Destiny is one of those subjects of interest in quests for the meanings of reality, human life, and the world at large. The term destiny can mean a predetermined occurrence of happenings, a future that is inevitable and unavoidable or not maneuverable, or an event fixed to take place at a particular point in time. It is also associated with a fate with which one is set up as one’s lot. Destiny is a pattern of an occurrence of events that are out of the reach or control and in the hand of an external power. This notion of destiny thus entails a belief that there is an order that exerts agency over the happenings of events in the lives of human beings and the universe as a whole.
Among the various cultures, religions, and societies around the world can be found different notions and interpretations of destiny. The philosopher Messay Kebede, for example, in his book Survival and Modernization, formulates the central place of the notion of destiny in Ethiopian culture. According to him, destiny is referred to as idil—an Amharic term close to the meaning of chance, fate, or fortune. According to Kebede, the notion of destiny is embedded within the conception of time in Ethiopian philosophy.
For Ethiopians, according to Kebede, time is the doing and undoing of things, the ups and downs of life. Time is the good and the bad that may happen to someone or a particular group. Time is associated with fortunes and downfalls or failures. Thus people are said to have a favorable period of time when they attain power and access to authority and wealth and enjoy a good state of affairs of life in its various aspects. In all aspects of life, destiny is associated with the notion of time that success is viewed as a measure of the position of time being on one’s side, whereas failure or loss is an indication of time being unfavorable, thus against. This can be in trade, war, a day in court, an accident, joy, sorrow, crop yield on a farm, or assuming or losing political position. Inherent in the notion of time, in Ethiopian culture, is the idea of promotion and downfall— time as the advent of destiny. Those who are bestowed with time in their favor are strong and unconquerable, whereas those who are disfavored by time are destitute and helpless.
Social orders and political systems and practices are all manifestations and reflections of time. It is time that gives power to those who are in a leadership position, and it is also time that causes others to be ruled and assume a lower position in the social hierarchy. From this perspective, Kebede argues, the Ethiopian conception of time is different from the Western notion. For Ethiopians, events are time or outcomes of time phenomena. Thus events and time are linked, and time is destiny. Time is the happening of events in a cyclical fashion—the ups and downs, not a linear progression from the past through the present into the future.
Claude Sumner, who studied Ethiopian cultures extensively and over many decades, outlines the notion of time in the Ethiopian culture. In his analysis of the Book of the Philosophers, a document considered to be an embodiment of Ethiopian philosophy, Sumner elucidates the various meanings of time. As a linear continuum, time is exemplified by what has happened that never comes back, like a spear that moves forward to its target. Accordingly, time is not cyclical; it is irreversible. This, Sumner presents, is a historical notion of the linearity of time, which has a past, a present, and an unknown future. Whatever happens never comes back, and life as events of time follows the same pattern. There is time for everything, and a wise person is one who knows the right time for the right actions. On the other hand, Sumner outlines the concept of time in association with the eternal, transcendental, and infinite notion of God in terms of creation—Creator versus creation. In this line of thought, human beings’ choice in life leads to eternity, whereas the choice of falsehood results in death. Viewed this way, time is life and death, forms of the expression of destiny.
In conclusion, among other interpretations, destiny is understood as the series of events and happenings of life in the unfolding of time phenomena. In cultures such as that of Ethiopia, destiny is tied to time as the good and the bad of life. Be it cyclical or linear, time can favor or disfavor with consequences—fortunes and downfall.
Belete K. Mebratu
See also Becoming and Being; End-Time, Beliefs in; Eternity; Futurology; God as Creator; Predestination; Predeterminism; Teleology; Time, End of
Kebede, M. (1999). Survival and modernization— Ethiopia’s enigmatic present: A philosophical discourse. Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press.
Levine, D. (1972). Wax and gold. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sumner, C. (1974). Ethiopian philosophy: The book of the wise philosophers (Vol. 1). Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: Central Printing Press.