The History and Significance of Polygamy

Natarielle Powell, Tara DeLecce
  • Author
    Natarielle Powell

    I am a native Georgian with over 10 years experience in writing, publishing, and mentoring. Before becoming a English instructor and content creator, I earned a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and Composition from Spelman College and later a master’s degree in Education with emphasis in Curriculum and Instruction from The University of Phoenix.

  • Instructor
    Tara DeLecce

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

What is polygamy? Understand the definition of polygamy. Learn about the history of polygamy and the types of polygamy. Know about the legal status of polygamy. Updated: 09/28/2021

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What is Polygamy?

Polygamy around the world

polygamy family of husband and wives

Polygamy refers to one person being married to at least two other people at the same time. The marriage ceremony may occur with all the husbands or wives reciting vows at the same time, or one person may marry another person and then shortly after, marry another while still in the first marriage. In some areas, polygamy is referred to as plural marriage (one person being married to two other people at the same time). The husband or wife who marries other people simultaneously is called a polygamist.

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Forms of Polygamy

Polygamy is not just for men.

polyandry

Although most people consider polygamy to be a practice initiated by a man, a woman can also practice polygamy or be a polygamist. This is because the term refers to a person, who could be male or female, being married to two or more other persons at the same time. Thus, there are different types of polygamy.

Polygyny

The practice of one man being married to at least two women simultaneously. The women are called cowives, and they share a husband who bears the financial responsibility of providing for the women and their children. This lifestyle is widely accepted in parts of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Oftentimes the cowives are sisters (sororal polygyny), but in many cases, the cowives are not related at all (nonsororal polygyny).

Polyandry

This refers to one woman married to at least two men at the same time. The woman is usually wealthy and not looking for the men to support her financially. Polyandry is most often a sign of status in many cultures. It allows the men to share marital responsibilities and share fatherhood if they are sterile (unable to impregnate a woman). When the co-husbands are brothers, it is considered fraternal polyandry. When the co-husbands are not related, it is non-fraternal polyandry.

Group Marriage

This interesting concept involves at least three people (male or female) committing themselves to each other to live as a married group caring for each other romantically, physically, emotionally, and financially. The group lives together, shares living expenses, engages in sexual intercourse, raises children, and enjoys other pleasures of life together as a group. Aside from being very rare, this way of life is not legally recognized as a marriage.

History of Polygamy

This practice dates to Bible times when men were permitted to have as many wives as they could support financially (King Solomon had 700 wives according to I Kings 11:3). However, in most communities where polygamy is accepted, the families coexist as one large group, dominated by the man or woman who is the polygamist.

Some polygamous marriages were designed to ensure that the youngest or younger daughters were not married before the eldest daughter. In other cases, it was an accepted practice in areas where one gender grossly outnumbers the other; when tending the land requires greater effort; or when property and ownership in families, needs to be restricted.

Religious Attitude Towards Polygamy

The many religions of the world have differing opinions when it comes to the acceptance and allowance of polygamy.

Christianity

In general, this religion does not allow polygamous marriages. However, the Anglican Church and the Lutheran Church does permit this lifestyle depending on the situation.

Buddhism

Since marriage is not considered as a sacred union among Buddhists, polygamy is accepted in some Buddhist countries.

Islam

Polygamy is accepted and widely practiced by many Muslims (people who practice the Islamic religion).

Hinduism

In special cases, polygamy is allowed, like when a woman is not able to produce a male child after having sexual intercourse with her husband.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are the three types of polygamy?

The three types of polygamy are polygyny (one man married to at least two women at the same time), polyandry (one woman married to at least two men at the same time, and group marriage (at least three people who commit themselves to each other to cohabitate and live as married people). Each form of polygamy is illegal in the United States.

What religions allow polygamy?

Islam and Buddhism fully allow polygamy. Hinduism permits this lifestyle when a woman is unable to produce a male child with her husband. Christianity forbids polygamy, but some sects (namely the Anglican Church and the Lutheran Church) accept this practice. Judaism forbade polygamy since the 11th century, but some Jewish people still practice this way of life.

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