What Is Polygamy? - Definition, History & Lesson

  • Lesson
  • Quiz
  • Like?
Taught by

Tara DeLecce

Tara has taught Psychology and has a master's degree in evolutionary psychology.

Relationships in which two people are exclusive to one another seems to be the norm in America, but across different time periods and cultures the practice of polygamy is more popular. Read on to find out exactly what polygamy means and what all it entails.

We also recommend watching African Americans in the U.S.: History, Heritage & Cultural Issues and Migration from Rural to Urban Settings in Europe and the U.S.: History and Effects

Definition of Polygamy

Polygamy is defined as a mating system in which an individual has more than one mate simultaneously that can either be male or female. Polygamy is a more general term that encompasses the practice of having multiple mates and should not be confused with the more specific terms of polygyny (having multiple female mates) or polyandry (having multiple male mates).

Polygamy Across History

The most widely recorded polygamy occurred after the beginning of widespread agriculture among civilizations (which included China, India, the Middle East, and parts of Western Europe). This allowed men to own vast amounts of property and be able to gain many resources from their farms. As a result, the men with the most land and resources gained the most social power and they typically had hundreds, if not thousands of wives. As civilizations advanced, the rulers of kingdoms and empires would be the most powerful men with thousands of wives since they had sufficient resources to support them. This left most of the poor men in society with no wives at all.

Other forms of polygamy existed as well. In the time of very early humans when we lived as hunters and gatherers and before official civilizations developed, people lived in tribe-like formations consisting of about 8-10 members. There is some evidence to suggest that these tribes of early humans practiced multi-male and multi-female mating systems. On some occasions, there would be mating amongst all members of a tribe. This sharing of mates still continues in contemporary South American hunter-gatherer tribes. Specifically, in one such tribe, it's the custom that a bride-to-be must mate with all of her husband-to-be's male relatives before she enters into a sexually exclusive relationship with him.

Polygamy didn't just occur amongst heterosexual societies either. In ancient Greece, for example, it was quite common for older high-status men to be married to women and still have sexual relationships most typically with young adolescent males. These relationships would often end, however, once the male reached full maturity and gained higher social status. During this period in history, men and women had little in common which led men to believe that marriage was more of a business contract designed to produce children whereas more romantic relationships occurred between men.

Although many societies have tried to eliminate polygamy through socially-imposed exclusive marriages only consisting of two people (especially in western societies), it's still thriving today. Out of 186 cultures surveyed, over 80% of them claim to be polygamous to some degree (in the form of having more than one wife/mistress simultaneously) while only 16.7 percent claim to be monogamous (marriages or relationships exclusively between two people). Even within this 16.7 percent that only legally allow monogamous marriage, virtually all of them report extramarital affairs within some portions of the population. This technically still makes them polygamous.

Lesson Summary

Polygamy is the practice of having multiple mates that could be of any gender simultaneously. Polygamy may not always be legal in a society, but it has been recorded in virtually every society and culture. In the days of early humans, hunter gatherers engaged in multi-male and multi-female mating practices. When civilizations first developed, the most powerful men with the most land and resources often had thousands of wives while poor men often didn't have wives at all. In ancient Greece, many high status men would marry women and carry on homosexual relationships with adolescent males. In the modern world, polygamy is still reported in virtually all societies, whether it be through legal marriage involving multiple partners or extramarital affairs.

Ace Your Next Test & Improve your Grades

As a member, you'll get unlimited access to over 5,000+ video lessons in Math, English, Science, History, and more. Plus, get practice tests, quizzes, and personalized coaching to help you succeed. Learn More

Start your free trial to take this quiz
As a premium member, you can take this quiz and also access over 8,500 fun and engaging lessons in math, English, science, history, and more. Get access today with a FREE trial!
Free 5-day trial
It only takes a minute to get started. You can cancel at any time.
Already registered? Login here for access.

  • Sociology Courses
  • Supplemental Lessons
  • Popular Articles

Search Our Courses

Did you like this?
Yes No

Thanks for your feedback!

What didn't you like?

What didn't you like?

Education Portal Video Lessons

The smarter way to study Short videos, Real results
  • More affordable than tutoring
  • All major high school and college subjects
  • Unlimited access to all 8,500+ video Lessons
  • Study on your own schedule
Try it Free