Where does the meaning of each zodiac sign come from? Find out more
It is fairly common to find Sun sign descriptions that describe Geminis as quick thinkers and Capricorns as industrious builders, but where do these associations come from? What is it about Gemini that makes it so different from Capricorn?
Let’s explore some of the traditional associations of the signs, including their modality — cardinal, fixed and mutable — their element — fire, earth, air and water — their planetary rulers — by sign and exaltation — and see how these come together to form a psychological profile of the sign itself. We aren’t talking about Sun sign descriptions, but rather we’re describing the essential nature of a sign.
Aries, the first image in the natural Zodiac, is a sign of cardinal fire. Cardinal signs usher in change and are responsible for stirring up motion and movement. The fire signs incline towards lofty ambitions and through the picture of the ram, Aries shows its deliberation in charging forward with the full strength of the head and horn.
Aries embodies the spirit of the warrior and hero.
Aries is ruled by Mars, an intemperately hot and dry planet. Through Mars’ rulership, Aries embodies the spirit of the warrior and hero. This can manifest as rash action, impatience or a quick temper. But Aries is also the sign of the Sun’s exaltation. (In the northern hemisphere, the first point of Aries is where the day begins to overtake the night). The Sun’s influence gives forthrightness, bravado and courage as well as a desire for glory. Aries points due east so if you have benefic planets in Aries, particularly the Sun and Jupiter, you can find luck in the eastern parts of your nation or city.
The strength of the fixed signs is steady and unwavering and is perhaps seen best in the fixed earth sign of Taurus. Earth signs are cold and dry by nature and invite a spirit of contemplation and reflection. Taurus is the sign of the bull, an image of consistency, stubbornness and resolute will. The bull is a cud-chewing animal and those signified by Taurus require time to take in information and chew it over. They often revisit an issue, sometimes long after others have decided to let it go.
Earth signs are cold and dry by nature and invite a spirit of contemplation and reflection.
Ruled by Venus, Taurus has an appreciation for the finer things in life and is generally a conciliatory and peace-seeking sign (so long as offense has not been given, as Taurus does not forgive easily). Taurus is the exaltation sign of the Moon and through her finds beauty in even the most plain and ordinary moments. All earth signs incline to the south. Taurus is associated with south by east and if you have the Moon, Jupiter and Venus in Taurus, you may find a treasure in that direction.
Gemini is the sign of mutable air. The mutable signs were once called common signs because they straddled two seasons and were common to both. This straddling principle, manifesting through the element of air, explains why Gemini draws no fixed conclusions and always leaves room for new ways of assessing the same problem.
The sign of the twins, Gemini delights in a youthful curiosity and can entertain conflicting opinions without being crippled by cognitive dissonance. Unfortunately, this often gets reduced to labels such as “two-faced” by those who don’t quite get the Gemini mind. Gemini also prefers not to take things too seriously. Gemini is ruled by Mercury and Mercury’s rulership inclines Gemini towards a desire to know — and, once something is known, to play the trickster. As the image of Gemini is two pre-adolescent children, Gemini was anciently classified as barren. It created few things of itself, instead thriving on bringing external creative forces together. Gemini steers to the west veering south and if you have Mercury and Venus in Gemini, good fortune can be found in that direction.
In the sign of Cancer, we have the combination of cardinal water. Cancer is supremely comfortable in the world of fluctuating emotions and, when well-channelled and marshalled, can play the unique role of leader in matters of the heart. Cancer’s image is that of the crab: a tough exterior that protects a soft interior and a creature with the most curious habit of walking sideways. Cancer has a cautiousness that can manifest as an excessive inclination to safeguard and defend, but we must remember that Cancer has a unique view into the fragility of human emotions.
Cancer is ruled by the Moon, the astrological body nearest to Earth. This gives Cancer a worldview oriented towards family and underscores the power of interpersonal connectivity. Jupiter is exalted in Cancer, causing those signified by this sign to celebrate and encourage growth in nature and with money. Any sign enhanced by Jupiter has a desire for upright, conscientious living. Cancer points due north; happiness lies in that direction for you if you have Jupiter, Venus or the Moon in Cancer.
Made of fixed fire, Leo is a regal and powerful sign that conveys sustained strength motivated by courage and hearty character. Those shown by the sign of the lion are daring in their actions, boast a raw and untamed spirit and frequently invite parallels with royalty.
The Sun rules Leo and, just like the Sun, Leo outshines and draws focus unto itself. The authoritarianism of the Sun also speaks to why some describe Leo as domineering and a sign that rightly or wrongly seeks some form of mastery or dominion over others.
Like Gemini, Leo is classically a barren sign and finds its strength in emphasising the power of the self. Its connection to the Sun makes Leo fond of models of direct ascension, such as monarchies (itself a Greek-derived word meaning “only one overhead” or “one ruler”) and the papacy. Leo tends to be singular in who or what it selects. Leo points east by north and if you have the Sun or Jupiter in this sign, you may find favourable outcomes in this direction.
The mutable earth sign of Virgo loves the history of humanity and what can be learned from it. Virgo particularly enjoys studying the many ways that one can lead a practical approach to life. The image of the virgin imparts a meek and unassuming spirit and Virgo is the only non-air sign classically termed “humane”. Virgo enjoys caretaking and is happy to play second fiddle if it allows someone else time to shine.
Virgo stands alone in claiming the same planet as sign- and exaltation-ruler Mercury. Virgo brings out the best of Mercury’s significations and nurtures a critical and discerning eye that is less inclined towards mischief than Gemini. Yet, Virgo can get lost in the details and forget that true humility isn’t lowering oneself, commanding neither more nor less than what is due. As Virgo is based on the image of a virgin, it is deemed barren yet it’s also connected to the harvest; Virgo understands that you reap what you sow. Virgo is a south by west sign and if you have the Moon or Mercury in Virgo, you may be fortunate in that direction.
The seventh sign is Libra, a combination of cardinal air. This sign is known for being social and intelligent, courteous and gentle. Libra enjoys the changing pace of good conversation and companionship. It is the sign of the scales, an image of weighing and constantly evaluating. This has given Libra a reputation for being indecisive, but perhaps this is an unfair assessment. Instead, it might make more sense to recognise that Libra’s mind is always on maintaining balance and as things shift, Libra must move to offset and rebalance any inequity.
If you have Jupiter or Venus in Libra, you may find joy in western directions.
Libra is ruled by Venus and through Venus’ desire for harmony, Libra commands great strength in diplomacy and in finding amenable solutions. Saturn is exalted in Libra and through Saturn, this sign has an association with and demand for justice: all realities of life deserve fair consideration. As the cardinal air sign, Libra points due west; if you have Jupiter or Venus in Libra, you may find joy in western directions.
Not all signs contain such easy energies and Scorpio provides a perfect example. Scorpio is fixed water and reminds us that “still waters run deep”: there is profound gravity to this sign. The disquieting image of the scorpion invites obvious associations to deceit and subtlety and, just as the scorpion goes nowhere without its sting, Scorpio does not hesitate to go on the offensive if provoked. But, at its best, the scorpion is an emblem of fierce loyalty and protection, standing watch as a mortal warning to the ill-intending.
Scorpio is Mars’ night (nocturnal) sign and has a different flavour than Mars’ day (diurnal) sign of Aries. In Aries, Mars operates through the vehicle of heat and speed; in Scorpio, Mars prefers a slow, brooding effect and imparts unparalleled cunningness. Though Scorpio is a water sign and classically fertile, creative efforts may bring mixed blessings here. Only Mars rejoices in this sign, yet Jupiter in Scorpio can also bring some good from the direction of north by east. Consider these directions in your city or country if you have Mars or Jupiter in Scorpio.
In Sagittarius, we have a blend of mutable fire. This is an insatiable combination that loves philosophy and earnestly explores high ideals. Through the element of fire, Sagittarius strives upwards, as if searching for a reunion with the first source.
Sagittarius is the sign of the archer and the mind of an archer is always fixed upon its mark: there is a standard for Sagittarius and this fixation can cause Sagittarius to come across as preachy. Of course, Sagittarius is also a centaur and, like all fire signs, it shares a deep affection for the outdoors and the natural world. (It is said that the first half of this sign — the human half — is more civilised.) Sagittarius is ruled by Jupiter and underscores a noble character, one which models a just approach to life that embodies what it means to see the big picture. Sagittarius points to the east by south and good things can be found there if you have either the Sun or Jupiter in this sign.
Capricorn is the sign of cardinal earth, showing active investment and activity in sensible matters. Capricorn inspires a drive towards the future and knows what in-roads need building in order to create that future. Historically depicted by a sea goat, Capricorn is an image that unites emotional depth with practical logic. It is ruled by Saturn and it is through Saturn that Capricorn claims the remarkable gift of knowing the true cost of things: Saturn empowers Capricorn to call undue optimism to account. The connection also imparts a sharp (and sometimes biting) wit and represents those things that grow in value as they age and mature.
Mars is exalted Capricorn and instils this sign with calculated energy, teaching when to draw the sword but also when to sheathe it. The influence of Mars and Saturn, known as the two malefics, can incline Capricorn towards gloomier thoughts and behaviour. Capricorn points due south and if you have Venus in Capricorn, you can find benefits come from there.
Aquarius is fixed air. With fixity comes depth and steadiness, which, in an air sign, manifests in the realm of thought and imagination. Aquarius holds a deep understanding of the world around it and a natural inclination towards ideas that last. This sign is depicted as a water bearer, a picture of ritualised purification with an emphasis on the development and growth of human ideals. As a water bearer, Aquarius might be thought of as the lost water sign, but it’s really an image that shows water directed by the human hand.
Aquarius wants to unite minds with deep fonts of wisdom and knowledge. Saturn rules Aquarius, which gives this sign strength and resolution of character. It can also make Aquarius a bit aloof. Aquarius can lack empathy or struggle to connect meaningfully with everyday people. To adapt an old adage, Aquarius has love for humanity, but struggles with the individual. Aquarius inclines to the west by north and if you have Jupiter or Venus in this sign, you may connect with goodwill in that direction.
The sign of mutable water is Pisces, which is the most flexible and impressionable sign. Pisces knows that the same emotion can have many sources, some noble and some less. This is the sign of the two fish, wrangling little creatures that move beneath a rippled surface, often shielded from clear view. Pisces can be a confusing sign to engage with.
Jupiter rules Pisces and brings to it his desire to do good in the world. Venus is exalted in Pisces and through Venus, Pisces gives a tender heart and desire for easy outcomes. The influence of Venus and Jupiter, the two benefics, makes Pisces an honourable sign. But there can sometimes be too much of a good thing here. Jupiter and Venus affirm and encourage and, if not tempered by the restraining influence of another planet, Pisces can overindulge on vices and all forms of escapism, hence its occasional association with drugs and alcohol. This sign points to the north by west and if you have Jupiter, Venus or the Moon in Pisces, you may find happiness in this direction.
Blending signs and houses
As you better understand the psychology of the Zodiac signs, you’ll want to blend this with knowledge of the 12 houses. The houses locate the Zodiac sign influences in your life and connect each sign profile to specific topics. When working with your birth chart, begin your work with your ascendant and the sign there. That sign, its planetary ruler and the sign that ruling planet is placed in will provide your main description.
It is a great misconception that to be born a Pisces means that the above paragraph describes you. It will on some level, but these descriptions can be best used by learning which house your Pisces Sun rules — the house with Leo on the cusp. For example, if you have Leo on the 3rd House, then the Sun in Pisces rules the 3rd House and the Pisces description may best describe 3rd House topics, such as siblings. Or, if you have Leo on the 10th House, and thus your Sun rules your 10th House, then the Pisces qualities would better describe your experience of your mother or authority figures.
Mastering astrology involves learning how the signs and houses blend in your chart. You will be the sum of the different parts of your astrology chart; each planet and sign has a specific function and role to play. Knowing the arrangement of the 12 signs along the cusps of the 12 houses is essential to understanding astrological principles.