A Short History of Marriage: Barbara G. Walker

A column by Barabara G. Walker

The religious right “family values” defenders of marriage as a religious institution reserved for one man and one woman might be surprised at the real history of marriage under Christianity.

By Barbara G. Walker

Throughout prehistory, most people lived in tribes established through maternal kinship lines, not unlike the mother-bonded groups of elephants, whales, dolphins, and some other mammals. Such bonding was the foundation of the village, and of cooperative groups that enabled humans to lay the groundwork of civilization.

Human males were once as unaware of fatherhood as any other mammals, but all people knew they were born of, and raised by, a mother. Men claimed no ownership of children. Our cartoon Paleolithic “cave man” with a club intimidating “his” mate and “his” offspring is an absurdity derived from our modern patriarchism. It seems much more likely that women owned the cave and the land, provided most of the tribe’s food and clothing, planned and built dwellings with the men’s help, shared child care, and coupled with various men whenever they felt like it. Certainly there was no such concept as monogamy, even though some women may have retained particular males for long periods, or even for life. Like other mammalian females, women probably ignored men when they were pregnant or nursing. This custom still prevailed in many primitive cultures recently studied.

Every female’s first priority is her offspring. Ancient Hindu writings speak of the principle of motherhood, karuna, as the original source of every other kind of love. Hindu scriptures also say that out of their great inner creativity, women first invented agriculture, weaving, pottery, graphic arts, alphabets, writing, music, calendars, systems of measurement, religious rituals, and mathematics. According to the Vayu Purana, “male ancestors” thought women’s birthgiving magic was related to their mastery of measuring and figuring, and the men supposed that if they could only learn those skills, they too could bear children.

The apparently exclusive female ability to create and nurture new life gave rise to thousands of versions of the first deity, the Great Mother Goddess who gave birth to the universe. Figures of this deity are found throughout the Neolithic period. She was not associated with any male god until a fairly late date. Like her most recent, greatly diluted incarnation, the Virgin Mary, the original Great Goddess, was both Mother of God and Bride of God, because she gave birth to all the gods, then chose one of them to be her consort. This theme of divine mother/son incest occurs in many mythologies around the world.

At the beginning of history, men could claim spiritual and secular authority by association with a representative of the Great Goddess. Early kingships depended on the king’s marriage to his nation’s Mother Earth, in the form of a high priestess or queen. Landowners in pre-Christian Scandinavia were kvaens, “queens,” the same as Saxon cwenes. Scriptures from Babylon and Phoenicia speak of the time when fatherhood was unknown, but kings could rule by means of a hieros gamos, a “sacred marriage” with the Goddess.

The high priest of ancient Rome, the Flamen Dialis, had no power unless he was married to the high priestess, the Flaminia. If she died or divorced him, he lost his office. Similarly in Judaism, a rabbi had to be married to be considered spiritually empowered. In India, even today, it is said that every god must have his Shakti, an emanation of the Great Goddess as a divine muse, because godlike potency is gained only through women: “Women are Life itself.”

When men finally discovered that they had something to do with reproduction, they began to claim the allegiance of offspring, especially in the form of post-mortem father-worship, which could turn the soul of an ancestor into an immortal, just as mother-worship had done for thousands of years. This is why the biblical God promises his patriarchal followers vast numbers of descendants (Genesis 17:6). The bible’s long lists of “begats” show how important it seemed to credit the fathers, although these lists probably were plagiarized from earlier mother-lists, since many of the names are actually female, and the word translated “begat” in English originally meant “gave birth to.”

The bible maintains a wholly patriarchized view of a wife as a husband’s property, because it was necessary to restrict each woman’s sexual activities to one man only, so he could be sure that the children she bore were his alone. Therefore, according to biblical rules, a wife can’t divorce her husband, but a husband can get rid of an unwanted wife simply by writing her a “bill of divorcement” and turning her out of the house. If she remarries, and is again divorced, she can’t return to her original husband because she is “defiled”–that is, by another man’s semen (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). A bride found not to be a virgin must be stoned to death at her father’s door by “the men of her city.” A priest can’t marry any woman with previous sexual experience of any kind, for this would “profane his seed among the people” (Leviticus 21:15). If a betrothed girl has an affair with another man, she must be killed. If a virgin who is not betrothed is raped, she must marry her rapist, who pays her father fifty shekels of silver for her (Deuteronomy 22:21-29). The female victim has no say in the matter.

Under patriarchy, therefore, widows and divorced women may be considered damaged goods. Jesus says in Matthew 5:32 that any man who marries a divorcee is guilty of the sin of adultery. Biblical laws of inheritance in Numbers 27 leave widows destitute. If a man dies with no son, his daughter may inherit his estate; but if there is no daughter, it goes to his brothers; if he has no brothers, it goes to his father’s brothers. The widow is not even mentioned.

Biblical marriage laws gave a husband full control of his wife’s personal affairs. The validity of her “word of honor” depended on his approval. She couldn’t fulfill a promise or a vow if he disallowed it. The same control was exerted by a father over an unmarried daughter; but when she married, each woman’s husband became her father-like authority (Numbers 30). These were (and are) God’s laws.

According to St. Paul, women were forbidden to speak in Christian churches. “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” (1 Timothy 2:11). He ordered husbands to “Let your woman keep silence in the churches; for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the Law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home; for it is a shame for women to speak in church” (1 Corinthians 14:34-35). This founder of the Christian religion declared that “The head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man” (1 Corinthians 11:3).

Obviously it was necessary for men to institute strict monogamy (only for women, of course) to be sure that the children were of their own begetting. Middle-eastern mythologies state that the Great Goddess did not approve of the new institution of monogamous marriage; but the biblical God makes a great point of it. Biblical kings like David and Solomon could have multitudes of wives and concubines, and all their warriors were free to take captive enemy women into their households to be sex slaves or additional wives; but every woman was constrained to be faithful to her master. It was the men’s insecurity about paternity that made female infidelity a capital crime, but male infidelity a mere peccadillo; here originated the notorious double standard. The issue was not only ancestor-worship for men in the after-life, but also control of earthly property. By long-established custom, women were the owners of land and dwellings. The biblical matriarch Naomi advised her daughters-in-law to return to their mothers’ houses, since at the time fathers were not the homeowners among Canaanites (Ruth 1:8). Genesis 2:24 speaks of the ancient matrilocal marriage customs, when a man shall “leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife.” In earlier times, men left their mothers’ houses to live in the houses of their wives.

In the classical world, marriage was generally sacred to the Goddess, whether she was called Juno, Venus, Hestia, Hera, Aphrodite, or many other names. Wedding rituals were hers. In some myths, the Goddess declared monogamy sinful, and blessed group marriages in pre-patriarchal style. Old laws of the Goddess also provided for matrilineal inheritance, which long remained in force in many areas. Our word “husband” came from the Saxon definition of a man bonded to the hus (house) as s steward under its true owner, the hus-wyf. Similarly, the word “bridegroom” was literally the bride’s servant. “Bride,” or Brigit, was one of the old Celtic names for the Goddess of marriage, who was later mendaciously canonized as a Christian saint.

Early Christian authorities rejected marriage, for the very reason that it was Goddess-oriented, and also on grounds of eschatology. Since they believed that the world was going to end at any moment, according to Jesus’ promise, they saw no point in continuing another generation–for their savior specifically stated that the world would end in his own generation (Luke 9:27). However, as the decades wore on and the world did not end, fathers of the church turned even more firmly against marriage because they thought universal virginity was needed to bring about the promised kingdom of Christ.

St. Jerome said the purpose of every godly man should be “to cut down with the ax of Virginity the wood of Marriage.”1 St. Ambrose called marriage a crime against God. Origen said, “Matrimony is impure and unholy, a means of sexual passion.” Tatian said marriage is “a polluted and foul way of life,” and Tertullian described it as an obscenity, a moral crime, “more dreadful than any punishment or any death.” St. Augustine flatly declared marriage a sin. Saturninus explained that God made only two kinds of people, good men and evil women, and marriage turned good men toward evil.2 Jesus himself said there could be no marriage in heaven (Matthew 22:30, Mark 12:25). St. Bernard wrote that it is easier for a man to bring the dead back to life than to live with a woman without endangering his own soul.3

For many centuries therefore, marriage remained outside the church, under the auspices of common law. It was grudgingly accepted by religious authorities only when new laws restricted a wife’s rights of ownership and inheritance, taking the means of independence away from women and turning them over to men.

Priests had abandoned the early church’s rule of celibacy and had begun to take wives in the 5th and 6th centuries. But in the 11th century, the church decided to forbid clerical marriages, because they produced children to inherit property. When an unmarried priest died, all his property reverted to the church. Therefore, new papal decretals commended clergymen to turn their wives out on the street and sell their children as slaves. Some of the wives stayed on as concubines, though they were disinherited in the church’s favor.4 By this means the church acquired a great new influx of wealth, although the women and children who were left destitute suffered terribly.5

Marriage continued under the common law up to the 13th century, having no endorsement by canon law. Historian F.C. Conybeare says, “Nothing is more remarkable than the tardiness with which liturgical forms for the marriage ceremony were evolved by the church.”6 The earliest approach to a Christian ceremony was a simple blessing of the newlyweds in facie ecclesiae–on the porch, outside the church door–to prevent the so-called “pollution” of God’s house. Though this blessing technically violated canon law, in 1215 the fourth Lateran Council granted it legal status because it had become too popular to ignore. It was only in the 16th century that the church finally made the priestly blessing mandatory (and, of course lucrative), refusing to recognize common-law marriages any more.

The Anglican marriage service was taken from Anglo-Saxon deeds formerly used to transfer a woman’s lands to the stewardship of her “hus-band.” The original wording had the bride say: “I take thee to my wedded husband, to have and to hold, for fairer for fouler, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to be bonny and buxom in bed and at board, till death us depart” (sic). An odd little clerical note in the margin explained that “bonny and buxom” really meant “meek and obedient.”7

The church fully sanctioned marriage only when it became a primary means for keeping women “meek and obedient.” Some of the Eastern churches insisted that a bride at her wedding must kneel and place her bridegroom’s foot on her head, and receive a token stroke from a fancy little jeweled whip. Churches eventually accepted marriage on condition that it deprived women of both their autonomy and their traditional control of property. By Victorian times, married women didn’t legally own even their clothes. Wife enslavement and abuse were recommended from the pulpit as activities that would earn a man points in heaven. Blackstone’s “rule of thumb” decreed that a man could beat his wife with a stick, so long as it was no thicker than his thumb.8 Wife-beating became so routine in Western culture that Alsatian New Year decorations symbolized “marriage” by a toy man beating his toy wife.9

Besides losing their property rights after the demise of matrilineal inheritance, Christian women also lost their expression of matrilineity by names. In antiquity, it was the right of each mother to name her infant, and the name she gave was considered an essential part of the soul. In India, it was written that without mothers to give them names, even the gods themselves would pine and die. Greek myth says that when Athenian women lost the vote, the men no longer took their mothers’ names as they had done before. A common custom was for the mother to baptize her newborn with her own breast milk. In French, there is still a term, nom de lait, “milk name,” for a mother-given nickname. But in Christian times, the church preempted the baptismal ceremony, and even forbade a mother to bring her newborn to church before 40 days (for a male child) or 80 days (for a female child) had passed, to dissipate the “pollution” of childbirth. If either the mother or the child died during that period, she or it was considered cut off from the church and consigned directly to hell.

Married women lost even their surnames and became legally invisible, as in many old records that state only a man’s name with the abbreviation et ux., “and wife.” Common English surnames like Johnson, Peterson, Robertson, Jackson, Carlson, Harrison, Thomson, Davidson, Richardson, Wilson, Adamson, Stevenson, etc., all reflect men’s anxiety to claim paternity of sons. Daughters could take the father’s name as simply Peters, Williams, Adams, Richards, and so on; or they could be given diminutive first names based on their fathers,’ such as Georgette, Roberta, Geraldine, Erica, Claudette, Harriet, Carla, Thomasina, Danielle, etc. Names reflecting maternal bloodlines were entirely lost, except for a few in Spanish or Scandinavian tradition.

The idea that couples might marry solely out of romantic love was another leftover from paganism, filtered through the Tantric-style mysticism that came into Europe from the East about the 12th century. Bardic romances, knightly chivalry, the images of the fairy lady-love and her suitor were based on Asian visions of the Shakti, the Muse, and the fravashi or “female Spirit of the Way” originating in Sufism. European men’s courtship customs sometimes made use of such traditions but after marriage tended to revert to the master/slave paradigm encouraged by Christianity. Churchmen taught women to expect this. One wrote that a wife was her husband’s subject, often exposed to blows and kicks: “While men are betrothed they seem filled with gentleness, whereas after marriage they rule as cruel masters.”10

When John Adams was helping to frame the United States Constitution in 1777, his wife Abigail wrote to him: “Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.”11 No one paid attention to Abigail. The founding fathers opined that all men are created equal, not women. American wives remained voiceless, voteless, and legally powerless until the suffragists began to take matters into their own hands, more than a hundred years later.

It was only in 1962 that a judge first questioned the law that battered wives could not sue their husbands for assault, on the ground that such a suit would “destroy the peace of the home.” This so-called Doctrine of Immunity was finally ruled unsound because the peace of the home is already destroyed by a battering husband. Still, even though theoretically protected by law, large numbers of women today are annually killed by husbands or ex-husbands, in one of the most shameful practices of our allegedly civilized society.

Under God’s law, as detailed in the bible, a virgin girl who was raped was afterward forced to marry the man who raped her (Deuteronomy 22:28, 29), which meant that a marriage could begin with violence, and a woman could be forced to spend the rest of her life with a man she feared and loathed. Under Islam, according to Ghazaili’s Council for Kings, a woman must be secluded inside her house, suffering separation from her parents and marriage to a stranger, without any control over her person. She could not divorce her husband but could be readily divorced and cast out, just like the wives of biblical husbands. She must be accompanied by a male relative whenever she ventures outside the home. No woman can have more than one husband, but a man may have up to four wives. In Islamic courts, the testimony of one man is equal to that of two women; and women are forever disqualified for judgeship or any position of authority.12

Such patriarchal concepts of marriage are clearly detrimental to women, as indeed they are intended to be. However, patriarchal societies often made matters even worse for unmarried, divorced, or widowed women, depriving them of any means of support for themselves or their children. Even today there are echoes of those rejected wives of clergymen during the Gregorian Reform who “suffered horribly: reduced to poverty, homeless, exiled . . . they and their children confronted the horrors of starvation, prostitution, servitude, murder, and suicide.”13 Fear keeps abused women in abusive marriages when they believe that they could be even worse off on their own.

On the whole, the history of marriage has not been a happy one. Marlene Dixon writes: “The institution of marriage is the chief vehicle for the perpetuation of the oppression of women; it is through the role of wife that the subjugation of women is maintained.”14 When marriages do turn out to be loving and supportive, it is more to the credit of the individuals involved than to that of cultural or legal backing for the institution.

Recent researches indicate that marriage has always been more beneficial to men than to women. Married men have fewer psychological and emotional problems than single men, whereas for women the proportion is reversed. Psychologist Karen Horney asks, “Is it possible that the male is sexually dependent on the female to a higher degree than the woman is on him, because in women part of the sexual energy is linked to generative processes? Could it be that men, therefore, have a vital interest in keeping women dependent on them?”15

Ever-rising divorce rates show that marriage is not the most satisfactory mode of living for more than half of the people who try it; but many of those keep on trying, over and over, seemingly in the belief that a change of partners will make everything better. Few men object to having a housekeeper who doesn’t have to be paid, and a sexual partner who is always available; that was the Victorian view of marriage, and it still exists in some areas. Women seem to marry mainly because they believe that love will last. Sometimes it does.

Still, it has been ruefully said that our large divorce rate shows that the United States is still the land of the free; while our equally large marriage and remarriage rates show that it is still the home of the brave.

Barbara G. Walker, who is married, is author of the monumental feminist/freethought sourcebook The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (1983). Her many other books, published by Harper & Row, include The Skeptical Feminist. An atheist, she has also specialized in debunking New Age assertions.


1. Fielding, William J. Strange Customs of Courtship and Marriage. New York: Garden City Publishing Co., 1942, pp. 82, 114

2. Bullough, Vern L. The Subordinate Sex. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1973, pp. 103, 112

3. Campbell, Joseph. The Mythic Image. Princeton University Press, 1974, p. 95

4. Noble, David F. A World Without Women: The Christian Clerical Culture of Western Science. New York: Knopf, 1992, pp. 80, 139

5. Harrison, Michael. The Roots of Witchcraft. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1974, p. 197

6. Briffault, Robert. The Mothers (3 vols.) New York: Macmillan, 1927, v. 3, p. 248

7. Hazlitt, W. Carew. Faiths and Folklore of the British Isles (2 vols.) New York: Benjamin Blom, Inc., 1965, p. 447

8. Langley, Roger, & Levy, Richard C. Wife Beating: The Silent Crisis. New York: E.P.Dutton & Co., 1977, pp. 34–36

9. Miles, Clement A. Christmas Customs and Traditions. New York: Dover Publications, 1976, p. 370

10. De Voragine, Jacobus. The Golden Legend. New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1941, p. 282

11. Rugoff, Milton. Prudery and Passion. New York: C.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1971, pp. 169–170

12. DeMeo, James. Saharasia. Greensprings, OR: Orgone Biophysical Lab, 1998, p. 253

13. Noble, op. cit., p. 133

14. Roszak, Betty & Theodore. Masculine/Feminine. New York: Harper & Row, 1969, p. 193

15. Ibid., pp. 109–110s

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