A recent review of Ocha'ni Lele's excellent Teachings of the Santeria Gods got me thinking about the usage of story, parable and metaphor in dealing with the Divine. Ocha'ni has done a fantastic job of bringing the patakis to a wider audience. He's also done a great service to diviners by providing an inside look at the cowries. I'm wondering if he (and others) might want to comment on my theories on their linguistical and cultural value within Lukumi culture. (The usual caveats included: while I have a nodding acquaintance with Lukumi and decades of experience as a diviner, I'm not an initiate in any Orisha tradition).
To me, the patakis are stories which hint at the meanings behind each of the odus. They provide structure to the divinatory system by providing direct examples of the odu's influence in any given situation. Yet at the same time they are flexible enough to apply to a variety of situations and possible outcomes. Querents can play multiple roles within these stories: their part can be tied to the hero, the villain or the intercessors. Other elements within the client's life - potential lovers, business partners, allies and obstacles - can be called into service within this drama.
Problems and solutions will be found within different patakis. The story which tells the querent's weakness may be met by a story which gives him a role of power, or at least a potential escape. Proscriptions and warnings may be given literally or metaphorically, as the situation demands. One may find relief or may learn that a doom has been foreordained, one which cannot be avoided but can only be endured. In any case, the querent's life is tied to eternal patterns and to unending stories: they simultaneously interpret and become the myth.
Patakis allow for considerable leeway in individual interpretation: a pataki's details may vary between practitioners and houses. But the stories as they are heard are preserved with great care: one learns them from elders and protects them from outsiders. Their details are preserved along with the numerous intricate rituals that determine whether an odu falls for good or ill and what offerings one should make to propitiate the corresponding spirit. These constraints may force the diviner and querent to face hard truths. There is less room to whitewash a bad omen, less space to avoid discussing the failings which led up to the current situation. Its rigidity leaves less room for weasel words and equivocation.
(I'm reminded of the similarly-complex horary astrology which played such an important role in Renaissance magic. They had equally rigid rules and gave very detailed, if frequently harsh, predictions. Today this sort of reading has fallen out of favor: it's considered best to accentuate the positive aspects of a reading and downplay that which is fated to happen. While I can appreciate the value of encouraging querents to keep a positive attitude, I also wonder if we haven't sacrificed something in the way of accuracy and honesty).
The cowries show the future for good and for ill. Querents may learn that they must undergo expensive and arduous initiation ceremonies: they may be hit with taboos and restrictions, chided on their bad behavior and told that misfortune and even death lie ahead for them. The patakis offer ways in which victory and defeat may be met with grace and dignity. The meaning may or may not provide querents with some way of escaping suffering: it will certainly provide some sense of meaning to their pain.