Although most articles and books on astrology speak of the Four Elements: Fire, Earth, Air, and Water, they seldom discuss the ancient doctrine and how fundamental the elements are to understanding the nature of the signs of the Zodiac.
At some point the importance of these ancient teachings began to be lost or ignored, and the Zodiac-centered astrology of ancient times fell into confusion and misunderstanding as much of it is today.
The original writers on the subject of "natural science" considered everything to be composed of a specific mixture of four "vapors" which were originally thought of as hot, wet, cold and dry. These fundamental states only exist as combinations; they cannot manifest by themselves. The philosophers began to think of the closest representation in our world to these pure, unmanifest states of matter, and referred to their manifest forms as fire, water, earth and air.
Fire was considered hot and dry, water as wet and cold, air as hot and wet, and earth as cold and dry. These ideas were based on the cycles of nature and the changing of the seasons. In order for a seed to sprout, it needs the warmth of sunlight and the wetness of water in order to balance the cold and dry condition of the earth from which it grows. This is a basic example of the thinking that was fundamental to Galen, Hippocrates and the other founders of medicine. We find that Aristotle and his teacher Plato, as did his teacher Socrates, spoke of fire, water, earth and air; some scholars think that Plato was the first to call them "elements" or fundamental substances.
During the Roman Empire, Manilius, the famous poet-astrologer, explained the grouping of three signs that are equidistant from one another as being part of the same Trigon. This is because of the reverence that the Greeks held for the triangle as a perfect, harmonious and balanced form. In the wheel of the Zodiac, Aries, Leo and Sagittarius are all equidistant from one another. To the ancients, this meant that planets in these signs acted in harmony with one another. The four Trigons belonged to Aries, Cancer, Libra and Capricorn, because these were the Cardinal (leading) signs of each group. A whole system of analyzing horoscopes started from whether a person was born by day or night, so that it could be determined whether the Sun or Moon was the "sect light." From there the cosmic condition of the planets associated with the trigon could be used to study the character and predict one's fortune and misfortune.
During the Hellenistic era, when the ancient doctrine of astrology was codified on the basis of Platonic philosophy, we began to see the Trigons associated with the elements. We started to see statements like "the signs of the Aries Trigon partake of a hot and dry, fiery nature." Elemental theory was also the basis of medicine, in which the individual temperament, character and personality were understood by the humors. Even through the Renaissance, all doctors were astrologers and the classical doctrines remained consistent. Shakespeare and other authors were all masters of the humors; they used their understanding of natural science to create their fictional characters or describe historical ones. Eventually, however, much of the doctrine of sect and the Trigons was lost, and few astrologers undertook the ancient teaching of the humors and elements. Astrologers had to simplify their terms to make sense of what bits and pieces of the System of Hermes remained.
Today, most astrologers simply refer to the signs by the elements, and have left behind the concepts of the humors, sect and balance. They define the presence of the planets in the signs by ideas that they don't know the origin of. The doctrine of astrology was very detailed and specific to the ancients, and brought medicine, psychology, mathematics and the other sciences into a unified whole. The ancient elements are very useful, and are well known to those that practice Tarot and other metaphysical methods. Even many counselors and psychologists have begun to see how universal the humors and elements are, and have adapted them to their modern practice. They are quite useful when working with diet, relationships and other aspects of life. In other words, the ancient elements are still being used by the wise to help guide individuals toward health, happiness and balance, even in this modern, technological world. Use the links below to learn more about each of the four elements: