Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

A history of multiple bedmates

Although “polygamy” (also known as polygyny) is generally understood to mean a marriage in which a man has multiple wives, the term has broader scope. In fact, it refers to three types of practices: polyandry, in which a woman has multiple simultaneous husbands; polygamy, which entails a man having multiple simultaneous wives; and group marriage, where the family unit consists of multiple husbands and wives.

Historically, polygamy seems to have been the most common of these three practices. In fact, according to an article published in New Scientist magazine in 2008, a study of variations in DNA suggested that a few men seem to have had a greater input into the gene pool than the rest.

“Tens of thousands of years of polygamy has left a mark on our genomes that is a signature that small numbers of males must have mated with lots of females,” the article stated.

Out of 1231 societies noted in the Ethnographic Atlas Codebook — derived from American anthropologist George P Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas, which recorded the marital composition of societies from 1960 to 1980 — 186 of those societies were monogamous, 453 had occasional polygamy, 588 had more frequent polygamy and four had polyandry.

In the United States polygamy has had a long history and many Native American tribes practised it. European “mountain men” also adopted the practice, often taking on native wives.

Today, both Hindus and Christians strongly discourage polygamy, although it is thought to have been practised by historical figures in both religions. The Hindu god Lord Krishna had 16 108 wives and the Old Testament mentions the polygamy of patriarchal figures within the Christian faith.

Polygamy is technically not forbidden in Jewish law, but these days it usually only occurs in non-European Jewish communities, such as those in Arab countries that do not legally prohibit it.

Judaism’s central text, the Torah, includes a few specific regulations on the practice of polygamy.

Islam permits a man to marry a maximum of four women, provided he treats them equitably in terms of financial support as well as division of time between them. However, although polygamy is fairly common in some Muslim societies such as Saudi Arabia, it is almost nonexistent or rare in others and is even banned in some Muslim-majority countries that have not adopted Islamic law.

Historically, polygamy has been practised all over Africa as an aspect of culture, religion or both. It continues to be prevalent in West Africa, but the diffusion of Islam to this region has meant that, unlike before, there are now restrictions on the number of women a man may marry.

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

South Africa breaking more temperature records than expected

The country’s climate is becoming ‘more extreme’ as temperature records are broken

More top stories

US fashion contaminates Africa’s water

Untreated effluent from textile factories in in Lesotho, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mauritius and Madagascar pours into rivers, contaminating the water

Deep seabed mining a threat to Africa’s coral reefs

The deep oceans are a fragile final frontier, largely unknown and untouched but mining companies and governments — other than those in Africa — are eying its mineral riches

Komodo dragon faces extinction

The world’s largest monitor lizard has moved up the red list for threatened species, with fewer than 4 000 of the species left

DA says ANC’s implosion has thrown local government elections wide...

The DA launched its 37-page manifesto on a virtual platform under the banner “The DA gets things done”.

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…