Cardinal, Fixed and Mutable:

Understanding the Qualities or Modalities in Astrology

You probably know that each of the twelve zodiac signs is different in astrology – but did you know that what makes each sign different is its different combination of astrological elements and qualities?

Each zodiac sign belongs to one element – fire, earth, air or water – and one quality, sometimes called a quadruplicity or modality or mode– cardinal, fixed or mutable. It’s easy to intuitively understand what the four elements represent, but what on earth is a quality in astrology and what can they tell us?

What Are Qualities in Astrology?

The three qualities in astrology are cardinal, fixed and mutable. Because there are four zodiac signs in each quality group, astrologers sometime use the terms modalities or quadruplicity instead, but it means the same thing.

It was the Ancient Greeks who first divided the zodiac in this way, and in some schools of astrological thought, the three astrological qualities combine to represent the soul’s journey back to the divine source.

This is how the qualities are distributed among the signs. Look closely and you’ll notice that each quality contains a sign from each element.

The cardinal signs are: Aries (fire), Cancer (water), Libra (air) and Capricorn (earth)
The fixed signs are: Taurus (earth), Leo (fire), Scorpio (water) and Aquarius (air)
The mutable signs are: Gemini (air), Virgo (earth), Sagittarius (fire) and Pisces (water)

Broadly speaking, cardinal signs initiate and begin things. Fixed signs sustain the hard work of the project, while mutable signs finish, end or edit the process. Let’s look at that in a little bit more detail.

What is a Cardinal Sign in Astrology?

The four cardinal signs, Aries, Cancer, Libra and Capricorn each mark the start of a season. In the northern hemisphere Aries begins with the spring equinox, Cancer coincides with the summer solstice, Libra marks the fall equinox and Capricorn coincides with the winter solstice. In the southern hemisphere the opposite is true. The cardinal signs are concerned with new beginnings.

In terms of personality traits, the cardinal signs are life’s self-starters and go-getters. Often bold, daring and pioneering, they tend to be good leaders and excellent at getting something going. Strong-willed and creative, the cardinal signs are determined to achieve.

What is a Fixed Sign in Astrology?

The four fixed signs are Taurus, Leo, Scorpio and Aquarius. These signs mark the middle of the seasons, namely spring, summer, fall or autumn and winter, in that order. On an esoteric level, the fixed signs are concerned with sustaining and maintaining, persevering through lessons which must be learned.

Personality-wise, the fixed signs tend to be tenacious and determined; they don’t give up easily, if at all. This stubbornness can be a mixed blessing, but it also means that the fixed signs are intensely loyal. Generally credited with a lot of stability, these zodiac signs can nonetheless often find themselves stuck in a rut.

What is a Mutable Sign in Astrology?

The four mutable signs, Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius and Pisces, occur at the end of spring, summer, fall and winter respectively. Esoteric astrology teaches that it’s the job of these signs to revise, in order to bring about change. Somewhat less dramatically, we could say that these signs are on a mission to transform and to adapt, so that the lessons learned that season can be fully absorbed.

In terms of personality traits, the mutable signs are famously flexible. Adaptable, changeable and always able to see all sides of every story, these signs are good at coping with the unexpected because they know how to roll with the punches. Versatile and able to turn their hands to most things, these mutable signs are also typically helpful to others and keen to do good.

What Are the Differences Between the Astrological Qualities?

You may be wondering what makes one fixed sign different from another, or why all the cardinal signs aren’t identical, if they all have these particular traits in common. Remember – each of the signs in a quality is from a different element. That means they get to express their quality in subtly different ways from one another. Let’s see how that works:

Differences Between the Cardinal Signs

Remember, cardinal signs have a need to initiate or to start something. What and how, exactly, depends on their element.

Aries is a cardinal fire sign. Here the will to initiate is expressed with the full passion and force of fire. This leads to a very powerful desire to lead and to be first. Impatient and sometimes ruthless, Aries will do what it wants to do, when it wants to do it.

Cancer, however, is a cardinal water sign. The will to begin something and to start something new here is expressed through the emotions, which is what makes Cancer quite a protective sign but one which wears its emotions on its sleeve.

Libra is a cardinal air sign, and so is blessed with the skill of diplomacy. Libra wants to initiate action, like all cardinal signs, but Libra does it through persuading others to get going rather than necessarily acting itself.

Capricorn is a cardinal earth sign, and projects the need to initiate through practical, hands-on action. Highly ambitious, Capricorn wants to succeed but will take action step by step to guarantee a good outcome, instead of rushing in like Aries does.

Differences Between the Fixed Signs

Fixed signs need to sustain, protect or maintain something – but again, the what and the how depends on the element involved.

Taurus is a fixed earth sign. Earth is a materialistic element, and what Taurus wants to preserve and maintain is its own financial, material and emotional security. To this end, Taurus is quite possessive and stubborn, and reacts badly to financial upset.

On the other hand, Leo is a fixed fire sign. Fire is all about showmanship and creativity, and it is this that Leo wants to sustain. For this reason, Leo demands attention and adulation, in order to stay in the limelight.

Scorpio is a fixed water sign, so what Scorpio wants to protect is its own emotional depths. This means that Scorpio is an intensely private sign with many hidden traits. This is also why Scorpio is so keen to delve into other people’s motives and agendas.

Aquarius is a fixed air sign, and so is concerned with maintaining ideas and beliefs. Aquarius has a particular world view which it will go to some lengths to protect, defend and promote; this sign does not like to be intellectually challenged.

Differences Between the Mutable Signs

Mutable signs have a need to transform, to change, to edit or to tweak something so that the cycle can start over with another new beginning. For there to be a new beginning, there does, after all, have to be an ending first.

Gemini is a mutable air sign, so it is particularly adept at changing (transforming) its own mind and adapting its ways of communicating in order to allow for positive change. Famously indecisive, Gemini is sometimes all too keen to transform!

Virgo is a mutable earth sign. What Virgo wants to transform is the very stuff we’re made of, our bodies, our energy, our health and our vitality. It does this through critical analysis, aiming to end something which doesn’t work well for us.

Sagittarius is a mutable fire sign, so is concerned with ending through fire. Taken in a symbolic way, we can see how Sagittarius the truth-seeker tends to burn down false beliefs and fake friendships. Sagittarius transforms all things into a kind of truth.

Pisces is a mutable water sign and tends to transform things by engulfing them in deeply emotional waters. Pisces can take any situation and dissolve it into its most ethereal and spiritual basic components; from there, we’re ready to start the cycle again with Aries.

The Fixed Signs

The Cardinal Signs

The Mutable Signs

Cardinal, Fixed and Mutable


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