Astrology 101: Intro to the Signs of the Zodiac

Right or wrong, humans can't help but see our Sun as appearing to revolve around us...which plays into the origins of the entire system of Zodiac Signs...
Right or wrong, humans can’t help but see our Sun as appearing to revolve around us…which plays into the origins of the entire system of Zodiac Signs…

At one point in our history, the majority opinion was that the Sun orbits the Earth. And it’s not difficult to see why humankind might have gotten behind that belief, either: to the garden-variety civilian, it definitely looks and feels as if our own big, blue marble of Earth is standing still, while the Sun carves out a blazing path across the sky above us.

These days, we’ve flipped that understanding, and now as a people, we generally agree that it’s the Earth that orbits the Sun. The original misunderstanding, though, is a helpful starting point for talking about the Signs of the Zodiac, which together make up the next critical set of symbols in Astrology…

Important concept: the Ecliptic is this vast belt in space that describes the pathway that -- from our earth-bound perspective -- the Sun seems to navigate around our world...
Important concept: the Ecliptic is this vast belt in space that describes the pathway that — from our earth-bound perspective — the Sun seems to navigate around our world…

So if we return for a minute to that idea that the Sun appears to be orbiting the Earth… The Sun definitely does seem to cut a pathway through the sky, year after year. Its pathway can be thought of as something like a gigantic celestial belt, encircling us down here on Earth. That belt is called the “Ecliptic.” And the Ecliptic is the center of a wider belt called the Zodiac…

Now, mentally split that belt of the Zodiac into 12 equal subdivisions – 12 patches of sky that, from our perspective, the Sun seems to travel through as it treks along on its eternal circuit. Each of those 12 patches of Zodiac-sky bears a familiar name: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer…these are the Signs.

Containing the Ecliptic, the Zodiac is an even wider belt encircling us out in space through which all of the Planets seem to move, each one forever set against the backdrop of one of the 12 subdivisions of the Zodiac that we know as the Signs.
Containing the Ecliptic, the Zodiac is an even wider belt encircling us out in space through which all of the Planets seem to move, each one forever set against the backdrop of one of the 12 subdivisions of the Zodiac that we know as the Signs.

And not only does the Sun make its way through the Signs on a never-ending basis, but so, too, do all the other Planets in our solar system, since they largely mimic the same apparent circular journey around us that the Sun seems to make (although they all move at their own individual speeds).

So to put that another way, each Planet that we just looked at in the last few posts of this series is always operating against the backdrop of one of the 12 Signs of the Zodiac. This is what we’re talking about when we say things like, “My Sun is in Scorpio,” or “She has both Venus and Mars in Taurus” – each chart we cast and observe is like a snapshot that freeze-frames the sky, capturing all of the Planets in flight, and showing which Signs they were traversing when the “snapshot” was taken. The Signs are then regarded as modifying influences that color how the planetary forces will act.

Before we launch into individual introductions to each of the 12 Signs – that will come in the next post – it might be helpful to first know that astrologers have several different ways of grouping the Signs into certain subcategories. Since 12 is such a helpful number in terms of allowing itself to be subdivided like this, there are three main such subcategories: the Signs can be grouped by Polarity, Mode, and Element:

Sign

Glyph

Polarity

Mode

Element

Aries

Yang

Cardinal

Fire

Taurus

Yin

Fixed

Earth

Gemini

Yang

Mutable

Air

Cancer

Yin

Cardinal

Water

Leo

Yang

Fixed

Fire

Virgo

Yin

Mutable

Earth

Libra

Yang

Cardinal

Air

Scorpio

Yin

Fixed

Water

Sagittarius

Yang

Mutable

Fire

Capricorn

Yin

Cardinal

Earth

Aquarius

Yang

Fixed

Air

Pisces

Yin

Mutable

Water

The Yin/Yang duality can be applied toward our understanding of the Signs, half of which are seen as being Yin in nature, while the other half are regarded as being Yang.
The Yin/Yang duality can be applied toward our understanding of the Signs, half of which are seen as being Yin in nature, while the other half are regarded as being Yang.

Polarity. It’s common practice in modern Astrology to split the Signs into two groups, each based on traits corresponding to one half of the famed Yin/Yang symbol that we know from Chinese philosophy. Since Yin and Yang are opposites of each other, this division of Signs is known as Polarity. The sequence of Zodiac Signs starts off with the very Yang Sign of Aries, and then we simply alternate between Yin and Yang until we reach the end of the series of Signs. Briefly, Yang is outwardly-focused, light, active, warm… Yin, in contrast, is inwardly-focused, dark, passive (or reactive), cool. Polarity provides some excellent bedrock on which to begin to base some understandings, and this is especially true if a given chart starts to reveal a serious swing toward either of the two Polarities.

Mode. Instead of subdividing the Zodiac into two groups, the Modes occur when we divide it into three. The Polarities tell us something about how the Signs simply are by their very natures, while the Modes offer insight into how they tend to act when they modify planetary energies. The three Modes are Cardinal, Fixed, and Mutable. Quick, simple descriptions of the Modes… Cardinal Signs like to initiate things, to lead, to jump into situations and act, and they’ll ask questions and fix mistakes later. The Fixed Signs are seen as being more likely to want to enter into an already established status quo and then maintain it, stabilizing and preserving what they find – they can be actively stubborn about resisting change, but they’re also capable of displaying great focus and stamina. The Mutable Signs are generally viewed as being the most adaptable, comfortable with change, and are usually the most willing to alter their own selves to meet the needs of a given situation.

Signs are also viewed as each being representative of one of the classical Four Elements of Fire, Earth, Air, and Water.
Signs are also viewed as each being representative of one of the classical Four Elements of Fire, Earth, Air, and Water.

Element. Like much of modern metaphysical thought, Astrology incorporates into itself the Four Classic Elements System, which sees existence as a great collection of the four primary building blocks of reality: Fire, Earth, Air, and Water. The 12 Signs are therefore given marching orders such that each Element is allotted three of the Signs. The Fire Signs are concerned with notions of pure Spirit, being characterized by such fiery traits as impulse, courage, and passion. The Earth Signs are concerned most with the physical side of life, and prefer to see tangible results, while being more grounded, practical, and deliberate. The Air Signs are more mental, and value ideas, communication, information, interaction. The Water Signs focus primarily on emotions, and these Signs are often intuitive, empathetic, and imaginative.

Using the chart above, before you’ve even studied the Signs individually and in-depth, you can start to assemble a sort of short-hand understanding of each one by stringing together the meanings of its Polarity, Mode, and Element. For example, Aries is active and extroverted (Polarity), prone to initiating and leading (Mode), and driven to chase the objects of its passions, even in the face of possible danger (Element). Virgo, in contrast, is reactive and introverted (Polarity), highly adaptable (Mode), and focused on realistic goals and practical concerns (Element). Any of the Signs can be profiled in this way, although this quick analysis should never be taken as yielding up the sum total of what a given Sign is about – getting to know each one as an individual entity will yield the best results in the long run…

6 comments

    • Thank you for posting your reaction to the latest article in this series, Jack! I definitely appreciate knowing that these posts are working for people, as I have more of them in the pipeline…

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