The Modalities: Cardinal, Fixed or Mutable

A Girl, Leaping
Cardinal, Fixed, and Mutable poses.

Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

The Modality of a Zodiac sign is its modus operandi. Some signs lurch forward, others solidify their stance, and then there are the shaker-uppers. 

There is a rhythm to it, and once you get it, you'll see how it mirrors the seasons, as a sign begins in cardinal, then settles in fixed, and is then opened up to change in mutable time frames.

Like the Elements, this is a grouping of signs, but this time it is quadruplicities or groups of four. Each of the four groupings has a distinct "quality" and they are known as Cardinal, Fixed and Mutable. The quality groupings each have a unique way of engaging with the world.

The qualities are found in the writings of Ptolemy and seem to have come out of early Greece. It's a foundation of astrology, as a symbolic language that makes sense, and helps with chart interpretations. 

Modalities and Elements

Each grouping by quality has one of the four elements. There is, then, a cardinal fire, earth air, and water sign. And the same for fixed and mutable.

 Don't worry if it doesn't click at first. If you get into astrology, after a while, you'll see how it keeps time, and the modalities are like the three acts of a story -- the beginning, middle, and end. 

In the first act (cardinal), the character comes on the scene and the adventure begins. In the second act (fixed), the character deepens, and there are lots of complications to deal with! In the final act, loose ends are tied up. 

What differs is that in the mutable stage, there's a mixing up and sometimes rearranging of things. It's the time to prepare for the next cycle and to share with others. 

Each quality is linked to a particular point in the season. The cardinal signs initiate the season, fixed signs hold it in continuation, and the mutable signs wrap things up, and prepare for the seasonal change ahead.

What are the Cardinal signs?

Aries, Cancer, Libra, and Capricorn

What are the Fixed signs?

Leo, Scorpio, Aquarius, and Taurus

What are the Mutable signs?

Sagittarius, Pisces, Gemini, and Virgo

Once you get a grasp of the elements and can observe them firsthand in people you know, the quality offers more shades of difference. 

You can refer to a natal planet being in the quality and element, such as Fixed Air or Mutable Water. Once you get a sense of how these qualities behave, merge that with what you know about the element, along with the essence of the sign. It's part of the synthesis that is vital to understanding astrology.

Cardinal, Fixed and Mutable

The Cardinal signs are like the oldest in the family, and full of the self-initiatory spirit. They assert their particular style of leadership through their element. By element, they are Aries (fire), Cancer (water), Libra (air) and Capricorn (earth.)

The Fixed signs dig in and are able to hold steady in their goals to achieve something solid. It's hard for them to change, which gives them a reputation for being stubborn. But they are respected for their self-containment and sense of purpose. By element, they are Leo (fire), Scorpio (water), Aquarius (air) and Taurus (earth).

The Mutable signs are flexible, adaptable and restless for movement, change. They are able to see life from many perspectives, making them great communicators. They represent the break-down before the next season begins, so there's a touch of chaos to their natures. By element, they are Sagittarius (fire), Pisces (water), Gemini (air) and Virgo (earth).

When learning about astrology, try noting the difference between the qualities by observing two people with planets in the same element. For example, you might have two earth sign friends, giving you a great chance to note the different "quality" between a Capricorn and a Virgo. It takes time to note these subtleties, especially since we are usually a complex mix of many signs.