Table of Contents
Seasons and Images
Astrological signs are organized into many different classes in ancient astrology. Some classes are complicated by the fact that various sign classifications pertain to associations with the “species” of things “imaged” in the constellations while others pertain to associations with the seasons. Horoscopic astrology originated during a time when the sidereal zodiac, relating to the “images” of the stars, was roughly aligned with the tropical zodiac, pertaining to the seasons. Sign associations in Hellenistic astrology sometimes align more with the tropical zodiac and at other times align more with the sidereal one.
A Rich History
On this site, I always try to stress the diversity of opinion, and richness that existed in Hellenistic astrology. The prevailing attitude in modern traditional astrological circles is of a more unified first tradition which later became more diverse, for better or worse. On the contrary, Hellenistic astrology is incredibly heterogeneous and robust. From our earliest surviving texts of the 1st century CE, astrologers are already noting a diversity of opinion and multiple approaches to many topics (see Ancient Astrologers Didn’t All Agree).
The Four Groups of Three
The many classifications of the signs that existed in the Hellenistic period are one example of its richness. These classifications will be addressed in this series of articles. To start, we will look at the origins of one of the more popular classifications of signs today. This is the four types of three signs each known by element as the fire signs, earth signs, air signs, and water signs. As each group of signs has three members which are in a triangular relationship with each other, each group was called a triplicity or triangle.
Triplicity without Elements
In a fascinating segment of a podcast by Chris Brennan ((Nov. 11, 2011; starting at minute 49:00), he discussed how the astrological signs were not originally associated with elements. In fact, as Brennan (2011) noted, in the majority of the surviving Hellenistic works, the elements are not associated with triplicity at all.
For those new to the concept of triplicity, it is the 4 groups of 3 signs each that are all in 120 degree relationships to each other. The triplicities are also called trigons or triangles, as the signs of a triplicity are trine each other, together forming an equilateral triangle in the zodiac. The trine is considered a relationship of perfect friendship. These signs were held to have a particularly strong harmonious relationship with each other.
Elements without Triplicity
Today, we know these triplicities best by the elements. Fire signs include Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius. Earth signs include Capricorn, Taurus, and Virgo. Air signs include Libra, Aquarius, and Gemini. Water signs include Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces. What is notable is that these four groupings of three signs were used in Hellenistic astrology prior to any association with the four elements.
It is not that astrologers didn’t associate some signs with water or earth though. Manilius (1st century CE; Book II, 223-233) noted that Cancer and Pisces are aquatic. He also noted that Aries, Taurus, Leo, and Scorpio are terrestrial. Similarly, Capricorn and Aquarius are amphibious. It is assumed that he regarded Gemini, Virgo, Libra, and Sagittarius as human signs, as many astrologers of the day did. These associations do not include all four elements. Nor do they pertain to the triplicities. Rather, these associations are based on the “images” of the signs.
Directions of the Winds
Instead of elements, the triplicities were associated with the four winds in some early texts. In one conception, the modern triplicity of Fire was associated with the east wind. Similarly, today’s Earth signs were associated with the south wind, Air signs with the west wind, and Water signs with the north wind. The association of the signs with these directions prevailed in the medieval period. For instance, both Abu Ma’shar (9th century) and al-Qabisi (10th century) associated the triplicities with these directions.
This us based on the directions of the cardinal sign of each triplicity relative to the northern hemisphere. The cardinal sign of each triplicity is the sign that starts with a point of an equinox or solstice (Aries for fire, Cancer for water, Libra for air, Capricorn for earth). Cancer (water) marks the point when the Sun is furthest north (summer solstice), while Capricorn (earth) marks its furthest declination south. Aries (fire) to the right of Cancer is east and Libra (air) to the left of Cancer is west. One can imagine also that Aries (fire), the first sign, is rising (eastern), which would see Capricorn (earth) culminating in the south, while Libra (air) is setting in the west, and Cancer (water) is northern.
This association of triplicities with winds is made explicit in Paulus Alexandrinus (4th century; see Greenbaum, 2001, p. 1-4). As noted, it also came to prevail in the medieval period. However, it is not a common association in Hellenistic texts. Most astrologers did not associate triplicities with winds at all. Additionally, some astrologers associated different directions with triplicities. Ptolemy (2nd century), assigned winds to triplicities based on the planets that rule the signs (see Robbins, 1940, p. 85-88). The earth signs are southern in Ptolemy’s reckoning also, but the fire signs are northern, the air signs are eastern, and the water signs are western (as far as characterizing winds). Additionally, Firmicus Maternus (4th century) followed the Ptolemaic association of winds and triplicities (Book II, Ch. 12).
The more common early association of triplicity was simply with a special set of rulers which pertained to each group of signs. These triplicity rulers were usually examined as playing a supportive role in relation to the matters signified by the sign in a particular chart. They were also used to signify the beginning, middle, and end stages in a signification that may change over time. For more on the triplicity rulers, see the lesson on the signs.
The Four Elements
The establishment of the doctrine that there are four ultimate elements or roots which structure our world is attributed to the Greek philosopher, Empedocles, of the 5th century BCE. It became a facet of many later physics, including those of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. What is notable is that the Stoics and Aristotle differed in the basic primary quality that they assigned to each element. As Brennan (2011) noted, Aristotle contrasted hot Fire with cold Water, and wet Air with dry Earth. Though Interestingly, the Stoics contrasted hot Fire with cold Air, and wet Water with dry Earth.
However, this difference between Stoic and Aristotelian conceptions may have been a matter of emphasis only. Aristotle actually conceived of each element as an intersection of two qualities. Water is the intersection of cold and wet, Air of hot and wet, Fire of hot and dry, and Earth of cold and dry.
A Possible Stoic Emphasis in Valens
Brennan (2011) asserted that Valens’ conception of the elements is more Stoic than Aristotelian. He also insists that this is the most logical characterization of the elements for astrological usage. This conception places signs of opposite quality (hot/cold, wet/dry) in opposition to each other. In the Stoic conception, air is cold and fire is hot, so the cold air signs are in opposition to the hot fire signs. Similarly, water is wet and earth is dry by the Stoic reckoning, so the water signs, are opposite the dry, earth signs. Additionally, water is logically wet, and fire hot, while earth is dry without water and moving air is cooling.
From my reading of Valens, it appears that Brennan is referring to Book IV of Valens’ Anthology (Riley, p. 73). There is a predictively-oriented passage in which Valens has an aside about the logic of one sign handing off rulership of a time to the sign opposite it. He discussed contrasting and sympathetic qualities, such as earthy signs being dry and watery being moist. There are also hints regarding elemental qualities of the signs in Book I’s exposition of the signs, but no full association of elements with triplicities.
Hellenistic Elemental Triplicities
While an association of the elements with triplicities was not a part of early “mainstream” Hellenistic astrology, it was well-established by the time of Rhetorius (7th century CE). Rhetorius’ Compendium makes explicit an association of the elements with the signs. We also see it in Rhetorius’ included translation of Teucer of Babylon’s exposition of the signs (2nd century). Therefore, it is possible the association extends back to the 2nd century. However, Rhetorius added many elements to the Teucer text, including possibly the elemental associations.
An association of the elements with the triplicities may also be evident in Firmicus Maternus (4th century) but the evidence is inconclusive. Maternus noted Aries as fiery and Pisces as watery. However, due to corruption of the text, we don’t have his material on the associations of the other 10 signs.
The association of elements with triplicity became an increasingly popular association through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, right up to the present time. This was in part due to the growing prominence of Aristotelianism in the medieval worldview. Hence, the elements came to be the primary descriptor of the triplicities. Additionally, the elements themselves came to be associated with their Aristotelian qualities, in which Fire is hot (and dry), Earth is dry (and cold), Air is wet (and hot), and Water is cold (and wet).
The association of the elements to the triplicities may not be an essential or early part of Hellenistic astrology. By contrast, triplicity itself was an important consideration from the earliest texts. The introduction of the elements into astrology may have been Stoic physics in conception. However, in the later tradition it became dominated by an Aristotelian view. The four elements have an ancient Greek origin in Empedocles (5th century BCE). Their association with the triplicities was not immediate but became well-established before the end of the Hellenistic era of astrology. Because of their fruitful association with the elements, the triplicities continue to be among the most popular groupings of signs in astrology today.
Brennan, C. (2011, November 11). Latest News in Traditional Astrology. Traditional Astrology Radio. Retrieved from http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wtaradio/2011/11/11/latest-news-in-traditional-astrology–november-11-2011
Ptolemy, C. (1940). Ptolemy: Tetrabiblos. (F. E. Robbins, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library. Retrieved from http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Ptolemy/Tetrabiblos/home.html
Valens, V. (2010). Anthologies. (M. Riley, Trans.) (Online PDF.). World Wide Web: Mark Riley. Retrieved from http://www.csus.edu/indiv/r/rileymt/Vettius%20Valens%20entire.pdf
The image of the Four Elements by Isidore of Seville is in the public domain.
UPDATE: This article was significantly re-written in Nov. 2018 for greater clarity.