Polygamy (Gr. , many, and , to marry), a state in which a man has at the same time more than one wife, or a woman more than one husband. The latter custom, more commonly called polyandry, prevails in Thibet and Cashmere, among the Coorgs, Todas, Nairs, and other races in India, in Ceylon, in New Zealand, among some of the Malayo-Polyne-sian races, in the Aleutian archipelago, among the Koriaks in Siberia, on the Orinoco, and in parts of Africa. Yet on the whole, as Sir John Lubbock observes, legal polyandry (as opposed to mere laxness of morality) seems to be an exceptional system, generally intended to avoid the evils arising from monogamy where the number of women is less than that of men. The opinion often advanced that births of male children are predominant in polyandrous relationships is not supported by recent accurate investigations. Polygamy has existed from time immemorial, especially among the nations of the East. It is mentioned as prevailing before the flood (Gen. iv. 19), was common among the patriarchs, and was tolerated by the laws of Moses (Exod. xxi. 10, and Deut. xxi. 15). But the custom appears to have died out among the Hebrews about the beginning of our era, for in the New Testament we meet with no trace of it, and the passages which refer to marriage seem to imply that monogamy was the universal rule, though from the Talmud it is evident that polygamy was still lawful.
There are no positive injunctions in the Bible or in the Talmud against the practice, and the rabbis of the East tolerate it even now, though those of the "West strictly prohibited it more than eight centuries ago. In the East the custom has been almost universal, being sanctioned by all religions, including that of Mohammed, which allows a man to have four wives; but the permission is rarely used except by the rich, and the Arabs scarcely ever have more than one wife. By Hindoo law a man may have wives without limit, and may keep as many concubines as he chooses, though the latter is permitted rather by custom than by law. Lubbock mentions two chief causes of polygamy: one, that in tropical countries, where it predominates, girls become marriageable very young and soon lose their external attractions, and that therefore every man who is able to do so provides himself with a succession of favorites, even when the first wife remains not only nominally the head, but really his confidant and adviser; the other, that among people who have no domesticated animals to provide milk, the children are not weaned until they are two, three, or even four years old, and as during this period husband and wife generally remain apart, unless a man has several wives he is often left without any at all.
Among the Greeks, at least of later times, polygamy was never practised, although in the Homeric age it seems to have prevailed to some extent. In republican Rome it was not known; but during the existence of the empire the prevalence of divorce gave rise to a state of things analogous to it. In the Christian church it has never been tolerated. It prevailed among the barbarous nations of antiquity, with the exception of the Germans, who, Tacitus says, " almost alone among the barbarians, are content with a single wife." - In England the punishment of polygamy was originally in the hands of the church. A statute of Edward I. placed it among the capital crimes; but it did not come entirely under the control of the temporal power until a statute of James I. made it punishable with death like other cases of felony.
It is now punishable, by the statute 24 and 25 Victoria, c. 100, by penal servitude not exceeding seven years, or by imprisonment not exceeding two years, with or without hard labor. In the United States, the punishment varies in the different states, being usually imprisonment for a certain period, or fine, the second marriage being of course a nullity. In these countries, however, the term bigamy is most in use, as the plurality seldom extends beyond two; and in legal proceedings it is even employed where that number is exceeded. - In modern times polygamy has had some defenders, most of whom have grounded their defence on the absence of an express prohibition in the Scriptures. Bernardus Ochinus, general of the Capuchin order and afterward a Protestant, published in the 16th century "Dialogues in favor of Polygamy," to which Beza replied. A still stronger view was taken in a work called Polygamic/, Triumphatrix, published at London by John Lyser, a Lutheran divine (1692). It was boldly maintained in a treatise called " Thelyphthora, or a Treatise on Female Ruin," by the Rev. Martin Madan (2d ed., 3 vols. 8vo, London, 1781), who however limited the privilege to men.
He argued that St. Paul's injunction that a bishop "should be the husband of one wife" implies that other men should have as many as they choose. Singularly enough, the Mormons, the only sect among Christian nations in which this custom is still practised, explain this same passage as meaning that a bishop should be the husband of one wife at least, and that there is no prohibition of his having more if he wishes. Polygamy was introduced among the Mormons by a " revelation " of Joseph Smith in 1843, but for some years only existed secretly. An act of congress, approved July 1, 1862, makes bigamy committed in a territory of the United States, or other place over which the United States have exclusive jurisdiction, punishable by a fine not exceeding $500, and by imprisonment not exceeding five years.