The five Pandava princes, heroes of the Indian epic Mahabharata, with their shared wife-in-common Draupadi
The custom of taking multiple wives, or polygyny, is well known. The opposite custom, the taking of two or more husbands or polyandry, is rather less well known, and is becoming a very rare practice indeed in the modern world...
The word polyandry comes from the Greek, Poly (many) and Andros (man) and literally means the practice of one woman taking two or more husbands. The custom evolved in human cultures where resources, particularly land and food, were scarce, and/or where women were allowed to own property or ancestral titles of rank. In some parts of the world it occurred in areas where women themselves were scarce, for example in cultures where female infanticide was routinely carried out, or where females were less likely to survive to adulthood. Polyandry allowed men to pool their resources and live comfortable lives that might otherwise be denied to them and their children. And in these relationships, the women often enjoyed a very high status.
Polyandry was practiced at the dawning of human civilisation and across the world: throughout the Indian subcontinent, in areas such as the Canadian Arctic and in parts of Africa, China and the Americas. We know that in some ancient Celtic societies, women were allowed to own property and therefore marry more than one husband, because Julius Caesar complained about it along with several other Britton customs. Around 2300 BCE the Sumerian king Urukagina of Lagash abolished the custom of polyandry entirely in Mesopotamia. Polyandry was also prohibited successively by the monotheist faiths Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In today’s world, a recent survey of tribal societies indicates that 83.39% of them practice polygyny, 16.14% practice monogamy, and only 0.47% practice polyandry. And in almost all cases, the polyandry practiced is fraternal, where a group of brothers share a wife. Fraternal polyandry was also believed to be the norm historically. Nonfraternal polyandry, where a group of unrelated men share a wife, is virtually nonexistent because of its inherent instability: a group of unrelated men would be far less willing to share the parenting of a completely unrelated child, no matter the immediate benefits.
In pockets of India, Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet the custom of polyandry continued until relatively recently, particularly amongst the many minority peoples of the region. While the custom has now been banned in Tibet by Chinese authorities, in India the practice seems to be dying a natural death. Increasing resources and opportunities allow men to leave resource-poor areas and find jobs and wives elsewhere. And all of this has happened in the space of a single generation. As one Malang Indian local, the son of a polyandrous marriage, put it in an interview to the New York Times in 2010 “That system had utility for a time. But in the present context it has outlived its usefulness. The world has changed”.
From Polyandry In Tibet - A Country Where Women Have Several Husbands Apiece. - Financial Considerations Rule All Matrimonial Questions in the Land of the Lama, But Jealousy It Not Popular. Syndicated, The Piqua Daily Call (Oh.), Apr. 6, 1892, p. 4
References and Further Reading
Kinship and Marriage. Linda Stone, 1997. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
One Bride for 2 Brothers: A Custom Fades in India. The New York Times, July 16 2010
Polyandry, or the practice of taking multiple husbands. 2012 Esther Inglis-Arkell.
Polyandry. Brian Schwimmer, 2003.
Polyandry. Wikipedia. Accessed 17 th July 2012
Why are There Virtually No Polyandrous Societies? by Satoshi Kanazawa, 2008, The Scientific Fundamentalist, Psychology Today.
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