Marriage

 

 

Sometime during his (or her) life nearly every Islander became "married." What being married was differed from one society to another, but every-where included at least publicly approved sexual cohabitation, the sharing of labor and subsistence goods in a common household economy, and the co-parenting of the woman's progeny born during the marriage. The motives that led Islanders to marry differed somewhat from one society to another (and doubtless among members of the same society as well), but common to most Island peoples was their lack of socially defined roles for older bachelors and spinsters. (In other words, not to marry was almost unthinkable.) I will begin the resumi of this institution by listing how Island males obtained their wives. Instances occurred in which the reverse took place, but custom nearly always left initiative with the male side of the relationship.



Genuine forcible bride capture occurred in only a few places, mostly in Melanesia, and in those it was unusual (e.g., a windfall of victorious raiding). There were, however, a few other Island societies in which simulated bride capture was practiced, in some even as the most acceptable way of obtaining a wife. A second, and very widespread, way of obtaining a wife was by inheritance: by acquiring, ofttimes automatically, the widow of one's brother or the sister of one's deceased wife. (The latter, labeled sororate mar-riage, was usually viewed as an action of replacement; the former, called the levirate, as a way of providing the widow with domestic security.)

Obtaining a wife by elopement may have occurred, as the rare exception, in all Island communities, but was socially acceptable for its own members in none. Unless the couple found safe haven in another commu-In virtually all Island societies the m by contractual arrangements between the principals themselves or their respective sets of kinfolk (e.g., their parents, the senior members of their clans, etc.) or both. Moreover, such contracts always involved exchanges between the parties. In the first place, marriages everywhere required direct, more or less balanced exchange of services (sexual, reproductive, subsistence, protective, etc.) between husband and wife. Moreover, marriages in most places also required exchange of goods between relatives of the principals: of services for services, of objects for services, and/or of objects for objects.

The most common kind of service-for-service exchange involved women themselves, not as chattels but as "bundles" of services (e.g., sexual, reproductive, domestic-labor, and so forth). In some societies such wife exchange was explicit, direct, and simultaneous (e.g., one groom's sister for the other's); in others it was implicit, indirect, and delayed (e.g., in the case of two regularly wife-exchanging clans or three or more clans involved in a wife-giving, wife-receiving circuit). (It should be added that in most cases of wife-for-wife exchange, some objects, such as meals, live pigs, shell valuables, fine mats, etc., were also transferred.)

Marriage exchanges featuring objects for services were of two types: those, technically labeled bride price, in which the bulk of the objects was supplied by the side of the husband, and those where the reverse took place, technically labeled dowry. Bride price was much more common than dowry; in Melanesia especially it sometimes comprised very large amounts of goods (e.g., pigs, shell valuables) and hence required loans and gifts to the groom from his relatives and friends. As many ethnographers have noted, the "price" paid for a bride was usually for her sexual, domestic, and reproductive services; in very few societies was it regarded as payment for her as chattel. Moreover, in some places the payments were on occasion so large (so much larger than normally required there) that their rationale was clearly political (i.e., a means to demonstrate the payers', or rather donors' superiority vis-a-vis the donees).

Turning now to transactions of the objects-for-objects type, we see that some (as in Samoa) involved objects associated with males (e.g., weapons, fishing tackle) exchanged for those associated with females (e.g., fine mats), but in most societies featuring this kind of marital transaction the objects exchanged were the same kind (mainly food, usually in the form of feasts). Although equivalence was the ideal behind most object-for-object marital exchanges, the parties sometimes attempted to gain political advantage by giving more than they received.

Reference was made earlier to the matter of spouse choice: from what categories of persons an Islander could, or could not, choose his wife. (Corresponding rules, of course, applied to females as well, but are phrased here in terms of the male, by whom [or his relatives] the specific selection was most commonly made.) I earlier referred to the nuclear-family incest zone within which all sexual relations, including marriage, were prohibited. (That is, except in Hawaii, where marriage between brother and sister was permitted in chiefly families as a means of enhancing the measure of "divinity" passed on to their progeny.)

My earlier reference also went on to state that such prohibitions were in most societies extended to include all relatives classified as "mothers" and "sisters" (e.g., all female clanmates of one's own mother and sister). Regarding the latter, most of the societies of Melanesia and Micronesia were divided members were forbidden to marry one another). In other societies, especially Polynesian, where common-descent units were not exogamous or in societies where common-descent units did not exist, the most common kind of rule governing choice of spouse was kinship distance (i.e., one ought not to marry any consanguine closer than, say, third cousins, on either father's or mother's side). (Further to the Hawaiian case just mentioned, although marriage between closer kin was permitted in some of the more highly class-stratified societies of Polynesia, such exceptions were usually limited to members of the upper classes.)

Further discussion of kin-based spouse choice will be postponed to chapter 4, where kinship in general, and kin groups in particular, will be systematically described. But before proceeding to other aspects of Island marriage it is important to add that in many Pacific Island societies kinship served also to identify whom one ought to marry, as well. Thus, in several of those that were divided into matrilineal clans (i.e., those in which membership devolved through females) a male's preferred, or even prescribed, wife was a daughter of his mother's brother, or one of that daughter's clan "sisters."

Having previously mentioned other wife-choosing criteria such as relative age, comeliness, industriousness, and social class, I pass on to the topic of weddings (i.e., the kind of ceremony that served to unite Islanders in marriage).

In this institution also, Island societies varied widely: from no cere-mony at all (except perhaps for that signaling the move of one of the affianced couple into the other's household, in some cases years before sexual cohabitation commenced), to large public gatherings accompanied by feasting and religious rites. But even in societies where elaborate nuptial ceremonies took place, they did not include an exchange of verbal vows between bride and groom. Instead, the new relationship usually began either with an act of eating together or of sexu

some societies in planned privacy, in others within the sight or hearing of guests. Further to the latter, among some peoples, such as the Samoans, who attributed high value to a bride's virginity, the weddings of chiefly couples were preceded by (and contingent upon) the manual testing, often public, of a bride's virginity.

Another significant aspect of Islanders' marriages had to do with where the couple resided, a circumstance that reflected and served to shape other aspects of a society's culture, and that in many places was set by conventions, in some cases hard-and-fast rules. If both spouses had previously resided in the same community and continued to reside there, the logical possibilities were as follows: they could after marriage reside either virilocally (i.e.,in the household of the husband), or uxorilocally (in that of the wife), or bilocally (part-time in each), or neolocally (in one where neither had previously resided). Or, if they had previously resided in different communities, the same logical possibilities with reference to community, would have obtained.

In most Island societies the most common pattern of marital residence was virilocal. Even among some societies divided into matrilineal clans patterns of marital residence were bilocal or even virilocal. In other words, mathlineality in descent-unit membership did not necessarily result in uxorilocality, no more than it did in matriarchy (i.e., rule by It would require scores of pages to generalize accurately about husband-wife relations in the hundreds of Island societies. Suffice it to say that a division of labor in household matters, and corresponding spheres of authority, obtained in every society, but it was not exactly the same in any two of them. And one must not infer, from men's usual control over most public matters, that they exercised authority over all family and household matters as well. However, instead of attempting to document this caveat I will add a few sentences about two other aspects of Island marriages, namely, secondary marital unions, and divorce.

I know of no Island societies in which there were social or religious sanctions against polygyny (i.e., one husband, more than one wife); indeed, there were some in which it was judged to be enviable. In most of them, however, polygyny per se was neither admired nor (as noted) censured, but was practiced for reasons that were mainly practical or to carry out kinship obligations. An appetite for new and younger sex partners may have reinforced other reasons a man had for acquiring additional wives, but in most places a man did not have to marry to engage in sex. Concerning the practical reasons, there were doubtless situations in which the husband of, say, a barren or sick or decrepit wife required a second one to obtain progeny or to produce enough food for his household. Otherwise, most men were moved to acquire one or more additional wives for reasons that were largely political (e.g., a desire to

produce more food, including pigs, for politically enhancing feasting or gift giving, or a wish for the political alliances that would accompany new marital ties). As for the kinship obligations underlying some marriages, mention was made of them earlier in this section, when describing the practice of levirate.

Polyandry (one wife, more than one husband) was practiced "officially" in only one Island society, that of the Marquesas, and even there the status of a secondary husband, a pekio, seems not to have been as privileged as that of the ahana tuia, or primary one.

Finally, a few words on Islanders' customs regarding divorce. Mercifully, only a very few words are needed, for, in contrast to their many different ways of marrying, their ways of unmarrying were not only simple but nearly everywhere the same, namely, by exit of one or the other of the pair. Reasons for divorce differed both within and between societies, but in substance and in range did not differ markedly from those occurring in other regions of the world.

 


 

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