“Elements and Humors” from Bartholomaeus Anglicus, On the Properties of Things, 15th Century, Le Mans



"A creature of a most perfect and divine temper;
One, in whom the Humours and Elements are peaceably met,
without an emulation of Precedencie: he is neither too fantastickly
Melancholy; too slowly Phlegmatick, too lightly Sanguine,
or too rashly Cholerick, but all in all, so compos'd and order'd; as it is
cleare, Nature was about some full worke, she did more than
make a man when she made him"

Ben Jonson, Cynthia’s Revels, 1600




of astrological analysis for thousands of years.  In modern times, alas, it has become what I call “astrology’s forgotten key.”  Though as modern astrologers we use elemental balances in charts, we have forgotten or ignored astrology’s own means of assessing balance in the birthchart, namely temperament analysis.  Based on the principles of ancient Greek physicians, philosophers and astrologers, temperament combines qualities (hot, cold, wet and dry), elements, humors and seasons into an elegant and practical system for determining each human’s special “mixture.”


The following is from my book, Temperament: Astrology's Forgotten Key .


(© Dorian Gieseler Greenbaum, 2005.  Not to be reproduced without permission from the author.)


It is human nature to want to put things into categories, whether they be as broad as animal, vegetable and mineral or as narrow as Delicious versus Macintosh apples.  We are no different in our urge to categorize human beings in every way possible.  Jung says it is because we want to "bring order into the chaos,"[1] and he may very well be right.  We have been classifying humans physically, mentally and psychologically for thousands of years.  One kind of classification, temperament, has been used by scientists, doctors, philosophers and astrologers for over 2000 years.  What is the relationship between temperament and astrology?  What is temperament, and how did the theories about it evolve?  What is the history of temperament in western civilization?  How has it been used in modern times?  How can we use it to better understand ourselves today?  All these questions will be explored in the following pages. …


The temperament theory and analysis which have come down to us in the modern western world began with the Greeks.  From Empedocles' first hypotheses about the components of the cosmos, to the latest websites devoted to "modern" temperamental analysis, temperament has been a subject of continual fascination.  Astrologers were early to join the bandwagon, and from classical to modern times they have studied temperament as a component of chart analysis, often using complex formulae.  Given astrology's strong roots in Greek culture and philosophy, this is not surprising.  The doctrine of temperament alluded to by Hippocrates, developed by Galen and used by Ptolemy persisted through medieval astrology and into William Lilly's time.  What is temperament, and what are its components?  Before we explore the history and theory of temperament, these are the questions that must be answered.


What is Temperament?


            It might be easier to define temperament by what it is not.  In the first place, it is not the same as personality, although personality can incorporate parts of someone's temperament in its expression.  Personality is shaped by both internal and external factors, whereas temperament is entirely innate.  Temperament is not character, though in some ways the two concepts have a commonality.  Character can refer to the distinctive features or qualities that distinguish one form from another, and so is innate like temperament; but it also refers, at least in modern English connotation, to the moral nature of a person.  The original Greek meaning of the word carakt»r (charaktēr) is "stamp," as in something used to make an impression in wax or metal.  So character is an impression on the person which, in that connotation, implies something from without (parental or societal) rather than within. 

Temperament, by contrast, is inherent.  We are born with our temperaments, and while there may be overlays of one temperamental style or another during our lives, what we get is what we keep.  A card-carrying phlegmatic does not suddenly become a raging choleric.  Any mother of more than one child can see temperamental differences in her offspring almost from the moment of birth, qualities which only become more pronounced as her children age.  Such differences have even been the subject of books on child development.[2]   So temperament really has to do with a person's nature or disposition.  As a primary phlegmatic, I can admire the innate social skills of my daughter the sanguine.  I might acquire some of those social skills through my interactions with the outside world, but I have to learn them; they are not a part of my nature.  Our inborn temperament is also what we fall back on when faced with a new situation: are we the take-charge, choleric type who rushes in to meet every new experience with gusto?  Or the quiet melancholic, who hangs back and analyzes and would rather die than be the life of the party?  Are we sanguine, looking to make new friends and social contacts, or phlegmatic and just want to be left alone?

That I can even use these words today and know that many people will know what I mean is a testimony to the enduring ideas behind temperament theory.  Even though we now tend to think of choleric as angry, melancholic as depressed, sanguine as happy-go-lucky and phlegmatic as lethargic, these words are still very much in our vocabulary. 

If we go back into the past, we can discover the origins behind our modern use of these temperamental words.  The word temperament comes from the Latin temperamentum, which means "mixture."  But a mixture of what?  A "temperament," according to the Greeks who evolved the theory, is a mixture of qualities that combine to form elements in physics and humors in medicine.  There are four qualities: hot, cold, wet and dry.  There are also four elements: fire, earth, air and water; and four humors – choler or yellow bile, melancholer or black bile, blood and phlegm.  The Greeks looked for a state of equilibrium or balance among these four elements and humors: such a person was said to be well-mixed, or well-tempered.  (Such a phrase even comes into modern English when we speak of someone with a "good temper." )  It was important to know a person's temperament so that imbalances could be treated. 

The ideas about temperament evolved from ideas about the nature of the world, and the original building blocks of the world.  The Greek philosophers and physicists (the word "nature" is fÚsij, phusis, in Greek) of the second half of the first millennium BCE developed the theories out of which temperament arose, using the qualities and the elements.


This diagram shows the interconnection between man and the universe: in the center are the words ‘Kosmos Homo’ meaning ‘World Human.’  The outside circle is divided into sections showing each of the elements and their qualities: earth/cold & dry, fire/hot & dry, air/hot & wet, water/cold & wet.  The inner circle shows, around the words ‘Kosmos Homo’, the season and humor associated with each of the elements/qualities.  Thus autumn and melancholy with earth, summer and choler with fire, spring and sanguine with air; and winter and phlegm with water.


From Isidore of Seville, De Natura Rerum, Ch. 11, 3, folio 131v.




[1] C.G. Jung, Psychological Types, p. 531.

[2] For instance, to cite just one example, Dr. T. Berry Brazelton's book Infants and Mothers talks about the temperamental styles of infants, though he doesn't use that word.




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Last Updated 3 June 2005