Most people know that each of the 12 signs of the zodiac corresponds to an element: Fire, Earth, Air, and Water. But the signs are also categorized into three "modalities": Cardinal, Fixed, and Mutable. Each sign is a unique combination of element and modality, and by understanding both facets, you can gain greater insight into a sign's motivation and objective.
What are modalities?
The modalities -- sometimes referred to as "qualities" -- speak to your general approach to life, way of operating in the world, and in a sense, the purpose you're here to serve.
The Cardinal signs -- Aries, Cancer, Libra, and Capricorn -- are the initiators of the zodiac. These natural leaders get the party started, instigating new projects and pioneering uncharted territory. They tend to enjoy shaking up the status quo and acting independently.
The Fixed signs -- Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, and Aquarius -- maintain, stabilize, and complete what the Cardinal signs started. People with a strong Fixed influence have a talent for creating sustainable structures and tend to be practical, persistent, stubborn, and slow to change.
The Mutable signs -- Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius, and Pisces -- are the change agents and communicators. They transform what may have become overly Fixed and extend what has been created out into the world. Mutable types are versatile, flexible, adaptable, and resourceful.
All three modalities are generally present somewhere in each person's birth chart. This means you could have a Cardinal Sun, a Fixed Moon, and a Mutable Ascendant. However, usually one modality dominates, which causes you feel the strongest affinity with those characteristics.
Combining element and modality
The elements represent the basic nature and orientation of a sign, while the modalities show their style of expression. Let's look at each sign to see how the element and modality combine to create a unique character. Note that the zodiac is organized systematically, with the three modalities repeating in the same order -- Cardinal, Fixed, Mutable. Likewise, the elements also repeat in the same configuration -- Fire, Earth, Air, and Water.
Aries the Ram (March 21 - April 19): Cardinal Fire
Initiating the wheel of the zodiac, Aries is the ultimate go-getter and fire-starter. The Ram catalyzes action, inspiring and motivating others with its own passion and enthusiasm. Both Cardinal and Fire signs tend toward impatience, and this can be Aries' shadow side.
Taurus the Bull (April 20 - May 20): Fixed Earth
Maintaining on the earthly plane, Taurus is the steward and conserver of natural resources, as well as a master of money management. The Fixed Earth combination makes the Bull the most susceptible to stagnancy and stubbornness, leading to the not-entirely-unfounded stereotype of this sign.
Gemini the Twins (May 21 - June 20): Mutable Air
Both mutability and Air are associated with communication, making Gemini the consummate connector, able to relate to diverse people on multiple levels. The open and flexible mind of the Twins can perceive any situation from numerous perspectives ... and that perspective will change again and again in the blink of an eye.
Cancer the Crab (June 21 - July 22): Cardinal Water
Cancer's nurturing leadership finds expression in the domestic realm of home and family and in the world of the emotions. As the archetype of the Great Mother, Cancer represents the ultimate power of feminine creativity. The shadow appears when nurturing becomes smothering, or when it's used as a means to control others.
Leo the Lion (July 23 - August 22): Fixed Fire
Picture Leo as the hearth, the fire in the center that magnetizes everyone toward it by radiating heat and light. Leo keeps the fire going by organizing and maintaining enduring structures for leadership and creative expression. An imperial "my way or the highway" attitude is the Lion's shadow.
Virgo the Virgin (August 23 - September 22): Mutable Earth
A pragmatic Earth sign, Virgo applies her mutability toward improving herself, others, and the planet, making life more efficient and functional. Virgo can go too far when she tries to change everyone and everything in her world. Acceptance and higher vision are the antidotes.
Libra the Scales (September 23 - October 22): Cardinal Air
Libra, the ultimate party planner, initiates action on the social and cultural level. Count on Libra to connect the people who most need to meet each other. Libra organizes activities that will lead to justice, peace, and harmony, forever seeking to balance the scales.
Scorpio the Scorpion (October 23 - November 21): Fixed Water
The sign of emotional attachment, merging, and bonding, once Scorpio has strong feelings about someone or something, they are unlikely to change. Despite being a Water sign, Scorpio's fixedness makes it hard to go with the flow. A periodic review and release of stagnant emotions is recommended.
Sagittarius the Archer (November 22 - December 21): Mutable Fire
The Mutable-Fire combination makes Sagittarius perhaps the most restless sign of the zodiac, eternally searching for higher truth and broader horizons. Globetrotting Sag connects with foreign people and cultures, exchanging perspectives on the meaning of life. Putting philosophy into practice is the Archer's challenge.
Capricorn the Mountain Goat (December 22 - January 19): Cardinal Earth
Applying leadership skills to the earth plane, Capricorn is the empire builder. The Mountain Goat aims for the very top, launching projects that will have a lasting impact in the physical world. Remembering to value the inner realm of feelings -- especially happiness -- leads to true success.
Aquarius the Water-Bearer (January 20 - February 18): Fixed Air
The supreme social organizer, Aquarius creates and maintains lasting structures for groups and organizations. Although associated with revolutionary ideas and ideals, Aquarius can become overly fixed in the mental realm and needs to remain open to differing perspectives.
Pisces the Fish (February 19 - March 20): Mutable Water
As mutable Water, Pisces is the sign that most easily goes with the flow -- perhaps too easily at times. Pisces communicates with the unconscious realm of dreams and imagination and often reports back to the waking world the vision that has been discovered through music, art, and poetry.