While people all over the world have used elements to classify behavioral tendencies for thousands of years—consider the system of Traditional Chinese Medicine, which includes water, fire, Earth, metal, and wood—several Greek philosophers are credited with pioneering the four-element system used in astrology including Empedocles and Plato, says astrologer Stephanie Gailing, author of The Complete Guide to Astrological Self-Care.
Around that period of time, a few centuries BCE, the elements also made an appearance in Hippocratic medicine (a system pioneered by the Greek physician Hippocrates), for being reflective of a person’s general constitution. “Fire is dry and hot, air is wet and hot, Earth is dry and cold, and water is wet and cold,” Gailing says. “This then translated to the four temperaments: fire is choleric, air is sanguine, Earth is melancholic, and water is phlegmatic.”
So, if we can then extrapolate one step further from those terms to modern astrological interpretations, the classic tendencies of the different elements begin to surface: Fire is often connected to extroversion, independence, and radiance; air is linked to communication and social energy; Earth is reflected in responsibility and practicality; and water is associated with emotional and ever-changing energy, says Gailing.
How modern astrologers interpret the elements
Just as your astrological sun sign doesn’t determine your entire personality, the particular element of that sign doesn’t have full sway over your temperament, either. As Gailing points out, many components of your overall natal chart—and the various elements they reflect—can play into your style or nature. "For example, someone could have several planets in both air and water signs, for example, and in that case, could reflect a blend of both temperaments," she says.
"Someone could have several planets in both air and water signs, for example, and in that case, could reflect a blend of both temperaments." —Stephanie Gailing, astrologer
That said, if you have many planets in one element, you may be more likely to express that temperament and way of being to its fullest extent, says Gailing. “For example, if several of the planets and pivotal points—like the ascendant—in your chart are in fire signs, you’re likely very spirited, catalyzed by intuition, and move fast or prefer to be in motion.”
While all of that energy framed in one element could certainly be a strength, the overemphasis could also mean you’re less likely to express qualities associated with other elements. So, if you’re someone who is ultra-fiery in terms of planetary placements, you may be exceptionally instinctive but not have the detachment necessary to readily look before you leap, says Gailing.
By contrast, if you have each of the different elements reflected across planets in your chart, your disposition likely channels all the different ways of being—which, of course, could be a strength in some situations and a challenge in others. Below, find a summary of how each element is typically interpreted.
Qualities associated with each of the elements of astrological signs
This element is dynamic, enthusiastic, and passionate, says Gailing. People who reflect it tend to appreciate movement and spontaneity, along with accessing their imagination for creative problem-solving. And they’re frequently in search of action and adventure and tend to push back against limitations.
Linked to the agile and changeable nature of thoughts and observation, air signs are typically cerebral and intellect-driven. People who fall in this camp are often witty and thoughtful, while also prone to over-thinking. And they’re generally sociable creatures who draw energy from communicating and forming alliances with others, says Gailing.
Grounded, solid, and practical, Earth energy relates to the world on a deep and sensual level, says Gailing. People with this element in their chart are often resistant to change, appreciating routines and rituals instead. They also tend to seek out material comforts and success.
Fluidity and freedom are linked closely with this element. Water-y people embrace nonlinear understanding and are typically sensitive and receptive to changes in their environments, says Gailing. They look for depth and emotional fulfillment above all, and often through creative or artistic means.
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