What follows is an interesting (to me at least) investigation on whether the four elements can be described by two binary pairs. As much of the following is about systems I seldom work with, Greek classical elements, alchemy, and Western astrology, please bear with me, as this is a bit of a tangent from my own practice and from much of what I post here. It does, however, lay a groundwork to help others understand another post I've been working on but am not yet to a point to publish, my Chthonic Zodiac, and what happens when you turn the sky upside down, and the lore and myth that become obvious with that understanding. That post will have direct application to my own practice, so this tangent has a use.
Consider for a moment the Western approach over all. I'm simplified it, and generalizing, but there's a tendency to break everything down into either the four Classic Greek elements, fire, water, earth, and air, or down into the three alchemical principles, salt, sulfur, and quicksilver. These two sets provide some unique patterns mathematically, and Western magic seems to always love things that can be expressed mathematically. Four and three are helpful, because added together, they give seven, which is found so often, with the seven wandering bodies in the sky, the seven days in a week, the seven stars that make up Woden's Wain, the seven stars seen as the Seven Sisters, the various uses of seven years, and so on. And multiplied together, they make twelve, another useful number, with twelve Zodiac signs, twelve months, twelve Olympians, twelve apostles and tribes, and so on.
Modern paganism has thrown a wrench in this, though I suspect few have seen it as such. By combining various holy days in Northern Europe to make eight Sabbats, they have the interesting issue of mapping eight days onto twelve months. Four works well, but eight is problematic. This likely isn't a big issue, but the Northern European concepts don't map well onto the Southern European concepts.
Looking just at the elements first, we have a pattern that lends well to a binary system. Earth and Water are considered passive, and Air and Fire active. This works well for the first pair, very much a Yin = Earth/Water/Passive, Yang = Air/Fire/Active pairing. So far so good. But what of the other pair? What separates Air from Fire and Earth from Water? What is the same between Air and Earth, and opposite from what is the same between Fire and Water? The answer isn't forth coming. Innately people pair them in that way, considering Air opposite of Earth, not Water, and Fire opposite Water, not Air. And they obviously are. Air and Earth can be seen as Sky and Land, above and below. Fire and Water tend to be universal opposites, as Fire changes Water into Air, and Water puts out Fire, in effect, bringing it to Earth. But what quality defines these?
Lets look at the Zodiac a moment. There are three attributes that define each sign, and an understanding of these can help in understanding of the signs. These are the quality, the mode, and the element. Qualities are one of three, cardinal, fixed, and mutable. Modes are active and passive. Elements are the four classic elements we are discussing. The signs lay out as follows:
You'll notice three cycles, the qualities cycling regularly three the three states, the mode cycling regularly through the two states, and the element cycling regularly through the four states.
If you examine the table, you find mode isn't too useful for this discussion, as it lines up exactly with the passive/active states of the elements we already discussed. Any give element is always the same mode. So we will ignore mode for now.
Quality does lend something of interest, as it doesn't coincide with a specific element. In fact, if you count, each quality has one sign of each element, and vice versa. Every quality/element pairing is unique. This of course makes sense with twelve signs total, because three states means four cycles, and four states means three cycles.
Lets look at the nature of the qualities for a moment. What do they mean? Cardinal is a sign that points, a sign that initiates something, starts something. Fixed is a sign that tries to stay constant, to not change. Mutable is a sign with a tendency to change and move. Those that are familiar with alchemy but not with astrology (if you can be familiar with alchemy but not astrology) might find these of interest. The description of fixed signs instantly brings to mind salt. Salt is the process of crystallization, just as fixed signs crystallize into a set pattern, not wanting to change. The other two are harder for me, not being an alchemist. But reading descriptions, I see quicksilver, mercury, in the mutable signs. Mercury is of course the messenger of the gods, carrying messages between them and man. Quicksilver is constantly changing, constantly moving. This leaves sulfur for the cardinal signs. Does this fit? Sulfur is seen in alchemy as a seed, or, more graphically, the sperm that is forcibly implanted into the egg. A seed, a beginning. Quicksilver is the solution, salt dissolved in it, sulfur added as a seed to bring about change. This is very much the same as the cardinal signs, so, yes, it does fit.
We have a new table:
Where this gets interesting is when we rearrange these to show what is across the year, or sky, from them:
The first thing we notice is that the qualities remain the same on the opposite end of the sky. Every sign has the same quality as its opposite. The next we see is that Fire and Air are always opposite, and Earth and Water are always opposite. This relates back to our earlier question. What separates Air from Fire and Earth from Water?
Let's look at the pairings. Aries/Libra, Taurus/Scorpio, Gemini/Sagittarius, Cancer/Capricorn, Leo/Aquarius, Virgo/Pisces. In what way are these opposites different? It isn't the quality, for each pair shares it. It isn't the mode, for each pair is either both passive or both active. What, then? Let's look at some attributes of each one, first the Fire/Air pairs, then the Water/Earth pairs.
Aries and Libra. Cardinal. Aries is the Ram lowering its head and charging, beginning without thinking things through, starting is the goal, Aries doesn't worry about what comes next. Libra is the scale weighing the options, trying to find balance, only beginning when all outcomes are considered and weighed, Libra won't act until it knows where the action will lead, and then, and only then, will it begin. Both cardinal, sulfur. Both active. Fire acts immediately, concerned with getting started, Air analyses and acts when the outcome is known.
Gemini and Sagittarius. Mutable. Sagittarius is the arrow pointing toward the goal, killing anything that gets in its way. The end justifies the means, the collateral isn't important. Gemini is the twins, identical but opposite, accepting two opposite truths as both true, moving between them, considering them. Both mutable, quicksilver. Both active. Fire is driven toward the goal, concerned with reaching it, not what might be in the way, Air analyzes and cares more about the means than the end, weighing the truth of each side.
Leo and Aquarius. Fixed. Leo is a lion, unstoppable, proud, a leader and ruler, what is has, it holds no matter what the damage to others. Aquarius is the water bearer, pouring out the water of Pisces to allow it to be replaced with air, controlling the flow, controlling the change, maintaining a balance between what was and what is to come, holding to that balance while avoiding upsetting or hurting others. Both fixed, salt. Both active. Fire holds what it has, concerned with keeping it, air controls change, concerned with the balance and peace between parties.
Fire, in all three states, has a specific goal, be it starting, reaching, or holding. Air, in all three states, weighs and tries for balance, be it starting, negotiating, or holding.
Cancer and Capricorn. Cardinal. Cancer is the crab, using its claws to protect what it creates or gives birth to, giving birth with intention to protect what is born immediately upon birthing, going from loving and nurturing to angry and protective at the first sign of danger, willing to hurt anything that seems a threat to the new thing. Capricorn is the sea-goat, half fish, half goat, the fish half would be fast in the sea without the goat, the goat part would be fast on the land without the fish part, each part slowing the other down, requiring careful planning to get to the goal, so start what is needed, planning and starting early, but knowing how long it will take and what steps are necessary. Both cardinal, sulfur. Both passive. Water begins with the intention to protect, focused on how to protect, not the process, Earth planning and preparing and knowing the whole process before hand.
Virgo and Pisces. Mutable. Pisces is two fish, chasing each other's tails through the water, two emotions, cycling back and forth, it doesn't analyze the emotions, it accepts them and moves to the next. Virgo is the Virgin, waiting for the very best before having sex, planning with patience, waiting for the right desire, right moment, not letting emotions get ahead of her, only letting emotions take over when they are needed and not until then. Both mutable, quicksilver. Both passive. Water lets the emotions cycle, doesn't worry about if they are right or wrong, just lets them come, Earth planning for the moment to let them have control, changing but only when analysis indicates it's time.
Taurus and Scorpio. Fixed. Scorpio is the scorpion with a venomous stinger and snapping claws, and a hard shell to protect the soft, easy to hurt interior, assuming everyone is trying to hurt it, or will given the chance, so ready for a fight, without analyzing who is friend or foe. Taurus is the bull, standing its ground, not to be moved, and if necessary, will charge and pierce with its horns, but only if it needs to, watching, analyzing. Both fixed, salt. Both passive. Water presumes and fight and strikes, earth watches and observes, and only fights when pressed or it is needed.
Water, in all three states, reacts without analysis, be it protecting the beginning, cycling emotions, or protecting what it holds. Earth, in all three states, analyzes and decides, be it planning before hand, deciding when best to change, or protecting what it holds.
The three states, cardinal/sulfur, mutable/quicksilver, fixed/salt, give us three views of each of the element pairs and show a common trend. Both Fire and Water are reactive, responding, not planning. Both Air and Earth are proactive, planning and analyzing before acting.
So we can define the four elements with two binaries, active/passive and responsive/analytic. Active and responsive are Yang type qualities. Passive and analytic are Yin type qualities.
And so we come to a defined binary description of the four elements. It is interesting to look at these again in the Zodiac cycle, where we have Fire-Earth-Air-Water as the order. This gives us Yang-Yang/Yin-Yin/Yang-Yin/Yin-Yang. The first part has a Yang/Yin/Yang/Yin cycling. The second part as a Yang/Yin/Yin/Yang cycling. This means the first pair cycles every sign, and the second every two signs, so twelve one month groupings for the first, and six two month groupings for the second.
This provides a new way to look at the Zodiac, as we now see Pisces/Aries as a grouping, Taurus/Gemini, Cancer/Leo, Virgo/Libra, Scorpio/Sagittarius, and Capricorn/Aquarius. Interesting thoughts and ideas form as you look at those pairings not in the terms we have above, but in the pictures representing them and the similarities within each pair, and where the division between groups lies.
Our final Zodiac table looks like so: