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Title: Polyandry  
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Draupadi with her five husbands.

Polyandry (; from Greek: πολυ- poly-, "many" and ἀνήρ anēr, "man") is a form of polygamy whereby a woman takes two or more husbands at the same time. Polyandry is contrasted with polygyny, involving one male and two or more females. Polyandry is also distinct from group marriage, involving plural participants of each sex. Most broadly, polyandry refers to sexual relations with multiple males, within or without marriage.

According to the Ethnographic Atlas (1980), of 1,231 societies noted, 186 were monogamous; 453 had occasional polygyny; 588 had more frequent polygyny; and 4 had polyandry.[1] Polyandry is less rare than this figure which listed only those examples found in the Himalayan Mountains. More recent studies have found 53 societies outside of the 28 found in the Himalayans which practice polyandry.[2]

Fraternal polyandry was traditionally practiced among Tibetans in Nepal, parts of China and part of northern India, in which two or more brothers are married to the same wife, with the wife having equal 'sexual access' to them. It is most common in egalitarian societies marked by high male mortality or male absenteeism. It is associated with partible paternity, the cultural belief that a child can have more than one father.[3]

Polyandry is believed to be more likely in societies with scarce environmental resources, as it is believed to limit human population growth and enhance child survival.[4] It is a rare form of marriage that exists not only among poor families, but also the elite.[5] For example, in the Himalayan Mountains polyandry is related to the scarcity of land; the marriage of all brothers in a family to the same wife allows family land to remain intact and undivided. If every brother married separately and had children, family land would be split into unsustainable small plots. In Europe, this was prevented through the social practice of impartible inheritance (the dis-inheriting of most siblings, many of whom went on to become celibate monks and priests).[6]


  • Types 1
    • Polygynandry 1.1
    • Fraternal polyandry 1.2
    • Partible paternity 1.3
  • Known cases 2
    • Africa 2.1
    • Asia 2.2
    • Europe 2.3
    • North America 2.4
    • Oceania 2.5
    • South America 2.6
  • Religious attitudes 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7



In the Indian Himalayas, polyandry may be combined with polygyny to produce a system termed "polygynandry". The system results in less land fragmentation, a diversification of domestic economic activities, and lower population growth.[7]

Fraternal polyandry

Fraternal polyandry (from the Latin frater—brother) is a form of polyandry in which a woman is married to two or more men who are one another's brothers. Fraternal polyandry is found in certain areas of Tibet and Nepal,[8] where polyandry is accepted as a social practice.[9] The Toda people of southern India practice fraternal polyandry, but monogamy has become prevalent recently.[10] In contemporary Hindu society, polyandrous marriages in the agrarian societies in Malwa region of Punjab are occurring to avoid division of farming land.[11]

Fraternal polyandry achieves a similar goal to that of primogeniture in 19th-century England. Primogeniture dictated that the eldest son inherited the family estate, while younger sons had to leave home and seek their own employment. Primogeniture maintained family estates intact over generations by permitting only one heir per generation. Fraternal polyandry also accomplishes this, but does so by keeping all the brothers together with just one wife so that there is only one set of heirs per generation.[12] This strategy appears less successful the larger the fraternal sibling group.[13]

Some forms of polyandry appear to be associated with a perceived need to retain aristocratic titles or agricultural lands within kin groups, and/or because of the frequent absence, for long periods, of a man from the household. In Tibet the practice was particularly popular among the priestly Sakya class.

An extreme gender imbalance has been suggested as a justification for polyandry. For example, the selective abortion of female fetuses in India has led to a significant margin in sex ratio and, it has been suggested, results in related men "sharing" a wife.[14]

Partible paternity

Anthropologist Stephen Beckerman points out that at least 20 tribal societies accept that a child could, and ideally should, have more than one father, referring to it as "partible paternity."[15] This often results in the shared nurture of a child by multiple fathers in a form of polyandric relation to the mother, although this is not always the case.[16] One of the most well known examples is that of Trobriand "virgin birth." The matrilineal Trobriand Islanders recognize the importance of sex to reproduction but do not believe the male makes a contribution to the constitution of the child, who therefore remains attached to their mother's lineage alone. The mother's non-resident husbands are not recognized as fathers, although the mother's co-resident brothers are, since they are part of the mother's lineage.

Known cases

Polyandry in Tibet was a common practice and continues to a lesser extent today. In Tibet, polyandry has been outlawed since the Chinese takeover of the area, so it is difficult to measure the incidence of polyandry in what may have been the world's most polyandrous society.[17] Polyandry in India still exists among minorities, and also in Bhutan, and the northern parts of Nepal. Polyandry has been practised in several parts of India, such as Rajasthan, Ladakh and Zanskar, in the Jaunsar-Bawar region in Uttarakhand, among the Toda of South India,[17] and the Nishi of Arunachal Pradesh.

It also occurs or has occurred in Nigeria, the Nymba,[17] and some pre-contact Polynesian societies,[18] though probably only among higher caste women.[19] It is also encountered in some regions of Yunnan and Sichuan regions of China, among the Mosuo people in China, and in some sub-Saharan African such as the Maasai people in Kenya and northern Tanzania[20] and American indigenous communities. The Guanches, the first known inhabitants of the Canary Islands, practiced polyandry until their disappearance.[21] The Zo'e tribe in the state of Pará on the Cuminapanema River, Brazil, also practice polyandry.[22] Polyandry was practiced in Celtic societies as women were allowed to own property and marry more than one husband.


  • In the Lake Region of Central Africa, "Polygyny ... was uncommon. Polyandry, on the other hand, was quite common."[23]
  • "The Masai are polyandrous".[24]
  • Among the Irigwe of Northern Nigeria, women have traditionally acquired numerous spouses called "co-husbands."
  • Guanches from Gran Canaria practized polyandry before the Spanish conquest. According to European accounts, during a great famine in 14th or 15th century, girls were killed after coming to life in order to equilibrate demography. This resulted in a surplus of males and a shortage of females, which led to the adoption of polyandry, allowing a woman to marry a maximum of five men.
  • In August 2013, two Kenyan men entered into an agreement to marry a woman with whom they had both been having an affair. Kenyan law does not explicitly forbid polyandry, although it is not common custom.[25]


  • In the reign of Urukagina of Lagash, "Dyandry, the marriage of one woman to two men, is abolished.".[26]
  • M. Notovitck mentioned polyandry in Ladakh or Little 'Tibet' in his record of his journey to Tibet. ("The Unknown life of Jesus Christ" by Virchand Gandhi).
  • Polyandry was widely (and to some extent still is) practised in Lahaul-Spiti situated in isolation in the high Himalayas in India.
  • In Arabia (southern) "All the kindred have their property in common ...; all have one wife" whom they share.[27]
  • "In certain cantons of Media, ... a woman was allowed to have many husbands, and they looked with contempt on those who had less than five."[28]
  • Among the Hephthalites, "the practice of several husbands to one wife, or polyandry, was always the rule, which is agreed on by all commentators. That this was plain was evidenced by the custom among the women of wearing a hat containing a number of horns, one for each of the subsequent husbands, all of whom were also brothers to the husband. Indeed, if a husband had no natural brothers, he would adopt another man to be his brother so that he would be allowed to marry."[29]
  • "Polyandry is very widespread among the Sherpas."[30]
  • In Bhutan in 1914, polyandry was "the prevailing domestic custom."[31]. Nowadays polyandy is rare, but still found for instance among the Brokpas of the Merak-Sakten region.[32]
  • "A 1981 survey ... in Muli found 52% of the marriages engaged in monogamy, 32% practiced polyandry (brothers sharing a wife), and 16% practiced polygyny (sisters sharing a husband)."[33]
  • The Hoa-tun (Hephthalites, White Huns) "living to the north of the Great Wall ... practiced polyandry."[34]
  • Among the Gilyaks of Sakhalein Island "polyandry is also practiced."[35]
  • Fraternal polyandry is permitted in Sri Lanka under Kandyan Marriage law, often described using the euphemism eka-ge-kama (literally "eating in one house").[36] Associated Polyandry, or polyandry that begins as monogamy, with the second husband entering the relationship later, is also practiced[37] and it sometimes initiated by the wife.[38]


Sepulcral inscription for Allia Potestas,Museo Epigrafico, Terme di Diocleziano, Rome
  • "According to Julius Caesar, it was customary among the ancient Britons for brothers, and sometimes for fathers and sons, to have their wives in common."[39]
  • "Polyandry prevailed among the Lacedaemonians according to Polybius."[40] "(Polybius vii.7.732, following Timæus)"[41]
  • "The matrons of Rome flocked in great crowds to the Senate, begging with tears and entreaties that one woman should be married to two men."[42]
  • The gravestone of Allia Potestas, a woman from Perusia, describes how she lived peacefully with two lovers, one of whom immortalized her in this famous epigraphic eulogy, dating (probably) from the second century.[43]

North America


  • Among the Kanak of New Caledonia, "every woman is the property of several husbands. It is this collection of husbands, having one wife in common, together in a hut, with their common wife."[46]
  • Marquesans had "a society in which households were polyandrous."[47]
  • Friedrich Ratzel in The History of Mankind[48] reported in 1896 that in the New Hebrides there was a kind of convention in cases of widowhood, that two widowers shall live with one widow.

South America

  • "The Bororos ... among them...there are also cases of polyandry."[49]
  • "The Tupi-Kawahib also practice fraternal polyandry."[50]
  • "...up to 70 percent of Amazonian cultures may have believed in the principle of multiple paternity"[51]

Religious attitudes

Polyandry is prohibited by Judaism, Islam, and the vast majority of Hindu and Christian denominations; neither is it legally recognized in most countries, including those that permit polygyny. Most religions discourage or prohibit polyandry. Although polyandry is decried in Abrahamic religions, in some pagan religions, such as Celtic indigenous religion, it has been normal.

According to inscriptions describing the reforms of the Sumerian king Urukagina of Lagash (ca. 2300 BC), the former custom of polyandry in his country was abolished, on pain of the woman taking multiple husbands being stoned with rocks upon which her crime is written.[52]

Draupadi with her five husbands - the Pandavas. The central figure is Yudhishthira; the two to his left are Bhima and Arjuna . Nakula and Sahadeva, the twins, are to his right. Their wife, at far right, is Draupadi. Deogarh, Dasavatar temple.

Polyandrous relations are disapproved of in most expressions of Hinduism.[53] There is at least one reference to polyandry in the ancient Hindu epic Mahabharata. Draupadi marries the five Pandava brothers. This ancient text remains largely neutral to the concept of polyandry, accepting this as her way of life.[54] However, in the same epic, when questioned by Kunti to give an example of polyandry, Yudhisthira cites Gautam-clan Jatila (married to seven Saptarishis) and Hiranyaksha's sister Pracheti (married to ten brothers), thereby implying a more open attitude toward polyandry in Vedic society.[55]

Though Draupadi was married to five different men (born to two mothers - Kunti and Madri) to father her children, it is said in GOTHRA or lineage history that they were considered not as biological brothers coming from a same father because Yuddhishthira was fathered by Dharma, Arjuna by Indra, Bhima by Vayu, Nakula and SahaDeva by Ashvinikumars. They came from different fathers as Pandu could not have progeny due to impotence.

The Hebrew Bible contains no examples of women married to more than one man,[56][57] but its description of adultery clearly implies that polyandry is unacceptable[58][59] and the practice is unknown in Jewish tradition.[60][61] In addition, the children from other than the first husband are considered illegitimate (i.e., a mamzer),[62] being a product of an adulterous relationship.

Current-day mainstream Christianity strongly advocates monogamous marriage, and the New Testament explicitly forbids polyandry. (Romans 7:2-3).

Islam also prohibits polyandry.[63] Nikah Ijtimah is a pagan tradition of polyandry predating Islam which was forbidden to Muslims.[64]

See also


  1. ^ Ethnographic Atlas Codebook derived from George P. Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas recording the marital composition of 1231 societies from 1960 to 1980
  2. ^ Starkweather, Katherine; Raymond Hames (2012). A Survey of Non-Classical Polyandry 23 (2): 149. 
  3. ^ Starkweather, Katherine; Raymond Hames (2012). A Survey of Non-Classical Polyandry 23 (2): 150. 
  4. ^ (Linda Stone, Kinship and Gender, 2006, Westview, 3rd ed, ch 6) The Center for Research on Tibet Papers on Tibetan Marriage and Polyandry. Accessed: October 1, 2006
  5. ^ Goldstein, Pahari and Tibetan Polyandry Revisited, Ethnology. 17(3): 325–327, 1978, from The Center for Research on Tibet. Accessed: October 1, 2007
  6. ^ Levine, Nancy (1998). The Dynamics of polyandry: kinship, domesticity, and population on the Tibetan border. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
  7. ^ Levine, Nancy; Joan B. Silk (1997). "Why Polyandry Fails: Sources of Instability in Polyandrous marriages". Current Anthropology 38 (3): 376.  
  8. ^ Mustang
  9. ^ Levine, Nancy, The Dynamics of Polyandry: Kinship, domesticity and population on the Tibetan border, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
  10. ^ Brothers share wife to secure family land
  11. ^ Draupadis bloom in rural Punjab Times of India, Jul 16, 2005.
  12. ^ Goldstein, Melvyn (1987). Natural History. Natural History Magazine. pp. 39–48. 
  13. ^ Levine, Nancy; Joan B. Silk (1997). "Why Polyandry Fails: Sources of Instability in Polyandrous marriages". Current Anthropology 38 (3): 375–98.  
  14. ^ Chris Arsenault (24 October 2011). "Millions of aborted girls imbalance India".  
  15. ^ Beckerman, S., Valentine, P., (eds) (2002) The Theory and Practice of Partible Paternity in South America, University Press of Florida
  16. ^ Starkweather, Katie, "A Preliminary Survey of Lesser-Known Polyandrous Societies" (2009).Nebraska Anthropologist.Paper 50.
  17. ^ a b c Whittington, Dee (December 12, 1976). "Polyandry Practice Fascinates Prince".  
  18. ^ Goldman I., 1970, Ancient Polynesian Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press'
  19. ^ Thomas, N. (1987). "Complementarity and History Misrecognizing Gender in the Pacific". Oceania 57 (4): 261–270.  
  20. ^ The Last of the Maasai. Mohamed Amin, Duncan Willetts, John Eames. 1987. Pp. 86-87. Camerapix Publishers International. ISBN 1-874041-32-6
  21. ^ "On Polyandry".  
  22. ^ Kathrine E. Starkweather (2010). Exploration into Human Polyandry: An Evolutionary Examination of the Non-Classical Cases (Master's thesis).  
  23. ^ Warren R. Dawson (ed.): The Frazer Lectures, 1922-1932. Macmillan & Co, 1932. p. 33.
  24. ^ A. C. Hollis: The Masai. p. 312, fn. 2.
  25. ^ "Kenyan trio in 'wife-sharing' deal". BBC. 26 August 2013. 
  26. ^ J. Bottero, E. Cassin & J. Vercoutter (eds.) (translated by R. F. Tannenbaum): The Near East: the Early Civilizations. New York, 1967. p. 82.
  27. ^ Strabōn : Geographia 16:4:25, C 783. Translated in Robertson Smith: Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia, p. 158; quoted in . New York: Allerton Books Co., 1922. vol. 3, p. 154.The History of Human MarriageEdward Westermarck:
  28. ^ Strabōn: Geographia, lib. xi, Casaub 526. cited in John Ferguson McLennon: Studies in Ancient History. Macmillan & Co., 1866, p. 99
  29. ^ Hephthalites
  30. ^ René von Nebesky-Wojkowitz (translated by Michael Bullock) :one research done by one organization about Fraternal Polyandry in Nepal and its detail data find here Where the Gods are Mountains. New York: Reynal & Co. p. 152.
  31. ^ . London: Macmillan & Co., 1914.History of Upper Assam, Upper Burmah and North-eastern FrontierL. W. Shakespear : p. 92.
  32. ^ "Feature: All in the Family", Kuensel 27 August 2007;
  33. ^ Chrame people in southwest Sichuan
  34. ^ Xinjiang
  35. ^ . San Francisco: A. L. Bancroft & Co., 1883.Russian Nihilism and Exile Life in Siberia p. 365.
  36. ^ Hussein, Asiff. "Traditional Sinhalese Marriage Laws and Customs". Retrieved 28 April 2012. 
  37. ^ Lavenda, Robert H.; Schultz, Emily A. "Additional Varieties Polyandry". Anthropology: What Does It Mean To Be Human?. Retrieved 28 April 2012. 
  38. ^ Levine, NE. "Conclusion". Asian and African Systems of Polyandry. Retrieved 28 April 2012. 
  39. ^ . 1899.Primitive Love and Love-StoriesHenry Theophilus Finck :
  40. ^ . Macmillan & Co., 1886.Studies in Ancient HistoryJohn Ferguson McLennon : p. xxv
  41. ^ . London: John Murray, 1883. Chapter IV, Note B.Dissertations on Early Law and CustomHenry Sumner Maine :
  42. ^ Macrobius (translated by Percival V. Davies): The Saturnalia. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969, p. 53 (1:6:22)
  43. ^ Horsfall, N:CIL VI 37965 = CLE 1988 (Epitaph of Allia Potestas): A Commentary, ZPE 61: 1985
  44. ^ Katherine E. Starkweather & Raymond Hames. "A Survey of Non-Classical Polyandry". Human Nature An Interdisciplinary Biosocial Perspective ISSN 1045-6767 Volume 23 Number 2 Hum Nat (2012) 23:149-172 DOI 10.1007/s12110-012-9144-x 12 Jun 2012.
  45. ^ Starkweather, Katherine E. and Raymond Hames. "A Survey of Non-Classical Polyandry." 12 June 2012. Retrieved 28 Dec 2013.
  46. ^ Dr. Jacobs: Untrodden Fields of Anthropology. New York: Falstaff Press, 1937. vol. 2, p. 219.
  47. ^ Roslyn Poignant: Oceanic Mythology. Paul Hamlyn, London, 1967, p. 69.
  48. ^ Ratzel, Friedrich. The History of Mankind. (London: MacMillan, 1896). URL: [1] accessed 11 April 2010.
  49. ^ . London: Walter Scott Press, 1901.Races of Man : an Outline of Anthropology p. 566.
  50. ^ C. Lévi-Strauss (translated by John Russell): Tristes Tropiques. New York: Criterion Books, 1961, p. 352.
  51. ^ "Multiple Fathers Prevalent in Amazonian Cultures, Study Finds" ScienceDaily (Nov. 11, 2010)
  52. ^ p. 40Engaging the powers: discernment and resistance in a world of domination by Walter Wink, 1992 ISBN 0-8006-2646-X
  53. ^ V., Jayaram. "Extramarital relationships". Hindu Website.
  54. ^ Altekar, Anant Sadashiv (1959). The position of women in Hindu civilization, from prehistoric times to the present day. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. p. 112.  
  55. ^
  56. ^ Coogan, Michael D., A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament: The Hebrew Bible in Its Context, Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 264, [2]
  57. ^ Bromiley, Geoffrey W., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume 1, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980, p. 262, [3]
  58. ^ Fuchs, Esther, Sexual Politics in the Biblical Narrative: Reading the Hebrew Bible as a Woman, Continuum International, 2000, p. 122, [4]
  59. ^ Satlow, Michael L., Jewish Marriage in Antiquity, Princeton University Press, 2001, p. 189, [5]
  60. ^ Witte, John & Ellison, Eliza; Covenant Marriage In Comparative Perspective, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005, p. 56, [6]
  61. ^ Marriage, Sex And Family in Judaism, Rowman & Littlefield, 2005, p. 90, [7]
  62. ^ Murray, John (1991). Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 250–256.  
  63. ^ For example, Quran Surah Nisa’ Chapter 4, verses 22-24, gives the list of women whom a man cannot marry.
  64. ^ Ahmed, Mufti M. Mukarram (2005). Encyclopaedia of Islam. Anmol Publications PVT. LTD. p. 383.  

Further reading

  • Levine, Nancy, The Dynamics of Polyandry: Kinship, domesticity and population on the Tibetan border, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. ISBN 0-226-47569-7, ISBN 978-0-226-47569-1
  • Peter, Prince of Greece, A Study of Polyandry, The Hague, Mouton, 1963.
  • Beall, Cynthia M.; Goldstein, Melvyn C. (1981). "Tibetan Fraternal Polyandry: A Test of Sociobiological Theory". American Anthropologist 83 (1): 898–901. 
  • Crook, J., & Crook, S. 1994. "Explaining Tibetan polyandry: Socio-cultural, demographic, and biological perspectives". In J. Crook, & H. Osmaston (Eds.), Himayalan Buddhist Villages (pp. 735–786). Bristol, UK: University of Bristol.
  • Goldstein, M. C. (1971). "Stratification, Polyandry, and Family Structure in Central Tibet". Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 27 (1): 64–74.  
  • Goldstein, M. C. (1976). "Fraternal Polyandry and Fertility in a High Himalayan Valley in Northwest Nepal". Human Ecology 4 (3): 223–233.  
  • Lodé, Thierry (2006) La Guerre des sexes chez les animaux. Paris: Eds O. Jacob. ISBN 2-7381-1901-8
  • Smith, Eric Alden (1998). "Is Tibetan polyandry adaptive?". Human Nature 9 (3): 225.  
  • Trevithick, Alan (1997). "On a Panhuman Preference for Monandry: Is Polyandry an Exception?". Journal of Comparative Family Studies 28 (3): 154–81. 

External links

  • Another example for polyandry in India
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