Picture the night sky. As stars glimmer across the expanse of the heavens, the planets travel along the same narrow band from our view on Earth. This band is called the ecliptic. It is the circular path that the Sun visually carves from sunrise to sunset to sunrise again. You can think of the ecliptic as a sky road of sorts, and the planets as vehicles that trek across it. Unlike the planets, stars don’t move in relation to each other. That’s why astronomers call them “fixed.” The fixed stars scattered along the ecliptic form the scenery, so to speak. They provide the landmarks that help us identify where the planets are in their travels.The stars that are arranged along the ecliptic belong to the zodiac family of constellations, and it takes the Sun a year to make its way through all 12 of them. (You’ll recognize their names from your horoscopes: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, etc.) Based on these constellations, astrologers in ancient Mesopotamia divided the ecliptic into 12 equal segments of 30°, which formed the 12 signs of the zodiac. While the 12 signs are linked to the 12 zodiac constellations, there are important differences between them.

Constellations are clusters of stars that form identifiable patterns in the night sky — like Cassiopeia (which is not part of the ecliptic, and therefore not one of the 12 zodiac signs) or Capricornus (which is part of the ecliptic and linked to the sign of Capricorn). The zodiac constellations refer to groups of literal, physical stars that we can perceive in the night sky.

The zodiac signs, by contrast, don’t refer to the actual star clusters in outer space. They’re part of the conceptual framework set down by the Mesopotamians in the 5th century BCE. While the zodiac constellations possess wildly different sizes and shapes — with some taking up vast stretches of the sky and others wedged in between — the zodiac signs are 12 equal segments, as discussed above. They’re theoretical and symbolic, not observable in the physical world.

A tale of two zodiacs

For the reasons above, the tropical zodiac (aka the system most of us use in North America) doesn’t correspond to the physical location of the constellations. Though the fixed stars are unmoving in relation to each other, they collectively appear to drift one degree every 72 years, thanks to an imperceptible wobble in the Earth’s axis. Since the zodiac was mapped over two thousand years ago, that “drift” has really added up. For that reason, the sign of Aries is actually 24 degrees behind the constellation of the same name, lining it up with the constellation of Pisces instead. That can be pretty confusing if you’re new to astrology, but the signs have always been symbolic, rather than adhering to objective space. The ancients were aware of this slow shift. That’s why they rooted the tropical zodiac on a point that doesn’t change: the vernal equinox — a day in the year when every location on Earth experiences equal hours of darkness and light. Because it follows the winter in the Northern Hemisphere, where this system was created, it’s a day that represents rebirth and vitality. And for that reason, it corresponds to 0° Aries, the beginning of the zodiac.

In other parts of the world, however, astrologers work with the sidereal zodiac, which adjusts the location of the signs so that they continue to align with the constellations. (Sidereal means “star.”) Still, this system is also symbolic, as the sidereal signs are also equal cuts of 30° while the corresponding constellations are uneven, but it’s closer to the observable night sky.

Like all traditions in astrology, one school of thought isn’t more correct or truthful than another. They’re simply different systems. It’s up to each astrologer to choose the one that makes sense for them.

Sign qualities

The term “zodiac” comes from the Greek word zōidion, which translates roughly to “living being,” “animal,” “image,” or “figure.” This translation hints at the double meaning of the zodiac signs. While many of the signs represent living creatures (like the ram in Aries or the bull in Taurus), they are all “figures” or symbols that signify something more — specific traits, correspondences, and stories unique to each sign.

It’s also worth noting that although it was the ancient Mesopotamian astrologers who came up with the conceptual system of the zodiac, it wasn’t until the Hellenistic period a few centuries later that these sign qualities started to be pinned down.

Under this tradition, each sign was appointed four main qualities, which help convey their meaning and nuances:

  1. Polarity
  2. Element
  3. Modality
  4. Planetary rulership

Polarity

Hellenistic astrologers described the odd-numbered signs (Aries, Gemini, Leo, etc.) as masculine and the even-numbered signs (Taurus, Cancer, Virgo, etc.) as feminine. Modern astrologers have used other language for this distinction, such as “positive,” “active,” or “yang” for the classically masculine signs, and “negative,” “passive,” or “yin” for the classically feminine signs. At CHANI, we prefer the more neutral language of “diurnal” vs. “nocturnal.”

Diurnal signs tend to be more fast-paced and direct. They are comprised of the six odd-numbered signs, which belong to the fire and air elements:

Nocturnal signs tend to be slower-paced and receptive. They are comprised of the six even-numbered signs, which belong to the earth and water elements:

Element

The 12 signs of the zodiac are divided into four elements. Because three signs belong to each element grouping, Hellenistic astrologers called the elements the “triplicities” or “trigons.” But we’ll stick with the term “element” since it’s easier to remember. Traditionally, the element groupings were interpreted literally. (Planets traveling through a water sign might denote events related to seafaring, for example.) It wasn’t until the 20th century that astrologers described the elements as qualities of the signs’ personalities. These interpretations have enriched our understanding of the 12 signs, and we still work with them today.

  • Fire signs are creative, adventurous, autonomous, and free-spirited. Think about how heat rises upward, comparable to fire signs’ “high spirits” and ability to “uplift” others, and the fact that it’s near impossible to fence in a wildfire. These signs feel most at ease when they can roam freely. The fire signs are Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius
  • Earth signs are grounded, practical, and sensual. Just as the earthly realm has observable data we can track, earth signs tend to be pragmatic and results-oriented. They are concerned with the physical world — whether through tactile delights, achievement, or material security. The earth signs are Taurus, Virgo, and Capricorn. 
  • Air signs are intellectual, communicative, and relationship-oriented. Think of how speech travels by invisible soundwaves and pollen spreads by wind and airborne creatures. Of all the elements, air signs are the most interconnective, with a talent for building bridges. The air signs are Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius.
  • Water signs are emotionally attuned, inspired, and intuitive. Just as water hydrates the earth to make it fertile, water signs provide the love, care, and attachment “glue” that bonds us. Because they’re so connected to their inner worlds, water signs tend to have rich fantasies and imaginations. The water signs are Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces.

Modality

In addition to the four elements, the 12 signs of the zodiac can be separated into three modalities. Because four signs belong to each modality, the ancients described them as “quadruplicities.” The modalities characterize the three “modes” through which the signs express themselves: initiating, sustaining, or changing. Their meanings were derived from the seasons of the year, which we’ll explain below.

  • Cardinal signs initiate a new season. They correspond to the equinox and solstice points at the beginning of spring, summer, fall, and winter. Because they’re such great self-starters, cardinal signs love to be at the front of the pack. They’re leaders, trailblazers, and trendsetters. The cardinal signs are Aries, Cancer, Libra, and Capricorn
  • Fixed signs sustain a season once it has started. They correspond to the middle months of spring, summer, fall, and winter. While they may experience some inertia when first getting started, these are the signs that keep everything going. They’re known to be loyal, reliable, and steadfast — but also stubborn. The fixed signs are Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, and Aquarius
  • Mutable signs correspond to the bumper periods between seasons, when you cycle through an umbrella, a scarf, and sunglasses in a single day. While the mutable signs can appear erratic and changeable, they’re blessed with the ability to adapt to new circumstances. The mutable signs are Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius, and Pisces. (Fun fact: All of these signs were traditionally considered double-bodied. This is why Gemini is depicted by twins; Virgo by a “bird-woman,” or a woman with a bird; Sagittarius by a half-human, half-horse centaur; and Pisces by two fish.)

Planetary rulership

The final quality that characterizes and distinguishes the signs is the planet that rules them. Hellenistic astrologers designated certain planets to be at home in specific signs, and these planets became those signs’ rulers. Because CHANI is rooted in traditional astrology, we use the seven planets that ancient astrologers could perceive with their naked eye. Under this system, the signs each bear qualities of their traditional ruling planet.

  • The Moon rules the sign Cancer. The Moon represents our bodies, emotions, and intuition in astrology. Similarly, Cancer is one of the most intuitive and deeply feeling signs. It has a sixth sense for what other people need to feel nurtured. If it remembers, it intuits exactly how to nourish its own body too. The Moon is the fastest-moving entity in the night sky. Similarly, planets in Cancer churn through emotions at a fast pace. They’re famously moody — but we love them for it.
  • The Sun rules the sign Leo. The Sun signifies vitality, confidence, and creativity. Just as the Sun fuels life on earth (think: photosynthesis or solar power), Leo has a talent for lifting spirits and energizing an audience. Before the invention of electricity, the light of the Sun alone helped us to see. And Leo is a sign that needs to feel seen or witnessed. Ever the performer, Leo captivates others through its charisma. The mission for this sign is learning to validate itself without leaning too heavily on external accolades.
  • Mercury rules the signs Gemini and Virgo. Mercury is the planet of communication, learning, and analysis. In myth, Mercury — or Hermes — was the only deity with the power to travel between the heavens, Earth, and the underworld. We recognize this flexibility in the two signs that Mercury rules. Gemini and Virgo, like trickster Mercury, know how to adapt and code-switch. Their distinctness can be found in their respective elements. Air-sign Gemini is quick-witted, curious, and distractible (think about how the air itself is unrooted — touching everything and nothing at the same time). Earth-sign Virgo, on the other hand, is more grounded and analytic. It’s concerned with refining the physical world, rather than flitting from A to B.
  • Venus rules the signs Taurus and Libra. Venus is the planet of love, beauty, connection, and pleasure. For earth-sign Taurus, that translates to an ability to delight the senses. Taurians famously have excellent taste — often demonstrated by the raw silk hanging in their closet or the organic strawberries and damiana tea they serve for dessert. For air-sign Libra, the talent for connection and beauty takes on a more interpersonal and cerebral dimension. Libras are expert negotiators, networkers, and mediators. This sign also appreciates the more intellectual signatures of beauty, such as the geometry inherent in architecture or other forms of design.
  • Mars rules the signs Aries and Scorpio. Mars is the planet of action, drive, courage, conflict, and anger. For fire-sign Aries, that heat translates literally: Planets in Aries tend to burn hot. Like its ruler Mars, Aries is bold, adventurous, and trail-blazing. But it’s not known for patience or subtlety. That’s where Scorpio is different. This fixed water sign knows how to go undercover and bide its time. Scorpio’s gift is focus (if obsession) and tactical thinking. Like a champion chess player, rather than an Olympic sprinter — which is more Aries in style.
  • Jupiter rules the signs Sagittarius and Pisces. Jupiter is the planet of wisdom, expansion, fairness, faith, and generosity. Both Sagittarius and Pisces embody Jupiter’s belief in some cosmic safety net, trusting that “things will work out.” In the same way, both signs naturally seek experiences or entities vaster than themselves — whether that takes the form of spirituality, mysticism, travel, or transcendental connection with others. Fire-sign Sagittarius tends to expand through experiences in the outer world, such as travel. Water-sign Pisces is generally dreamier and more inclined to venture through the inner realms by way of imagination or meditation.
  • Saturn rules the signs Capricorn and Aquarius. Saturn is the planet of boundaries, commitment, discipline, and time. Earth-sign Capricorn applies those themes to the material world. It is ambitious, hard-working, pragmatic, and results-oriented. Experts at deferred gratification, this sign sacrifices short-term thrills for long-term gain. For air-sign Aquarius, Saturn’s love of structure applies to the intellectual and theoretical realms. Aquarius is known for complex thinking and problem-solving. It understands how to dismantle any system (whether a computer or an organization) and put it back together more efficiently. But it doesn’t always know how to admit when it’s wrong, which can happen from time to time.

While some of the sign qualities overlap with the symbol they’re represented by — such as Aries’ tendency to dive headfirst into things, like a ram, or Libra’s preference for balance and equality, as depicted by the scales — their defining characteristics stem from the full theoretical framework described above, with each sign possessing a polarity, an element, a modality, and a ruler. With this foundation in place, we can not only start to understand the nuances of the zodiac signs but the way that each planet acts within them.

Want to learn more about the signs in the zodiac? Click the links below.

Aries | Taurus | Gemini | Cancer | Leo | Virgo | Libra 

Scorpio | Sagittarius | Capricorn | Aquarius | Pisces

Then download the CHANI app on iOS or Android for additional readings.



-Travo News

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