Gestures, signs and expressions of love

The forms love takes and the ways in which it is expressed and/or perceived by the interpreter/observer are at the centre of this second subtheme. Here we shall seek to focus primarily on the discussion and examination of those documentary sources (materials; figurative decorations; and oral, performed and written documentary evidence) that are most easily misunderstood or distorted – as can occur, for instance, as an effect of the ideological filters and symbolic codes inherent in artistic and/or ritual performances. Prominent among the latter are, in particular, all of the material objects and physical actions associated with funeral customs, the interpretation of which is especially relevant if we are to achieve a credible reconstruction of the social dimension of communities of the past. A correct identification of the actions or objects that were intended to express – in a variety of ways – sentiments such as hate, love or compassion can, indeed, be crucial to forming an accurate picture of their context as a whole. This is because they are the elements that create the differentiation between, for instance, a formal burial, a ritual sacrifice or an act of intentional violence. Two-person simultaneous burials, often assembled (or re-assembled) in the aesthetic appearance of an embrace – a relatively frequent occurrence – demonstrate just such a situation. Such arrangements have been simplistically interpreted as the projection into the afterlife of a bond of love, not dissimilar to the sentiment sanctified in literature by Dante (Paolo and Francesca) or Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet). However, a more reasoned analysis of the taphonomic dynamics of these burials reveals a much more controversial circumstance, in which love becomes a mere act of possession, and an individual – perhaps consentingly, perhaps not (depending on the system of values or beliefs of a given society) – is equated to an item of material property and thus included in a burial by means of a ritual sacrifice.
Hence, in cases such as these, the very concept of love, in all of its potential physical, symbolic or expressive manifestations, requires prior contextualisation. We may thus shed a light on its actual nature, making it possible to diminish the influence and effect of cultural models that could alter our perceptions of reality. We must take as our basis the awareness that love does not exist as an absolute unto itself, nor does it conform to the supposed ideas of it that we possess. It can take various forms based on the broader cultural, historical and environmental context we happen to be observing, within which systems of values, codes and relationships may be laid out according to very different coordinates from those that we are accustomed to surmising exist – with direct consequences on the actions and representations related to them which we are able to gather and document. This situation is compounded by the fact that the way a “sentiment” is expressed often falls outside of the behavioural codes that govern other actions which are – at least to some degree – mechanical, such as those related to bodily or functional needs. It is therefore difficult to circumscribe such expressions within the bounds of predetermined criteria. They remain, instead, closely tied to the circumstances and to the emotional and psychological state – whether conscious or subconscious – of the individuals who are experiencing them and who feel, in one way or another, the need to express them. The exception is, naturally, those situations where the foundations of love lie in the sphere of religion. As a consequence, “performances of ritual/love” are subject to regulations of varying strictness, characterised, as theorised by J. Tambiah, “by formality (conventionality), stereotype (rigidity), condensation (fusion), and redundancy (repetition)” [2], with all the associated symbolic and physical materials that devotional practices of this sort may involve.

[2]. Tambiah, 1995, pp. 130-131.