In the Smart Pop Classics’ Summer of YA Romance series, we share greatest hits from our throwback YA essay collections. This week, Kristin Cast discusses the normalcy of polygamy in the House of Night in her essay “Misunderstood,” from Nyx in the House of Night.
Zoey Redbird takes a lot of crap for having multiple boyfriends. I’m sure, if she were sitting here next to me, she would be pretty upset about being called a slut, a tramp, a whore, and all of the other negative nouns that are thrown at her. I get tons of messages on Facebook from people who make hurtful comments, and I know that our administrative assistant Camden Clark, who keeps up with our House of Night Facebook, MySpace, and email, constantly has to stand up for Zoey. (I do want to point out that, in earlier novels, the guys in Zoey’s life should have definitely known about each other. The whole not- being-honest thing doesn’t ever go over very well.) My mom and I are often asked when we will make her choose just one guy to be with forever and ever and ever and ever. I can tell you that won’t be happening anytime soon. She’s a teenager and it’s unhealthy for a teen to be focused on one guy and one guy only. Girls shouldn’t spend months, weeks, or even days obsessing over boys they won’t remember in five years. But, when Zoey is mature and experienced and truly knows herself, she’ll pick just one guy . . . maybe.
I say that not only to tease you, but also because within the vampyre society of the House of Night, Zoey doesn’t have to choose one mate forever if she doesn’t want to. As a High Priestess, she can have a human consort, a warrior, a vamp boyfriend, or any combination of them. In our heavily matriarchal vampyre society, the practice of having multiple partners has been going on for hundreds of years, so it’s completely normal!
Shocking, I know, but being in a relationship with multiple partners and having society think it’s “normal” isn’t some crazy new idea we created for the series. Most people are familiar with the word polygamy, when a man has multiple wives or a woman has multiple husbands—though it’s often confused with polygyny, which only addresses a man who has more than one wife. Polygyny has been around for hundreds of years, appearing in many cultures for many reasons. Some factors that might have contributed to the development of polygyny include there being significantly more women than men in a particular society, practical household reasons (women are able to divide tasks in polygynous relationships, and having extra parents around may benefit their children), and plain old egotistical reasons.
Prior to Christian colonization, various African cultures accepted this practice 100 percent (and many countries in Africa still do today, though that acceptance isn’t absolute; the controversial Jacob Zuma, who was elected president of South Africa in 2009, has come under heavy criticism in regards to his having three wives).
In places like western Kenya, a man having many wives and children was seen as a symbol of status and wealth, and he could have as many as he could afford. Men had to pay dowries for each wife, so the more wives a man had the more obvious his wealth was to the people in the village. Following old traditions, the current king of Swaziland, Mswati III, has fourteen wives and twenty- three children. And if you think that’s excessive, by the time his father King Sobhuza II died, he had amassed seventy wives and over a thousand children!
Polygynous arrangements usually started with what we now think of as a “normal” heterosexual marriage between a man and a woman. The first wife, also called the senior wife, would help her husband look for a second wife if she was getting older and/or needed help meeting household needs such as farm- work, child rearing, and just plain taking care of the husband. Even though the husband could make the decision on his own to find another wife, he would have to consult the senior wife beforehand on things like familial reputation, beauty, values, mental stability, and physical strength. As the senior wife, her position was always respected, and she would always be involved in the addition of subsequent wives. Rarely based on love, the foundations of these marriages instead were based in mutual respect and support. Each spouse’s role and status had to be clearly outlined and acknowledged to maintain a harmonious balance, though obviously, this was not always the case as jealousies and power trips understandably resulted in tension.
This way of life changed drastically for many Africans once Christian settlers and missionaries began to arrive on the continent, but don’t let their lofty goals fool you. Officially they were monogamous and held the strong belief that God had declared that men were to only be with one wife because “the two,” not three, four, or five, “will become one flesh,” but they definitely were not innocent. The settlers who came to Liberia came up with something called Chrismonopoly. (Ooooo! Sounds fun! Let’s all play!) This hodgepodge of a word is not like your favorite fake-money board game, but if you’d like to play this historic game, go ahead!
1. Be a Christian settler.
2. Involve yourself in a monogamous marriage with a Christian wife.
3. (This is the tricky one) While in your monogamous marriage, engage in relationships with native Liberian women.
4. Remember that you’re not involved in a polygynous relationship. It’s Chrismonopoly
Umm, yeah right. If it quacks like a duck . . .
The Hebrew bible, the Torah (aka the Old Testament, for Christians), says that polygyny was practiced in ancient Israelite societies and even mentions approximately forty polygynists, including Abraham, Jacob (remember Rachel and Leah?), and, of course, King Solomon. The Torah even includes specific regulations on the practice and states that husbands should make sure that multiple marriages “don’t diminish the status of the first wife.”
In China, as early as 1911 polygyny was written in the law, but it had actually already been practiced for thousands of years because of the importance their culture places on having children. Emperors could have hundreds, even thousands, of concubines and wives, which would allow for way more kids than simple monogamy. Rich officials and merchants could also have multiple women, thereby increasing their number of children. It was believed that if a man was able to successfully manage not only himself but a family that involved many wives and children, then he would also be able to bring together and manage a nation. Today, polygyny is still practiced in Mainland China, though it was banned there in 1951 under the Marriage Law.
By this time, I bet you’re wondering where all the women’s rights stuff is and whether or not there’s any kind of “poly” dedicated to those with internal genitalia. Well, you’re in luck! Polyandry is the term used to describe women who have multiple husbands . . . and lots of patience.
The idea of a polyandrous society was around way before the patriarchal society we are so accustomed to today. In fact, though there’s a lot of debate on the issue, scholars such as Edward Hartland, Robert Briffault, and Johann Bachofen believe that most societies were originally matriarchal and matrilineal and even practiced polyandry (though they viewed this as just one of the steps in our evolutionary development toward superior patriarchal societies). Sociologist V. Klein suggests that “in early society women wielded the main sources of wealth; they were the owners of the house, the producers of food, they provided shelter and security. Economically,” she points out, “man was dependent upon woman.” (You can read a lot more about early matriarchal societies in When God Was a Woman, by Merlin Stone.)
These cultural practices may not have lasted in the real world, but you can still see them in many mythologies. In Hindu mythology, Princess Draupadi (she actually had many other names that include Panchali, Parsati, Yognyaseni, and Krishnaa) married five brothers who were known as the five Pandavas. These brothers were not only her husbands, but also acted as bodyguards (or Guardians!), protecting her from anyone who wanted to do her harm. On one occasion, Draupadi was kidnapped, and when her husbands found out, they immediately came to her rescue. Draupadi was amazing. She was said to have grown from the fire out of her father’s vengeance against his enemy, and she was known for her beauty, her intelligence, and her eagerness to speak her mind in a man’s world. This Indian firecracker has been considered the first feminist in Indian mythology. You go, girl!
Now onto a goddess I’m sure everyone has heard of—Aphrodite. Aphrodite had twelve lovers (though not all at the same time), both mortal and divine. This curvaceous diva of beauty, seduction, love, pleasure, and procreation had a divine consort, Ares, the god of war, as well as a divine husband, Hephaistos. One of the more popular myths about Aphrodite tells of the time she was captured in an invisible net by Hephaistos in the middle of a tryst with Ares. Despite the embarrassment, this event didn’t do much to harm Aphrodite’s image in the eyes of her fellow gods or worshippers, and I don’t think Aphrodite ever received mail about how nasty people thought she was. Mmmhmm. Think about that. She wasn’t alone, either. Many other Greek goddesses had multiple lovers and husbands, just as their male counterparts had multiple lovers and wives.
Living a polygamist lifestyle isn’t something only gods and goddesses or even people across the pond do, and it’s definitely not something that ended a long time ago. It’s alive and well, folks. In case you don’t have a TV or the internet, or live under a rock, polygamy—or at least polygyny—has made its way onto the boob tube, and not in a very female-friendly way.
From BET to HBO to TLC, our televisions are flooded with images of men with multiple women. Rap music and videos preach and depict that it doesn’t only make you a bigger, better, badder man to have a nice car with big rims, but also that it is imperative to be with as many women as possible. Because what woman doesn’t want a guy with nice rims, undiagnosed STDs, and a plethora of baby mamas? (Having a kid with a woman may not be marriage, but it’s still a long-term commitment.) HBO’s Big Love depicts a Mormon polygamist family, and producers spent years researching the show’s premise to be sure they depicted the fake family’s lifestyle fairly and without bias. TLC’s new show Sister Wives (which I record and watch religiously) follows the real-life activities and drama of a polygamist family and how they handle the addition of a fourth wife.
Much like how the news has desensitized us to violence, our cable televisions have desensitized us to this seriously unbalanced patriarchal practice. Where’s our modern polyandry? On an episode of Sister Wives, Kody, the husband, and his first wife, Mary, were out to dinner for their twenty-year anniversary. Mary began a conversation about a fourth wife who would soon enter their plural family and the jealousy issues she was dealing with. When she asked him how he would feel if she was giving attention to another guy, Kody was clearly taken aback and responded to her by saying, “Obviously, that’s just not something I’m comfortable with imagining. The vulgarity of the idea of you with two husbands, or another lover, sickens me. It seems wrong to God and nature” (“1st Wife’s 20th Anniversary,” 1-5). Hmm, interesting.
Today, plural marriage—which is the fundamentalist Mormon phrase for polygyny—is practiced among thousands mostly in the United States, Mexico, and Canada. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (in the United States this is usually the church that people automatically think of when they think about polygamy) says that they totally prohibit plural marriage and have for the past hundred years and “if any of our members are found to be practicing plural marriage, they are excommunicated, the most serious penalty the Church can impose. Not only are those so involved in direct violation of the civil law, they are in violation of the law of this Church.” But church law isn’t the only law broken in polygamist relationships since they are illegal. Yep, I said illegal, not that the thirty to fifty thousand people who participate actually care since they have an extremely small chance of actually being prosecuted. Well, unless there’s evidence of abuse, rape, welfare fraud, or tax evasion.
Though Mormonism prohibits plural marriage, it does acknowledge polygamy. To Mormons, though, it is a divine principle that applies in heaven but is not practiced on earth. Polygamy was first introduced into the faith in the 1830s by Joseph Smith, who was considered God’s authorized servant on earth, appointed to “dispense” the gospel to humanity. Smith believed that ancient principles, like polygamy, must be incorporated with new principles, like monogamy. Not all Mormons jumped on board the polygamy train, but many did see value in the practice. Plural marriage was a way to bring them together and give them a distinct identity, allowing them to raise their children to become “righteous seed”—since being raised with a certain belief makes you more likely to commit to it in adulthood. (There’s no hope of escaping; you’ll definitely turn into your parents.) Plural marriage also ensured that this “righteous seed” would grow into numerous descendants. And for any of you out there who think they do it all for the sex, you’re totally wrong. Some Mormon polygamists marry for eternity only, which means that the wife is only on the man’s rolls in heaven. It also means that the wife is not allowed to have sex on earth. None. Ever.
There’s one modern practice, at least, that’s more fair when it comes to having multiple partners, and that’s polyamory, which is when people are involved in more than one intimate relationship at a time but are totally open about it. This type of relationship is not only based on love, but also honesty, communication, and trust. The important part is that everyone involved in a polyamorous relationship—whether it’s between a man and two (or more) women, a woman and two (or more) men, or any other combination—is okay with it. If so, who are the rest of us to judge?
The House of Night series and Zoey’s juggling act have modernized ancient mythology and the history of our species, reaching back to our matriarchal past and using it as a tool to empower women of all ages. I am not asking you to run around being in relationships with multiple men at the same time, or encouraging anyone else to. I just want women to stop judging each other and stand together. If men can pat themselves on the back, so can we.
Want more on vampyrs? Order your copy of Nyx in the House of Night.