Water, Earth, Air, and Fire; as astrologers, we’re told that these four basic elements make up the world and the relationship between the four gives us the foundations for every chart reading we’ll ever do. Ptolemy even hypothesizes that the planetary movements directly affect these four elements and the undulating movements of the elements on the world are what usher in the influence of the spheres. However, even atoms – the building blocks of the universe – can be broken down into their basic parts of protons, neutrons, and electrons. The four elements are much the same, “basic” parts that can be broken down one step further to reveal something fascinating right in front of our eyes.
There are four different qualities; moisture, dryness, heat, and cold and the mixing of two of these four qualities give us the humours and the elements which in turn give us the rest of astrology. Each quality has its usefulness – heat expanded, coldness condensed, dryness resisted, and moisture absorbed – and they are all essentially equal. Equal in power and use, but not equally desired. Ptolemy calls heat nutritive, moisture prolific, coldness destructive, and dryness noxious. So, the qualities of heat and moisture are active and thus helpful in initiating growth, whereas the qualities coldness and dryness are passive and conducive to decay.
Heat and dryness meet to make fire and the choleric temperament. While heat is active, dryness is passive, and so the growth is somewhat stunted by this element. However, fire was arguably the most attractive element according to traditional astrology. Fire naturally rises, and so people who are of the choleric temperament are naturally driven and do things because they should and are driven by honor or some similar notion. The natural rulers of this element are Sol and Mars. Sol represents a pure and noble expression of fire/choler as his heat and dryness are equal and rather temperate since he generates both himself. On the other hand, Mars doesn’t produce his own heat and since it is naturally dry, the heat overwhelms it and so Mars suffers from excessive heat, making it more irrational, spontaneous, and – in the worst case – violent. Summer is the season that corresponds with fire and choler, the growing season is pretty much over by the time of the summer solstice and all that is left to do is mature, much like humans reaching adulthood (which also corresponds with these this combination of humours).
Heat and moisture come together to make the air element and the sanguine temperament. As stated above, these two qualities are the most conducive to growth and – in traditional astrology – seen as one of the most beneficial elements as the air easily rises, but it must be hot first. This means that sanguine types are a bit harder to motivate than choleric types, but they are motivated by curiosity. Jupiter is the natural ruler of the sanguine temperament as Jupiter’s humour is exactly the same – hot and moist – this combination of the two active qualities is part of what gives Jupiter its greater benefic status as it naturally gives and assists in growth. The Springtime season corresponds with air and sanguine as it represents birth, youth, and new growth, the humours most conducive to growth reach their height in this season which brings about all the new growth of the year.
Coldness and dryness add together to make the solid element earth and the corresponding temperament melancholy. These two qualities are the most passive – coldness condensed and dryness resisted – and thus the most destructive. Melancholic types were not favored so much by traditional astrologers as they tend to resist direction and motivation and so would not naturally rise up in an attempt to better themselves. However the image most associated here is a boulder that is rolling down a hill. The boulder doesn’t just decide it wants to move down a hill and roll itself, someone else has to give it the nudge to get started, but once initiated on a goal, melancholics rarely stopped before it was accomplished though it may take much time for that to occur. Saturn and Mercury ruled over this element and temperament with Mercury being a more balanced representation. Cold and logical, Mercury takes in everything equally as long as it is rational. Saturn’s extreme cold helps him retain his title of the greater malefic as the two most resistant qualities staunched out growth and author decay. Earth is represented by the season autumn, as all the matured growth from the previous season dies off and decays back to the earth.
Finally, coldness and moisture collide to create water and the phlegmatic temperament. Growth is similarly stunted with these two qualities like it is in fire/choler, but since water does not naturally rise, it is on the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to attractive elements. Water is difficult to direct as it tends to go everywhere, and so too is the phlegmatic temperament. Water is not driven by reason, personal responsibility, or determination; instead it is driven by desire and gratification. Water really only does things because it wants to or because it feels like it and this is how the lives of phlegmatics plays out procrastination is all too real and prevalent. The Moon and Venus are the representatives of this element and temperament. Water is represented by the season of winter. Most people generally think of winter as the most destructive season because of its extreme cold, but it’s really no different than summer’s extreme heat. Autumn kills the plants while winter simply hinders growing until the Spring.
As stated above, the elements are essentially the building blocks of the world and one of the hypothetical vehicles for the very influence of the stars, however, by breaking down the elements into their own basic parts, we’re able to take a better look into how they operate and what effect being exposed to too much or too little of an element or humoural quality can have on us.