Early Marriage Mores

Marriage is the institutional response of the social organism to the ever-present biologic tension of man’s unremitting urge to reproduction — self-propagation. Mating is universally natural, and as society evolved from the simple to the complex, there was a corresponding evolution of the mating mores, the genesis of the marital institution. Wherever social evolution has progressed to the stage at which mores are generated, marriage will be found as an evolving institution.

There always have been and always will be two distinct realms of marriage: the mores, the laws regulating the external aspects of mating, and the otherwise secret and personal relations of men and women. Always has the individual been rebellious against the sex regulations imposed by society; and this is the reason for this agelong sex problem: Self-maintenance is individual but is carried on by the group; self-perpetuation is social but is secured by individual impulse.

The mores, when respected, have ample power to restrain and control the sex urge, as has been shown among all races. Marriage standards have always been a true indicator of the current power of the mores and the functional integrity of the civil government. But the early sex and mating mores were a mass of inconsistent and crude regulations. Parents, children, relatives, and society all had conflicting interests in the marriage regulations. But in spite of all this, those races which exalted and practiced marriage naturally evolved to higher levels and survived in increased numbers.

In primitive times marriage was the price of social standing; the possession of a wife was a badge of distinction. The savage looked upon his wedding day as marking his entrance upon responsibility and manhood. In one age, marriage has been looked upon as a social duty; in another, as a religious obligation; and in still another, as a political requirement to provide citizens for the state.

Many early tribes required feats of stealing as a qualification for marriage; later peoples substituted for such raiding forays, athletic contests and competitive games. The winners in these contests were awarded the first prize — choice of the season’s brides. Among the head-hunters a youth might not marry until he possessed at least one head, although such skulls were sometimes purchasable. As the buying of wives declined, they were won by riddle contests, a practice that still survives among many groups of the black man.

With advancing civilization, certain tribes put the severe marriage tests of male endurance in the hands of the women; they thus were able to favor the men of their choice. These marriage tests embraced skill in hunting, fighting, and ability to provide for a family. The groom was long required to enter the bride’s family for at least one year, there to live and labor and prove that he was worthy of the wife he sought.

The qualifications of a wife were the ability to perform hard work and to bear children. She was required to execute a certain piece of agricultural work within a given time. And if she had borne a child before marriage, she was all the more valuable; her fertility was thus assured.

The fact that ancient peoples regarded it as a disgrace, or even a sin, not to be married, explains the origin of child marriages; since one must be married, the earlier the better. It was also a general belief that unmarried persons could not enter spiritland, and this was a further incentive to child marriages even at birth and sometimes before birth, contingent upon sex. The ancients believed that even the dead must be married. The original matchmakers were employed to negotiate marriages for deceased individuals. One parent would arrange for these intermediaries to effect the marriage of a dead son with a dead daughter of another family.

Among later peoples, puberty was the common age of marriage, but this has advanced in direct proportion to the progress of civilization. Early in social evolution peculiar and celibate orders of both men and women arose; they were started and maintained by individuals more or less lacking normal sex urge.

Many tribes allowed members of the ruling group to have sex relations with the bride just before she was to be given to her husband. Each of these men would give the girl a present, and this was the origin of the custom of giving wedding presents. Among some groups it was expected that a young woman would earn her dowry, which consisted of the presents received in reward for her sex service in the bride’s exhibition hall.

Some tribes married the young men to the widows and older women and then, when they were subsequently left widowers, would allow them to marry the young girls, thus insuring, as they expressed it, that both parents would not be fools, as they conceived would be the case if two youths were allowed to mate. Other tribes limited mating to similar age groups. It was the limitation of marriage to certain age groups that first gave origin to ideas of incest. (In India there are even now no age restrictions on marriage.)

Under certain mores widowhood was greatly to be feared, widows being either killed or allowed to commit suicide on their husbands’ graves, for they were supposed to go over into spiritland with their spouses. The surviving widow was almost invariably blamed for her husband’s death. Some tribes burned them alive. If a widow continued to live, her life was one of continuous mourning and unbearable social restriction since remarriage was generally disapproved.

In olden days many practices now regarded as immoral were encouraged. Primitive wives not infrequently took great pride in their husbands’ affairs with other women. Chastity in girls was a great hindrance to marriage; the bearing of a child before marriage greatly increased a girl’s desirability as a wife since the man was sure of having a fertile companion.

Many primitive tribes sanctioned trial marriage until the woman became pregnant, when the regular marriage ceremony would be performed; among other groups the wedding was not celebrated until the first child was born. If a wife was barren, she had to be redeemed by her parents, and the marriage was annulled. The mores demanded that every pair have children.

These primitive trial marriages were entirely free from all semblance of license; they were simply sincere tests of fecundity. The contracting individuals married permanently just as soon as fertility was established. When modern couples marry with the thought of convenient divorce in the background of their minds if they are not wholly pleased with their married life, they are in reality entering upon a form of trial marriage and one that is far beneath the status of the honest adventures of their less civilized ancestors.


Urantia Book. (1955). Early Marriage Mores. Chicago, IL: Urantia Foundation.

Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them (Matt 7:20).

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