Earth may suggest his fortune depends on his North-Node-boosted Solar gold in the 11th house, in Air, the Element of communication which transmits ‘dreams, thoughts, and impressions’.  The possibility of fraud or exaggeration is underlined by the presence of a Mercury-Neptune square.

So while a study of the Elements cannot say much by itself, an understanding of their nature is crucial to delineating character, motivation, and action in astrology.  The traditional view has much to add – we should be careful about discarding the past.  Rather we should dig into it to find the treasures that lie hidden there.  What Agrippa says of Earth is true of our astrological tradition, and our need to re-examine it to refine our art, and, paradoxically, to keep it progressing:

‘In it are great secrets, if at any time it shall be purified by the help of Fire, and reduced unto its simplicity by a convenient washing.  It is the first matter of our creation, and the truest medicine that can restore, and preserve us.’ (4)

This article was first published in Infinity magazine 2016.

(1) Bonatti, G. [trans. Zoller, R.; ed. Hand, R.] (1491, trans.1994).  Liber Astronomiae Part II.  Golden Hind Press, USA.

(2) Lilly, W.  (1647; repub. 2005).  Christian Astology, Book III.  Astrology Classics, U.S.A.

(3) Ma’shar, Abu [ed. & trans. Burnett, C.]  (c.850, trans. 1994) The Abbreviation of the Introduction to Astrology.  ARHAT, U.S.A.

(4) Agrippa, H.C. [ed. Tyson, D.; trans. Freake, F.] (1651, repub.2012) Three Books of Occult Philosophy. Llewellyn Sourcebooks, MN, U.S.A.

(5) When the Sun is in these signs in the Northern hemisphere, it’s summer. Presumably the opposite signs of Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces should be used for the Southern hemisphere.

(6) Dykes, B. (2013) Astrology of the World 1: The Ptolemaic Inheritance.  Cazimi Press, MN, U.S.A.

(7) Robson, V. (2005) The Fixed Stars and Constellations in Astrology.  Astrology Classics, MD, U.S.A.

(8) Tobyn, G. (1997). Culpeper’s Medicine.  Element Books, U.K.

(9) Lilly, W.  (1647; repub. 2004).  Christian Astology, Books I & II.  Astrology Classics, U.S.A.

About the author: MARCOS PATCHETT

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