In other times and other places, urine, saliva and semen might have made a more powerful rallying cry than blood, sweat and tears.
Churchill, to be sure, invoked the proper body fluids to galvanize his people's will -- the blood of sacrifice, the sweat of labor, the tears of bereavement -- but his grand triad, says anthropologist Olivia Vlahos in "Body The Ultimate Symbol," might elsewhere have fallen, in terms of symbolic content, altogether flat. "In the waters of life there lurk meanings powerful and deep," Vlahos writes. "But the meanings are not everywhere the same."
In her "modest Baedeker, a guided tour through body meanings" (which is without maps or pictures), Vlahos documents the differences.
She does it as a kind of exercise in comparative ethnography that goes well beyond believe-it-or-not listings (such as that the Yaghan paint rather than dress for dinner and the Tchikrin bite off eyeleashes in love play). She also does it in a writing style that is quick-paced, clear, breezily confident, and frequently flip.
Anglo-Saxon males are denied the luxury of tears; men in Arab countries may weep buckets in public. Adamandan Islanders weep for every social occasion, merry or sad, using tears as a social glue.
Urine is favored by some tribal peoples for washing wounds and hair and for tanning leather. India's former prime minister Desai, who daily drinks his own urine, once ratteld Dan Rather on "60 Minutes" by commending that regime. When it comes to purgatives, we tolerate a good deal of explicit huckstering, but urine, Vlahos notes, is pretty much banned from the airwaves.
Saliva may seal a curse, or remove one. The Greek peasant hearing a grandchild overpraised turns aside to spit, thus averting the destructive power that lurks in excessive praise.
"Body" begins with body art: the significance since prehistoric times of red, black and white as power colors, the penchant for improving on nature by carving, perforating, realigning. Heads are pointed, feet bound, teeth blackened ("What? White Teeth? Do you want to look like a dog?) masks worn to save face and give face, to confer rank and identify or anonymity.
Vlahos covers as well the body image as transferred to cave wall and rock face. In Ice Age art, animals dominate -- sacred animals, "sentient and consenting," superbly engraved. Human beings appear as shadowy spectators, crudely depicted. By the Middle Sotne Age the drama is rewritten. Day-to-day human life has become worthy of record. A certain "slapdash clumsiness" characterizes the drawings of beasts.
Vlahos takes up the body parts used in measuring. Even the elegant metric system, based on the earth's circumference, she suspects, would never have been devised by human beings with 12 fingers, 12 toes. Time, too, and the body, moon and menses make a cosmic connection. A final section of the book, on body rites, considers the denial and mortification of flesh and the ventures through flesh to fantasy.
Vlahos skims over continents and cultures, stitching together arbitrarily, and without apology, material for her themes. Now a professor at a Connecticut college, formerly a pupil of Joseph Campbell ("The Masks of God: Creative Mythology"), she knows how to distill history and myth from the research of archeologists, linguists and ethnologists. And she knows how to speak with the storyteller's voice.