Alternative Forms of Marriage Polygyny Part 1

About the alternative form of marriage known as polygyny, history of the practice and people who have them.

Alternate Forms of Marriage


The Practice: Practiced by sultans with their harems, Brigham Young with his 27 wives, and Ugandan Pres. Idi Amin, polygyny (marriage of one man to more than one woman) has come down through the ages as a practical source of cheap household labor, status for males high in the hierarchy, and homes for women in societies where the only alternative to marriage is prostitution. A polygynous society is generally one in which women don't count for much except as chattels. According to the World Ethnographic Sample (1957), 415 of 554 cultures preferred it to monogamy, but the population of those cultures is small compared to those in which monogamy is preferred.

Most practical in warrior societies that have a shortage of men, polygyny was the norm in a number of American Indian tribes and in primitive groups in Australia, the South Pacific, and Africa.

The ancient Hebrews were both monogamists and polygynists. In fact, it was the levirate law among them that a man should marry his brother's widow, whether he had another wife or not, if the dead man had left no son. The barren Sarah, Abraham's wife, gave him her handmaiden Hagar so he could have a son.

The Greek kings had concubines (concubinage was a kind of polygyny), but the Romans did not allow more than one mate per man. By 1000 A.D., the practice in Europe was largely ended, except among the Frankish and Irish tribes. Later, however, Erasmus, Henry VIII, and Martin Luther approved it under certain extenuating circumstances.

In China and Japan, polygyny lasted longer--in China, up until the 19th century. If a Chinese woman heard a wife was giving her husband a concubine, she said that the wife was "going to eat vinegar."

A Hindu could take a second wife only if the first agreed. Turkish sultans were allowed four wives and as many concubines as they wanted. Since many of the concubines were used as household slaves, not sex partners, the prodigious sexual capacity attributed to the Muslim rulers is exaggerated.

In the U.S., the Mormons were the only large group that practiced polygyny. It all began when, in 1843, the charismatic Joseph Smith received a message from the Lord giving him blanket approval of anything he wanted to do, including taking a second wife. His wife, Emma, responded to this by throwing the written pronouncement in the fire, but the canny Joseph had more copies. When he died, he left behind 49 wives.

Less than 15% of the Mormons practiced polygyny, which they claimed was legal because of constitutional guarantees of religious freedom. They called it "the principle." If wives did not like polygyny, they had two weeks to leave the community in Salt Lake City. Not all put up with that, however. One woman, told by her husband that he had had a "revelation" that he should take another wife, replied that she had had a "revelation," too-- "to shoot any woman who became his plural wife." He decided to stick with monogamy.

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