Want to know more about how proverbs work as part of a larger divination system? Read the article here about patakis (sacred stories) and proverbs as systems of knowledge.
Proverbs are used in consultas
All cultures have popular sayings that reveal folk wisdom, but the refranes of Santería are more than that. They are linked to Odu, the sacred patterns that fall on the mat during a consulta, or a reading done through divination with the cowrie shells. These readings carry special meaning for the client, and the patakís (sacred stories) and proverbs associated with each odu help the diviner remember what the most important lessons of the odu are. A good diviner will know as many of the patakís and refranes as possible, because they encapsulate key ideas that the client needs to know in order to live a more prosperous and meaningful life.
In addition to their important religious function in the divination process, the refranes of Cuban Santería are fascinating windows into the history and philosophy of the Lucumí people. They reveal strategies for survival developed by oppressed people in difficult circumstances. They reflect the values of the Afro-Cuban people, such as the need for discretion, the importance of keeping a cool head, and the dangers that go with excessive pride, envy, or arrogance. Most of the refranes have several levels of symbolic or metaphorical meaning that take them way beyond their literal sense. Despite their old-fashioned flavor, they're timeless jewels of wisdom. Anyone can benefit from them, at any time. They can be easily applied to every day life lessons.
(7-6) The dog has four feet, but he only takes one path. El perro tiene cuatro patas y coge un solo camino.
Animals follow their instincts and do what thousands of years of evolution has taught them works best. They don't turn ideas over and over in their heads; they just do what needs to be done. Humans, on the other hand, usually have a lot of projects going on simultaneously and a lot of conflicting demands on their time. The dog's four feet remind us that there are always choices to be made, and everyone has options. If a dog goes in one direction, he might find a bone. If he goes in another direction, he might find a stream where he can get a drink of water. But, if he tries to go in four directions at once, he will go nowhere. This is an important lesson for us to learn about priorities. If we can't get our heart, body, mind and spirit to work together and lead us in one direction, we're going to be stuck at the crossroads, unable to progress.
When this sign appears, it talks about the need to set priorities and do one thing at a time. Don't let yourself be bogged down in indecision, and don't spend too much time turning ideas over and over in your head. There comes a time when you simply need to decide and move forward, in one direction, and have faith that it will work out. Every step in life is a risk. We can never see what's at the end of the path. But, usually if we move forward with confidence, things turn out just fine. In Odí, the ancestors and spirits of the dead are important guiding forces, and sometimes they speak to us through inner dialogue and bursts of intuition. Listen to your inner voice when you have to make a decision, and let yourself be drawn in the direction that feels right to you.
Eni Acho Iya is a practicing Santera, daughter of Ochún. She's also an academic with a PhD in Spanish and Latin American culture.