M is for modes

And with this post, I reach the halfway point of the Pagan Blog Project. (Wow.) Admittedly, anyone who has been reading my past entries might be thinking I was participating in something called the Astrological Blog Project. I didn’t set out to write on so many astrological topics to the exclusion of others—and yeah, there are more to come—but I was doing astrology years before I’d ever heard of Wicca or Paganism, and I find the two just fit so well together. Think about it. The planets bear the names of gods. The signs correspond to the four elements. The signs are also divided into three modes, which have a strong seasonal association, which in turn leads me to make a connection between the “circle of animals” (zōdiacus) and the Wheel of the Year. Although unlike planets, signs, and elements, chances are that unless you’ve studied astrology, you haven’t heard of the modes.

Short version: the modes describe energy, how it moves and where it’s directed. The three modes are usually called cardinal, fixed, and mutable nowadays, although there are older names for them as well. While signs that share an element are inherently compatible, signs that share a mode clash (actually, that’s also because their elements are usually incompatible: for example, fire and water will be at odds regardless if they’re both cardinal, fixed, or mutable).

The astrological signs with their modes and elements.
The astrological signs with their modes and elements.

Cardinal energy begins things and takes action. The cardinal mode directs energy outwards, making its mark in the everyday world; leadership is often associated with cardinal traits. Traditionally, the cardinal mode has been considered the strongest of the three, but I don’t think that’s because it really is stronger but because it’s the easiest to see. Especially in the West, we’ve favored an outgoing, extroverted approach to life, one that deals with the mundane realities of life. So planets in cardinal signs in horary charts may indeed gain strength from those placements because so many horary questions are about the physical world that cardinal energy is focused on. In natal charts, where we’re looking at a person’s mental, emotional, and spiritual makeup as well as how they function in the world, saying that one mode is stronger than another can be misleading. The drawback to the cardinal mode is its lack of follow-through: people strong in cardinal energy may leave things unfinished, always running off to start something new.

Fixed energy is pretty much what it sounds like: resistant to change. The four signs of the fixed mode continue, maintain, and persevere. Despite the term “fixed,” it’s not that the fixed mode is always petrified. If something is already in motion, the fixed mode will keep it that way, because stopping would involve change. Whereas the cardinal mode moves outward, fixed energy moves inward. The fixed mode has been seen as weaker than the cardinal mode, but stronger than the mutable mode. Although fixed energy turns inwards and doesn’t impact the world the way cardinal energy does, we see its sheer immovability as strength in its own right (think the Rock of Gibraltar). As you may guess, the downside to the fixed mode is its tendency to get stuck in a rut, often persisting in situations where change is desperately needed.

Mutable energy is adaptable and flexible, pliable and unsettled. Lacking the force of cardinal energy and the solidity of fixed energy, mutable energy has usually been viewed as the weakest of the modes. Today, we think of this as mental/psychological energy, not weaker, just not as obvious. Mutable energy has neither an inward nor an outward focus, but swirls around in all directions. While this flexibility is often a gift, the mutable mode can indecisive, scattered, and unable to commit to anything.

As for the Wheel of the Year, the modes are closely associated with the seasons. At the solstices and equinoxes, the Sun moves into the cardinal signs, 0º of Aries, Cancer, Libra, and Capricorn. The cardinal energy matches the “beginning” feeling of the seasons, the urge to get going, do something (seasonally appropriate, perhaps). The middle of the seasons correspond to the fixed signs, and if the cross-quarters hadn’t gotten thrown off a bit by calendar changes, they’d fall at the exact middle of the fixed signs, when the Sun reaches 15º of Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, and Aquarius. At this point, the seasons have settled into a consistent rhythm, with their beginnings fading into memory, and the transition to the next season not yet real enough to think about. Since there are eight sabbats, but twelve signs, the Wheel of the Year doesn’t map to the mutable signs (to fit the pattern, there would have to be another four sabbats when the Sun reaches 29º of the mutable signs, which would be only hours before it moved to 0º of the cardinal signs, starting the cycle over again). But even without official holidays to mark them, as the Sun moves into Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius, and Pisces, there’s a feeling of imminent change, as the fixed pattern of the current season begins to break up and we see hints of the season to come.

Although there is a lot about the elements in both the astrological and Pagan literature, I’ve seen almost nothing about the modes in Pagan writings. In Castings: The Creation of Sacred Space, Ivo Domínguez, Jr. devotes a chapter to the modes and how to combine them with the elements when casting circles: a cardinal circle, for instance, or a mutable one. The modes seem like something you could use in magic, although since I almost never practice magic, this is just a hypothesis on my part. And even if the modes aren’t named as such, I figure their qualities are well-integrated into the Wheel of the Year, which is enough for me at the moment.