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Marriage Roots Traced to Ancient Tribes

May 26, 1991|MARK R. HOROWITZ | FOR UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL

Despite frontal assaults on the institution during the last few decades, the desire to marry continues to flourish in most societies. In the United States, some 95% of all Americans marry at least once by the time they are 40, one of the largest percentages in the world.

While the concept of marriage traces its roots back to ancient tribes seeking social stability, legitimization of offspring and orderly sexual activity, there has always been an economic element. This has changed little when one considers the growth in prenuptial agreements, where love and devotion triumph only after signing on the dotted line.

The economics of marriage has fostered numerous practices. Polyandry, where one woman unites in marriage with several men, was rare but practical in poor cultures, especially in Tibet and neighboring Himalayan societies as well as certain American Indian tribes and Eskimo groups.

The reasons for the practice was sometimes the lack of women, but in most cases it centered on factors that made it difficult for one man to support a family.

"Bride price" was an ancient practice in which the groom's family paid the bride's family for the right to her children and her labor. If the bride failed to produce offspring, the contract was canceled, the unfortunate woman returned and her Bride Price refunded.

Less common was the dowry, where valuables were transferred from the bride's family to the groom's. Unlike the bride price, here bride and future children were seen as a liability.

Teutonic law viewed marriage as a form of barter: the bride's father was given compensation dependent on the status of the parties involved. A partial payment, or vadium--usually a valuable ornament given at the betrothal--sealed the deal. This may have been the origin of the engagement ring.

Non-economic benefits--we might call them perks--often went with the marriage pact. An ancient Hebrew law exempted a groom from war and even certain business responsibilities because "he should be free at home for one year, and shall cheer up his wife whom he hath taken."

Wife capture was common among warlike tribes, with social and military honors given the male who stole his bride from a neighboring group. The tradition of "standing up" at a wedding developed from the practice of assigning guards to keep the family of the captured mate out of the wedding.

Wife capture may have brought the modern world another tradition: the wedding ring. A ring was placed around the ankle to facilitate restraint of the captured bride. African tribes put a ring around the bride's neck, or through her nose.

In ancient China, it was the parents who chose mates for their children, with gifts going to the future bride's parents--similar to the bride price. In 1950, the Chinese government moved to make marriage laws more consensual and modern.

But changing longstanding traditions is difficult. Today, "posthumous weddings" are all the rage in the Chinese countryside, ensuring that those who die unmarried will have a partner in the hereafter.

An old unmarried man or woman can marry an infant in a "spirit wedding" so that each has a partner after death.

Buying a corpse for an afterlife mate is also practiced. One 65-year-old man was reported to have given his life savings to buy a female corpse to be "married" to him after his death, at which time they would be buried side by side.

It's hard enough to make it work in this life, especially with the financial ramifications when a marriage fails. Perhaps the Chinese are onto something. At least the parties involved won't be fighting over property in this life.

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