Most of us know about traditional polygamy in the sense of one husband having many wives. It's practiced all over the world, including clandestinely in the United States. But where are the cultures in which one woman has many husbands? And what are they like? Take a look at the relatively rare practice of polyandry.
When people on the news mention that this or that country, culture, or compound "practices polygamy," I tend to prick up my ears. Generally, if it's making the news rather than the culture section, it means that the practice is what should be more accurately described as traditional polygyny. While there are modern-day "poly" people who have multiple partners of either sex, and there are traditional plural marriages in which one man takes many wives, one woman taking more than one husband is extremely rare anywhere. Outside of Paint Your Wagon — come for Clint Eastwood singing, stay for a woman nonchalantly marrying two guys — polyandry is almost unknown, but it's not unpracticed.
There are a lot historical mentions of polyandry. Julius Ceasar wrote that the ancient Britons were a polygamous society in which sometimes men could have multiple wives and sometimes women could have multiple husbands. The Irigwe people of Nigeria practiced a woman having co-husbands, until their council voted to outlaw it in 1968. Until then, women moved from house to house, taking on multiple spouses, and the children's paternity was assigned to the husband whose house the woman lived in at the time. Women in the ancient Amazon had multiple husbands, as well as men having multiple wives.
Polyandry evolved, like many other marriage systems, as a pragmatic way of property management and population control. Like many other pre-birth-control cultures, the people in the parts of India that climbed the Himalayan mountain range, had a limited amount of farming land and a lot of sons. Those in medieval Europe dealt with the problem by dividing their properties or by giving the property only to the eldest son while the others went to the army or the church.
People in these Indian societies simply found a girl who was approximately the age of all of the brothers, and married her to all of them. They all stayed in the same house and worked the same land. One woman would only bear so many children, but each man got a chance to be a father, and got a secure living. The children all knew their biological father, but the practice was to call the eldest man "father," and his younger brothers "uncle." That system remained in place until only two generations ago — when money and opportunities to live comfortably elsewhere started coming into the land, allowing men to get jobs or buy land and leave the marriage. It's not uncommon for sixty to eighty-year-old women to have multiple husbands still.
It is not common for younger women to have multiple husbands. Polyandry seems to be dying out faster than polygyny, and for one main reason — economic opportunity. In an interview, a man in Nepal explained the tradition this way: "You can even be rich living with a shared wife. Property has to be divided if you live with a separate wife. This makes you poor and you cant have enough food to eat." Of the forty-eight households in the town in which he resides, fifteen of them are polyandrous. Shared wives are also not uncommon. In other towns, though, children of polyandrous marriages are beginning to get teased, and brothers who don't want to share a wife are striking out on their own. As more of the outside world penetrates the community, men have more of a secure chance to make their way out of the town and have enough to eat with a wife of their own. The same opportunities aren't necessarily there for women in polygynous marriages.