Indeed, polygyny has so many limitations to offset its privileges, that, strange as it may at first thought seem, it would appear to tend toward monogamy; first, through the higher position assigned to one wife—generally the first married; second, the importance of certainty as to heirship; and last, but not least, the preference which the husband naturally feels in the matter of sexual intercourse. Thus the lord of every harem has his favorite; not always the most beautiful by any means; but far oftener the one who best understands catering to bis sexual appetite, and who is best fitted by nature to satisfy it.
The polygyny of China is only a legalized concubinage, the wife being invested with absolute power in the household, and the concubine being not even allowed to sit in her presence without special perrnission.* She addresses her spouse by a name corresponding to our "husband," while the concubines are compelled to call him "master;" being even removed, when dying, if they have borne him no children, from the customary dwelling to some outhouse, as not entitled to die in the dwelling of their master.* The reason of this apparently cruel discrimination is obvious. The concubine is usually a woman of low origin, illiterate, and most commonly either a slave or a prostitute; while the wife is chosen for her good family, small feet, and superior refinement.5 The wife cannot be degraded to the position of a concubine, nor the concubine made a wife; but the question of the legitimacy of the child is not whether or not the mother is wife or concubine, but whether or not she has been "received into the house" of the husband.* In China every well-born woman is supposed to marry. If a widow remain a widow till the age of fifty, she has a tablet erected in front of her home. In America, the widow, if she retain her normal intellectual faculties, never reaches fifty. That's the difference.
In Turkey the first wife is called "the great lady," and is usually married for life; but the children are equally legitimate whether bom in wedlock or of slaves.' Among the Hindus, the first wife had precedence over all others, and her first-born son over his half-brothers; and it is probable that secondary wives were regarded originally as merely a superior class of concubines, like the celebrated "hand-maidens" of the Hebrew patriarchs, who so frequently usurped the functions of their mistresses.
The ancient Scandinavians had commonly only one legitimate wife, though as many concubines as they chose;1 and the pagan Russians, according to Ewers, always gave the first wife the precedence,' as do the Mormons to-day, the first wife only assuming the husband's name and titles.'
Beside those mentioned, there is another way in which polygyny is modified. Among many peoples there are well defined laws of custom, which compel the husband to cohabit with his wives in turn. Otherwise, there would be trouble. The Caribs, when they married—as they frequently did—several sisters at once, always hved one month with each in a separate hut. At least they did the first year, but it is not so certain as to the second. Preferences are very apt to be formed in such cases, both by Christian and pagan, which exert a strong influence even upon national custom; and a "favorite wife" is as apt to grow up, among a lot of females in a harem, through a hot sexuality, as the bluest kind of blood. The Mohammedan is compelled by law, however, to favor each of his four legal wives by turns, of course giving the intervals to a host of charming odalisques; and in all countries where the plural marriage is allowed, to preserve public order, similar laws of relation have been devised to govern the sexual commerce.
"I have four wives," Baid an old Arab Sheik to Sir S, W. Baker;* "as one has become old, I have replaced her with a young one;" (he marked four strokes in the sand with his stick) " here they all are. This one carries water; that grinds the corn; this makes the bread; the last does not do much, she is my youngest, and my favorite." Alas, for the poor wife who is no longer the "youngest" and the "favorite!"
Wherever Christianity has not idealized love, and invested woman with those charms which far outlive, and outshine, her mere physical beauty, her lot is indeed hard when she has passed the stage of sexual attraction into the sere and yellow leaf, and becomes the household drudge to a younger and handsomer rival.
To show how lightly love, or the marital obligation, sits upon these hoary old polygamists, Dr. Grenfell relates the story of a peripatetic minister in Labrador, who, called to marry a rich man at a place called "Spotted Islands," found that he could not perform the ceremony, as the bride was within the prohibited degrees of relationship. "Never mind, mister, one of these will do," said the determined old groom, selecting one of the most attractive girls from the crowd; and forthwith the ceremony proceeded, with the merriment said to belong to all marriage bells.1