Starting with the most basic Sun Sign books for non-astrologers, we learn that some signs are considered “masculine” and some signs are considered “feminine.” If we later decide to study astrology, the most basic astrology textbooks teach that signs of the elements Air and Fire are “masculine” and signs of the elements Earth and Water are “feminine.” This idea is so pervasive that even people who know nothing about astrology and would swear that they thought astrology was a silly superstition would likely assume that Earth was feminine.
Through many changes and disagreements in astrology, this basic concept has remained remarkably stable for over 2,000 years. So stable that few people would think to challenge it, even those who would otherwise consider themselves ardent feminists. Those who do challenge it generally suggest doing away with the entire system of gender with respect to the zodiac.
I believe in Tradition, and in most cases, I would say that such stability in a concept over time is strong evidence for its validity. In this case, however, I believe that this concept must be challenged, because it is one of the bases for the belief that the masculine is superior to the feminine. In the current system, the active day signs are assigned to the masculine, and the passive night signs are assigned to the feminine. Furthermore, Air is the element of the intellectual and priestly caste, and so this concept can and has been used to exclude women from this caste.
While I understand the temptation to remove gender from the entire system of classification of the zodiac, I think that in one sense this goes too far, and in another, it does not go far enough.
Most of Western Astrology has been transmitted to us through the Greeks. Western Astrology is believed to have originated in Egypt and Chaldea, which is likely the case; however, the system we use was originally recorded and systematized by Greek cosmologists. The Hellenistic influence is so strong that it has even found its way into Vedic astrology.
Greek culture was severely patriarchal, even for its time. In Athens, women were excluded from all intellectual discourse and were restricted to the home unless they were accompanied by their husbands or other male relatives. It stands to reason that their cosmology would also be severely patriarchal.
I am about to enter into a rather technical discussion; however, I believe that this matter is important to everyone, not just astrologers. On my astrology blog, there is an article explaining the humors, temperament, and their relationship to the elements, which may be helpful to read before continuing if you are not an astrologer. For the purposes of this discussion, however, the most important thing to know is that the signs are classified along two axes: hot and cold, and wet and dry. I explained in the above article that:
The hot/cold axis relates to both literal heat and to activity level. Hot is fast, busy, and active; cold is slow-moving and calm. The wet/dry axis is a little more abstract. This axis relates to boundaries and distinctions. Moisture blends and softens boundaries and distinctions; dryness hardens them. Without wet there would be no growth; without dry there would be no form.
The elements are also divided into four elements, Air, Fire, Earth, and Water. Air is Hot and Wet, Fire is Hot and Dry, Earth is Cold and Dry, and Water is Cold and Wet. The Hot elements of Air and Fire are day signs, and the Cold elements of Earth and Water are the night signs. The signs alternate between hot and cold around the zodiac, as per this diagram.
The Tetrabiblios, by Claudius Ptolemy, is arguably the most important Ancient textbook on Western Astrology. In the Tetrabiblios, the classification of signs and gender is explained as follows:
…they assigned six of the signs to the masculine and diurnal and an equal number to the feminine and nocturnal. An alternating order was assigned to them because day is always yoked to night and close to it, and female to male. Now as Aries is taken as the starting point…and as the male likewise rules and holds first place, since also the active is always superior to the passive in power, the signs of Aries and Libra were thought to be masculine and diurnal,…
After this, Ptolemy continues to describe at least three other systems for dividing masculine and feminine signs, but all of them assume that masculine and diurnal are equivalent and that feminine and nocturnal are equivalent.
Why does Ptolemy make that assumption?
In the section concerning diurnal and nocturnal planets, he writes:
…the two most obvious intervals of those which make up time, the day is the more masculine because of its heat and active force, and night more feminine because of its moisture and gift of rest…
This passage does not seem to make much sense. The opposite of heat is not moisture, it is cold. Heat and moisture are on separate axes. Also, the night is not moist, the night is cold. The only part of night that is moist is the period between midnight and sunrise, the part of night between sunset and midnight is dry.
To further add to the confusion, in another section, Ptolemy says:
…because two of the four humours are fertile and active, the hot and the moist (for all things are brought together and increased by them), and two are destructive and passive, the dry and the cold, through which all things, again are separated and destroyed,….
What a minute? Here moist is “fertile and active,” yet in the first passage moisture is associated with the “gift of rest.”
I believe that these inconsistencies may be explained by an earlier alteration in the tradition, and the reason for this alteration can be inferred from the second passage. The hot and the moist correspond to the element of Air, and the dry and the cold correspond to the element of Earth. I believe that the original division between masculine and feminine was along the dry and moist axis, not the hot and cold one.
In the section concerning masculine and feminine planets, Ptolemy states,
…there are two primary kinds of natures, male and females, and the forces already mentioned that of the moist is especially feminine….
This would mean that the feminine elements would be the moist ones, Air and Water, and of course, the dry one, Fire and Earth, would be masculine. Yet, Air was considered the highest element, and the element associated with the intellectual classes, from which women were forcibly excluded.
Further evidence for the association of moisture for feminine and dryness for masculine can be seen in the Egyptian pantheon in which there were several male and female god pairs with the male god associated with dryness and the female god associated with moisture.
This is all well and good on a theoretical level; however, astrology is a craft. How would this impact the craft of astrology? Would this change the entire system?
Actually, I think it would improve the craft and make it more useful and harmonious.
To begin with, it would reflect what are arguably the real differences between the feminine and the masculine, at least with respect to human beings. The association of masculine with active and feminine with passive is dubious at best. Women have always worked as hard, if not harder, than men. Even to this day, when women are in the workforce, they often still have responsibility for the maintenance of the home and are still often the primary caretakers for children. Also, if women were truly passive, there would not have been the need for all of the social and legal restrictions to keep them subservient. Even with all of the restrictions, throughout history, women have found ways to gain power and triumph over patriarchy, even if they have been quiet ways.
On the other hand, when one looks at the actual differences between women and men, they do seem to be along the wet/dry division. Women’s bodies tend to be softer and plumper than those of men. Babies grow in the bodies of women, and moisture is necessary for growth. All other things being equal, men tend to be more analytical and women tend to be better at making connections. While men tend to be physically stronger, women tend to be more flexible. All of these differences are consistent with a wet/dry division.
What about the neat symmetry of alternating masculine and feminine that Ptolemy described above, and that is shown in the diagram below?
This may not be of much concern to Modern Astrologers, but it is a very important concern to Traditional/Classical Astrologers. A symmetrical system is consistent with an orderly and harmonious cosmos, and this is essential to why astrology “works” from a Traditional or Classical perspective.
I believe that this system is actually more symmetrical than the current one, not less. Here is a diagram of a gender classification along the wet/dry axis:
In the first diagram, the gender classification is redundant with the classification between day and night. It does not add anything to the system. Indeed, the hot/cold axis is given two distinct groupings, and the wet/dry axis has none.
Furthermore, in the first diagram, even though signs next to each other have different genders, the signs opposite and across from each other have the same gender. The adage that “opposites attract” holds true in astrology, and signs opposite each other in the zodiac form equal and opposite pairs. Signs next to each other do not and are said to be unable to “see” each other. It is much more harmonious to the overall system for opposite pairs to be of the opposite gender that it is for them to be the same gender.
With respect to individual signs:
This change would make Libra feminine rather than masculine. Libra as a masculine sign always felt counter-intuitive to me. Libra is the sign of the hostess and the diplomat. Libra is motivated by beauty and balance. The most common fault of Libra is indecisiveness. All of these seem to be stereotypical traits of the feminine.
Aquarius, the Water Bearer, would also be feminine. It is true that Aquarius is generally depicted as a young man pouring water, and there are Greek and Egyptian myths that support the masculine association with the constellation. That being said, there is nothing inherently masculine about symbol of a water bearer. On the contrary, one could argue that this symbol is inherently feminine.
Actually, in one Greek myth, the constellation of Aquarius is occupied by one of Zeus’ favorites, Ganymede. Ganymede incurred the wrath of Zeus’ wife, Hera. Hera was jealous of Ganymede in part because of Zeus’ attention and affections for him, but also in part because he usurped the place of her daughter, Hebe, the goddess of youth. To me, this myth seems strangely fitting to the topic of this article.
This change would make Virgo the Virgin masculine rather than feminine. Admittedly, this is counter-intuitive. On the other hand, Taurus the Bull would become masculine rather than feminine.
In this article, I have proposed an alteration to the present system of gender classification with respect to the signs. I have argued that the current classification along the hot/cold axis is likely a patriarchal alteration to justify the subjugation of the feminine and to bar women from the priestly and intellectual classes. I have also argued that it is likely the original classification was along the wet/dry axis and that this classification would be consistent with real differences between the feminine and the masculine in human beings. Furthermore, this system of classification would be more symmetrical and harmonious than the current one.
***Upon further reflection, I have come to the belief that adding a new gender classification to astrology is too controversial in this day and age. My new proposal is to drop the gender classification with respect to sect and add a new classification along the wet/dry polarity. I have termed this polarity consistency, and the two sides: soft, corresponding to wet, and hard, corresponding to dry.
For more information about this, see: