THE FOUR ELEMENTS IN ZODIACAL SYMBOLISM
One of the first things that a student of astrology learns is that each sign of the zodiac is related to one of the four Elements: Fire, Water, Air and Earth. I have already spoken briefly of these, referring them to the four cardinal or "critical" moments of the year cycle: spring equinox (Aries 1°), summer solstice (Cancer 1°), fall equinox (Libra 1°) and winter solstice (Capricorn 1°).
When we speak of "Elements" we tend to think of material substances, or at least states of matter — solid, liquid, airy and fiery — and thus of different ways in which various types of particles are related to each other and in which they affect our senses — the solidity of a rock, the liquidity of water, the ubiquity and elusiveness and invisibility of the atmosphere, the dynamism and ever-changing aspect of flames. In a deeper sense these four Elements constitute different modes of operation of the One Power which, for us inhabitants of the solar system, has its primary source in the Sun. This One Power becomes bipolar the moment it is activated. Its two polarities (Day-force and Night-force, or Yang and Yin) constantly interact, alternatively waxing in strength and waning. Thus four phases in the cyclic activity of the One Power, the equinoxes and the solstices, stand out as moments of special significance. The One Power differentiates itself into four "cardinal" types of energies. Each type of energy has its own characteristic rhythm, and as any steady rhythm develops a form which appears to our senses as "matter," we can speak of four basic states of matter.
We should think of the Elements as modalities of power when we refer them to the zodiac because the zodiac symbolizes the cyclically changing relationship of the Earth to the Sun. Each Element is thus to be conceived of primarily as a mode of power release (that is, a certain type of energy), and only secondarily as a state of matter. The Chinese astrologer gives different names to the Elements, relating them to different kinds of substances, but they too refer to modalities of power. In my early book. The Astrology of Personality, I spoke of Fire-power, Water-power, Air-power and Earth-power,* and I added that three basic operations dealing with the manifestation and use of power should be considered: the generation, the concentration and the distribution of power.
*See original edition, p. 261.
Power is generated in "cardinal" signs of the zodiac (Aries, Cancer, Libra, Capricorn). It is concentrated in "fixed" signs (Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, Aquarius) and distributed in "mutable" signs (Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius, Pisces). Thus each of the four Elements appears in the zodiacal cycle under three forms and a triangular or trinitarian relationship can be established between the three signs that express the three aspects of the same Element. Such a relationship constitutes the astrological "aspect" called trine.
The trine is considered the most "benefic" or "fortunate" type of relationship just because it brings out the full manifestation of one of the four modalities of power. It is thus an aspect of completion. Symbolically speaking, repeating an action three times finalizes it. All mythologies and occult traditions agree on this point, which is the basis of the divine trinities found in most cultures. If three planets form what is called a "grand trine" they activate an Element in three different ways: the activation is total, and the character of the planets indicates the three paths along which the process of activation should (or will naturally tend to) proceed.
To call a trine "good" has meaning only in terms of what to us, normally and in most circumstances, is estimated to be favorable and productive of happiness or comfort. It is thus a matter of ethical or value judgment. The real fact is simply that the Element animated by this trine relationship between two or more planets is being stressed — it can be for better or for worse depending on the circumstances. There are many circumstances in which a combination of several modalities of power is required for effective action.
Theoretically, the symbols of the degrees or cyclic phases that are in trine relationship (i.e. 120 degrees distant) should tell a consistent symbolical story. In actual practice, this presents difficulties. It is evident that if the same symbol has to be interpreted in relation to a two-fold, three-fold, four-fold, five-fold and six-fold relationship with other symbols, one has to extract from all these scenes or images a very general and abstract kind of significance. Nevertheless, the attempt is often very revealing, and it is an excellent exercise in the training of the interpretative faculty, i.e. the capacity to see through ordinary facts and to reach their essential meaning. This is "clair-thinking," if not clairvoyance.
Let us consider each sign's first degree and its symbol. The usual role of the first-degree symbol is as prototype of the entire sign's characteristics.
Fire Signs: These signs deal with the three aspects of the basic power released at the start of all cyclocosmic processes — that is, the power to induce a structured series of transformations. Occult tradition in India speaks of three fires: electric fire, solar fire and fire by friction. These correspond respectively to Aries, Leo and Sagittarius.
Electricity in its multiplicity of aspects is primary, and seems to be found wherever there is motion and the beginning of new life. Broadly interpreted, the symbol of Aries 1° refers to the emergence of new potentialities of existence. This emergence takes place at the level of biogenesis, i.e. under the compulsion of "Life." All living processes require electrical energy.
Solar power is related to the solar sign Leo. What had emerged biologically and instinctually in Aries, driven by the desire-to-be, is now ready for a "second birth": birth in individuality. This implies a transmutation of life energies into mental processes which at first express the ego's will-to-power. Leo personalizes the pure, unconditioned desire-to-be of Aries fire. It stresses the "I am" and the ego-will. Suns are great autocrats of the universe — glorious and radiant in the assertion of a new type of power, but also essentially ambitious and desirous to show this power, their own, to all their planets. Sunlight is an individualized form of galactic energy. The symbol for Leo 1° lets us witness the rushing of the blood to the head, a throne for the ego and his intellectual processes of rationalization. Yet a Sun is also a star, one of billions within the immense galaxy, which symbolizes the spiritual realm.
Fire by friction is related to Sagittarius, for here we find at work the power that builds up, sustains and expands civilization, and that energizes all social processes. These processes are implied in the union of man and woman, once human beings develop a conscious sense of responsibility for their progeny — that is, the lasting realization that they are parents and educators whose primary task is to teach the child what they have inherited from the past, as well as to attempt to make for him a safer and happier future. As I have already stated, in our era the root process of social survival and expansion is warfare, in the broadest sense of the term (which includes competition in all its forms). The symbol for Sagittarius 1° refers to the development of human fellowship and particularly of a comradeship based on the experience of total group-dedication to a social Cause.
Water Signs: These deal with the power required to sustain, and to integrate through the stabilization of basic life rhythms, whatever has emerged as an organized system of activity. "Water"-power is the capacity to feel and to respond as an organic whole.
In the symbol for Cancer 1° we see "sailors lowering an old flag and raising a new one." The Day-force (Yang), which in Aries began to overpower the Night-force, here reaches its maximum strength. Cancer refers not only to the home, but also to the concretely established and stabilized person. In a deeper sense it suggests the realization by the microcosm — the person — that it is a cosmos, that it is analogous to the whole universe.
Without the Water element there would be no circulatory processes and no feeling of wholeness; this feeling is at the very root of the ego-consciousness. What emerged rather passively and hesitantly in Aries 1° is now definitely "above the sea" (the ship) and able to display its own determination-to-be, its course of action and the direction it will follow.
The symbol for Scorpio 1° suggests that this second aspect of Water-energy now operates in the linking of the individual to a larger social whole, the modern city. This individual can feel and respond to a wider sphere of relationship. In a sense he is proclaiming his new allegiance to a wider and more dynamic state of group- consciousness.
The symbol for Pisces 1° (a crowded marketplace) reveals the individual's total and effective participation in an organized society and its complex rhythm of production and distribution. Thus from the personal realm of feeling-response to new possibilities (Cancer 1°) we have come to the sphere of all-absorbing social interchange (Pisces 1°), through the transition process evoked by the symbol for Scorpio 1° (A crowded sightseeing bus on a city street.)
Air Signs: The Element Air refers to all pervasive and stimulating means of communication. It brings separate individuals together in group-activity. Indeed, the air that fills the lungs and cells of the most proud isolationist or racist inevitably links him, whether he is aware of it or not, with those he may refuse to befriend or the existence of whom he may not even acknowledge. In a few days the winds carry the same air all around the globe, as if to mock our national sovereignties and exclusivenesses. We all breathe it and throw the wastes of our bodies into it. It circulates as oxygen within the depths of all human beings, and without it there could be no life. It is a dynamic force — archetypally, an equinoctial Element, Libra — but unlike Fire, it does not transform. Instead, it gives human individuals a new spiritual-social dimension. In many languages the words which at first referred to "air" or "breath" later on lose their earlier meaning and take on the meaning of spirit (pneuma, atma).
The sign Libra is popularly connected with the concept of "balance" because of the symbol of "the Scales" used to characterize the whole sign, but this is a very superficial interpretation; people in whose charts Libra plays an important role are no more psychologically balanced than any other human beings. At the fall equinox the Day-force and the Night-force are of equal strength, balancing each other but the same situation exists at the spring equinox in Aries. The difference is that Aries begins the hemicycle of "Individualization," while Libra begins that of "Collectivization." The first process depends on Fire-power, the second on Air-power.
The symbol for Libra 1° (the impaled butterfly) at first does not seem to fit the concepts associated with the Element Air, but we can give profound meaning to the relationship if we realize that an archetype is the unity-aspect of all the particular and diverse existential forms that can be referred to it. Thus the archetype Man relates all human beings to each other. Religiously speaking, the Element Air (which in its highest sense becomes the Holy Spirit) makes all men Brothers, and thus Sons of the archetypal Father. The perfect butterfly is the archetype Man. Every man can identify himself with it, not only when his spiritual metamorphosis is completed, but when he is totally willing to surrender all that he is as an individual to the perfecting (i.e. archetypalizing) of mankind-as-a-whole.
Every organized society has its own cultures based on a few archetypes or "prime Symbols" (Spengler). It is the archetype that, spiritually speaking, brings the group together at a time and in a locality where the vital need to which the archetype is a cosmic, superpersonal answer is a dominant feature of human existence — or we might say of the group's collective karma. In the second Air sign, Aquarius, we see the image of the archetype concretized and made relatively permanent in the collectivity. Thus the symbol for Aquarius 1°: An old adobe mission in California, or any ancient Temple or Medieval Cathedral that embodies not only a religious but a social and protective function.
The symbol for Gemini 1° pictures man operating at a relatively sophisticated cultural level and able to build "glass-bottomed boats" which allow him to come into contact with occult powers and transcendent forms of existence. Libra-Air generates collectively acceptable archetypal values. Aquarius-Air concentrates these values within cultural institutions. Gemini-Air distributes as knowledge what such institutions have produced.
Earth Signs: Thanks to atomic physics we know that matter in the solid state is not really a mass of heavy materials, but mostly empty space within which atoms and their constituents whirl at terrific speed, separated by distances that are enormous in relation to the atom's incredibly small size. Powerful forces hold these swirling atomic and subatomic entities within definite patterns of organization. The strong cohesive links between billions of electrical particles present our senses with the feeling of solidity. At another level solidity becomes solidarity, the foundation upon which lasting socio-political and cultural institutions are built.
The physicist speaks of a "binding force" within the atom, or of gravitation. The psychologist, if his vision were penetrating enough, would see similar forces operating at the level of the psyche and leading to the formation of the ego — the stabilizer of what we call "character." Some egos are massive and resist splitting or disintegration; others can only loosely relate the different drives and conscious interests of the psyche and the mind, thus making possible personality splits or possession by elemental-astral forces.
The symbol for Capricorn 1° (An Indian chief claims power from the assembled tribe.) emphasizes the will to integration under a centralized control, i.e. the demand for a power that can hold the group together, especially in critical circumstances. The symbol for Taurus 1° (a clear mountain stream) refers to the descent of a power which will enable man and all living organisms to participate healthfully in an ecological whole, in which every participant has a more or less definite biological role. The symbol for Virgo 1° (a portrait) reveals the intellectual and creative capacity to extract from a biological and psychic type of integration (the face of a person who has become individualized within a particular culture) what is most characteristic and significant in the person, and thus most revealing. We see the Earth Element at work in the social (Capricorn), the biological (Taurus) and the individual-personal (Virgo) realms of activity.*
*There is much rather negative talk in astrological circles today about people having no planet in signs related to one of the four Elements. Where a planet is located, there the person's attention normally will tend to, and should, be focused. But this does not mean that the qualities (or the mode of operation) symbolized by an Element, if not stressed by a planet, necessarily will be lacking in the person's nature. It may mean that these qualities need not be stressed, because they are innately well developed, or only of secondary importance in the present life cycle. They might have been too strongly relied upon in a past life, or they may be dominant in the family or culture within which the person is born. Other qualities now must be emphasized. In late life there may be a reversal, just as men in old age tend to become more feminine and women more masculine. Also, the type of activity represented by a non-emphasized Element may take place at a transcendent level. In popular practice, too much is made of the four Elements. The interrelationships of the planets, wherever they are located in the zodiac, and the positions in the Houses are far more important. (See my book. The Astrological Houses: The Spectrum of Individual Experience.) Astrology does not depend primarily on the signs of the zodiac, important and basic as the concept of the zodiac is as a symbol of operative wholeness and cyclic activity.
By relating the four Elements to the equinoctial and solsticial points we obtain holistic and archetypal sequences showing the relation of the Elements under three aspects within the whole zodiacal cycle. But the more ordinary way of interpreting the sequence of these Elements is to study it at the existential level — that is, as one sign follows another in time. Then Aries-Fire is followed by Taurus-Earth, Gemini-Air and Cancer-Water and the four-beat series of Fire, Earth, Air and Water repeats itself, beginning with Leo, and then later with Sagittarius.
From such a point of view the entire cycle is divided into three periods, each beginning with an "emergence." Each emergence takes place at a specific level of activity and consciousness: the bio-psychic level, the personal-individual ego level, the social-collective level. We see then the possibility for a human being to experience a birth in the body, a birth in individuality, a social (and in some instances, truly spiritual-occult) birth. These three periods, referring to the cycle of the year when the zodiac is considered, can be studied as well in the cycle of an archetypal human life, once man has reached the stage at which it is possible for him to become truly an "individual," independent of his racial-cultural matrices, and self-reliant. These are the three 28-year periods in a life span of 84 years — the cycle of Uranus. An individualized life is infused with the Uranian power of self-transformation, while man in the tribal state (which many human beings today have not yet transcended!) remains an example of racial-cultural pattern, a "specimen" only superficially characterized by personal reactions to a particular set of circumstances, and the archetypal life span for him is 70 years.*
*These three 28-year periods have been discussed in both my books. The Astrology of Personality (1936) and The Astrological Houses (1972).
From the existential point of view of succession in time, the element Fire is polarized by Earth, within the pairs (or zyzygies) discussed in the first chapter of this section. In the same way Air is polarized by Water. We are dealing thus with pairs of opposites and actually with a six-fold division of the cycle. We witness the differentiation of the One Power into the six great creative-transforming energies, or shakti. In Sanskrit this One Power is called Daiviprakriti, and in some other Hindu systems, Vach — the Voice of the Creative God. It corresponds broadly to the Holy Ghost of the Christian Trinity, in which the Son has the astrological Sun as his counterpart.
A seven-fold division of the circle of wholeness leads us to the "irrational," because dividing 7 into 360 does not produce a whole or rational number. Geometrically, and therefore archetypally, speaking, 7 refers to the fact that six circles completely surround a seventh circle — all circles being of the same size. Existentially, we constantly deal with cycles divided into seven periods (and four times 7 equals 28); but what the geometrical fact tells us (if we are ready to listen) is that "the seventh" occupies a special place in the existential sequence. It is the "seed" of the six-fold life development. This seed synthesizes the 6, and at the same time leads to a new cyclic process, hopefully at a higher level of growth.
The discussion of further divisions of the circle would lead to unnecessary complexities, though significant relationships could be established between the first and the sixteenth degree symbols of each sign, and the eight-fold division is no doubt a very significant one if we refer it to the actual release of power in electromagnetic fields (45-degree angle). It may also be that the 40-degree angle will receive more attention in the future. It refers to a nine-fold scheme, and the number 40 has great significance in occult symbolism.
What I sought mainly to show in this part of the book is the very remarkable manner in which the Sabian symbols can be related to one another according to several structural schemes, geometrical and sequential — schemes which have meaning in terms of number and the release of basic life energies. The structural interconnections of the Sabian symbols according to various modes of division of the whole cycle is, I believe, unique in the field of symbolism — especially considering the aleatory manner in which the symbols were obtained. It gives them a kind of validity which is until now unparalleled. This does not mean that a more perfect set of symbols cannot be produced, but it establishes a very important criterion of validity.
An Astrological Mandala