star material

A Guide to the Water Signs: Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces

Photo-Illustration: by Preeti Kinha; Photos: Getty Images

Consider fluid: the slide of tears, the rush of rivers, the murmur of tides, the seismic shift of tsunami waves. Welcome to water, an element that teems with wet emotion and flowing feelings.

The 12 zodiac signs are divided into four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. The water signs — Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces — tend to be emotional and intuitive. In Chinese tradition, water is called wuxing. It’s the most yin of the five elements — the most feminine, the most passive, the most receptive, the most hidden. Wuxing governs the moon, the bladder, the kidneys, and the color blue. In ancient Greek hermeticism, water ruled phlegm and the season of winter. In 20th-century esotericism, the element of water is represented by the cup: a container that can both hold viscous passions and runneth over.

In astrology, the moon and water are inextricably linked. On the basest level, both speak to emotion, intuition, and memory, and this connection persists in almost every elemental spiritual system across cultures and customs, from medieval “Christian” astrology to the Hindu element apas and moon god, Chandra. Even our tides are linked to the full moon and the new moon, reaching maximum intensity when the moon is the most waxed or waned. If the fire signs embody a solar or Martian energy, if the air signs are amorphous and mercurial, and if the earth signs are fertile and Venusian, the water signs are deep and lunar.

Have you watched the gorgeous David Attenborough documentary Blue Planet? Maybe you barely paid attention; it’s lovely background noise for soft drugs and making out, bathing your flesh in flickering 4K azures. It starts on the surface shore, gets lost in the infinite dramas of our vast oceans, and ends with ancient bones and supernatural sea creatures buried along the shadowy ocean floor.

CANCER is surface-level, superficial water. It may not go deep, but it brims with life and touches the coastline, where so many other living creatures are. I am imagining squads of dolphins breaking the waves, the wails of whales, the marches of penguins, and bitter nymphs dragging down unfaithful sailors. Shallow water doesn’t mean there’s an absence of activity — far from it. It’s aquatic action we can see without expensive goggles and scuba tanks.

Cancer is a cardinal sign, which means that it wears its baby, oblivious, and enkindling heart on its sleeve. This immediate, often infantile access to emotions merits Cancer a crybaby reputation, but it’s also a popular placement on the charts of mixed martial artists and serial killers. Reacting to feeling with immediacy can be a blessing or a curse depending on the situation, but Cancers are (usually) completely sincere in their motivations for oversharing their outpourings of angst. They may be whiners or murderers, but they won’t lie about it.

This sign is ruled by the moon and thus tends toward maternal instincts. Cancers can be nurturing and protective friends and lovers but also the kind of helicopter parents who want to know where you are and what you’re doing whenever you’re out of sight. This oscillation between safe coddling and vicious overbearing is exemplified in Cancer’s constellation, the crab — tender inside its shell but always ready to pinch with its massive claws.

Celebrity Cancer suns include Princess Diana, Helen Keller, Ariana Grande, Robin Williams, Courtney Love, Frida Kahlo, Lana Del Rey, and Alex Trebek. We worship and resent these stars for echoing our own emotions — directly accessing feelings that society demands we stuff down — without shame or artificiality. They make us nostalgic for our own emotional authenticity.

SCORPIO lives deep underwater in the throes of tides we can’t see, swarming with colorful schools of fish and petrifying predators. It’s a fixed, consolidating sign; it is darkly self-aware of being self-contained.

Scorpio is known for being intense, magnetic, and brooding. In “modern” astrology, it’s ruled by Pluto, which makes sense: Both are sex-and-death-oriented, kind of goth and edgy, and luxuriate in the underworld. But traditionally, Scorpio is ruled by Mars, the planet of war and aggression. While Aries, the other sign ruled by Mars, is loud and obvious in exhibiting its Martian values, Scorpio is subtle and slick, wielding its attacks with much more deliberate, manipulative precision.

Pluto is one of the slowest-moving, most distant bodies on an astrology chart; it spends about 21 years in each sign. It sat in Scorpio between 1983 and 1995, meaning that most millennials have their Pluto in Scorpio and especially identify with a Scorpio Plutonian shadow side. We are responsible for most of the vicious commentary about untrustworthy, hypersexual, malevolent Scorpios because we recognize those qualities in ourselves on our own dark nights of the soul.

As a fixed sign, Scorpio tries to bury its depths of passion and emotion. Scorpio has an elephant’s memory, a special skill at keeping secrets, and a depth of passion unrivaled by any other sign of the zodiac. But it also means Scorpios never, ever let shit go. We would all go insane if we remembered everything that ever happened, never forgave or forgot. Scorpios can drive themselves insane just by wallowing in their own deeply private pool.

Famous Scorpio suns include Hillary Clinton, Vlad the Impaler, Hedy Lamarr, Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Manson, Vivien Leigh, Sylvia Plath, Björk, Tilda Swinton, and Tim Cook. These provocateurs induce strong, deep-seated love-hate reactions. We admire their wild depths and iconoclastic viciousness, but their secrecy and charisma are frightening things.

PISCES exists in the darkest depths, so far away that life there exists as if it’s on another planet. The furthest reaches of our ocean floor are almost impossible to penetrate, but once there, you can catch multitudes: skeletons of eaten shark carcasses, sunken ships heavy with treasures, crabs and sea spiders so titanic they seem pulled from a Hammer horror film. Pisces exists in a distant, dreamlike space somewhere between planes of reality.

One way of understanding the zodiac wheel is as a karmic cycle of birth and death. Aries would be your newborn beginning, and Pisces is your exit at the very end. However, instead of perceiving this sign as something gray-haired and crotchety (that would be Capricorn and Aquarius, ruled by Saturn, Father Time), we should imagine something between lives: a womb, something floating and formless, about to incarnate. Stressed or distracted Pisces are prone to floating off into their own womblike fantasy world; this ephemeral quality is one of the sign’s most obvious hallmarks.

Pisces is a mutable sign, meaning it’s ready to change and adapt and is receptive to outside ideas and understandings. It’s ruled by Jupiter, the planet of expansion and evolution, which allows it to travel vast swaths of the human experience, but such boundless fluidity leaves it without critical boundaries for self-preservation and survival. Sagittarius, also ruled by Jupiter, copes with these qualities by remaining detached and bouncing out whenever, wherever. Pisces tends to drown in other people, other places, and horrible news stories.

In such black seas, Pisces can struggle to tell where they begin and others end, often treating others as extensions of themselves and confusing which burdens belong to whom. Just as easily, they can inadvertently cross the line with others, since their own lines tend to blur. These qualities make Pisces the true “empaths” of the zodiac, capable of holding others’ joys and sufferings as if they were their own, with a fierce sensitivity and without reluctance or judgment. Their free spirits can travel to the deepest depths of the human psyche as easily as they can drift into realms of dreams, creativity, and spiritual fancy. They are the most connected to the collective unconscious.

Kurt Cobain, George Harrison, Elizabeth Taylor, Justin Bieber, Elliot Page, Quincy Jones, Glenn Close, Tyler the Creator, and Gabriel García Márquez are just a few of the many renowned Pisces-sun dreamers. They exist in realms of art, magical realism, sensitivity, and our own fantasies. While their lack of boundaries may not have protected them, their unyielding openness allows us to engage and identify with their experiences as if they were our own.

In addition to being divided into elements, the zodiac signs are divided into three modalities: cardinal, mutable, and fixed. The cardinal signs — Aries, Cancer, Libra, and Capricorn — fall at the beginning of each season. The fixed signs — Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, and Aquarius — fall in the middle of their seasons, and the mutable signs — Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius, and Pisces — bring their seasons to a close. In astrology, the sky is conceived of as a sphere with the Earth at its center. This sphere is divided into 12 sections, one for each zodiac sign; every celestial body moves through at its own rate. Because Pluto has such a long orbit, it moves incredibly slowly — meaning that most members of a generation will share a Pluto sign. The zodiac calendar opens with Aries, which marks the beginning of spring and the astrological new year. As such, Aries is the baby of the zodiac.
A Guide to the Water Signs: Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces