The Marriage of St. Ursula and Prince Conan, 1522

Marriage: Is the Sacred Bond a Result of Social Evolution or Deliberate Design?

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Getting married is an age-old celebration, which commemorates the joining of two individuals together in matrimony.  For many in today’s society it represents picking out invitations, dresses, decorations, food and flowers, and finally ‘tying the knot’. Yet getting married is more than just fun and frivolities.  It is a ritualized contract that forms a legal partnership between the individuals. This contract establishes the rights and obligations between the happy couple and those of any potential offspring. 

Marriage is heavily steeped in local customs and religious dogma. It is believed that the institution of marriage found its origin in the ancient world as a means of preserving power, forging alliances, acquiring land, and producing legitimate heirs. It is also seen as a way of organizing families, and like most other social institutions, this time-honored tradition has evolved over the centuries. 

So where did the ancient rules of marriage come from?  What was their foundation? 

Origins of Marriage

The earliest evidence supporting marriage, and the marriage contract, dates back about 4,000 years to Sumerian law, and is documented in the Code of Hammurabi.  This ancient legal codex contains 33 specific edicts that establish the rights and obligations of married couples and cover topics including bride-price, divorce, marital debt, incest and adultery.  The well thought out concepts contained within this early text make it clear that the rules and regulations associated with marriage have a much older past.

The upper part of the stela of Hammurabis' code of laws.

The upper part of the stela of Hammurabis' code of laws. ( Public Domain )

As we delve into the roots and history of marriage, a number of interesting facts quickly emerge.  Early explorers, as they traveled the globe to investigate indigenous cultures, unearthed revealing information regarding marriage. They discovered that even the most remote, seemingly primitive groups they interacted with had well defined systems that regulated marriage as well. 

If we look at our nearest relative in the animal kingdom, the chimpanzee, the concept of monogamous pairing does not exist. It is not part of their genetic makeup. They do not possess an inner drive that propels male and female chimpanzees to bond with one another. Instead of creating a loose marital bond, their predisposition is to randomly mate with multiple partners. 

If the compulsion to bond with our mate is not part of our genetic makeup, did we, as part of human social evolution, create societal rules to regulate marriage? If we did, one would expect the conventions, rules, requirements and obligations surrounding marriage to fluctuate from place to place and community to community.

Hymenaios, God of wedding ceremonies Room 3 of the Baths of Neptune, Ostia Antica, Latium, Italy

Hymenaios, God of wedding ceremonies Room 3 of the Baths of Neptune, Ostia Antica, Latium, Italy. (CC BY 2.5 )

Dr. Ashley Montague, a noted British-American anthropologist, stated, “ There are no societies in which marriage does not exist. ” He goes on to state, “ If marriage developed in a random, haphazard, evolutionary fashion, one might expect that ‘marriage’ would be found in some cultures but not in others. The evidence, however, simply did not support that view. ” The early systems of marital laws he uncovered were remarkably consistent around the globe, so consistent that early pioneers in the world of anthropology stated that this tradition bears the stamp of “deliberate design”.

Social Controls and Taboos

The indigenous groups that were surveyed, in these early explorations, revealed a system of social control, which they believed, existed prior to our modern laws and other government-implied sanctions.  They believed that these primordial rules, or taboos, evolved until they were codified into religious commandments and secular laws, many of which have survived until today. 

Toiletry and Wedding.

Toiletry and Wedding . ( CC BY 2.0 )

Taboo (tabu/tapu) is a Polynesian word that is associated with a person, place or thing that is prohibited or banned. These prohibitions were impressed upon individuals at an early age and were maintained generation after generation. A vast number of things have a history of being universally prohibited.  Some include touching or being exposed to a corpse or menstruating woman.  These were perceived as being unclean and contact with them was forbidden. Two of the oldest, longest lasting and most consistent taboos found around the world revolve around having sex with a married woman (adultery) and having sexual relations with someone from your own clan. Both were expressly forbidden. 

Adultery, a Forbidden Act

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