On the Bones of the Serpent

Person, Memory, and Mortality in Sabarl Island Society

Debbora Battaglia

On the Bones of the Serpent
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Debbora Battaglia

248 pages | 16 halftones, 4 maps, 10 line drawings | © 1990
Paper $32.00 ISBN: 9780226038896 Published March 1990
Sabarl island—created, in myth, from the bones of a serpent—is a coral atoll in the Louisiade archipelago of Papua New Guinea. The Sabarl speak of themselves as true "islanders": persons separated from the means of both physical and social survival. The Sabarl struggle for continuity—of the physical and social person and of social relations, of cultureal values, of paternal influence in a matrilineal society—is the subject of Debbora Battaglia's sensitive ethnography of loss and reconstruction: the first major work on cultural responses to mortality in the southern Massim culture area and an important contribution to studies of personhood in Melanesia.

The creative focus of Sabarl cultural life is a series of mortuary feasts and rituals known as segaiya. In assembling and disassembling commemorative food and objects in segaiya exchanges, Sabarl also assemble and disassemble the critical social relations such objects stand for. These commemorative acts create a collective memory yet also a collective experience of forgetting social bonds that are of no future use to the living. Sabarl anticipate this disaggregation in patterns of everyday life, which reveal the importance of categorical distinctions mapped in beliefs about the physical and metaphysical person.

Using remembrance and forgetting as an analytic lens, Battaglia is able to ask questions critical to understanding Melanesian social process. One of the "new ethnographies" addressing the limits of ethnographic representation and the fragmented nature of knowledge from an indigenous perspective, her finely wrought study explores the dynamics of cultural practices in which decontruction is integral to construction, allowing a new perspective on the ephermeral nature of sociality in Melanesia and new insight into the efficacy of cultural images more generally.
I. The Person: Basic Distinctions
1. The Physical Person
2. The Metaphysical Person
II. Relational Personhood
3. Giving and Indebtedness
4. Gardens and Sago Groves
5. Support
6. Mobility
7. Fame and Diminishment
III. The Person Performed
8. Segaiya
9. On a Concluding Note
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