2. The Four Elements and Three Modalities

astrology guide
astrology guide

IN THIS CHAPTER, I will be exploring the three modalities—cardinal, fixed, and mutable—and the four key elements—fire, earth, air, and water. Modalities are also known as the qualities of the signs, or their basic modus operandi—the way they work. Each of the three modalities includes four astrological signs, one from each of the elements. The four elements each represent one characteristic: Fire represents spirit, water represents emotion, air represents intellect, and earth represents the physical.

The zodiac, like the universe itself, is composed of these four elements, and in astrology, they represent archetypal characteristics within a person. As the luminaries, planets, asteroids, and other cosmic bodies work in alignment within us, so too do the elements. The elements also work in harmony with each other, so please be aware that every element is contained within each person.

Each element is connected to three signs of the zodiac and the predominant element in a horoscope gives a clear indication of how a person reacts, responds, and behaves. An analysis of the elemental balance alone in the chart can say a lot about the primary traits of a person.

The four elements are further divided into the three modalities as follows:

  • Aries is Cardinal Fire
  • Taurus is Fixed Earth
  • Gemini is Mutable Air
  • Cancer is Cardinal Water
  • Leo is Fixed Fire
  • Virgo is Mutable Earth
  • Libra is Cardinal Air
  • Scorpio is Fixed Water
  • Sagittarius is Mutable Fire
  • Capricorn is Cardinal Earth
  • Aquarius is Fixed Air
  • Pisces is Mutable Water

Blending the elements with the modalities gives us even more information about the primary traits of a person. For example, Gemini is mutable air and is, therefore, more likely to be very changeable; Libra is cardinal air and more likely to initiate new ideas.

Cardinal Modality

The first of the three modalities is the cardinal modality, which is associated with the four signs that begin each quadrant of the natural zodiac: Aries, Cancer, Libra, and Capricorn. Aries and Libra are the day (or inhale) cardinal signs and Cancer and Capricorn are the night (or exhale) signs.

As modalities represent the basic mode of operation of a sign, all four cardinal signs are initiating energies that begin a new season or stage of life and this, therefore, is reflected in their nature. Cardinal signs like to begin new projects. They are the pioneers of the zodiac but may lack the staying power needed to bring ideas and projects to fruition.

Fixed Modality

The second of the three modalities is the fixed modality, which is associated with the four signs that are in the middle of each quadrant of the natural zodiac: Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, and Aquarius. Here we also have two night (or exhale) signs, Taurus and Scorpio, and two day (or inhale) signs, Leo and Aquarius.

The fixed signs do exactly what they say they will. Their basic way of behaving is to fix in place that which was initiated by the cardinal signs. They have the staying power to make the projects, plans, and ideas of the cardinal, or initiating, signs happen. Fixed signs generally like continuity and dislike change. But life and the universe are ever-moving, which brings us to the third modality.

Mutable Modality

The third of the three modalities is the mutable modality, which is associated with the four signs that end each quadrant of the natural zodiac and that lead into the beginning of the next: Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius, and Pisces. Gemini and Sagittarius are the day (or inhale) signs and Virgo and Pisces are the night (or exhale) signs.

As their name suggests, mutable signs are very flexible, changeable, and versatile. They can usually see all sides of issues and cope well when life throws change at them. They can, however, easily lose focus and purpose in life and are likely to suffer from “shiny object syndrome” and distraction.

The Horoscope as the Medicine Wheel

The four elements and the four signs of the cardinal modality have also been used in shamanic cultures for millennia as the medicine wheel, which represents the four cardinal directions called in ceremony and the beginning of the seasons. In the northern hemisphere, cardinal Aries (fire) begins spring, cardinal Cancer (water) begins summer, cardinal Libra (air) begins fall, and cardinal Capricorn (earth) begins winter. These are reversed in the southern hemisphere.

The four directions also represent stages of life: birth (east, fire, new beginnings), youth (south, water, emotional innocence and trust), adulthood (west, earth, physical energy), and elderhood (north, air, wisdom). The whole horoscope could therefore be seen as a medicine wheel or sacred hoop of life to align with. Please note that this is one way of looking at this and different shamanic traditions look at the wheel of life differently.

The seasons of the year align with the seasons of life through birth (Spring), youth (Summer), adulthood (Fall), and elderhood (Winter). Everything is connected in a great mandala of creation.


The Horoscope as the Medicine Wheel
The Horoscope as the Medicine Wheel


 Fire is the energy of transformation and action and is day (inhale) energy. As we inhale life, we draw breath to gain energy. We also expand our lungs on inhalation; fire signs and planets are expansive or outgoing. Fire is heat and movement. Think about the energy of flames, as you watch them flicker and dance, and you get a feeling for the element of fire. The Sun provides the Earth and humanity with the heat and light we need to survive.

Fire is fast-moving and transformative, like a phoenix rising from the ashes of destruction.

The three fire signs—Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius—are positive, inspirational, enthusiastic, and confident. They are more associated with day energy, which is more direct and focused outward but all signs have some fire energy contained within, as we are all elements in differing quantities.

Aries, ruled by the warrior god Mars, is the first of the fire signs and is the most direct and focused. Leo, ruled by the Sun, is confident and loves attention. Sagittarius, ruled by Jupiter, is expansive and inspirational.

Any placements, luminaries, planets, asteroids, or angles in fire signs will take on these characteristics. For example, those with Venus (values and love) in Aries are very direct and more warrior-like in relationships. People with Mercury (the mind and communication) in Leo have a communication style that conveys authority.


Water is the energy of receptivity and emotion and is a night (exhale) energy. Water, like emotions, is fluid and shifting. Water makes up a huge percentage of the human body and could be said to be the most crucial element. Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces are the three water signs; all are deeply intuitive and creative energies.

The Moon rules Cancer and is associated with nurturing and mothering. Pluto rules Scorpio, which reflects the depth of this sign and is associated with obsession and psychological depths. Neptune rules Pisces and is associated with all meditative or altered states, as well as the connection to the collective unconscious or spirit energy.

Any placements in water signs take on a more fluid energy. Someone with Mercury (the mind and communication) in Cancer, for example, receives information instinctively and retains it at a deep level, since Cancer is a receptive night energy.


Air is the energy of the mind or thought and is a day (inhale) energy. This is the breath and the wind. We can’t hold on to breath; it flows in and out, and wind is needed to stop the air around us from becoming stagnant. Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius are the three air signs, and they are the signs of thought, ideas, sociability, and the analytical. Air signs are associated with rationality and the right brain.

Gemini, ruled by Mercury, is associated with duality and learning. Libra, ruled by Venus, is associated with diplomacy, relationships, and mediation. Aquarius is ruled by Uranus and is associated with the Internet because of its connectivity of thoughts, ideas, and people; higher intellect; inventiveness; and innovation.

Any placements in air signs take on an airier flavor. Someone with Mars (drive and will) in Gemini, for example, is a fast learner and likely to speak very quickly and directly.


Earth is the energy of the material world, energy that you can touch and feel. Earth is stable, practical, and patient, and it is a night (exhale) energy. Taurus, Virgo, and Capricorn are the three earth signs, and they are the signs of hard work, building, creating material things, and connection to the material world and structures.

Earth signs are sensual, have creative qualities, and are connected to the natural cycles of nature, as well as the human cycle of birth, life, and death.

Taurus, ruled by Venus, is the most connected with the material world and the Earth itself. Virgo, ruled by Mercury, is more connected with the technical world and crafts. Capricorn, ruled by Saturn, is the pioneer of the earth signs and is the leadership and achievement-oriented sign.

Any placements in earth signs will take on the flavor of the sign. For example, someone with Mars (drive and will) in Taurus will be slower and more deliberate than someone with Mars in the sign of rulership, Aries, which is very fast-moving and direct.