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Reviewed by:
  • Archeology of Intangible Heritage
  • Maria Teresa Agozzino
Archeology of Intangible Heritage. By Francisco Vaz da Silva. International Folkloristics Series. (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2008. Pp. ix + 191, acknowledgment, introduction, epilogue, works cited, index.)

In Archeology of Intangible Heritage, Francisco Vaz da Silva presents a path-breaking collection of seven essays that confirm his expository skill in deciphering narrative, belief, cosmology, and worldview. In the current climate of UNESCO's call for attention to intangible cultural heritage, the book's title may be misleading, but Vaz da Silva, who is an assistant professor of anthropology and folklore at Instituto superior das ciências do trabalho e da empressa (ISCTE) at the University of Lisbon, explains that, for him, intangible heritage refers to the "conceptual dimension of concrete data" and that he means "archeology" to refer to the time depth and timelessness of that data (p. 2).

Presented in accessible prose, with helpful subtitles, notes, and references, Vaz da Silva's exposition leads us through a labyrinth of data drawn from folklore, ethnography, philology, comparative literature (including works classical, antiquarian, and medieval), and religious art and architecture, which he treats as signifiers of "the conceptual order of things" (p. 2). The essays are divided into three progressive sections—"Physiology," "Metaphysics," and "Transpositions"—and book-ended by a well-signposted introduction and considered epilogue, in which Vaz da Silva frames his examination of "folklore on body and cosmos in order to clarify obscure notions that still hold sway" (p. 168). He deconstructs why, for example, in many cultures it is customary for only women to dress corpses and how such funerary practices embody the belief that it is the task of women to mediate between worlds; this in turn is used to illuminate popular floral metaphors (p. 63). In short, Vaz da Silva sets out to make sense of and make connections between accepted folk assumptions and unchallenged folk models.

In "Sexual Horns," the first of the "Physiology" essays, Vaz da Silva examines the caprine centrality of hitherto-held assumptions regarding the relationship between societal paradigms of honor/shame and beliefs about the circulation of essential bodily fluids, cuckoldry, and the role of the cuckold's wife. The discussion reveals the complex symbolic significance underlying the amorous or "goat triangle." The mechanism underlying derogatory goat symbolism springs from the empirical fact that, as Anton Blok has observed, billy goats share female partners ("Rams and Billy-Goats: A Key to the Mediterranean Code of Honour," Man 16(3):427–40, 1981), a theme typified by Motif K1531, Husband transformed to goat must witness wife's adultery. The transference is further positioned in a cyclic framework (invoking carnival bears and new moons), whereby the conditions of husbands and seasons are bound by the same determinant—their female counterpart (p. 25–6).

Next, the age-old child-cheese analogy described in "Metaphors of Conception" offers an enlightening example of how folk physiology and folk cosmology are brought together in a widespread and practical belief. In this view, a complex transformative cycle of bodily fluids, [End Page 231] body temperature, and sublimation "casts creation and procreation as variants of a ponderous act of formation out of unformed matter" (p. 35) and is based on the gendered symbolic equivalencies of rennet and semen, and of blood and milk (pp. 34–5). Vaz da Silva, however, delves deeper than cheese (and seeds, flour, and bread) in his exploration into beliefs about primal blood that involve menstruation, pig slaughter, and the metaphorical mapping of the local environment, whereby feminine primacy plays out in a landscape of male supremacy (p. 47). He continues the theme of "feminine primacy" with an analogous analysis. Stepping outside his familiar Iberia, Vaz da Silva turns to Melanesia, where men secretly tap "milk" from "female" trees in an attempt to harness the milk's life-promoting qualities (p. 54).

Further exploring the theme of cycles, the "Metaphysics" section adds considerations of birth and death to those of life and death. In "Lunar Births," Vaz da Silva deftly navigates through a multi-layered explanation of folk ideas about blooming flowers, toxic blood, sloughing serpents, new moons, liminal waters, Red Riding Hood, and a parallel...


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