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The Elements & Modes of the Zodiac

To better understand the signs of the zodiac, let’s dive into the elements and modes that comprise all twelve astrological signs.

I like to explain it this way: let’s imagine the sky is divided into twelve equal slices of pie. But each pie slice has a different filling and crust combination. There are four possible fillings - let’s imagine apple, pumpkin, cherry, pecan; and three possible crusts – pastry, graham cracker, oreo crust - and no two are the same. So that means one slice might be an apple pie with pastry, or a cherry pie with graham cracker, or a pecan pie with oreo crust. Twelve possible combinations, twelve zodiac signs.

The actual zodiac consists of four elements (fire, earth, air, or water) combined with three modalities (cardinal, fixed, or mutable). Let’s explore each element and modality separately.

Fire: When you describe someone as “fiery,” what adjectives come to mind? Passionate, hot-headed, active, brash are a few. The fire signs of the zodiac are Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius, and they are known for their capacity to take initiative and start new things - perhaps not always to complete them!

Earth: If we are describing an “earthy” person, we’re likely to call them grounded, even-tempered, practical, and dependable. The earth signs are Taurus, Virgo, and Capricorn and their stability and endurance are well-known, but so is their stubbornness and potential for being more than a little predictable.

Air: Air is the element of thoughts, and the air signs have the perspective, intellect, and curiosity we can expect. But “airy” also means indecisive and potentially detached, so Gemini, Libra and Aquarius can be known for being a little hard-to-pin-down and a little superficial. Their capacity for communication and their free-spirited nature are bar none, though.

Water: Our emotions can come and go like waves, and so water signs are the most emotional of the zodiac. This makes them empathic, nurturing, healing, and sensitive. Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces don’t take things lightly and tend to be moody, so be careful not to offend your water sign friends. At the same time, they are incredibly intuitive, compassionate, and imaginative.

Now that we’ve covered the four elements of the zodiac, let’s take a look at the three modalities: cardinal, fixed, and mutable. These are analogous to the stages of a life cycle: things are born, they exist and endure, and then they die.

Cardinal: Like birth, cardinal signs are most comfortable with new beginnings. They tend to take initiative and can be described as dynamic, self-starting leaders. Aries, Cancer, Libra and Capricorn are the four cardinal signs, and each sign launches the season of the year it falls in.

Fixed: After something is born, it reaches its “fixed” state; here is when it endures, is stable and often, more responsible and dedicated. Fixed signs are known for being strong, opinionated, and stubborn and the fixed signs are Taurus, Leo, Scorpio and Aquarius.

Mutable: As we age and get closer to death, we (hopefully) start to gain more perspective. Perhaps we become more open-minded and willing to flow with our surroundings rather than act upon them or resist them. The mutable signs are the most flexible and comfortable with change, and they are Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius, and Pisces.

Now let’s put these slices of pie together.

Aries: Cardinal + Fire The ultimate self-starter, Aries are often called The Warrior or The Child, because of their innate initiative and fiery energy. They may be overly competitive at times, but sometimes their intensity is just what the situation needs!

Taurus: Fixed + Earth Now we have perhaps the most “grounded” of the zodiac, Taurus is known for its stubbornness, rigidity, as well as slower pace. They know how to soak in the good, though!

Gemini: Mutable + Air Gemini is called the Twins, perhaps because it is so hard for a Gemini to make up its mind. Their mind is so strong, and so quick-paced, that pinning down a Gemini is next to impossible. They certainly know how to lighten up a situation and crack a joke!

Cancer: Cardinal + Water Where water tends to hang back, cardinal likes to move forward, so Cancer is a nurturer who isn’t afraid to be demonstrative of their affection. More protective than other water signs, Cancer is all about showing their loved ones how much they care.

Leo: Fixed + Fire How do you hold a fire in your hand? You can’t, and Leo knows that. But you can look at it, and Leo is not afraid to take center stage, to dedicate itself to its own passionate pursuits. Not quite as active as the other fire signs, it is nonetheless inspired!

Virgo: Mutable + Earth Earth is immovable but mutable is constantly adjusting itself - this could be where Virgo gets its penchant for perfectionism. Practical while always open to input, Virgos are known to be hard workers but not always willing to take initiative.

Libra: Cardinal + Air Libra is a self-starter and perceptive, so it makes perfect sense that they are known as the Artists of the zodiac. They appreciate beauty and balance in their environment, and they love to connect with like-minded people.

Scorpio: Fixed + Water Fixed water makes me think of ice, and Scorpio can certainly come across as icy at times. But this also means they aren’t afraid to go deeply into the emotions of a situation, to embrace the intensity, and to soak up every ounce of life’s meaning.

Sagittarius Mutable + Fire All of that movement and changeability means Sagittarius is the ultimate traveler. They love to detach from situations but still dip a toe in to give some warmth and advice. Always on the move but also always thinking about the big picture, that is Sag to a T!

Capricorn Cardinal + Earth Capricorn has the initiative that Taurus and Virgo may lack, but still is very much tied into the maturity and responsibility of all earth signs. They are the managers and bosses of the zodiac, always planning and setting goals. They may be a little too hard on themselves, though!

Aquarius Fixed + Air How do you keep air in one place? It’s hard to do, just like Aquarius is perhaps the most unexpected sign of the zodiac. They don’t like to be put in a box, and enjoy their eccentricity and self-reliance.

Pisces Mutable + Water Water is already quite changeable, and adding the mutability in Pisces makes them incredibly sensitive, psychic, and compassionate. They may not have the best decision-making skills, but they do know how to adapt to their surroundings.


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