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Elemental Qualities in Astrology
This in-depth article, by leading astrologer Ian Thurnwald, outlines the traditional system of elemental qualities as it applies to the Astrological elements and to the triplicities of the signs and the seasons of the year. Ian also develops a new method based on Aristotle's conceptions of "being and becoming" to apply the seasonal qualities in a more meaningful way to Southern Hemisphere births.
In the first place, I hope to show that this original means of classifying the signs helps us to gain more understanding of the basic nature of the signs of the Tropical zodiac. Secondly, we shall explore the obvious implication of this seasonally based system for people born in the southern hemisphere, namely, that with the reversal of the seasons in the southern hemisphere the expression of the signs is altered somewhat. Finally, I'd like to demonstrate a practical use for this system, as a way to delineate basic temperament from natal charts.
The Elements as Modes of BehaviourFor the Greeks there was no separation between nature and human experience. Like contemporary indigenous peoples, they saw humans and nature as part of the same continuum. As such, Greek theories of the natural world attempted to explain observable reality in terms of the behaviour of natural processes as modelled on human behaviour. Thus, the Greek "elements" of air, fire, earth and water, were never thought of as the physical or chemical building blocks of matter, rather they were characterisations of modes of behaviour, activity, or process .
The earliest Greek ideas about the natural world appear around 550 B.C.E.. We will not attempt to explain them here except to note that the central notions of "elements" and "qualities" were established at this time. At this early stage the four elements of air, fire, earth and water were seen as immutable, and all things were said to come into existence as a result of a battle between two sets of opposite qualities; the warm and dry versus the cold and moist.
Aristotle's Model of Being and BecomingTwo-hundred years later (around 350 B.C.E.), Aristotle's model of the natural world had wide currency. In terms of this model each element is a combination of two of the four opposites, and everything in existence is a temporary compound of the four elements in different proportions, with the tension between opposites being the force that keeps things together.
By this time the elements are not immutable but are in a state of flux—one can change into another by an exchange of one of its qualities. The process of change is not random or progressive, but cyclic. The process is cyclic because one active quality (hot or cold) is always paired with one passive quality (wet or dry). Aristotle called this the process of being and becoming:
Obviously, the process of being and becoming is readily adaptable to natural processes, like the cycle of day and night, and the cycle of the seasons in temperate climates:
All these ideas were an established part Greek thinking before Astrology took hold in the Greek world. In other words Astrology fitted in very well with the cosmology and philosophy of an agrarian society that saw change as a process similar to the cycle of the seasons.
The Elemental QualitiesIn terms of this schema, hot and cold are descriptive of different states of energy or activity, hence they are the "active" qualities. Thus, a hot (or warm) entity is in motion while a cold one is at rest. Hot things, then, are warm, bright, they expend energy, are rapid in motion and changeable. Cold things, on the other hand, are cool, dark, they conserve energy, are deliberate in motion and tend to stay the same.
Wet and dry are terms that also carry the connotation of "soft" and "hard". They are descriptive of different states of matter that are acted upon, hence they are the "passive" qualities. Thus, a wet (or moist) thing can be soft, malleable, moist, or formless, while a dry thing can be hard, brittle, parched, or solid.
This system is used to make distinctions between the nature of things of the same class, and as a means of making distinctions between things. An example of the former is food which can be described as cooked (hot), raw (cold), soft (wet), or hard (dry). An example of the latter is spatial relationships, where high places are said to be hot and light and low places are cold and dark.
It is also worth noting that the Greeks already had developed a proto-psychology based on this system where the elemental qualities applied to four humours or personality types: Sanguine (wet & hot), Choleric (hot & dry), Melancholic (dry & cold), and Phlegmatic (cold & wet).
In terms of this schema then, anything could be described as a combination of its active quality and its passive quality.
Implications for AstrologyThe application of the system of elemental qualities to Astrology has two major consequences. First, it provides us with a deeper symbolic understanding of the elements, which helps us to better understand the nature of the signs. Second, by including the elemental qualities of the seasons as an important component of the meaning of the signs, the system explains why there are differences in expression between signs of the same element.
As to the first point, using the elemental qualities in Astrology shows us that each element is a mixture of two qualities, for example, the element, fire, is a mixture of hot & dry. Hence we gain deeper insight into the inherent nature of the triplicities, for example, all fire signs are hot & dry.
Let's briefly explore some of the symbolic implications of this.
As to the second point, using the elemental qualities in Astrology shows us that a crucial relationship is established between the elemental qualities of the seasons and the signs. Moreover, it is this that accounts for the differences in expression between signs of the same element. For example, the fire sign, Aries, is inherently hot and dry, but it falls in the hot and wet season of Spring, so Aries is hot and slightly wet. These distinctions can be more clearly seen in the table below:
In the table we can see, for example, that all the fire signs are by their very nature hot and dry. However, the addition of the elemental qualities of the seasons results in differences between the fire signs. Leo being the midsummer sign gets a double dose of hot and dry and is the pure fire sign, but Aries being a Spring sign is wetter (hot & dry, hot & wet), and Sagittarius being an Autumnal sign is colder (hot & dry, cold & dry). Obviously, this both explains and helps us to better understand the differences between signs of the same element. In the case of the fire triplicity, we see that: Aries is as active (hot) as Leo but it is more sociable (wet by season) than either Leo or Sagittarius; that Sagittarius is as discriminating (dry) as Leo but it is less assertive (cold by season) than either Aries or Leo, and; that Leo is the pure fire sign—it puts a lot of energy (hot) into establishing its own distinctiveness (dry).
Tropical Astrology in the Southern Hemisphere?In the Southern Hemisphere (hereafter SH) the seasonal cycle is reversed. If the elemental qualities of the seasons are crucial in determining the distinctions between the signs of the zodiac, as seems to be the case, then the way people in the SH go about expressing the energy of the signs will be different.
Of course, if we hold that Astrological symbolism is universal, despite its origins in the temperate climes of the Northern Hemisphere (hereafter NH), then this point is irrelevant. But if we hold that Astrology is just as much about place as it is about time, that our experiential relationship to place is important, then this is an idea worthy of serious consideration.
Now, it is important to notice that the basic nature of the signs remains the same (i.e., an Aries is still an Aries), but the seasonal difference means that the mix of elemental qualities does change. Theoretically, this will bring about a change in the way a SH sign goes about expressing itself, even though the intrinsic nature of the sign has not changed.
Before outlining the probable difference in expression of each SH sign, it is worth highlighting the main points of difference between the elemental mix of NH and SH signs.
First, many of the signs merely swap their mode of expression with another sign of the same triplicity. We see this below in relation to the signs: Aries and Sagittarius, Gemini and Libra, Virgo and Capricorn, and Cancer and Pisces.
Second, the three pure signs in the NH, Leo, Gemini, and Pisces, become mixed signs in the SH. Meanwhile, the three mixed signs in the NH, Taurus, Cancer, Libra, become pure signs in the SH. Thus, the SH loses the pure fire sign in Leo, but gains a pure earth sign in Taurus.
Third, the SH signs that differ markedly from their NH namesakes are, as one would expect, those that fall in the middle of their respective seasons, namely, Leo, Taurus, Scorpio and Aquarius.
Elemental Qualities and Temperament
Since the elemental qualities apply to the signs we can also say that they apply to the planets placed in the signs of the horoscope. A practical application of this system, then, is that we can list the sign placements of the planets in a natal chart and tally up the elemental qualities of the planets by sign, as well as by season, to see what overall characterisation better fits the person.
By way of an example, let's look at President George W. Bush's planets in terms of the elemental qualities:
In terms of the elemental qualities of the signs, the President's temperament is an even balance between sanguine (hot & wet) and choleric (hot & dry). However, when the elemental qualities of the seasons are taken into consideration Bush is most definitely choleric—a fiery type, a high energy person who acts to express his own power and will in the world.
In support of the sanguine characterisation, it could be said that 'dubbya' has a certain way with words! He also seems to get along very well with the Russian President, Mr Putin (a Libran). On the choleric side, however, Bush keeps fit by 'pumping iron' (very choleric), and his leadership style is that of the company director—he relies on advisers to understand and analyse issues, then makes his decision on the basis of their findings—not a particularly sanguine approach.
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