That’s because, while the two terms are often colloquially used interchangeably, they don’t mean quite the same thing. The key difference between fate versus destiny is in how much of the outcome at stake is understood to be totally predetermined or out of your control: If you go way back, to one of the earliest known civilizations of Sumer, in Mesopotamia, you’ll find that the term “fate” was used to refer to a course of events that could be altered by choices and decisions, whereas the term “destiny” was used to describe a future largely set in stone (… or rather, the stars).
But in more recent history, throughout the Greek and Roman empires and in the perspectives of modern-day philosophers, the meanings of the terms have been entirely flipped, such that fate is now recognized to reflect all those elements of our life that we cannot control, whereas destiny encompasses a future outcome that we achieve only through “care, effort, and deliberate choices.”
In any case, understanding that both facets of universal predetermination and free will can affect your future—whether you call that fate or destiny—is key to interpreting your astrological birth chart and making the most of this intel.
What role do fate and destiny play in astrology?
A person’s astrological or natal chart is set from the moment of their birth and is thought to dictate their personality and how they interact with the world around them. “Who you are—complete with all of your goals, tendencies, habits, virtues, and vices—will determine how you act and react, and thereby create your life’s destiny,” says astrologer Monte Farber, who co-authored Astrology for Wellness with his wife, astrologer Amy Zerner.
From an astrological standpoint, “when you know the character of the person or entity you are dealing with, you can make predictions based on coming astrological transits with surprisingly accurate results,” says Farber.
However, the traits of someone’s character aren’t entirely set in stone; while we might be predisposed to act or respond in a certain way, we all grow through life experiences and can similarly evolve in the way we express our core qualities, all of which have light and shadow sides. For example, someone whose sun sign is in Aries could present as independent and confident in one scenario, and selfish and egotistical in another—traits that are essentially two sides of the same coin.
The power we wield over our own character and behavior is where the mutable part of fate, as it’s historically understood, comes into play. Heraclitus of Ephesus, a pre-Socratic philosopher, is most famous for stating, “a man’s character is fate,” which could be interpreted to mean that someone’s strongly held beliefs and actions can shape their fate.
“We can change our fate by operating our astrology charts on the highest level of which we are capable of operating them, according to our character.” —Amy Zerner, astrologer
“We can change our fate by operating our astrology charts on the highest level of which we are capable of operating them, according to our character,” says Zerner, referring to the power of our free will.
For example, if your natal chart has Venus, the planet of love, and Mars, the planet of energy and aggression, in conjunction (meaning, they were in the same degree of the same zodiac sign when you were born), that could be experienced as a “love of fighting,” or “fighting for love,” depending on the person, says Zerner. It’s for this reason that there are not entirely “good” or “bad” astrological charts, even though certain aspects may be more challenging than others; in the end, some degree of your future—whether you call it fate or destiny—will be what you make of it.
Fate versus destiny: Breaking down the difference
As noted above, the earliest understanding of fate versus destiny among the Sumerians pinned the former as mutable and the latter as immutable. Farber explains that this belief goes back to when the Sumerians named all of the planets in the solar system and referred to each one’s orbit around the sun as its “destiny.”
“Destiny was something that could possibly be changed, but only with immense power and divine intervention,” says Farber. “Nations, kings, and people were ‘destined’ to experience certain things indicated by their astrology charts…and altering these destinies was [believed to be] virtually impossible for mortals to do.”
On the other hand, the Sumerians believed in fate as “a predictable future that was more closely aligned with shorter timeframes and human action and inaction,” says Farber. Meaning, fate was thought to be impacted by human behavior. “Changing one’s fate was possible if a person took the time to see what was really going on, what they had done, what they had not done, and where things were logically heading,” he explains.
Since then, however, the meaning of the concepts has been reversed, as mentioned: Fate is more widely understood today to mean the things that occur in our lives that we do not choose or control, while destiny refers to the future over which we have some say or power. “I see fate as things that are going to happen no matter what,” says astrologer Victoria Kray. “But destiny is not assured. You have to take action to manifest it, and it’s based on free will.”
How to use the concepts of fate and destiny to your benefit
Putting fate aside for a moment, the modern interpretation of destiny implies at least some amount of free will (with which we can alter our future). “Many of us can probably point to at least one time when we did or didn’t do something, and that profoundly changed the course of our lives, [and that’s free will],” says Farber. “What few people know is that each and every moment has the potential to be one of those life-altering moments.”
So, for example, I was fated to have some semblance of wanderlust since the day I was born thanks to a few key placements in my astrological chart (and I was likely fated to spend time traveling, too)—but my decision to quit my job and book a year-long trip around the world emerged from my own free will and has played a role in determining my destiny. As an oft-cited Indian proverb puts it: “Fate and self-help share equally in shaping our destiny.”
Recognizing the role of both predetermination and free will in your life can help you better reconcile with the events that happen to you and take an active stance toward your future.
On the one hand, there’s some serious comfort that can come with the idea of knowing that the universe has a plan for us. “If things are going awry or you’re at a crossroads and don’t know what decision to make, it may ease your mind to know that whatever path you pick, you can get to where you need [or are fated] to go,” says astrologer Ryan Marquardt.
But on the other hand, noting your own agency over the course of life can help you avoid the kind of helpless passivity that comes with leaving everything to chance. One way you can tap into that power, astrologically speaking, is by getting to know the placements in your chart and what they say about your character, including your potential strengths and weaknesses. “By understanding your chart, you will then be better able to use your free will to shape your life to your liking,” says Farber. After all, he adds, “astrology is designed to help you become fully yourself.”
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