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Polygyny (from neo-Greek: πολύ poly - "many", and γυνή gyny - "woman or wife") is a form of marriage in which a man has two or more wives at the same time." It is distinguished from a relationship where a man who has a sexual partner outside marriage, such as a concubine, casual sexual partner, paramour, or other culturally recognized secondary partner. Polygyny is the most common form of polygamy. The much rarer practice of polyandry is the form of marriage in which one woman has two or more husbands at the same time.


Polygyny has been practiced in many cultures throughout history. It was accepted in ancient Hebrew society, in classical Chinamarker, and in many traditional Native American, African and Polynesian cultures. In Indiamarker it was practiced during ancient times; but today, it is largely illegal. It was accepted in ancient Greecemarker, until the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church when having one wife, but multiple lovers became the norm. It was accepted in Sub-Saharan Africa for most of the past two millennia.

In the Hebrew Bible, polygyny was a permitted practice (and required in the case of a levirate marriage, whilst polyandry (a woman having more than one husband) was seen as adultery.

In the United Statesmarker, polygyny or "Plural Marriage" was allowed in the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon—LDS) Church. It ended in 1945 under the president of the LDS Church at the time, George Albert Smith. Officially since 1904, members of the LDS Church face excommunication for being polygynous, however this was not enforced until after World War Two. There are several sects within the LDS Church that continue to practice polygyny despite it being illegal in the United States.

In historical China a child was considered to have more than one mother . For example, a child might have up to four mothers, the first wife being the "official mother" (嫡母) – in spoken language called "big mother" (大媽) – the others being regarded as unofficial mothers (庶母), in spoken language called "little mother" (小媽) or "aunt" (阿姨, 姨娘). However, this custom was primarily a result of the concubinage system, where only the first wife by marriage was considered the wife and the mistress of the household. A concubine did not marry her owner. Her main duty was to provide a son to her owner, and any children from the liaison were not regarded as officially hers. But she was also brought into the household to provide sexual pleasure to the man and servitude to his wife.

In polygynous marriages generally, usually one wife is the “queen wife” who is more equal than the other wives and has some authority over the other wives.

There may be an emergence of group marriage in recent years, with multiple numbers of both sexes. .


Polygyny was used in some societies to enhance certain genetic characteristics, and to weed out unhealthy characteristics . Moreover, owing to the propensity of men to serve and die in wars or labour incidents , women, for centuries, were more likely than men to be left unmarried or widowed. Polygyny ensured that such women were cared for and also helped ensure the births of the large numbers of children required for the survival of pre-mechanized, largely-agrarian cultures in which early mortality rates were high .

The required inheritance of widows requires men in some societies to marry the widow of a deceased brother. This levirate marriage helps provide support for her and increases his number of wives.

In some societies only well-to-do men could afford to have more than one wife, particularly if each wife required maintenance of a separate household. The current traditional form of Islam permits as many as four wives, but depending on the man's financial circumstances, fewer wives are more common; indeed, the vast majority of Muslim men are monogamous.

While few present-day states permit polygamous marriages, polygynous" male behavior may be observed in the establishment of mistresses, who are openly or secretly supported. In this way, men may be technically monogamous but de facto polygynous.

Wives in a polygynous marriage

One modern viewpoint is that polygamy degrades women, treating them as property and slaves. This may be due to the asymmetric reproductive ability between men and women, wherein men are physically capable of producing many more offspring than women, thus making men more valuable in terms of reproductive ability . The inferior position that women experienced in polygynous societies is not acceptable by modern Western standards .

Sororal polygyny

Sororal polygyny is a type of marriage in which two or more sisters share a husband.

It has been suggested that in a polygynous structure, jealousy between co-wives over perceived unequal attention from or access to their shared husband is common . It is further suggested that this is often avoided, or at least reduced, if each wife has a separate house and a ranked status. The first wife is usually considered the senior or honoured wife. Rivalry is also reduced by sororal polygyny, with sisters marrying the same man. The assumption is that sisters will be more likely to amicably share a husband. The most disruptive rivalry in a polygynous family is often between the children, especially if there is something important to inherit, such as a royal title or wealth. This also results in rivalry between the mothers. The typical way of avoiding this situation is to formally define the eldest son or daughter of the senior wife as the heir apparent.

Polygyny in context

The Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament)

The Hebrew Bible indicates that polygyny was practiced by the ancient Hebrews, though the institution was not extremely common; it was not particularly unusual and was certainly not prohibited but discouraged by the Bible (namely Moses Law recommended that kings should not have many wives, and when Solomon took 1000 wives the Bible cites his polygamy as the reason of the fall of his faith and subsequently of Israel). The Bible mentions approximately forty polygynists, including such prominent figures as Abraham, Jacob, Esau, Moses, David and King Solomon, with little or no further remark on their polygyny as such. Polyandry, on the other hand, is strictly prohibited in Mosaic law.

The Torah, the Five Books of Moses, includes a few specific regulations on the practice of polygyny. states that multiple marriages are not to diminish the status of the first wife, while states that a man must award the inheritance due to a first-born son to the son who was actually born first, even if he hates that son's mother and likes another wife more, implying that she had been divorced, and states that the king shall not have too many wives.

The biblical institution of a levirate marriage was a positive provision towards polygyny; the institution required a man to marry and support his deceased brother's widow if he died without her having given birth to a son. ( ) The practice has been justified in that it was important for the brother to have died without an heir to continue his name, or say the prayers for the dead for him. It has also been argued that there were also negative factors for the childless widow since children and fertility were a sign of God's blessing. This practice also provided a means of provision for widows. If the eldest brother refused to marry the widow then it was the responsibility of the next brother and so on down the family line.

In Judaism

Since the 11th century, Ashkenazi Jews have followed Rabbenu Gershom's ban on polygyny.

Some Mizrahi Jewish communities (particularly Yemenite Jews and Persian Jews) discontinued polygyny much more recently, as they immigrated to countries where it was forbidden or illegal. Such is the case in the State of Israelmarker, which has made polygamy illegal. In practice, however, the law is only loosely enforced, primarily so as not to interfere with Bedouin culture, where polygyny is practiced. Pre-existing polygynous unions among Jews from Arab countries (or other countries where the practice was not prohibbited by their tradition and was not illegal in the local law) are also not subject to this Israeli law, although a similar cultural concession to the Bedouin is not extended to Mizrahi Jews, and they are not permitted to enter into new polygamous marriages in Israel.

Among Karaite Jews, who do not adhere to Rabbinic interpretations of the Torah, polygyny is non-existent today. Karaites interpret to mean that a man can only take a second wife if his first wife gives her consent and Karaites interpret to mean that a man can only take a second wife if he is capable of maintaining the same level of marital duties due to his first wife; the marital duties are 1) food, 2) clothing, and 3) sexual gratification. Because of these two biblical limitations and because nearly all countries outlaw it, polygyny is considered impractical, and there are no known cases of it among Karaite Jews.


Polygyny was also practiced in the New Testament period.

Many Christians in the United States believe that polygyny is wrong and claim there is New Testament Biblical evidence to support that stance, citing for example (KJV):

And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female,
And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?
Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder."

Some suggest the New Testament Church did ban polygyny for Bishops (1 Timothy 3:2). However, the word for "one" can be translated "first" and as an indefinite article as well, which opens other possible interpretations.

East Asia

Having offspring is very important in Chinese culture. China has practiced polygyny for thousands of years. Polygyny had been legal and was written in the law as recently as the end of the Qing/Ching dynasty of the imperial China (1911).

A part of the Confucian tradition indicates the importance of procreation, as it is considered to be part of filial piety. Therefore, it is possible that this type of thinking influenced the view towards polygyny.

In the past, Emperors could have hundreds to thousands of concubines. And subsequently rich officials and merchants could also have a number of concubines besides wives. The first wife is head or mother wife, other wives are under her headship if the husband is away, and others are concubines and have lower status than the full wives. Offspring from concubines did receive equal wealth/legacy from their father.

The original wife is referred to as the 正室/정실 (main room) both in China, Japan & Korea. 大婆 (big woman/big wife) is the slang term. Both indicate the orthodox nature and hierarchy. The official wife is either called "big mother" (大媽), mother or auntie. The child of the concubine simply addresses the big mother as auntie.

The written word for the second woman (and literally means "she who occupied the side room") is 側室/측실. This word is also used in both China and Japan. They are also called 妾/첩 in China and Korea.

The common terms referring to the second woman and the act of having the second woman respectively are 二奶 (er nai / yi nai), literally "the second wife". The terms have been widely used in the media. [3912] Though illegal, it is still practiced by many richer men who can afford to support a mistress and her subsequent children. The mass media often report polygyny cases of the rich and the famous.

People's Republic of China (PRC)

In modern mainland China, polygamy (and by extension polygyny) is illegal under Marriage Law passed in 1951 , except for those members of an ethnic minority who traditionally practice polygamy (both polygyny and polyandry). Polygyny was seen as a characteristic of the bourgeoisie and as such, many senior Communist leaders who had mistresses and concubines during the Long March were forced to disband them. Because of this, polygyny is virtually unheard of in China today

However, with the opening up of the country and the increased contact with Hong Kong and Taiwan, certain polygamous activities began appearing. Cross-border polygyny is ever increasing between PRC, Hong Kong and ROC. .

Taiwan – Republic of China (ROC)

Polygyny is illegal in the 1930 ROC civil law. However, it is common for some richer Taiwanese to have secret second lovers who become concubines not living together with the wife . Taiwanese merchants, businessmen and workers are stationed in mainland China during work trips, and it is usual to keep secret lovers or even secret families there.

Hong Kong and Macau

Polygyny was banned in October 1971 but the practice is still evident. Chinese men in Hong Kong could still practice polygamy by virtue of the Qing Code ended only with the passing of the Marriage Act of 1971. A famous example is Dr Stanley Ho who owned the Macau Casino in Lisbon. He has four wives. His uncle has 12 wives.

In Hong Kong, since work pressure is extremely high and birth rate is the lowest among the world, many Hong Kong businessmen keep a secret concubine across the border in mainland China. One of the reasons is that the cost of maintaining a second family there in the PRC is lower. Girls in mainland China are also more willing to be a full-time mother at a younger age.

In a research paper of Berlin Humboldt University on sexology, Doctor Man-Lun Ng quoted that the estimation of about 300,000 men have mistresses in China. In 1995, 40% of the extramarital affairs involved a stable partner [3913] International Herald Tribune Kevin Murphy had reported the cross-border polygamy phenomenon in Hong Kong in 1995. [3914]

Period drama exists and is performed to this day which depicts the former culture of the polygamy (usually polygyny) practice. A famous example: one of the saga (The Deer and the Cauldron / The Duke of the Mount Deer) by Hong Kong famous writer Louis Cha (Jin Yong): he assigned 7 willing wives for the very capable leading role Wei Xiaobao (WaiSiu-Bo) who is a successful double spy good at office politics and human relations. The fiction and subsequent films and television drama became immensely popular among Chinese societies across the world.


Contrary to popular belief, polygamy is not widely practiced in Islam although it is allowed in most Islamic countries and permitted under certain circumstances. Men who marry more than one woman can do so knowing that they are responsible for treating all their wives with kindness and dignity as well as for providing for their material needs equally.

Several majority Muslim countries (except Albaniamarker, Tunisiamarker, Turkeymarker, and former USSRmarker republics) retain traditional Sharia which interpret the teachings of the Quran to permit polygamy up to four wives, as long as they practise it under the specified conditions. Albania is a country where although about 70% of the population is historically Muslim, majority is non-practicing. Turkey and Tunisia are countries with absolute majority Muslim populations (99.8% and 98% respectively) that enforce secularist practices by law. In former USSR republics, prohibition of polygamy is the heritage of the Soviet Law. Currently there is a revival of polygamy in the Muslim World and there have been attempts to re-legalize and/or re-legitimize it in some countries and communities where it is illegal.


Ramzan Kadyrov, President of the Chechen Republic, was quoted on radio saying that the depopulation of Chechnyamarker by war justifies legalizing polygamy. [3915] Kadyrov was supported by Nafigallah Ashirov, the Chairman of the Council of Grand Muftis of Russia. Ashirov stated that polygamy is already widespread among Muslim communities of the country. [3916] Polygamy is illegal throughout the Russian Federationmarker but it is tolerated in predominantly Muslim republics such as Chechnya, Ingushetiamarker, and Dagestanmarker. [3917]

Although non-Muslim Russian populations are historically monogamous, Russian liberal democratic leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky offers to legalize polygyny in order to tackle the demographic crisis of Russians. Zhirinovsky made his first proposal to legalize polygamy as early as 1993, after Kadyrov's statement declared that he would introduce an amendment to legalize polygyny for all Russian citizens. [3918][3919]


In Kyrgyzstanmarker, a proposal to decriminalize polygamy came before the Kyrgyz parliament. Although illegal, polygamy is a traditional practice revived in Kyrgyzstan. On March 26, 2007, despite strong backing of the Justice Minister, country's ombudsman, and Muslim Women's organization Mutakalim that gathered 40,000 signatures in favour of polygamy, the parliament rejected the bill. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev is known as a prominent opponent of legalizing polygyny. [3920] [3921]


Due to subsequent increase in number of polygamous marriages, proposals were made in Tajikistanmarker to re-legalize polygamy. [3922] Tajik women who want to be second wives are particularly supportive of decriminalizing polygyny. Mukhiddin Kabiri, the Deputy Chairman of Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan states that legislation is unlikely to stop the growth in polygyny and criticizes the ruling élite for speaking out against the practice while taking more than one wife themselves. [3923]

Other former USSR republics

There were also recent arguments in favour of re-legalizing polygamy in other Muslim ex-Soviet republics like Kazakhstanmarker, Azerbaijanmarker, Uzbekistanmarker. [3924]

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Muslim communities of Bosnia and Herzegovinamarker had been traditionally known as practicing polygamy at a very limited level. The custom last existed in Cazinska Krajinamarker in the early 1950s. [3925] Although illegal in the country, polygamy is encouraged by certain religious circles and there is a current increase in number. This trend is usually seen linked with the advent of Wahhabism in the Balkans. [3926]

Bosniak population in neighbouring Sandžak is also affected by the trend in Bosnia. There were attempts to adopt entire Islamic jurisdiction including polygamy but these moves were rejected. However, this could not bar the top cleric (Mufti of Novi Pazarmarker) Muamer Zukorlić from taking a second wife. [3927]


In Turkeymarker, polygamy has been strictly discouraged since the adoption of Turkish Civil Code in 1926, a milestone of Atatürk's secularist reforms. Although not allowed in the legislation and not approved by state authorities, polygamous marriages praised by imams who are, in the Turkish context, civil servants of Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı are conducted. Turkey, as a member of the OIC, is also a signatory of the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam that considers Sharia as the sole reference of human rights issues.[3928]

Polygamy is a common occurrence in Kurdish villages. [3929] Overall, polygamy is on the rise in Turkey. [3930] An opinion poll in 2004 showed that 63% of Turks favoured polygamy. [3931] On April 6, 2007, Municipal Assembly of Çıplaklı (composed of members of the ruling moderate Islamist AK Parti and conservative-liberal ANAP) in Alanyamarker unanimously adopted a resolution to support men who consider taking a second wife (kuma). People of Çıplaklı are Yörük, a Turkic ethnicity who practice transhumance. "When we go to the summer pastures and leave our wives behind, we feel very lonely." told Ali İhsan Topal, a member of the Assembly from AK Parti.[3932]

United States and Canada

The most prominent American polygamous society is the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a splinter sect of Latter Day Saint movement based in Colorado City. In 2005, a meeting was called between the governors of Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico in an effort to economically and politically isolate religious sects that practice polygamy, mainly the FLDS. British Columbia has also politically isolated its small polygynous religious community, located in the southeastern portion of the province .Fundamentalist Mormons represent a growing number of polygamous marriages in the US today. With growing fear of daycares, concerns over the lack of discipline in public schools, and the blossoming of so called "Super Preachers" and "Super Churches", fundamentalist Mormons are seeking to strengthen the family though plural marriage, where the children are cared for within the home.

In nature

Several species such as the wood mouse Apodemus sylvaticus possess a polygamous social order in which males mate with multiple females. Such circumstances result in competition between males during reproductive periods. This competition can extend beyond the superficial scrambling for females and exists at a microscopic level as competition between spermatozoa in the reproductive tract of the female organism.

A variety of methods for practicing polygamy can be observed in the animal kingdom. For example, female defense polygyny is seen in marine amphipods, where the male herds the females into a cluster. This allows them to be protected by the male, while the male has continuous access to the females. Resource defense polygyny is a strategy seen in African cichlid fish, where the male collects empty snail shells which the females use to lay eggs. A third type is scramble competition polygamy, where females are widely spaced or fertility is time-limited, as in orangutans.

See also

Further reading


  1. Greek-English Lexicon, Liddell & Scott, s.v. γυνή
  2. Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, s.v. 'polygyny'.
  3. Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, s.v. ‘polyandry’.
  4. Ridley, M. (1995) The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, Penguin Books, ISBN 0-14-024548-0
  5. Judaica Press Complete Tanach, Devarim - Chapter 17 from
  6. The king's behavior is condemned by Prophet Samuel in .
  7. Frequently asked questions, Judaism and Polygamy
  8. Israel 2008: State of Polygamy
  9. Victims of polygamy
  10. Keter Torah on Leviticus, pp.96—97.
  11. 民法-結婚要件之研析

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