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Polyandry ( /ˈpɒliˌændri,ˌpɒliˈæn-/ ; from Greek : πολυ-poly-, "many" and ἀνήρ anēr, "man") is a form of polygamy in which a woman takes two or more husbands at the same time. Polyandry is contrasted with polygyny, involving one male and two or more females. If a marriage involves a plural number of "husbands and wives" participants of each gender, then it can be called polygamy, [1] group or conjoint marriage. [2] In its broadest use, polyandry refers to sexual relations with multiple males within or without marriage.


Of the 1,231 societies listed in the 1980 Ethnographic Atlas, 186 were found to be monogamous; 453 had occasional polygyny; 588 had more frequent polygyny; and 4 had polyandry. [3] Polyandry is less rare than this figure suggests, as it considered only those examples found in the Himalayan mountains (28 societies). More recent studies have found more than 50 other societies practicing polyandry. [4]

Fraternal polyandry is practiced among Tibetans in Nepal and parts of China, in which two or more brothers are married to the same wife, with the wife having equal "sexual access" to them. [5] [6] It is associated with partible paternity , the cultural belief that a child can have more than one father. [4]

Polyandry is believed to be more likely in societies with scarce environmental resources. It is believed to limit human population growth and enhance child survival. [6] [7] It is a rare form of marriage that exists not only among peasant families but also among the elite families. [8] For example, polyandry in the Himalayan mountains 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 contrast, very poor persons not owning land were less likely to practice polyandry in Buddhist Ladakh and Zanskar. [6] In Europe, the splitting up of land was prevented through the social practice of impartible inheritance. With most siblings disinherited, many of them became celibate monks and priests. [9]

Polyandrous mating systems are also a common phenomenon in the animal kingdom.


Successional Polyandry

Unlike fraternal polyandry where a woman will receive a number of husbands simultaneously, a woman will acquire one husband after another in sequence.

This form is flexible. These men may or may not be related. And it may or may not incorporate a hierarchical system, where one husband is considered primary and may be allotted certain rights or privileges not awarded to secondary husbands, such as biologically fathering a child.

In this particular system, the secondary husbands have the power to succeed the primary if he were to become severely ill or be away from the home for a long period of time or is otherwise rendered incapable of fulfilling his husbandly duties.

Successional polyandry can likewise be egalitarian, where all husbands are equal in status and receive the same rights and privileges. In this system, each husband will have a wedding ceremony and share paternity of whatever children she may bear.

Other Classifications: Secondary

Associated Polyandry

Another form of polyandry is a combination of polyandry and polygyny, as women are married to several men simultaneously and the same men are married to several women. It is found in some tribes of native Americans as well as villages in northern Nigeria and the northern cameroons.

Other Classifications: Equal polygamy, Polygynandry

The system results in less land fragmentation, and a diversification of domestic activities.

Fraternal polyandry

Fraternal polyandry (from the Latin frater—brother), also called adelphic polyandry (from the Greek ἀδελφός—brother), is a form of polyandry in which a woman is married to two or more men who are brothers. Fraternal polyandry was (and sometimes still is) found in certain areas of Tibet, Nepal, and Northern India, central African cultures [10] where polyandry was accepted as a social practice. [6] [11] The Toda people of southern India practice fraternal polyandry, but monogamy has become prevalent recently. [12] In contemporary Hindu society, polyandrous marriages in agrarian societies in the Malwa region of Punjab seem to occur to avoid division of farming land. [13]

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. [14] This strategy appears less successful the larger the fraternal sibling group is. [15]

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.

The female equivalent of fraternal polyandry is sororate marriage.

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". [16] 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. [17] One of the most well known examples is that of Trobriand "virgin birth". The matrilineal Trobriand Islanders recognize the importance of sex in 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.


According to inscriptions describing the reforms of the Sumerian king Urukagina of Lagash (ca. 2300 BC), the earlier custom of polyandry in his country was abolished, on pain of the woman taking multiple husbands being stoned upon which her crime is written. [18]

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. [19]

Known cases

Polyandry in Tibet was a common practice and continues to a lesser extent today. A survey of 753 Tibetan families by Tibet University in 1988 found that 13% practiced polyandry. [20] 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. [6] [21]

It also occurs or has occurred in Nigeria, the Nymba, [21] [ clarification needed ] and some pre-contact Polynesian societies, [22] though probably only among higher caste women. [23] It is also encountered in some regions of Yunnan and Sichuan regions of China, among the Mosuo people in China (who also practice polygyny as well), and in some sub-Saharan African such as the Maasai people in Kenya and northern Tanzania [24] and American indigenous communities. The Guanches, the first known inhabitants of the Canary Islands, practiced polyandry until their disappearance. [25] The Zo'e tribe in the state of Pará on the Cuminapanema River, Brazil, also practice polyandry. [26]




Sepulcral inscription for Allia Potestas, Museo Epigrafico, Terme di Diocleziano, Rome Sepulchral inscription of Allia Potestas (1st-4th century CE) - 200505.jpg
Sepulcral inscription for Allia Potestas, Museo Epigrafico, Terme di Diocleziano, Rome

North America


South America

Religious attitudes


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, Dashavatara Hindu Temple. Pandavas with Draupadi OR ayudhapurushas facing Madhu Kaitabha.jpg
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, Dashavatara Hindu Temple.

There is at least one reference to polyandry in the ancient Hindu epic Mahabharata . Draupadi married the five Pandava brothers, as this is what she chose in a previous life. This ancient text remains largely neutral to the concept of polyandry, accepting this as her way of life. [56] However, in the same epic, when questioned by Kunti to give an example of polyandry, Yudhishthira 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. [57]


The Hebrew Bible contains no examples of women married to more than one man, [58] [59] but its description of adultery clearly implies that polyandry is unacceptable [60] [61] and the practice is unknown in Jewish tradition. [62] [63] In addition, the children from other than the first husband are considered illegitimate, unless he has already divorced her or died (i.e., a mamzer), [64] being a product of an adulterous relationship.


Most Christian denominations in the Western world strongly advocate monogamous marriage, and a passage from the Pauline epistles (1 Corinthians 7) can be interpreted as forbidding polyandry.

Latter-Day Saints

Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and other early Latter-day Saints, practiced polygynous marriages. The practice was officially ended with the 1890 Manifesto. Polyandrous marriages did exist, albeit in significantly less numbers, in early LDS history. [65] [66]


Although Islamic marital law allows men to have up to four wives, polyandry is prohibited in Islam. [67] [68]

Polyandrous marriages were practiced in pre-Islamic Arabian cultures, but were outlawed during the rise of Islam. Nikah Ijtimah was a pagan tradition of polyandry in older Arab regions which was condemned and abolished during the rise of Islam. [67] [69]

In biology

Polyandrous behavior is quite widespread in the animal kingdom, occurring for example in insects, fish, birds, and mammals.

See also

Types of mating, marriage and lifestyle:

Related Research Articles

Marriage Culturally recognised union between people

Marriage, also called matrimony or wedlock, is a culturally recognised union between people, called spouses, that establishes rights and obligations between them, as well as between them and their children, and between them and their in-laws. The definition of marriage varies around the world, not only between cultures and between religions, but also throughout the history of any given culture and religion. Over time, it has expanded and also constricted in terms of who and what is encompassed. Typically, it is an institution in which interpersonal relationships, usually sexual, are acknowledged or sanctioned. In some cultures, marriage is recommended or considered to be compulsory before pursuing any sexual activity. When defined broadly, marriage is considered a cultural universal. A marriage ceremony is called a wedding.

Polygyny Mating system in which the male partner may have multiple partners

Polygyny is the most common and accepted form of polygamy, entailing the marriage of a man with several women. Polyandry is another form of polygamy in which women practice having two or more husbands. Most countries that permit polygyny today are Muslim-majority countries.

Polygamy is the practice of marrying multiple spouses. When a man is married to more than one wife at the same time, sociologists call this polygyny. When a woman is married to more than one husband at a time, it is called polyandry. If a marriage includes multiple husbands and wives, it can be called a group marriage.

Levirate marriage is a type of marriage in which the brother of a deceased man is obliged to marry his brother's widow. The term levirate is a derivative of the Latin word levir, meaning "husband's brother".

Group marriage is a marriage-like arrangement where three or more adults live together, all considering themselves partners, sharing finances, children, and household responsibilities. Group marriage is considered a form of polyamory. The term does not refer to bigamy as no claim to being married in formal legal terms is necessary.

Polyandry is a rare marital arrangement in which a woman has several husbands. In Tibet, those husbands are often brothers; "fraternal polyandry". Concern over which children are fathered by which brother falls on the wife alone. She may or may not say who the father is because she does not wish to create conflict in the family or is unsure who the biological father is. Historically the social system compelled marriage within a social class.

The type, functions, and characteristics of marriage vary from culture to culture, and can change over time. In general there are two types: civil marriage and religious marriage, and typically marriages employ a combination of both. Marriages between people of differing religions are called interfaith marriages, while marital conversion, a more controversial concept than interfaith marriage, refers to the religious conversion of one partner to the other's religion for sake of satisfying a religious requirement.

Polygyny in Islam Practice of men having more than one wife in Islam

Traditional Sunni and Shia Islamic marital jurisprudence allows Muslim men to be married to multiple women — up to four at any point in time.

Melvyn C. Goldstein is an American social anthropologist and Tibet scholar. His research focuses on Tibetan society, history and contemporary politics, population studies, polyandry, studies in cultural and development ecology, economic change and cross-cultural gerontology.

There were three main social groups in Tibet prior to 1959, namely ordinary laypeople, lay nobility, and monks. The ordinary layperson could be further classified as a peasant farmer (shing-pa) or nomadic pastoralist (trokpa).

Polygamy is "the practice or custom of having more than one wife or husband at the same time." Polygamy has been practiced by many cultures throughout history.

Monogamy is a form of dyadic relationship in which an individual has only one partner during their lifetime—alternately, only one partner at any one time —as compared to non-monogamy. The term is also applied to the social behavior of some animals, referring to the state of having only one mate at any one time.

Polygamy in India

Polygamy in India is outlawed. While polygamy was not prohibited in Ancient India and it was common among aristocrats and emperors, it is believed that it was not a major cultural practice. The lack of prohibition was in part due to the separation between land laws and religion, and partially since all of the major religions of India portrayed polygamy in a neutral light.

Polyandry in India overview about Polyandry in India

Polyandry in India refers to the practice of polyandry, whereby a woman has two or more husbands at the same time, either historically on the Indian subcontinent or currently in the country of India. An early example can be found in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, in which Draupadi, daughter of the king of Panchala, is married to five brothers.

Polygamy in Sri Lanka is a criminal offence.

Legality of polygamy Polygamy around the world

The legal status of polygamy varies widely around the world. Polygyny is legal in 58 out of nearly 200 sovereign states, the vast majority of them being Muslim-majority countries in Africa and Asia. Polyandry is illegal in virtually every country. A number of countries permit polygyny among Muslims in their communities. Some countries that permit polygyny have restrictions, such as requiring the first wife to give her consent.

Polygamy has three specific forms:

Polygamy is legal in Bhutan regarding the consent of future wives. There is no legal recognition granted to polygamous spouses under civil law of Bhutan or customary law. Women in Bhutan may by custom be married to several husbands, however they are allowed only one legal husband. The legal status of married couples among polygamous and polyandrous households impacts the division of property upon divorce and survivorship, as well as general admissibility of the marital relationship in courts.

Polyandry in nature overview about Polyandry in nature

In behavioral ecology, polyandry is a class of mating system where one female mates with several males in a breeding season. Polyandry is often compared to the polygyny system based on the cost and benefits incurred by members of each sex. Polygyny is where one male mates with several females in a breeding season . A common example of polyandrous mating can be found in the field cricket of the invertebrate order Orthoptera. Polyandrous behavior is also prominent in many other insect species, including the red flour beetle and the species of spider Stegodyphus lineatus. Polyandry also occurs in some primates such as marmosets, mammal groups, the marsupial genus' Antechinus and bandicoots, around 1% of all bird species, such as jacanas and dunnocks, insects such as honeybees, and fish such as pipefish.

Kandyan law is the customary law that originates from the Kingdom of Kandy, which is applicable to Sri Lankans who are Buddhist and from the former provinces of the Kandyan Kingdom. It is one of three customary laws which are still in use in Sri Lanka. The other two customary laws are the Thesavalamai and the Muslim law. At present it governs aspects of marriage, adoption, transfer of property and inheritance, as codified in 1938 in the Kandyan Law Declaration and Amendment Ordinance.


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Further reading