AskDefine | Define polygyny

Dictionary Definition

polygyny n : having more than one wife at a time

User Contributed Dictionary



Poly- + Greek: woman, wife


  1. The state or practice of having several wives at the same time; plurality of wives; marriage to several wives - H. Spenser


Coordinate terms


plurality of wives at the same time

Extensive Definition

Polygyny (which comes from neo-Greek: πολύ poly "many" + γυνή gyny "woman") is a form of polygamy, where a man has more than one female sexual partner or wife at the same time. It can be distinguished from a man having multiple sexual partners outside of marriage, such as concubinage, casual sexual partners, paramours, and recognized secondary partners. Polygyny is the most common form of polygamy. The practice of a woman having more than one male sexual partner is called polyandry.
In biology, polygyny is a mating practice in which a male has more than one female sexual partner. In eusocial insects polygamy refers to situations where a colony has multiple queens, and polyandry refers to queens that mate with several males. There are extensive cross-cultural research findings on polygamy by social anthropologists and others.
Polygamy is sometimes defined as a formal or persistent relationship structure, in which a man has relationships with a relatively defined social group of more than one female, or where the females are predominantly bonded to a single male, or where a combination of these features occurs, as in a harem structure where many women are openly involved.

In human societies

Polygamy has been practiced in many cultures throughout history. It was accepted in ancient Hebrew society, in classical China, and in many traditional African and Polynesian cultures. In India it was practiced during ancient times; currently, it is considered illegal. It was accepted in ancient Greece, until the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church when having one wife, but multiple lovers became the norm. It was legalized in Sub-Saharan Africa for most of the past two millennia. Messianic Christianity allowed and still allows polygamy in most non-western or non-Catholic dominated countries; it is regulated in the New Testament but not banned.
In the United States, 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 1890 under the president of the LDS Church at the time, Wilford Woodruff. Since 1904, members of the LDS Church face excommunication for being polygynous, though several sects who have broken away from the LDS Church continue to practice it despite it being illegal in the United States. These sects are not officially sanctioned by or affiliated with the LDS Church. Most, if not all, have been excommunicated from the LDS Church.


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 financial circumstances fewer wives are more common.
Even where accepted, polygymy will probably never involve the majority of men and women. Given a typical male to female ratio, imbalance of percentages of married/non-married people in the society is not a unique situation of polygamy: some men and women never obtain mates in monogamous cultures.
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.

Modern polygamy

details Polyamory
Polygamous marriages are not recognized in approximately 20% of modern societies . In societies where polygynous marriage is banned, polygamous male behavior may be observed in the establishment of mistresses, who are openly or secretly supported.
In some cases the male may have a separate family with a non-legally recognized wife, supporting her and his children. In some situations the wife not only is aware of the husband's mistress, but also helps him select a "suitable" one. Mistresses and concubines rank lower than a wife and in some societies, are placed under her authority. A man may have as many full wives as he can support, with concubines assigned to each wife to aid in managing the large family.
Recent years have seen the emergence of polygynandry, or group marriage, with multiple numbers of both sexes.

Wives in a polygamous marriage

One modern viewpoint is that polygamy degrades women, treating them as property and slaves. The inferior position that women experienced in polygynous societies is not acceptable by modern Western standards.
Historically this has not been an accurate assessment. Polygamy 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. Polygamy 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-mechanised, largely-agrarian cultures in which early mortality rates were high.
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 was considered the "real" wife, the mistress of the household. The concubines usually provided pleasure and servitude only, and their children were not regarded as officially theirs.

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 Hebrew Bible indicates that polygyny was practised by the ancient Hebrews, though the institution was not extremely common; it was not particularly unusual and was certainly not prohibited or discouraged by the Bible. The Bible mentions approximately forty polygamists (ie 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.
The Torah, the Five Books of Moses, includes a few specific regulations on the practice of polygyny. Bible verse |Exodus|21:10|NIV states that multiple marriages are not to diminish the status of the first wife, while Bible verse |Deuteronomy|21:15-17|NIV 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 Bible verse |Deuteronomy|17:17|NIV 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. (Bible verse |Deuteronomy|25:5-10|NIV) The practice has been justified 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 Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews (particularly those from Yemen and Iran) discontinued polygyny much more recently, as they emigrated to countries where it was forbidden. The State of Israel has severely limited the ability for Jews to enter polygamous marriages, but instituted provisions for existing polygamous families immigrating from countries where the practice was legal.
Among Karaite Jews, who do not adhere to Rabbinic interpretations of the Torah, polygyny is non-existent today. Karaites interpret Bible verse |Leviticus|18:18 to mean that a man can only take a second wife if his first wife gives her consent and Karaites interpret Bible verse |Exodus|21:10 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 counties 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 Bible verse |Matthew|19:4-6|KJV (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."
The New Testament Church did ban polygyny for Bishops (1 Timothy 3:2).

East Asia

Having offspring is a 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.
On a side note, there is a traditional Chinese phrase saying "A wife is not as good as a concubine" (妻不如妾)This saying probably just describe the mindset of some men who prefer the young and the pretty of their own choosing, rather than wives through arranged marriages.
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 (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. This word is also used in both China and Japan. They are also called 妾 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. 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. 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 & Macau

Polygyny was banned in October of 1971 but the practice is still evident. A famous example is Dr Stanley Ho who owned the Macau Casino in Lisboa. He has 4 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 International Herald Tribune Kevin Murphy had reported the cross-border polygyny phenomenon in Hong Kong in 1995.
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.


Most majority Muslim countries (except Albania, Tunisia, Turkey, and former USSR republics) retain traditional Sharia which interpret the teachings of the Quran to permit polygyny up to four wives. Albania is a country where although about 70% of the population is historically Muslim, majority is non-confessional. 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 polygyny is the heritage of the Soviet Law. Currently there is a revival of polygyny in the Muslim World and there have been attempts to re-legalise and/or re-legitimise 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 Chechnya by war justifies legalizing polygamy/polygyny. Kadyrov was supported by Nafigallah Ashirov, the Chairman of the Council of Grand Muftis of Russia. Ashirov stated that polygyny is already widespread among Muslim communities of the country. Polygyny is illegal throughout the Russian Federation but it is tolerated in predominantly Muslim republics such as Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan.
Although non-Muslim Russian populations are historically monogamous, Russian liberal democratic leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky offers to legalise polygyny in order to tackle the demographic crisis of Russians. Zhirinovsky who made his first proposal of legalisation of polygyny as early as 1993, after Kadyrov's statement declared that he would introduce an amendment to legalise polygyny for all Russian citizens.


In Kyrgyzstan, a proposal to decriminalise polygyny came before the Kyrgyz parliament. Although illegal, polygyny 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 organisation Mutakalim that gathered 40,000 signatures in favour of polygyny, the parliament rejected the bill. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev is known as a prominent opponent of legalising polygyny.


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

Other former USSR republics

There were also recent arguments in favour of re-legalising polygyny in other Muslim ex-Soviet republics like Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Muslim communities of Bosnia and Herzegovina had been traditionally known as practicing polygyny at a very limited level. The custom last existed in Cazinska Krajina in the early 1950s. Although illegal in the country, polygyny 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.
Bosniak population in neighbouring Sandžak is also affected by the trend in Bosnia. There were attempts to adopt entire Islamic jurisdiction including polygyny but these moves were rejected. However, this could not bar the top cleric (Mufti of Novi Pazar) Muamer Zukorlić from taking a second wife.


In Turkey, polygyny 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.
Polygyny is a common occurrence in Kurdish villages. Overall, polygyny is on the rise in Turkey. An opinion poll in 2004 showed that 63% of Turks favoured polygyny. On April 6 2007, Municipal Assembly of Çıplaklı (composed of members of the ruling moderate Islamist AK Parti and conservative-liberal ANAP) in Alanya 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.

United States and Canada

The most prominent American polygynous 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 polygyny, 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 polygynous 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.

See also


  • World Religions and Social Evolution of the Old World Oikumene Civilizations: A Cross-cultural Perspective
  • Modern Polygamy and Mormon Fundamentalism: The Generations after the Manifesto


Further reading

  • Low, Bobbi S. (1990). Marriage systems and pathogen stress in human societies . American Zoologist 30: 325‑339. Full text - (Paper reports positive correlation between pathogen stress & polygyny.)
polygyny in German: Polygynie
polygyny in Spanish: Poliginia
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polygyny in Italian: Poliginia
polygyny in Hebrew: פוליגיניה
polygyny in Dutch: polygynie
polygyny in Japanese: 一夫多妻制
polygyny in Polish: Poligynia
polygyny in Portuguese: Poliginia
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polygyny in Chinese: 一夫多妻制
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