Polygyny: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Tara DeLecce

Tara has taught Psychology and has a master's degree in evolutionary psychology.

Many people have heard of the harem idea in which a powerful ruler had many wives. This is essentially polygyny, and it was historically the most popular mating system. Even today, it is more common than you may think.

Polygyny Defined

Polygyny is officially defined as the practice or condition of a man having more than one wife at a time. Although polygyny is illegal in the United States, it is rather popular in other countries. Historically speaking, it was the most common mating system, and even today, out of 186 cultures, 30.6% are officially recognized as polygynous, while 51.6% are considered polygynous to some degree by including mistresses that are not legally recognized as wives. The following will describe polygynous societies in more detail.

Polygyny Across Time and Cultures

Historically, polygyny has been the most common mating system and has been recorded to occur in most of the world's major civilizations, including most of Asia, the Middle East, the New World and even Western Europe. The most powerful men in these civilizations would have hundreds or even thousands of wives. As only a small percentage of the men in these civilizations had such resources and power to support women, a rather large percentage of the male population would not get to mate at all.

In the Middle Ages, however, monogamous marriages between one woman and one man became socially imposed in Western Europe. This was due to the increasing demand for kingdoms to be able to defend themselves against rival ones, and the powerful rulers were willing to give away their multiple wives to the poorer men in the kingdom in exchange for their cooperation to help defend the kingdom. Other influences impacted the decision to make monogamy the primary mating system, including the influence of the Christian church.

In the modern world, polygyny is still very much alive and thriving. In many parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, polygyny is still legal. There are more restrictions to today's polygynous marriages than in past history. Unlike the days of early civilizations when men had thousands of wives, many societies place a limit on the number of wives allowed. Additionally, some cultures (such as in the Middle East) only allow a man more than one wife if he can prove that he can sufficiently afford to financially support another wife. Still other rules can exist in some cultures; for example, some cultures stipulate that a man can only have a second wife if his first wife is barren.

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