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Marriage History

Around The World

By Molly Kalafut

Over time, marriage has changed and evolved in interesting ways. There are many types of marriage recognized throughout history and the world today. Marriages across the world tend to share basics. They outline and describe:

bullet Men & Women: Describes their relationships with each other
bullet Children: Legitimacy, responsibility for, inheritance roles
bullet Families: Organizes and describes
bullet Incest: Rules, Taboos
bullet Inheritance: Rules
bullet Social Status: Categorizes people by class, caste, ethnicity, education, religion, etc.

Marriage Types

What Kinds Of Marriage Exist?

Monogamy, polygamy and polyandry are some of the marriage contracts used throughout the world.  The version of marriage allowed in a society traditionally on the geographical location, religious make-up of the society, availability of males and females and economic status of the society.

Monogamy is generally divided into two different types; strict monogamy where a person is allowed only one spouse per lifetime and serial monogamy where people can be married to more than one person - just not at the same time. There are also several specialized types of monogamous marriages that involve cousins; bilateral, matrilateral, patrilateral and parallel cousin marriage.

Polyandry is where a woman can have more than one husband at the same time and is generally divided into fraternal polyandry (where the husbands are brothers) and non-fraternal polyandry (where the husbands are not related).

Polygyny is the practice of a man having multiple wives simultaneously and has been historically the most popular form of marriage. A specialized version is called sororal polygyny where there man's wives are sisters.

Polygynandry is group marriage that involves multiple men married to multiple women simultaneously.

Levirate and sororate are other types of marriage that can be either polygynous or monogamous depending on how many spouses are involved at the time.


Monogamy, while globally accepted, is relatively rare in both animals and people. It is thought that only 1-2% of animal species form monogamous pairings (Angier, 1990). More interestingly, of nearly 850 human societies studied only 16% were monogamous and 83% polygamous (Murdock, 1967).

Strict Monogamy

The only universally recognized form of marriage that is acceptable in all societies is strict monogamy -- marriage between two people. Only 20% of the world’s societies are considered strictly monogamous, in which a person is married once in his or her life (Encarta '95, 1994). This type of system does not allow for a widow or widower to re-marry. The Catholic church is primarily responsible for encouraging strict monogamy.

Serial Monogamy

The United States is not a strictly monogamous society.  Our society has serial monogamy, in which a person may marry more than one person, so long as the person has only one spouse at a time. In most cases people remarry after divorce or the death of a spouse. Serial monogamy is in contrast to strict monogamy where a person is allowed only one spouse per lifetime. Critics of serial monogamy sometimes call divorce "legalized adultery" and refuse to recognize it as a valid reason for remarriage.

First Cousin Marriage

Statistics for societies & first cousin marriage (Murdock, 1967)

Bilateral Cross Cousin Marriage

Bilateral cross cousin marriage occurs when two men marry each other's sisters. This entwines families very closely, and some societies continue it over several generations. An example is the Yanomamo of the Amazon, and is seen in Australia. See this website for diagrams.

Matrilateral Cross Cousin Marriage

Matrilateral cross cousin marriage occurs when a man is expected to marry his mother's brother's daughter. Continued over a number of generations, this eventually forms a circle where everyone is connected to each other. See this website for diagrams.

Patrilateral Cross Cousin Marriage

Patrilateral cross cousin marriage occurs when a man is expected to marry his father's sister's daughter. Continued over a number of generations, this eventually forms a circle where everyone is connected to each other. See this website for diagrams.

Parallel Cousin Marriage

Parallel Cousin Marriage is an interesting form of marriage encouraged in some societies between the children of two brothers. This helps keep inheritance and property concentrated within the family line. It is associated with both Arab and Israeli societies. The Bible specifically describes this situation with Isaac, Jacob and Esau and especially recommends it for men who have only daughters. This type of marriage allows, for example, herds of animals to stay within the family rather than dispersed to other families.


Polyandry in general is described as a woman with multiple husbands at the same time. Different types of polyandry are also described; fraternal polyandry that involves marriage to multiple brothers, and non-fraternal polyandry where the husbands are not related. This practice has been rare throughout history and today generally occurs in harsh climates of India and Asia where there is economic hardship and too few women. Areas that abandon girls at birth are thought to compensate later for the shortage of women with polyandry. While this marriage practice is not widely practiced today, in 2000 an Indian-born city councilor in Sweden made headlines by calling for the legalization of both polyandry and polygyny in Sweden.

One society that practiced polyandry were the Hephtalites (also called Ephtalies or the "White Huns"). Their tribe originally came from northern China and lived in Persia during 400-500AD.

In southern India, the Toda are a pastoral tribe. During the wife's pregnancy, it is decided who the father is. He gives her a toy as a symbolic acceptance of responsibility.

In many countries polyandry is discouraged, illegal and sometimes carries considerable punishment. While Islamic law allows polygyny it forbids polyandry, citing concerns that a child's father would be unknown and cloud the recognition of lineage. In other religions, certain interpretations of the Christian Bible lead some to insist that polyandry is actually adultery and similarly forbid it.

bullet Polyandry is actually outlawed in Tibet, though it continues anyway in some parts
bullet Egyptian women can be punished with 7 years in prison for polyandry
bullet In 1750 in Massachusetts, a woman was sentenced to death for polyandry (but after claiming benefit of clergy she was only punished with being burned in the hand)

While polyandry is rare in human societies, it is slightly more common in fish and bird mating behaviors. But it's not much more common - only 2% of birds species (more waders and shorebirds) exhibit polyandry where the female has multiple mates during a breeding season and the assorted males help raise the offspring. Gulf pipefish are given as an interesting example where as many as four males may carry and raise eggs from one female. Red-necked phalaropes have females that are larger and brighter than the males to compete for mates, which is usually the opposite for birds. The tropical freshwater female jacanas will actually take the territory and males of a dead neighboring female, destroy that female's eggs and force the new males to sit on new clutches for her. For more information, see "Females Seek Multiple Valentines in Some Species", National Geographic News, by James Owen (02/11/2005).

Urfi marriages can cause particular difficulty for women and polyandry. An Urfi marriage is an Islamic marriage contract performed in front of a Muslim cleric by repeating the pledge "We got married" and signing a document in front of 2 witnesses. However, it is not officially recorded, usually kept secret and can be ended easily by destroying the paper. It is frequently used as a loophole around the Muslim ban against premarital sex, or by the poor who cannot afford to get married. Complications arise in the recognition of this marriage. The Egyptian government started recognizing the relationships in 2000 and also recognizes the divorces. Since the marriage is not officially recognized it has no financial binding on the man if he dissolves it, and if a woman seeks divorce she cannot receive alimony or child support.

Fraternal Polyandry

Fraternal polyandry is a type of marriage where a woman is married to a group of brothers. This type of marriage usually occurs in the Himalayan areas of Nepal, Sri Lanka and Tibet. Brothers live in a common area and share a common wife. This arrangement also lets family property stay within the family for generations and distributes work within the family.

Tibet is traditionally the main source of fraternal polyandry, though it was outlawed in 1982 and Chinese officials have tried to stamp the practice out. As on 1994 there were still reports the practice continued, citing a village Tibet where 37 women had 2 husbands and 3 women had 3 husbands. Men from the village quoted on the topic said their arrangements were happy and it made tending livestock easier by keeping the men's work within the family. When children are born into the arrangement, they call the oldest brother "father" and the other brothers "uncle" regardless of who the biological father is. On the other hand, others from the area complained that the practice made it more difficult for some women to find husbands and increased the number of births out of wedlock. For more information see "China Lashes Out at Resurgence of Tibet Polyandry", World Tibet Network News, Jane Macartney, 12/28/1994.

Non-Fraternal Polyandry

Non-fraternal polyandry is a type of marriage where a woman has multiple husbands who aren't related to each other. This is said to exist in India within the Nair people, who allow women to marry men who are on the same or superior social rank.


Polygyny is the type of marriage where a man has more than one wife at the same time. A variety of biological, economic and sociological reasons explain why polygyny has been accepted in 80%+ of cultures around the world. Some say it reflects a basic biological need for numerous sex partners, particularly in cultures where childbirth and childrearing require lengthy abstinence. It may have helped societies with a surplus of women where men were often killed in warfare, though it has also been popular in societies with an even ratio of men and women. Polygyny tends to be accepted in cultures where the head of a large household has more prestige, and may even the distribution of work throughout a family. For moral reason, some say it gives more respect and honor to women and discourages the dishonesty of having a mistress or frequenting prostitutes. Islamic proponents also point out that women can stipulate their husband not take subsequent wives in pre-nuptial contracts.

Despite those cited advantages and worldwide recognition, polygyny has declined in developing countries (including Muslim countries). Low income and difficult economic reasons make the lower classes unable to afford more than one wife. Polygyny in the wealthier Muslim societies may be declining due to influence from the Western culture. It is also acknowledged that many polygynous unions suffer from sexual jealousy.

The Muslim countries of the Middle East, Asia and North Africa can have polygamous marriages where men who are wealthy enough can afford more than one wife. Muslim men are allowed by the Koran to have up to four wives, though many take pains to note that Islam merely "permits" polygyny and does not in fact "promote" it.

Judaism and Christianity have many examples in the Bible of polygamy including most of their major prophets. European Jews are said to have practiced polygyny until the 1500s, and reportedly it wasn't until 1948 that Yemenite rabbis stopped allowing it.

Historically, polygamy also occurred in Native American cultures before the European arrived. In current times, North America's most visible polygyny situations involve the Mormons of Utah and Arizona, with some reported in British Columbia, Canada. While the Church of the Latter-Day Saints insists it does not advocate polygamy, it is thought between 30,000 and 100,000 people live in polygynous situations in these states. Groups have urged a United States constitutional amendment legalizing polygyny, but the government has also gotten more active in prosecuting polygynists, up to and including prison sentences.

Some societies (such as the Zulu) forbid men in their twenties to marry until they finished military service. In that and other societies where men need to save up money for a bride, the men tend to marry later in life. As a result it is common for polygamous societies to become skewed towards older men marrying younger women.

In South Africa, commoners were traditionally restricted to one wife, several for nobles and dozens for the royals. In this society and others where the size of the family gives more power and prestige lead to the acceptance of polygynous arrangements.

Sororal Polygyny

Sororal polygyny is the marriage practice where a man is simultaneously married to one or more of his wife's sisters. The most common form was a man marrying the eldest sister first then eventually marrying her younger sisters. This was practiced by at least 40 North American Indian tribes. Navajos are said to have married 2 or 3 sisters at the same time. Australian aborigines would marry the two oldest girls and their younger sisters would marry his young brothers. It was noted by the Aborigines that the sisters in these arrangements got along better than non-related co-wives. This improved communication and relationship between the sisters is probably a factor in the statistic that 86% of sororal co-wives live close together, compared to only 49% of non-sororal co-wives living close together (Murdock).


Polygynandry - or "group marriage" - is where several men are married to several women at the same time and all members take responsibility for the children. The theory that it was once common in ancient times has been abandoned. It is thought to have been rare and not reported as a dominant form of marriage anywhere. The Caingang of Brazil are said to have practiced this infrequently. Interestingly, it is thought to appear only in areas that practice polyandry, with benefits cited as better economic distribution in times of hardship. In the animal kingdom this has been described for elephants and rheas.

Group Marriage

The Wikipedia online resource also describes more recent instances of group marriage. The Congregationalist minister John Humphrey Noyes founded a group marriage called the Oneida Community in 1848 that lasted until about 1880. In San Francisco, a group marriage called the Kerista Commune lasted between 1971-1991.

Line Marriage

Line marriage is a type of group marriage where spouses are added over time to continue the marriage and presumably ensure more economic and parental stability. This type of marriage is generally associated with the fiction books Robert Heinlein that describe centuries-long line marriages. (Note that this is a fictional scenario...)

Levirate & Sororate


Levirate is a specialized version of polygamy where a man marries the widow of his dead brother. It comes from the Latin word "levir" that means "husband's brother". This practice helped maintain and reinforce family connections and alliances created by marriages.

Levirate was described extensively in the Christian Bible and used mostly by ancient Hebrews. In both Hebrew society children born from the levirate marriage were considered descendants of the first (usually older) brother. This was important for first born son inheritance.

In southern Sudan, their custom is called "ghost marriage". If a man dies without a male heir his widow may be married to his brother. Children from this marriage are considered descendants of the first brother.

The Igbo culture approached levirate from the position that the man's family paid a bride-price for the woman's reproductive, social and economic capacities. Marrying her to someone closely related allows the family to continue to use those capacities.

In current times, some campaign towards ending this type of arrangement. The "World March of Women" of 5,500 women's groups announced in March 2005 that it was crusading against violence towards women in Burkina Faso, including "forced marriage, early marriage, levirate and genital mutilations".


Sororate allows a widower to marry one of his wife's sisters. This still occurs in the world today and is generally used due to the first wife's death or inability to bear children. This has been practiced by the Maricopa Indians of Arizona where they replaced the deceased wife with one of her sisters.

Other Marriage Types


Hypergyny is when a woman is married into a family of higher social status or rank. It tends to be more common or even expected in societies with dowry rituals where the woman's family pays the groom's family. It is often paired with a society's preference for sons.


Hypogyny is when a woman is married to a husband of lower social status, rank or age.


Copyright 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and beyond! By Molly Kalafut