Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/October 1891/On Polyandry

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ON POLYANDRY.

By Lieutenant-Colonel A. B. ELLIS.

THE numerous examples of the forms of marriage by capture which we gave in a former paper in The Popular Science Monthly will have shown how almost universal the practice of taking wives by violence from other groups must have been in primitive times — a practice which, it may be remembered, we attributed to a prevailing scarcity of women. In the present paper we purpose showing that we were right in predicating of the primitive groups that they usually contained fewer women than men, by adducing evidence of the exceedingly wide distribution of polyandry, a system which can only be attributed to a scarcity of women; for it is inconceivable that men should have voluntarily initiated a form of marriage under which two, three, or more men — sometimes as many as seven or eight — would be the associated husbands of one woman, if there was a possibility of their obtaining a wife apiece. Even if, by doing violence to our common sense, we suppose such a thing to be possible on the part of the men, how would the women submit to a state of affairs which would compel at least three women out of every four, supposing the sexes to be equally balanced, to remain unmarried? It is obvious, however, that polyandry could in its origin only be induced by necessity. There must have been fewer — much fewer — women than men; and as experience and observation show that throughout the world the tendency is for women to be more numerous than men, it follows that, wherever polyandry exists or did exist, the balance between the sexes must have been artificially disturbed. Such a disturbance could only be effected by female infanticide, as we have already stated in our former paper.

The rudest form of polyandry is that in which the associated husbands are not necessarily blood-relations; the less rude is that in which they are brothers. The former is unquestionably the more ancient form.

The first is found among the Kasias (sub-Himalayan ranges), the Nairs (Malabar), and the Saporogian Cossacks. Apparently it was this form that existed among the Guanas (South America), for Ayasa says that among that people "careful stipulations were made as to the duties and obligations the bride undertook with reference to her husband; how far she was bound to provide him with food; whether she was to procure the necessary fire-wood; whether she was to be the sole wife; whether she was to be free to marry another man also; and in that case how much of her time the first husband wished to engage" It probably occurs at Rasaque (East Africa), for Speke mentions a case of two men having married one woman;[1] and it is found in the Marquesas Islands, where "no man has more than one wife, and no wife of mature years has less than two husbands—sometimes she has three, but such instances are not frequent."[2] In the Marquesas Islands the males considerably outnumber the females. In the Sandwich Islands the female chiefs had a plurality of husbands. Kaahumanu, one of the widows of Kamehameha, had two husbands, viz., the ex-King of Tanai and his son. A female chief named Kapiolani also had two husbands.[3] It appears that there was no limit to the number, and that the arrangement by which father and son were husbands of the same woman was not exceptional. Without insisting too much upon this instance, it seems probable that the privilege thus retained by the female chiefs was a survival from a more general polyandry; the women highest in rank being naturally those who would be able to retain it the longest.

The form in which the associated husbands are brothers has existed from time immemorial in the valley of Kashmir; in Thibet; among the Svalik Mountains; among the Spiti; in Ladak; in Kistewar and Sirmor. It is found in Gurghal, Sylhet, and Kachar; among the Coorgs of Mysore, the Todas of the Nilgherry Hills, and the Teers, Maleres, and Poleres of Malabar. It is thus widely distributed in India. It also exists among the Calmucks, the Australians, and the Iroquois. Humboldt found it among the Avanos and Maypures Indians of the Orinoco, and attributed it to a scarcity of women.

Both forms exist among the Eskimos of Boothia,[4] and in Ceylon. Of the latter, Sirr says:[5] "Although when polyandry is indulged in by the highest caste the husbands are usually brothers, still a man can, with the consent of his wife, bring home another, unrelated to him, who has all the marital rights, and is called an associated husband. In fact, the first husband can bring home as many men as his wife will consent to receive as husbands, and these marriages are recognized by the Kandian laws." Sirr saw a Kandian matron of high caste who was the wife of eight husbands who were brothers. In his time polyandry was limited to the province of Kandy ; but Tennant tells us[6] that it was at one time universal throughout the island, and was extinguished in the maritime provinces by the influence of the Portuguese and Dutch. Here, too, we find that the men are more numerous than the women. By the census of 1821 the number of males exceeded by twenty thousand that of the females. In one district there were only fifty-five women to every hundred men.[7]

Erman tells us that polyandry exists in the Aleutian Islands, and among the Koriaks to the north of the Okhotsk Sea, but does not say which form of it. It also exists in western Eskimo Land, among the Garos of the Himalayas, and the Smerenkur Gilyaks in the southeastern corner of Siberia, but the exact form of it is left in doubt.[8]

We thus find polyandry existing in the present century in each quarter of the globe. That it should exist at all, considering that the conditions which gave rise to it have almost universally passed away, and that the practice itself is manifestly to the disadvantage of the males, is a matter for surprise, and is a fresh proof of how enduring is custom. Of its existence in other localities in the past we also have direct evidence.

According to Polybius, polyandry was practiced in ancient Greece, and in the twelfth book we read that it was an old established custom in Sparta, where the brothers of a house often had one wife between them. That it existed among the Celtic inhabitants of Great Britain, the well-known passage in Caesar proves: "Uxores habent deni duodenique inter se communes, et maxime fratres cum fratribus,et parentes cum liberis; sed si quisunt ex hisnati, eorum habentur liberi a quibusprimum virgines quaeque ductae sunt".[9] In the Irish Nennius we also find direct evidence of its existence. . In Media, according to Strabo, in certain cantons polygamy was ordained by law, while in other cantons the opposite rule was in force: a woman was allowed to have many husbands, and those who had less than five were regarded with contempt. Polyandry receives a partial sanction in the Institutes of Menu, and it is adverted to without reproach in the epic of the Maha-bharata, the heroine of which, Draupadi, was the wife of five Pandu brothers. It existed among the Getes of Transoxiana, the Guanches of the Canary Islands, and the Caribs of the West Indies.[10]

Polyandry thus can not be regarded as exceptional, since we find direct evidence of its existence among so many peoples. But, as has been said, the conditions which alone could have caused it have, in the great majority of cases, passed away : the general rule is for women to be more numerous than men, and it is therefore to the survivals from polyandry, to the practices derived from it and perpetuated through custom, that we must chiefly trust for indications of its former wide distribution. Now, one of the most remarkable customs connected with polyandry is that of a brother taking to wife a deceased brother's widow, and reckoning the children born of the new union as the children of the deceased. This custom originates from the practice, in polyandrous unions, of the children always being considered the offspring of the husband who first espouses the wife. The first husband is considered the head of the household, the family property is vested in him, and all the children are feigned to be his. At his decease the brother next in age succeeds to the headship ; but as the children, no matter which of the associated husbands were their true fathers, have always been reckoned the offspring of the first husband, the practice is continued, through custom, even after his death, and children born subsequently are still called his. Thus, in Thibet, the right of choosing the wife belongs to the eldest brother, to whom also all the children of the marriage are held to belong. In Ladak, when the eldest brother marries, the juniors, if they agree to the arrangement, become inferior husbands of the wife ; all the children, however, being considered as belonging to the eldest brother. Among the ancient Britons the children of the wife were accounted to belong to the husband who first married her. In Ceylon, the offspring of polyandrous unions are looked upon as the children of the first husband, and that equally whether the associated husbands are brothers, or are not related to each other. Wherever, therefore, we find the custom of "raising up seed" to a deceased brother, we are justified in holding that the people who observe it were once polyandrous. It could not be feigned spontaneously that the children born of the new union were the offspring of the deceased brother. Such a practice could not come into being unless the people who observe it had formerly passed through a phase of polyandry, and had been accustomed to feign all the children born to the associated brothers to be the offspring of the eldest brother. The following are examples of this custom :

Among the Makololo, when an elder brother dies, the brother next in age takes his wives, "as among the Jews, and the children that may be born of these women he calls his brother's also. He thus raises up seed to his departed relative."[11] Among the Gallas, says Bruce,[12] "when the eldest brother dies, leaving younger brothers behind him, and a widow young enough to bear children, the youngest brother of all is obliged to marry her ; but the children of the marriage are always accounted as if they were the eldest brother's." Among the Zulus, when a son inherits his father's property, if any of his father's widows are young enough, his uncles are appointed to raise up seed to the heir's house that is, the brothers take the wives of the deceased brother, and the offspring of these unions are reckoned as children of the deceased. This custom, called ukeengena, is now, however, modified, and the widow may, if she chooses, marry some other man ; but, in this case, the new husband pays a certain sum in cattle to the estate of the deceased.[13] The Kirghis used strictly to observe this custom, but among them, as among the Zulus, it is now dying out ; though, should a widow marry a man in her late husband's tribe, other than her brother-in-law, the man has to pay her brother-in-law a fine for the slight done him by her preferring another to himself.[14]

The case of the Jews must be familiar to everyone. In Deut. xxv, 5, we read, "If brethren dwell together, and one of them die and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger : her husband's brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband's brother unto her." & "And it shall be, that the first-born which she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother which is dead, that his name be not put out of Israel." That this was an old custom of the Jews we know from the case of Onan (Genesis, xxxviii), where, after Onan has avoided raising up seed to his brother Er, and is in consequence slain, the widow, Taniar, has a recognized claim upon Shelah, the brother next in age. See also Ruth, i, where, Naomi's two sons having died, she says to her daughters-in-law, "Are there yet any more sons in my womb that may be your husbands?" and "would ye tarry for them till they were grown?" There being no brothers to take these widows, one of them, Ruth, makes overtures to Boaz, a near kinsman of her deceased husband ; and this man then takes her to wife, not, however, as levir, but as göel, or redeemer of the heritage of the dead. The göel was not bound by law to marry the widow as a condition of the redemption, but it appears from Ruth, iv, 10 and 17, that when he did so the first child born of the new union was reckoned the offspring of the deceased. With the Makololo, Zulus, and others, the obligation of the levirate holds good whether the deceased had children or not ; with the Jews the custom had become modified and the obligation only held good when the deceased brother was childless. This was also the case with the Hindoos at the time when the Institutes of Menu were compiled, and is the case at the present day with the Shushwap Indians of British Columbia, and other peoples.[15] Among the Jews, the son born of the new union, the fictitious child of the deceased brother, became the heir to the property, to the exclusion of his real father, the levir. By the Institutes of Menu the property was divided between the fictitious child of the deceased and his real father.

We have said that it is the practice in polyandrous households for the brother next in age to succeed, at the decease of the eldest brother, to the position of the head of the family, to the family property, and to the wife ; and from this practice doubtless arises the wide-spread custom of a brother inheriting a deceased brother's wives. In Ladak we see that the younger brothers are not obliged to be joint husbands of the wife of their eldest brother it is optional for them to be so or not but the property, authority, and wife of the eldest brother devolve at his decease upon the brother next in age, whether he has agreed to the polyandrous union or not. Through the custom derived from polyandry he has a right of succession to his eldest brother's property and widow, and he can not take one without the other. In this case we see the original custom in a state of decay. In earlier times the younger brother would necessarily be a husband of the wife, and as such would, at the death of the elder brother, succeed to the position of head of the family that is, the wife and the property would be vested in him. At the present day it is optional for the younger brother to be an associated husband, but, even if he is not one, he still has the right of succession to the widow and the property. And what has occurred in Ladak has certainly occurred elsewhere. As the sexes became more equally balanced, younger brothers would prefer taking wives to themselves to being the associated husbands of their eldest brother's wife. Polyandry would die out, but the law of succession to property, stable as all such laws are, would be perpetuated through custom, and, as in the days of polyandry the heir used to take the widow with the property, so would he continue to take the two together after polyandry had disappeared.

To enumerate all the peoples among whom it is the rule for the brother to succeed to a deceased elder brother's property and wives would occupy far too much space. The custom is almost universal among the lower races, and it will be sufficient to mention a few of the most striking examples. Among the Malays, a man is not obliged to marry the widow of a brother, but if he does so he becomes liable for all the obligations of the deceased.[16] Here we see that to marry the widow is the counterpart of the legal right of succession to the property. Among the Afghans it is incumbent on a man to marry his elder brother's widow, and the custom is so strongly insisted upon that any departure from it is counted a scandal and a blot upon the character of the parties concerned.[17] Among the Shushwap Indians (British Columbia), if a man dies childless, his brother must marry the widow. In Guzerat (India), the widow of an elder brother invariably devolves upon a younger, and the law is equally imperative with the Somalis (East Africa), the Damaras (South Africa), the people of the New Hebrides, and many others. In New Zealand, Samoa, Fiji, West Africa, Mongolia, and other localities it is usual for the brother to marry the brother's widow; but if she feels any repugnance she may, subject to certain penalties, return to her own family.

In course of time, through the custom of the widow and the property always passing to the next brother, as heir, it becomes the custom for the heir, even when not the brother of the deceased, to inherit the widow as well as the property ; and what occurs in some of these cases shows clearly that the practice is derived from polyandry. For just as the brother "raises up seed" to a deceased brother, so in some cases does the heir, even when a son, " raise up seed " to the relative from whom he inherits. Thus the Makololb chief "Sekeletu, according to the system of the Bechuanas, became possessor of his father's wives, and adopted two of them ; the children by these women are, however, in these cases termed brothers."[18] That is to say, among the Bechuanas a son succeeds to his fathers wives, and the children born of this new union he feigns to be the offspring of his father, and so calls them brothers. He raises up seed to the departed relative from whom he inherits. From this there can be no doubt that the custom of inheriting wives is derived from polyandry. The custom of a brother taking a deceased brother's wife is a disintegration of the older obligation of taking the wife and raising up seed; which older obligation still survives in some cases when the system of female descents has disappeared and the succession has opened to the son. The case of the Zulus is a variation. With them the son inherits the property, but the uncles take the widows and raise up seed. "We thus find three phases of the system: (1) Where the succession is from brother to brother, the brother takes the widows and the property, and raises up seed. (2) Where the succession has changed to that from father to son, the son takes the property, but the brothers take the widows and raise up seed. (3) The son takes the widows and the property, and raises up seed. Finally, in all three the custom of raising up seed disappears, and the widows pass to the heir, whether he be brother or son.

Another survival from polyandry is that system of succession under which property descends from brother to brother and then to the son of the eldest brother. The system of succession from brother to brother, and then to sister's son, is the natural outcome of descent through females, and that from father to son is the natural outcome of descent through males ; but the one from brother to brother and then to son is neither one thing nor the other. It recognizes the blood-relationship between father and son, but excludes the latter from the succession till each brother has succeeded in turn. Now this is the order of succession observed in the Thibetan polyandry : Brothers succeed one another in order of age, and* failing brothers, comes in the eldest son of the brotherhood ; and the arrangement is so peculiar that we have no hesitation in affirming that, wherever this order of succession is observed, polyandry has existed.

We find this system in vogue among the Kirghiz, the Aeneze Arabs, and the Mongols ; the next brother being heir even when the elder leaves issue. We have already mentioned the Kirghiz and the Mongols as observing the levirate. The same order was observed in succession to the throne of Darfour (eastern Soudan). The law was there ascribed to the Sultan Ahmed Bekr, who died about 1750 ; but it is less probable that it was the result of a mere enactment than that it was an established local custom. In Siam, says Sir G. Bowring,[19] "on the death of a king his eldest brother succeeds; when he has no brothers, his eldest son; should he have several brothers, they succeed one another according to seniority." The levirate is optional in Siam. In Fiji brother succeeds brother, and then the succession reverts to the eldest son of the eldest brother.[20] It is worthy of note that all brothers are in Fiji called fathers by their nephews, just as is the case in the less rude polyandry, and that no word exists to express uncle.

Enough, however, has now been said to show how very wide-spread polyandry has been; traces of it are, in fact, found so universally that we are justified in regarding it as a normal phase of human progress. It can only be explained on the grounds of a scarcity of women, and that scarcity must have been felt almost universally. Hence we may conclude that we were right in our view that the early groups contained fewer women than men, and that this was the cause of marriage by capture. A number of customs which are probable survivals from polyandry lend us additional support; these we may perhaps be able to discuss on some future occasion.


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  1. Discovery of the Sources of the Nile, p. 239.
  2. Melville's Marquesas Islands, p. 213.
  3. Journal of a Residence in the Sandwich Islands, p. 219.
  4. Sir J. Ross's Narrative, vol. i, p. S35 ; vol. ii, p. 43.
  5. Ceylon and the Cingalese, vol. ii, p. 162.
  6. Ceylon, vol. ii, p. 428.
  7. Heber's Journal, vol. ii, pp. 518, 519.
  8. See Journal of the Anthropological Society, London, 1865, p. cccvi; Hooker's Himalayan Journals, vol. ii, p. 273 ; and Lansdell's Through Siberia, vol. ii, p. 225.
  9. De Bello Gallico, v, xiv.
  10. See Humboldt's Travels, etc., vol. 1, p. 32 ; Desalles, Ilist. Gen. des Antilles, vol. i, p. 197.
  11. Livingstone's Travels in South Africa, p. 185.
  12. Travels, etc., vol. ix, p. 225.
  13. Incwadi Yami, p. 39.
  14. Russian Central Asia, vol. i, pp. 329-330.
  15. Northwest Passage by Land, p. 319.
  16. Crawford, Dictionary of the Indian Islands, article Marriage,
  17. Mission to Afghanistan, p. 27.
  18. Livingstone, loc. cit.
  19. Kingdom and People of Siam, vol. i, p. 96.
  20. At Home in Fiji, vol. i, p. 281.