Signs: What They Are, and Introducing Elements and Modalities

An astrological sign is, as mentioned in a previous post, one of twelve 30 degree sections of the sky. The names of the signs are associated with constellations, and once upon a time, they aligned almost perfectly. The sun rose into the constellation Aries on the March equinox (the Aries ingress, which is at the moment of equinox, is still considered the beginning of the astrological year, and Aries the first sign of the zodiac, just as January is the first month of the calendar year), into the constellation Taurus approximately a month later, and so on. 

Thanks to the slight wobble of Earth’s axis, this is no longer true. As I write this, the sun is in the sign of Cancer--and also the constellation Cancer, as it happens--but transiting to Leo within a few days. However, if the constellations were the signs, the sun would still be in Cancer for several more weeks.

There are astrological systems that match signs more closely to the constellations. This is called sidereal astrology, and it is the basis for the Vedic and Chinese astrological systems. There are also a few Western astrologers who use sidereal signs, although this is a hybrid of Western with Vedic, not the norm for the Western astrological system. Western astrology is tropical: based on measurements of the sky taken from the ecliptic. (The ecliptic, for those who don’t know, is what appears, from an earth-based perspective, to be the sun’s orbit around us.) Since the ecliptic is based on the sun, not the constellations, the tropical zodiac stays the same regardless of where the constellations are.

While the signs are associated with seasons--Cancer and Leo generally being considered summer signs, Capricorn and Aquarius winter signs, and so on--they are seasons of the whole earth, not local seasons. Cancer month is summertime north of the equator and winter south of it, but the sun is still in Cancer everywhere. That is because, at this point in the earth’s orbit, the sun appears against the backdrop of Cancer to us. Because all of earth is one planet, on one orbit, which sign the sun is in at any given time is the same all over the earth.

The moon and planets also move through the signs. At this writing, the moon has just entered Pisces, Saturn and Pluto are coming together in Capricorn, while Mars blazes through Leo and Venus and Mercury are with the sun in late Cancer. Uranus has plowed into Taurus, and Jupiter and Neptune sit in their home signs of Sagittarius and Pisces, respectively. An infant born at this moment would have those sign placements in their birth chart. Cancer, Pisces, and Capricorn would be their most highlighted signs, along with whatever their rising sign is.

Each sign has its own flavor, its own set of archetypes, its own particular energies. Planets are flavored by the signs they’re in. Mars acts like Mars no matter what, but Mars in Aries is a very different flavor of Mars from Mars in Libra.

In a more general sense, we can get a big picture view of the flavor of a chart by picking out the signs with placements and noting which elements they are. Signs are divided into the four triplicities, or elements: fire, earth, air, and water. Some charts highlight a balance of elements, but in most cases, one or two elements dominate. While all charts have all the signs in them, the ones with placements, especially the sun, moon, ascendant, or multiple planets, are the signs that are highlighted.

Fire is the action and expansion principle. The overall message of a fire sign is self expansion. Being the earliest element in each third of the zodiac, fire is like the beginning of the hero’s journey in a folktale. Fire signs have a certain youthful quality to them. Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius are the fire signs.

Earth is stability, groundedness, practicality. The overall message of an earth sign is the physical, material, health, structure. Whereas fire tends to be quick and impulsive, earth tends to take it slow and think things through and look before leaping. Taurus, Virgo, and Capricorn are the earth signs.

Air is communication, ideas, movement. The overall message of an air sign is communication, either personally or for the masses. Air signs can have both the moving, sometimes impulsive, quality of fire and the detached discernment of earth. Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius are the air signs.

Water is emotions, intuition, sensitivity. Just as actual water can exist in three states--solid (ice), liquid, and vapor--the element of water can act similarly to each of the other elements, although it does so with a water quality. Like fire, water can be self expansive, although usually in a more “selfless” way. Like earth, water signs have a certain stillness and inwardness to them. Like air, water is communicative, although the communication of a water sign is more intuitive, often more listening than talking. The overall message of a water sign is a heightened sensitivity that none of the other elements share. Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces are the water signs.

Signs are also divided into modalities, based on seasonal order. There are three modalities: cardinal, fixed, and mutable.

Cardinal signs are the signs that the sun enters on a solstice or equinox. A cardinal sign starts its season. Similarly, cardinal energy starts things. Individuals with a lot of cardinal placements in their charts tend to be the kind who create change around them, usually unconsciously, just be being there: the cardinal person doesn’t change, but others around them do. Things change because a cardinal person was there. Aries, Cancer, Libra, and Capricorn are the cardinal signs.

Fixed signs anchor the season. When the sun is in a fixed sign, it is solidly summer, autumn, winter, or spring. Pagans and astronomers are familiar with cross quarter days, the halfway points between a solstice and equinox or equinox and solstice: they fall in the fixed signs. Fixed energy is stable, stays the course, doesn’t change. Individuals with many fixed placements tend to stay the course, be loyal, even to a fault, and for them to be comfortable with change, it has to come from within. They will not change unless it’s their own idea. Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, and Aquarius are the fixed signs.

Mutable signs shift the season. When the sun is in a mutable sign, spring is shifting into summer, summer into autumn, autumn into winter, or winter into spring. The sun’s transit through a mutable sign ends on a solstice or equinox, when it enters the next cardinal sign. Mutable energy is changing energy. Individuals with many mutable placements are process oriented, feeling the process is more important than the goal, and more comfortable than anyone else with change. They embrace it, flowing with it like a willow in the current or the wind. Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius, and Pisces are the mutable signs.

Most natal charts have a combination of cardinal, fixed, and mutable sign placements. The question then, is to what extent an individual is mutable, fixed, or cardinal. Does one modality predominate? Or two combined? That gives us a general sense of their approach to things.

Next, I intend to explore each sign in more depth, both going through the individual signs and looking at them in pairs or groups. This will not necessarily be a continuous series. I will also post about other topics throughout, but hopefully, readers will gain a much more in depth perspective on the signs.

Up next: New Series: Ask the Astrologer