In the early history of marriage the unmarried women belonged to the men of the tribe. Later on, a woman had only one husband at a time. This practice of one-man-at-a-time was the first step away from the promiscuity of the herd. While a woman was allowed but one man, her husband could sever such temporary relationships at will. But these loosely regulated associations were the first step toward living pairwise in distinction to living herdwise. In this stage of marriage development children usually belonged to the mother.
The next step in mating evolution was the group marriage. This communal phase of marriage had to intervene in the unfolding of family life because the marriage mores were not yet strong enough to make pair associations permanent. The brother and sister marriages belonged to this group; five brothers of one family would marry five sisters of another. All over the world the looser forms of communal marriage gradually evolved into various types of group marriage. And these group associations were largely regulated by the totem mores. Family life slowly and surely developed because sex and marriage regulation favored the survival of the tribe itself by insuring the survival of larger numbers of children.
Group marriages gradually gave way before the emerging practices of polygamy—polygyny and polyandry—among the more advanced tribes. But polyandry was never general, being usually limited to queens and rich women; furthermore, it was customarily a family affair, one wife for several brothers. Caste and economic restrictions sometimes made it necessary for several men to content themselves with one wife. Even then, the woman would marry only one, the others being loosely tolerated as “uncles” of the joint progeny.
The Jewish custom requiring that a man consort with his deceased brother’s widow for the purpose of “raising up seed for his brother,” was the custom of more than half the ancient world. This was a relic of the time when marriage was a family affair rather than an individual association.
The institution of polygyny recognized, at various times, four sorts of wives:
1. The ceremonial or legal wives.
2. Wives of affection and permission.
3. Concubines, contractual wives.
4. Slave wives.
True polygyny, where all the wives are of equal status and all the children equal, has been very rare. Usually, even with plural marriages, the home was dominated by the head wife, the status companion. She alone had the ritual wedding ceremony, and only the children of such a purchased or dowered spouse could inherit unless by special arrangement with the status wife.
The status wife was not necessarily the love wife; in early times she usually was not. The love wife, or sweetheart, did not appear until the races were considerably advanced, more particularly after the blending of the evolutionary tribes with the Nodites and Adamites.
The taboo wife—one wife of legal status—created the concubine mores. Under these mores a man might have only one wife, but he could maintain sex relations with any number of concubines. Concubinage was the steppingstone to monogamy, the first move away from frank polygyny. The concubines of the Jews, Romans, and Chinese were very frequently the handmaidens of the wife. Later on, as among the Jews, the legal wife was looked upon as the mother of all children born to the husband.
The olden taboos on sex relations with a pregnant or nursing wife tended greatly to foster polygyny. Primitive women aged very early because of frequent childbearing coupled with hard work. (Such overburdened wives only managed to exist by virtue of the fact that they were put in isolation one week out of each month when they were not heavy with child.) Such a wife often grew tired of bearing children and would request her husband to take a second and younger wife, one able to help with both childbearing and the domestic work. The new wives were therefore usually hailed with delight by the older spouses; there existed nothing on the order of sex jealousy.
The number of wives was only limited by the ability of the man to provide for them. Wealthy and able men wanted large numbers of children, and since the infant mortality was very high, it required an assembly of wives to recruit a large family. Many of these plural wives were mere laborers, slave wives.
Human customs evolve, but very slowly. The purpose of a harem was to build up a strong and numerous body of blood kin for the support of the throne. A certain chief was once convinced that he should not have a harem, that he should be contented with one wife; so he promptly dismissed his harem. The dissatisfied wives went to their homes, and their offended relatives swept down on the chief in wrath and did away with him then and there.