The Four Elements: Fire, Earth, Air, and Water—these are the essential building blocks of astrology.
Now, almost everyone is familiar with the concept of the Four Elements. The idea that everything in life is composed of some combination of these four elements is as old as civilization itself. From archaic shamans to ancient Greek philosophers, from medieval alchemists to Zen Buddhists—the entire history of mythology, religion, philosophy and even science to a degree, is founded on this worldview.
And we can see the Four Elements everywhere. Anyone familiar with the Tarot will recognize them as the Four Suits: Wands (Fire), Pentacles (Earth), Swords (Air), and Cups (Earth). These Four elements are also encoded in the suits of a deck of modern playing cards—Clubs, Diamonds, Spades, and Hearts.
The Four Elements are the foundation of all so-called occult knowledge.
And it’s not just the occult. We can see the Four Elements present in modern science as well. In physics they are represented by Four States of Matter: Solid, Liquid, Gas and Plasma. In Evolutionary Biology as the Four Basic Needs of the human organism: air, water, food (earth) and warmth (fire).
Modern psychology has embraced the Four Elements. The Jungian model of personality identifies Four Cognitive Functions of Intuition, Sensation, Thinking and Feeling. And Jung’s ideas in turn informed the entire Myers-Briggs tests many of us are familiar with.
So the Four Elements are everywhere alive and well in the 21st century. And the fact that these principles are still relevant today speaks to the tremendous power and enduring utility of this elemental framework. The reason is that they point to something so deep, so fundamental to our experience of life on Earth, that they form the essential building blocks of the human condition.
Now, before we take a deep dive into each of the elements in turn, there’s one more concept that we need to explore, which is the concept of POLARITIES, for each of the four elements have historically been divided into two groups or categories that represent polar opposites, which have traditionally been classified as “masculine/positive” and “feminine/negative.” But in today’s postmodern world, these terms feel a bit dated (if not entirely dangerous), and so some more appropriate equivalents are often used, such yang and yin, active and passive, projective and receptive, self-expressive and self-repressive.
But essentially Fire/Air are represented by the active/positive/projective/yang pole and Earth/Water are represented by the passive/negative/receptive/yin pole. And additional distinction that is perhaps my favorite way of thinking of these polarities is in terms of levity and gravity. Because if you think of the properties of Fire and Air they both have an upward and expanding movement—a sense of levity, while Earth and Water tend seek out the lowest point and settle in—a sense of gravity.
So by incorporating the notion of polarities, we are presented with two complementary pairs of elements: Fire/Air and Earth/Water. And this makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Think about starting a fire. What do we do? We “fan the flames.” Air feeds fire. Likewise, we “water the plants.” Water feeds earth. These two pairs are natural complements.
But we also must consider incompatible pairs. Water extinguishes fire. Fire scorches the earth. And air blows over the earth, but never comes down to its level. Cold air can freeze water, and fire can evaporate it.
We’ll explore these ideas of complementary and incompatible elements in future episodes when we discuss the Signs and the Planets. But for now it is helpful to make the distinctions as we dive deeper into the Four Elements themselves.
The Fire Element
Inspiration, enthusiasm, spontaneity, excitement—these are words typically used to describe fiery types. The element of fire can be likened to the Sun—a positive, radiant energy that brings warmth and light to the world. Which conjures notions of illumination and enlightenment, and thus spirituality, which can be associated with the fire element. People with a lot of Fire in their chart tend to exhibit high levels of self-confidence and a sense of a special destiny in life.
But like the Sun, they can also be very direct, harsh and scorching, manifesting some of the more negative qualities of the fire element. Fire signs tend to be impatient with more sensitive Water signs orthe slow-to-react Earth signs. They are impulsive and rely on gut instinct. They need to be unbounded in pursuit of their passion.
In Jungian terms, the Fire element is associated with Intuition. In Physics it is related to plasma or radiant ionized energy. In Tarot it is associated with Wands—the suit of the divining rod, the great dragon, the serpent and the phallus—all symbols of a proactive, radiating power.
Aries, Leo and Sagittarius are the fire signs of the zodiac, collectively known as the Fire Trinity.
The Earth Element
Conventional, practical, dependable, patient—-these are words typically used to describe earthy types. The element of earth can be likened to the world itself—the physical, matter-of-fact, here-and-now reality of three-dimensional space and time. The Earth element lends a sense of groundedness and a need to be of service, to be productive. Earthly types are often very goal-oriented.
But they can also be stubborn, overly cautious, narrow in their thinking and plagued by inertia. They can become slaves to their own routines. The imaginative enthusiasm of fire types or the broad thinking of air types are often perceived as threats to the stability of their practical reality. Abstract concepts and theoretical realms are alien to them. If it can’t be experienced by the five senses, it probably isn’t real.
In Jungian terms, the Earth element is associated with Sensation. In Physics it is related to the solid state of matter. In Tarot it is associated with Pentacles—-the suit of material wealth, craftsmanship, carnal knowledge, —-all symbols of a productive, sustaining power.
Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn are the earth signs of the zodiac, collectively known as the Earth Trinity.
The Air Element
Intelligent, communicative, curious, social—these are words typically used to describe airy types. The element of air can be likened to the mind—the organizing structure whose thought forms give birth to manifested creations. The element of air is at home in the world of ideas, theories, speculations and conversations. It needs to express itself verbally, or through the arts or abstract sciences. It seeks to find an objective view of reality, develop a perspective of relativity and foster a sense of rational detachment.
But it is often the case that air types become too preoccupied with their own thoughts and ideas, living too much in their heads and not being grounded in their bodies or in touch with their emotions—-two things that put them in conflict with the earth and water types. The airy personality wants the freedom to explore all the possibilities, not to be limited or confined by eathly restraints, or bogged down with heavy emotions.
Witty, clever and imbued with a sense of humor, air types often seek to add levity to any situation.
In Jungian terms, the Air element is associated with Thinking. In Physics it is related to the gaseous state of matter. In Tarot it is associated with Swords—the suit of truth, justice, ideals and conflicts—all symbols of a projective, expressive power.
Gemini, Libra and Aquarius are the air signs of the zodiac, collectively known as the Air Trinity.
The Water Element
Emotional, empathetic, compulsive, psychic—-these are words typically used to describe the watery types. The element of water can be likened to the oceana vast body of water whose surface reveals little of the depth and complexity that lurks below. By becoming sensitive to the great oceanic oneness, one becomes profoundly aware that every drop is intimately connected to every other drop, fostering a sense of deep connection and merger. The ability and willingness to “plunge the depths” of the unconscious is a key characteristic of the water-oriented personality.
But somewhat paradoxically, these watery types can also be quite unconscious of their own motivations. They are often driven by compulsive desires and hampered by irrational fears. They are often quiet, secretive and suspicious. They can’t tolerate the boisterous behavior of the fiery types or the incessant chatter of the airy types. There’s a great sense of vulnerability with the water element, and often they will use deception as a means of protection.
But ultimately, water seeks to heal and be healed and wants to love and be loved.
In Jungian terms, the Water element is associated with Feeling. In Physics it is related to the liquid state of matter. In Tarot it is associated with Cups—the suit of love, life, fertility, the womb—all symbols of a protective, intensive power.
Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces are the water signs of the zodiac, collectively known as the Water Trinity.
So those are the Four Elements in a nutshell. And we are going to use these elements to build the foundation for our understanding of astrology. They will under girdle our entire framework. Along with the Elements, we’ve also explored the concept of Polarities—that each element belongs to a pair of yin/yang, active/passive, projective/receptive “polar” opposites.
In the next episode, we are going to build upon these two foundational concepts of elements and polarities as a basis for constructing the 12 signs of the zodiac.