(6-6) The person who knows doesn't die like the person who doesn't know. El que sabe no muere como el que no sabe. Not all knowledge comes from books.
In order to understand this proverb, we have to understand that for the Lucumí life and death are two halves of a single whole. We can't talk about how you die without first talking about how you live. Here, knowledge is not only the accumulation of information and skills that comes from formal instruction and training. There are many ways to gain knowledge, especially when we think of knowledge as a broad and deep understanding of how the world works and the place of human beings in it. People who sit quietly and observe, who reflect and generate ideas based on observation and experience, who pay attention to what's happening around them and interpret correctly what they see are people who "know" in the most profoundest sense of the word. They understand why they and others do what they do, they know if it's right or wrong, and they can foresee the consequences of their actions and choices. No one can know the future, but people who "know" themselves and the world around them have a pretty good idea of what the possibilities are, and they're prepared to deal with them as they develop. Are you listening to what your elders teach you?
Because they know, they can't use ignorance as an excuse for making the wrong choices or doing the wrong thing. They're conscious of their actions and motives, and they can't pretend otherwise. They have a responsibility to live correctly, because they know the difference between right and wrong. For example, if they steal money from the place they work, they know it's wrong to steal, and they know what the likely outcome will be. When they're caught, they can't say they didn't "know" what they were doing. They did know and, still, they made a bad choice. This reflects a lack of good character and shows a behavioral flaw, and they lose people's respect because of their foolish choices. What do you know about the road ahead?
Those who know also have a responsibility to share knowledge with those who don't know. Children are the ones we're most responsible for teaching, but there are many adults who never developed the kind of awareness or consciousness that makes them thinking beings. They go through life in a fog, never putting their thoughts together in a coherent way to make sense out of things. It's not a lack of intelligence but, rather, a lack of concentration and self-discipline that makes them ignorant. They don't learn from past mistakes, they don't take responsibility for their actions, they don't see the consequences of their behavior. They repeat the same error and never understand why it's wrong. Often, these are the people who are the quickest to say "I know" when they don't know. They don't want to listen, they don't want to learn, they're convinced that they "know" and they dismiss people who could teach them something. Their egos won't allow them to be humble and admit they might not know everything, or that someone else might know more than they do. Their automatic defense when anyone challenges their thinking is to say "I know" and, in that way, they avoid an opportunity for learning. Usually, they aren't aware of what they're doing, and don't understand why they're having problems. They don't "know" what they need to know, and therefore, they can't live in a way that's really meaningful.
A person who knows will die in a way that's different from the person who doesn't know. Why? Because the person who knows, who has gone through life with heightened awareness and understanding of the world and the people in it, has made sense of his life. His life has had meaning, and his death is the natural conclusion to it, a fulfillment of the destiny he chose for himself in Arun (heaven) before he was born. He can't avoid death, but he needn't fear it or dread it. It becomes part of a natural whole for him. Death comes at the time and in the way it's supposed to come; it will be the final fulfillment of his destiny. The person who doesn't know, who doesn't understand life or his role on earth, will feel nothing but confusion when faced with death. If his life has been meaningless, so will his death be.
This refran talks not only about the importance of knowing, or being aware, but also about the importance of being open to knowledge and wisdom others want to share with you. It talks about the responsibility of sharing what you know, and the responsibility of living in accordance with your beliefs, knowledge and experience. In other words, it requires you to be aware and let that awareness guide you through life, so you can walk on the right path and reach your final destiny at the time and place it awaits you.
4-9 Nothing bad happens without something good coming out of it. No hay mal que por bien no venga. What lies beyond the horizon?
This proverb is well known in the Spanish-speaking world and isn't linked only to the Lucumí religion in Cuba. It probably has its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition of medieval Spain, but it expresses an idea that is typical of the Lucumí worldview. Irosun (4) talks about the inability to see what's in front of our eyes and the complex nature of human perception. The way we interpret what we're seeing depends on what we're thinking and feeling at any given moment in time, on our life experience, our mindset, our belief system. At a later date, especially with the benefit of hindsight, we might see the same thing in a different light and understand it in a new way. Irosun reminds us that we can't see what lies beyond the horizon, or what has not come into being yet. We can only imagine it in our mind's eye, and we might be wrong, so we have to keep our eyes open and be prepared to rethink our vision of things if the need arises. Nature blows away the old to make room for the new.
Osa (9) speaks about change and transformation that comes into our life like a storm, clearing away all the things that once existed and creating a space for something new. Most humans don't like sudden change, especially when it involves things totally out of our control. When we're in the middle of a hurricane, we can't tell what's coming or going, what's up or down. The force of change is overwhelming and often scary because it erases the familiar and substitutes it with the unknown. New roads open before us.
Life goes in cycles and brings us both good and bad things. We get hit with moments of loss, hardship, crisis, upheaval, and when we're in the middle of those things, it's hard to believe that anything good can come of it. Of course it's overly simplistic to tell someone who's just lost his job that "something good will come of it." For the person who's worried about how to pay the bills, or unsure when a new job might appear, or for the person who genuinely liked the old job and wanted to keep it, it's upsetting to experience this kind of loss. Yet, very often a new job comes along that's better, or the person is prompted to change careers and do something more interesting or perhaps even move to a new location and meet new people, starting a whole new life elsewhere. The end of something opens a space for the beginning of something else. It's just a matter of shifting your perspective, to see the good when only the bad is staring you in the face.
Some hardships are especially difficult to bear, and they can linger much longer than we want them to. The world is full of tragedy, sickness, loss, and death, and some of these events are devastating. But, the people who live through them usually acquire great emotional, spiritual, even physical strength. They discover they're capable of bearing the pain, dealing with the difficult issues, surviving the loss, and they're still glad to be alive, despite the pain they suffered. They go on to construct new lives. They didn't want anything bad to happen, but they had to live through it because there was no other option. Coming out the other side allows people to shift their perspective, to find something new that inspires or uplifts them so they can anticipate a future that's brighter and gradually put the past behind them.
Lucumí tradition teaches us that good and bad are connected; if we weren't aware of the existence of one, we wouldn't be able to perceive the other. The contrast between the two is what gives both meaning. The good isn't necessarily born from the bad, but passing through the bad first makes us appreciate and value the good that comes later. Sometimes old words of wisdom are more than a cliché. They speak universal truths about the nature of human life.
Talking about what you plan to do is easier than doing it.
(2-6) La conversación que no produce la acción es como el silencio. Talk that doesn't produce action is the same as silence.
The meaning of this proverb is clear at first glance: unless words are followed by action, they have no meaning. In fact, it's the relationship between the word and the thing it represents or symbolizes that allows us to communicate through language. If someone says they will take out the garbage, the words have meaning only if there's a connection between them and the bag of garbage ending up in the trash bin outside. If the action isn't connected to the words, the words are empty of meaning. When we give our word to someone, it's a promise to take action. The failure to follow through causes the listener to feel disappointment and, eventually, lose belief in the speaker. And the speaker feels a sense of guilt, perhaps even low self esteem, because his word has become meaningless to other people.
Doing the work is hard
Obara (6) always reminds us of the importance of our word and cautions us to use words wisely. People under the influence of Obara are sometimes big talkers, full of plans, full of self-congratulations and self-praise for all the wonderful things they've done and plan to do, and they exude enthusiasm through their dramatic and colorful way of speaking. They have the gift of gab, and can easily convince other people that they're going to accomplish miracles. However, their attention can be short lived and they sometimes have trouble following through on the tedious day to day planning and hard work it takes to carry out projects. It's more fun to talk about what we're going to do instead of settling down to do it. Over time, this tendency to leave everything up in the air and not follow through with promises causes others to dismiss our words as empty talk, and they no longer listen to us when we talk about what we're going to do next. We may as well be silent for all the effect our words have.
Do you follow through on your word?
The influence of Eyioko (2) suggests that this problem of empty talk might be particularly significant in terms of family relations. When the compound Odu 2-6 comes up in a reading for a client, it suggests that that client is having conflicts with someone in the family, perhaps brothers and sisters, or with very close friends who are like family to him. It can also extend in some cases to problems in a marriage, or between children and parents. Someone in the family is doing a lot of talking, but not following through with the promised action. This has contributed to a stressful situation in the household, and probably to a lack of respect. Empty talk is frustrating to the listener(s) and detrimental to the self-esteem of the speaker. The client needs to identify who in the family is talking but not taking action; then, he needs to take steps to correct that situation. If he's not taking the action that's expected of him, he needs to figure out why. Why is he making promises or plans that he has no intention of doing? Is he trying to impress other people, or fool himself into thinking he's more productive and creative than he really is? Is he taking on too much and can't do what he talks about because he's overwhelmed and unfocused? Maybe he needs to plant his feet more firmly on the ground and be more realistic about setting goals and making plans. Or, maybe he needs to be quiet and focus on getting something accomplished before he talks about it. If the client identifies another person in the family as the guilty party, he needs to figure out why he's letting that situation frustrate him so much, and how he feels about the person who's always talking hot air. Perhaps a serious conversation is in order or, in the worst case scenario, if the situation can't be fixed, the client can think about breaking off the relationship. Families are complex and tensions are inevitable between family members sometimes, but if individuals want respect, they have to make their word mean something. If you're not willing to take action, don't talk about it as if you were. Silence is more honest. It doesn't lead to broken promises and disappointment.
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.
Who's in charge?
1-1 When the king dies, there's a prince waiting to be crowned. Rey muerto, príncipe coronado.
Proverbs express literal truths, but also have symbolic meaning. This one talks clearly about transitory power and reminds us that we're mortal. No matter how important we think we are, one day we won't be around anymore, and someone else will take our place. There's always someone - a student, a junior colleague, an assistant, an apprentice, an understudy, a son or daughter - who's going to step in and replace us. They don't necessarily wish us harm - maybe they even love us - but, they know there's going to be a day when we're not around anymore, and they're going to occupy the vacant spot we leave behind. That's the nature of life.
Ocana (1) is an odu
(sign) that talks about birth and death, or beginnings and ends, as part of a natural cycle. This proverb, in particular, reminds us not to take ourselves so seriously. In what area of our life are we thinking of ourselves as the king or queen? Work? Home? In a relationship? Do we act like we can't be replaced? Do we think we need to devote ourselves heart and soul to some enterprise because it won't succeed without us? When this odu
comes up in a reading, the client needs to sit back and take a good look at his attitudes and behavior. In all likelihood, he feels irreplaceable in some way, and he's obsessed with whatever it is that makes him feel so important. He might be a workaholic who neglects his family and homelife because he thinks his business would fall apart without him. He might be a controlling parent who's alienating his children because he won't allow them to make a move without his permission. When Ocana comes with osorbo
(misfortune), the client can be seriously out of balance. He can be extremely stubborn, willful, and short tempered. He feels he has to be right all the time, and he can't stand to be corrected. He truly believes he knows better than everyone else; this makes him difficult to live with and, eventually, it drives people away.
Power doesn't last forever
This proverb tells the client to lighten up. No matter how important or powerful we think we are, the world won't end when we're not here anymore. Everything will go on without us, and someone else will fill our shoes. In the meantime, life is short, so why not enjoy it? Why should we exhaust ourselves working all the time? Why should we make ourselves sick worrying about things we can't control? What's the worst that would happen if we give up some of our control and walk away from things once in a while? We don't have to go to extremes and give up everything that matters to us, but we should examine our lives carefully to know what's truly important, and where our priorities lie. We need to be sure we're living a life we enjoy. Kings carry a lot of responsibility on their shoulders, and they make a lot of personal sacrifices for the good of the kingdom. Perhaps the king's subjects appreciate his sacrifices, and perhaps they don't. Perhaps they admire and respect him, and perhaps they don't. The only thing that's certain is that one day the king will die and a new king will be crowned. People will bow down to the new king, and the cycle will repeat itself with another prince on the sidelines waiting to be crowned.
Are you always starting fires?
(11-3) The flame of disagreement doesn't care who ignited it. La llama de la discordia no respeta la mano que la prendió.
Ojuani (11) is an odu
that talks about a lack of gratitude. Combined with Ogundá (3), it indicates a conflictive personality. Some people have the idea that the world owes them something, and the favors that are done for them are simply their due. Time after time, they accept favors without saying thank you, or even acknowledging that another person went out of their way to help them. Good fortune comes along and act like it's the natural order of things. They can't imagine bad luck, or a person who doesn't want to help them, because they think the world revolves around them, and they deserve to have the best of everything. This kind of person is bound to experience conflict with other people sooner or later, because no one can keep taking and taking without giving something back. Misunderstandings arise about what someone owes someone else, what ought to have been done and wasn't, what is fair or unfair, what the obligations of one person are to another. This proverb warns about the dangers of creating discord in your life, because even when your complaints and criticisms are aimed at another person, they will always reflect back on you. Every time you make an unreasonable demand or use words to hurt another person, you're lighting the flame of discord in your life. Discord spreads like a wildfire, and eventually destroys everything in its path.
There's really no such thing as a one-sided argument. Once the demand, complaint, criticism, insult, or accusation is out of your mouth and hurled at another person, the other person has to react in some way. Even if the other person walks away and refuses to engage in an argument, a conflict now exists where there wasn't one before. Tensions remain, the relationship is damaged. Occasional flare ups are normal, but this proverb asks you to reflect on how often you go through life stirring up discord? When you perceive that someone is letting you down, or not meeting the demands you've created, do you lash out? When someone does something to help you, do you show genuine gratitude? Do you take too much for granted? Not showing gratitude eventually causes other people to feel used and abused. Failure to acknowledge what they've done for you is another way to create discord in your life, because it sets up a dynamic that leads to unfulfilled expectations, resentment, and anger. Silence when a kind word is needed can be just as bad as an insult spoken aloud.
Do you find yourself in situations where everyone is mad at you and you don't know why? Is your hand is the one setting fire to the situation, perhaps unintentionally, but still with negative consequences for you? Sometimes more than a cursory thank you is needed. Genuine gratitude requires you to see that you aren't owed any special favors, and when good things come your way, they come through acts of kindness and mercy that could have, under other circumstances, been withheld. Reflect on all you have and recognize that it could all be taken away. Nothing in life is guaranteed. Feel gratitude for what you've been given, and respond to the world around you with a little more humility. Stop saying "I want" and "I deserve," and think more about what you have that you can give back to others.
Parents bless children.
(9-5) Parents don't ask their children to bless them. Los padres no piden bendición a los hijos.
Many people who were raised in a Latino household know the custom of children asking parents to bless them before the leave the house or go to bed at night. This relates to the idea that parents are in a position to protect their children, and the parents have some kind of authority over their spiritual well-being. Naturally, it's understood that God is the one who ultimately protects us and sends blessings, but the parent can ask for God's attention on behalf of the children. In Santería, the same relationship of protection and trust exists between godparents and godchildren. The godchild asks for the blessing of his godparents as a way of expressing faith in the religion and acknowledging the godparents' role as spiritual guides. The blessing can take the simple form of words exchanged, or include physical gestures such as an embrace or a "lifting from the floor" when godchildren prostrate themselves before their godparents in the foribale
, the most formal kind of salutation between initiated priests/ priestesses. To be blessed, embraced or lifted from the floor is a way for the godparents to pass on some of their aché
to their godchildren. It shows at once a reverence for religious elders, and a desire on the part of elders to protect and strengthen the spiritual development of those who are younger.
Foribale is a sign of respect
Like most proverbs, this one goes well beyond its literal meaning. It reminds us that the parent-child relationship comes with clearly defined roles for each person to play. Whether we are talking literally about children, or about people who have less experience, less knowledge, less spiritual evolution than others, it's important that the parents (or the persons with more experience) occupy the position of authority in the relationship. This isn't to say that parents should be dictators and micro-manage every aspects of their child's life. Or that parents should fail to listen when a child expresses an opinion or voices a concern. It means that the person with more experience and more senority needs to assume the responsibility of protecting, instructing, guiding, helping the younger, less experienced person. The relationship is better for both parent and child when each one knows his or her place, because there's no confusion about who is who in relationship to each other. When the roles get reversed, or it's not clear who's in the position of elder, the world seems upside down and chaotic. This proverb reminds us to be realistic in our expectations, and not look to others who are less prepared, less qualified or less sure of themselves to take care of us. It also cautions us that we need to step up and take responsibility, and not look to others to fix our problems for us. Whether we're talking about a family situation, a work situation, or a religious relationship with elders, we need to remember what our role is and occupy it to the best of our ability.
Osá (9) is a sign that talks about betrayal and bad feelings between people who were once close to each other. This proverb suggests that problems can be avoided by remembering the natural order of things and respecting the way the world works. It's natural that bad feelings develop when people have expectations of each other that aren't met. But, you have to ask yourself, are you meeting the realistic expectations others have of you? Is what you expect from them realistic and within their possibilities? Sometimes the children of Osá like to pretend they don't understand or don't know how to do something as a way of getting other people to do the work for them. This proverb reminds you that there are some things that are in your realm of responsibility and you shouldn't try to avoid them. Do what corresponds to your position in life, and don't look to others to assume your duties or carry out your role.
Many cultures believe in the evil eye
(1-4) Some people will take out their own eye to see someone else go blind. Hay quien se saca un ojo para ver a otro ciego.
This proverb offers a powerful visual image of a vengeful and self-destructive person. It reminds us that when we want to see another person suffer, we often end up hurting outselves in the process. How much are we willing to sacrifice and suffer to see our enemy fall? Have we lost perspective? What are we doing to ourselves when we spend our time and energy trying to harm someone else? Clearly, relationships between human beings can't always be peaceful, but Ocana reminds us to keep our anger and aggression in check. Otherwise, we'll pay a price for our actions.
In iré (good fortune), Ocana talks about a person with great leadership abilities, a hard working person with good planning skills and a talent for analysis and organization. But, when this individual falls into osorbo (bad fortune), he becomes vindictive. He would rather destroy everything he's created with his own hands instead of let someone else enjoy it. He has a hard time admitting he's wrong, and he'll fight to the bitter end to have his own way. When crossed, he becomes a fierce enemy and won't rest until he sees his enemies brought down. His bad temper and hot head can cause serious health problems, especially if he becomes so obsessed with an issue that he can't let it go. He doesn't like other people to know he's suffering, so he hides his own pain, letting it fester until it erupts in violent ways. The result of so much bad feeling directed toward another person is what many cultures call "the evil eye," an intense desire to see someone else fail.
Our behavior defines us in the eyes of others
Ocana (1) combined with Iroso (4) calls attention to the eyes. It's important that we see what's going on around us, that we pay attention to what's in front of our eyes, and that we know how to interpret it correctly. Things aren't always what they appear to be on the surface; they call for deeper analysis. We need to use the sharp intelligence of Ocana to investigate and think through the meaning of what we're seeing. It's also important to pay attention to the image that other people have of us. People watch us to see what we do and how we react in difficult situations. Our reputation depends on keeping a cool head and acting with a certain amount of decorum in public settings. If we have conflicts with people at work, in the family, or among our friends, the loss of emotional control in front of other people will cause them to think badly of us, even when we're in the right. We don't have to physically assault someone to show the world we're acting like a bully. Any time we try to strip another person of their dignity, lower the opinion other people have of them, take something away from them, or cause them to suffer by our words or actions, it reflects back on us. People don't like bullies. We might tear out the eye of an enemy and leave him half-blind but, in the process, we've seriously damaged the image others have of us through our violent and rash behavior.
Ocana teaches us that the sweetness of life wouldn't have any meaning without some bitterness. It's not reasonable to think that we can go through life without having some conflicts. But, sometimes it's better to walk away from the conflict and not give it further thought rather than to let it bog us down. If others have wronged us, what do we gain by dragging out the conflict with an endless war? Each act of hostility and aggression produces a similar response, until eventually we're spending more time plotting against our enemy than we spend taking care of ourselves or showing affection toward people we love. This proverbs reminds us that we should put our own well-being first, and not sacrifice our peace of mind just to see other people get the payback they deserve. At the end of the day, it's simply not worth it.