Tag Archives: sign classifications

Astrological Sign Classifications | 2. Sect and Sex of the Signs

Manilius and the Three Opinions on Sign Sect

In this installment of this series, I want to just briefly touch on an indication that there was diversity in opinion regarding the classifications of signs into diurnal or day signs and nocturnal or night signs, also known as the classification of the signs by sect.  Interestingly, Marcus Manilius, one of the earliest astrologers of the tradition who composed his Astronomica in the 1st Century CE, noted (in Book II, lines 203-222) a diversity of opinion regarding the sect of the signs and he himself favored a sect classification that is no longer used by traditional astrologers.

Fail not to perceive and from true rule deduce what signs are nocturnal, and what diurnal: they are not those that perform their function in darkness or daylight (the name would apply to all alike, since at regular intervals they shine at every house, and now the nocturnal ones accompany the day, and now the nocturnal ones accompany the night), but those one which nature, mighty parent of the universe, bestowed sacred portions of time in a permanent location.  The signs of the Archer and the fierce Lion, he who looks round on the golden fleece of his back [Aries], then the Fishes and the Crab and the Scorpion of stinging lash, signs either adjacent or spaced at equal intervals, are all under like estate termed diurnal.  The others, identical in number and in the pattern of their spacing, for they are inserted into as many places, are called nocturnal [i.e. there is six of them opposite the six diurnal signs and with the same pattern].  Some have also asserted that the diurnal stations [signs] belong to the six consecutive stars [signs] which begin with the Ram and that the six from the Balance [Libra] count as nocturnal.  There are those that fancy that the masculine signs are diurnal and that the feminine class rejoices in the safe cover of darkness.  (Goold trans., 1977, p. 99-101; bracketed notes added by me)

We find that by the first century CE, already there were three different means of classifying the signs as diurnal or nocturnal, and Manilius appeared to favor the one that didn’t survive at all.  His favored classification is by triplicity, with two triplicities as diurnal (those we associate with Fire and Water, though Manilius does not associate elements with triplicities), and the other two as nocturnal (those we  associate Earth and Air).  The pattern for this scheme which Manilius favors is two adjacent diurnal signs, then two adjacent nocturnal signs, and so forth; an alternation in pairs, from a Pisces-Aries diurnal pair, to a Taurus-Gemini nocturnal pair, and so on.

Marcus Manilius
The Sphere

Sex of the Signs

The sect classification of the signs that came to dominate in Hellenistic astrology and through later strands of the tradition, is that which Manilius mentioned last, in which the masculine signs are diurnal and the feminine signs are nocturnal. All ancient astrologers appear to agree that the masculine and feminine signs alternate through the zodiac; Aries masculine, Taurus feminine, Gemini masculine, and so forth.  A convenient way to remember which signs are masculine and which are feminine, is to know that the Fire and Air triplicities are masculine, as fire and air have a propensity to stir and rise, while the Water and Earth triplicities are feminine, as water and earth have a propensity to fall and settle.

It is most common for ancient astrologers to simply conflate sect and sex.  However, this does create some odd conflicts.  For instance, it was considered beneficial for a planet to be in a sign of the same sex or sect as itself, but Mars being a masculine planet of the nocturnal sect would not have one of its domicile of both its same sex and sect as the other planets do.  However, in the sect arrangement favored by Manilius, the same situation holds for Mars, as both Aries and Scorpio become diurnal signs, but Mars is a nocturnal planet (Corrected 11/21/2011: previously the sentence said that Mars was in sect and sex in Aries, which is not the case, as Aries is diurnal in this arrangement).

Still, I favor the third sect arrangement given by Manilius, in which sect and sex are conflated.  Perhaps Mars is so agitated all the time because he simply cannot achieve full comfort in either of his houses. :-)  My own approach to astrology is not strongly influenced by Manilius, being more influenced by other Hellenistic astrologers and the Persians.  Manilius put a particular emphasis on the signs and actual fixed stars and constellations in his methods, making extensive use of extra-zodiacal constellations, parans, and so forth.  Stargazing traditionalists may want to explore his methods in more depth, as there is much material not found elsewhere.

Northern and Southern Signs

The second classification which Manilius gives has the signs from Aries through Virgo as diurnal and those from Libra through Pisces as nocturnal.  This is logical from the perspective of the tropical zodiac in the northern hemisphere as Aries begins with the Spring Equinox, a moment where the quantity of day increases over the quantity of night, while Libra begins with the Autumnal Equinox, a moment where the quantity of night increases over the quantity of day.  In other words, in this classification, the Sun is in diurnal signs when the length of the day exceeds that of the night, while the opposite is true when the Sun is in nocturnal signs (at least in the northern hemisphere, with the opposite holding in the southern hemisphere).

Equinox Solstice
Equinoxes and Solstices

In Persian medieval astrology this classification is noted, but is referred to as the classification of the signs as Northern or Southern (c.f. al-Qabisi, Dykes trans., 2010, p. 59).  This is because the passing of the Sun into Aries, is also the point when the Sun passes north of the equator of the Earth (i.e. the north pole is inclined toward the Sun), while when the Sun passes into Libra, the Sun goes south of the equator (i.e. the north pole is incline away from the Sun).  Some may not realize that this apparent passing of the Sun north and south of the equator, due to the tilt of the poles relative to the Sun, is what creates the seasons, not an orbital closeness to the Sun.  The Earth is actually closest to the Sun (i.e. at perihelion) around January of each year, during winter in the northern hemisphere.


In conclusion, there were 3 methods of classifying the sect of a sign, and while the method favored by Manilius has all but disappeared, the common method of conflating sign and sex was at least present in some of the earliest strains of the tradition.



Ma’shar, A., & Al-Qabisi. (2010). Introductions to Traditional Astrology. (B. N. Dykes, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: The Cazimi Press.
Manilius, M. (1977). Astronomica. (G. P. Goold, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library.

Astrological Sign Classifications | 1. Winds and Elements in Triplicity


Astrological signs are organized into many various classes in ancient astrology.  Anyone familiar with the debate over which zodiac should be used (the sidereal zodiac, with signs oriented to the constellations, or the tropical zodiac, with signs oriented to the seasons) will find that it is further complicated by the fact that various sign classifications pertain to associations with the “species” of things “imaged”  in the constellations (the Ancient Greek term for the twelve astrological signs, “zoidia”, in fact carried the connotations of “species” and “image”), while others pertain to associations with the seasons, in the original strain of horoscopic astrology (i.e. in Hellenistic astrology).

In this blog I tend to stress the diversity of opinion, and richness of the tradition, in the Hellenstic period.  I wish to contrast that with the prevailing attitude in modern traditional astrological circles which is of a more unified and “clean” tradition, which later became misunderstood and heterogenized.  Rather, Hellenistic astrology is incredibly heterogenous, with authors already discussing much diversity of opinion, and it is through the medieval period that astrological opinion becomes more homogenized.  I also touch upon this issue in the post, “Ancient Astrologers Didn’t All Agree“.

Astronomical clock in the Cathedral St-Jean in Lyon

Keep these points about images, seasons, and diverse opinions in mind as we examine a few classes of the astrological signs in this first installment of a new series of posts on astrological sign classifications.

Winds and Elements

In a fascinating segment of a recent (Nov. 11, 2011) podcast by Chris Brennan (starting at minute 49:00), he discussed how the astrological signs were not originally associated with astrological signs.  In fact, as Brennan (2011) noted, in the majority of the Hellenistic astrologers with surviving works the elements are not mentioned at all in relation to the triplicities of the signs.

For those new to the concept of “triplicity”, it is the grouping of the signs into 4 groups of 3 signs each that are all in 120 degree relationships to each other, also called trigons or triangles, or signs that are trine each other.  Today, we know these triplicities best in terms of labellings certain signs as Fire signs (Aries, Leo, Sagittarius), others as Water signs (Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces), others as Earth signs (Capricorn, Taurus, Virgo), and others as Air signs (Libra, Aquarius, Gemini).  What is notable is that these particular groupings of signs, called triplicities, were not based upon the elements nor fundamentally associated with the elements in Hellenistic astrology. 

Four Elements and Four Seasons
Four Elements (Isidore of Seville)

The triplicities are not associated with the elements at all in Manilius, Dorotheus, and Ptolemy.  The triplicities are not explicitly associated with the elements in Maternus, but, at least in the Bram translation, there are some passages that refer to “watery”, “fiery”, and “earthy” signs, but this translation is riddled with errors and insertions by Bram, and there was a different Hellenistic classification of signs as terrestrial, aquatic, and amphibious (this will be addressed in a future post in this series), that is unrelated to the triplicities which Maternus may have been referring to (if he was not simply drawing on Valens).  Of known surviving works, the first Hellenistic astrologer to associate the four elements with the astrological signs was Vettius Valens of the 2nd century CE.

Instead, the triplicities were often associated with the four winds.  The modern triplicity of Fire was most commonly associated with the east wind, the modern triplicity of Earth with the south wind, that of Air with the west wind, and that of Water with the north wind.  This appears to be modeled on the direction that the Cardinal sign of each triplicity points in when the first sign of the zodiac, Aries, is rising.  Aries will be on the Ascendant which is an easterly point on the horizon where the Sun (and planets) rise, while Libra will be on the Descendant which is a westerly point on the horizon where the Sun (and planets) set, while Capricorn will be towards the midheaven which is southern, and Cancer will be in the opposite direction which is northern.  The Cardinal signs are also know as the Changeable, Tropical, Moveable, or Equinoctial/Solstitial  signs, as they are the unstable yet powerful signs of a “change of course” as the Sun appears to cross the equator or reach the solstice which is an extreme declination (I’ll address this in a future post on classifications).  This is at least the association of triplicities with winds that we find made explicit in Paulus Alexandrinus (c.f. Greenbaum, 2001, p. 1-4).  In Ptolemy, we find a different system of assigning winds to triplicities based on the planets that rule the signs (c.f. Robbins, 1940, p. 85-88).

The establishment of the doctrine that there are four ultimate elements or roots which structure our world is attributed to the Greek philosopher, Empedocles, of the 5th century BCE (“Empedocles,” 2011). It became a facet of many later physics, including those of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics.  What is notable is that the Stoics and Aristotle differed in the basic primary quality that they assigned to each element.  As Brennan (2011) noted, Aristotle contrasted hot Fire with cold Water, and wet Air with dry Earth, while the Stoics contrasted hot Fire with cold Air, and wet Water with dry Earth.  In my opinion, the Stoic formulation is more commonsense, as what could be wetter than water, and the flow of air is cooling, as in human use of fans.

Four Elements and Zodiac
Four Elements from English medieval manuscript

Brennan (2011) asserted that Valens’ conception of the element accorded more with the Stoic conception than with the Aristotelian one.  From my reading of Valens, it appears that Brennan is referring to Book IV (Riley, p. 73), a predictively-oriented passage in which Valens has an aside about the logic of one sign handing off rulership of a time to the sign opposite it, due to contrasting and sympathetic qualities, such as earthy signs being dry and watery being moist.  There are also some hints as to these qualities of the signs in Book I in the discussion of the signs. Brennan (2011) indicated that this is the most logical association of qualities to the elements of the signs in astrology, because it places signs of opposite quality (hot/cold, wet/dry) in opposition to each other (i.e. the cold, air signs are opposite the hot, fire signs, while the wet, water signs, are opposite the dry, earth signs).

While an association of the Empedoclean elements with astrological sign triplicities was not a part of “mainstream” Hellenistic astrology, it became an increasingly popular association through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, right up to the present time.  This was in part due to the growing prominence of Aristotelianism in the medieval worldview.  Hence, not only did the elements come to be the primary descriptor of the triplicities, but the elements themselves came to be associated with their Aristotelian qualities, in which Fire is hot (to some additionally dry), Earth is dry (to some additionally cold), Air is wet (to some additionally hot), and Water is cold (to some additionally wet).


The association of the elements to the triplicities is not itself an essential part of Hellenistic astrology, but is seen as a welcome and interesting addition by many (including myself), and does have roots in the Hellenistic period.  While the introduction of the elements into astrology appears to have been under a Stoic physics, which both makes more sense in its attribution of qualities to the elements and in its attribution of qualities to the signs, the later tradition became dominated by an Aristotelian conception of the elements that prevails in most current traditionalist circles, but, as Brennan (2011) asserted, is of questionable merit.


Empedocles. (2011, November 14). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 15:21, November 18, 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Empedocles&oldid=460679777

Brennan, C. (2011, November 11). Latest News in Traditional Astrology. Traidtional Astrology Radio. Retrieved from http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wtaradio/2011/11/11/latest-news-in-traditional-astrology–november-11-2011

Ptolemy, C. (1940). Ptolemy: Tetrabiblos. (F. E. Robbins, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library.  Retrieved from http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Ptolemy/Tetrabiblos/home.html

Valens, V. (2010). Anthologies. (M. Riley, Trans.) (Online PDF.). World Wide Web: Mark Riley. Retrieved from http://www.csus.edu/indiv/r/rileymt/Vettius%20Valens%20entire.pdf