Tying the knot


I had started writing this before the Daily Mail/Tom Daley controversy arose. I hope it contributes a little in opening eyes to the diversity of domestic arrangements that humans can have, and the common-sense realisation that must flow from that: that it is not possible that all the children of these differing forms of family are psychologically disturbed, and that it may be love and care which really makes the difference in producing healthy relationships and healthy children. Congratulations Tom and Dustin!

It should be obvious to all but the most ill-informed that the claim that same-sex marriage ‘destroys the sanctity of marriage’ is nonsense. Of course, the concept may run counter to the Christian (or several other major religions’) tradition of marriage, but Christians didn’t invent the institution, so, as long as you are not having Christian ceremony, you cannot be contravening any ‘sanctity’. We have written records of marriage going back to ancient Sumer over 5,000 years ago, predating Judeo-Christian traditions by millennia.

Marriage has been found in almost every society that we have records for. It’s a way of creating kin-type bonds between groups, often forms the ‘base unit’ household of which society is composed, and provides a route (legitimised offspring) to pass all kinds of inheritance along – names, property, rights, social standing and religious practices, for example. But although we can look at functionalist/structuralist ‘reasons’ for marriage and all the nice neat schematics of who can get married to who which have been derived from ethnographies*, we must remember that people get attracted each other, and that this is a powerful force, governing the real behaviour of people, which is often not a precise fit for these traditions as told to anthropologists. Quite apart from attraction, it may be that I live in a village where we are only supposed to marry our maternal uncles’ children. What if he has no children, or none of the corresponding gender? So let’s remember not to confuse models with reality.

Anyway, we can list various forms of marriage here that I know from ethnographies:

Heterosexual monogamous marriage – man and woman, pledging to live together and have sexual contact only with each other. Of course, there are huge exceptions to this – in many cultures it’s considered reasonable, even ‘natural’ for married men to have sexual contact outside of marriage. It’s rarer for women to enjoy this privilege, as ensuring the paternity of legitimised offspring is a very important part of this kind of marriage. Residency varies widely, from our ‘nuclear family’ model, to multi-generational households, and traditions in which the spouse goes to live with either the bride’s family or the groom’s.

Polygamy is the marriage of one person to more than one spouse. Polygyny, where a man marries more than one woman, is quite well known. One man usually marries several women sequentially, as circumstances and finances allow him to be able to support more wives and children. It’s common in cultures with a history of warfare, or where population levels need to be built up or maintained. Polyandry, the marriage of one woman to several men, is usually quite different. A woman may marry several men at once – for example, a widower and his sons, or a family of brothers. The head of the family is usually the widower or the oldest brother, and he is considered the ‘father’ of any offspring. This form of marriage is a way of keeping property together, for example, to avoid dividing farmland or grazing lands up amongst the siblings.

The Nuer of South Sudan could practice same-sex marriage – a woman could become a ‘husband’ if she had enough resources to pay ‘bridewealth’ (the compensation paid to the family of the bride for the loss of her work and fertility to her natal household), in which case she had paternal rights over her wife’s children, often fathered by her close kinsmen. Among the Lovedu of southern Africa, the Rain Queen took several wives. She could not marry a man, in fact. If a Lovedu woman’s brother had to borrow bridewealth from her in order to make a marriage, she could choose one of her brother’s daughters as a daughter-in-law; if the woman had no sons, she could marry the girl herself.

We can also have a spiritual marriage – for example, the ‘marriage’ of Catholic nuns to Christ; marriage to the dead – which is a legally established practice in China, Japan, Sudan, France, and even the United States, among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. This kind of marriage can legitimise the posthumous offspring of the dead or to placate the spirits of people who died before marriage.

Nayar people in Kerala, India could have a ‘symbolic’ marriage of a whole family group to a whole family group (or lineage). Brothers and sisters then continued to live in their family homestead and have sexual relationships with visiting lovers, the offspring of which were considered the children of the eldest brother. As with the marriage-less societies of China, biological paternity may be known to everyone, but it’s social paternity which counts for the inheritance of rights, names and property.

So we can see from these brief examples that marriage can and does take many forms. Societies and territories change, and along with that, so do modes of subsistence and residency. I will explore the coincidence of forms of kinship, inheritance and marriage with modes of subsistence in a later note. If we wipe out the lived experience of sexual attraction and relationships and focus only on the prescribed forms of marriage in any given society, we can see the functional, structuring role that marriage plays in almost every culture. As such it has to be a flexible institution which can be shaped to fit current actual living arrangements. There can be no contention that any particular method of cohabitation or raising families is ‘natural’, as there are so many versions of marriage, home and family in our species.

This is interesting to look at: http://rainqueensofafrica.com/

*the scientific description of peoples and cultures with their customs, habits, and mutual differences. An ethnography is a written composite of all the things an anthropologist in the field has been told by members of the observed group, and all the things they have observed themselves whilst spending time (often living with) the group.

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