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Marriage in Indo-European cultures icon

Ancient Rus

In the Ancient Rus (Belarus, Ukraine, Russia), a marriage was arranged by an agreement between the relatives of the bride and a groom or his relatives. The ancient custom of stealing the bride was giving the husband a full right of ownership to his wife. The custom of buying the bride out appeared later, and gave some rights to a woman, including a right to divorce and to marry again. From the moment the bride entered the groom's home, she was symbolically dying to her kin and then was reborn in her husband's family. That is why a husband had to carry his young wife into his house in his arms, like a newborn baby. When left alone, the couple had to eat porridge with one spoon, have some boiled chicken and a loaf of bread. Then the wife had to take off the husband's shoes as a sign of her humility.

West Slavs

In the old times, marriage constituted a friendly contract, freely established between families, and the abduction of a maiden was merely a staged game. Girls would marry as early as 14, and the symbolic farewell to their maidenhood took place as part of the rozpleciny, literally un-braiding. Girls would plait the bride’s hair into a braid and decorate it with branches, flowers and ribbons, while singing songs of mourning. The wedding procession arrived at the house and the foreman, first man, or the girl’s brother would undo the braid. The groom also had his stag party, but the details are not known. The wedding – swaćba – took place the following day. Bad energy was meant to be cast off by walking through a gate, at the threshold of which was placed an axe pointing into the courtyard. The marital vows were exchanged in from the gods in the presence of a Żerca or a Matchmaker. The young couple was welcomed with salt and bread. Sharing the kołacz cake, dancing, and drinking honey liquor.

The couple was meant to be specially protected on their wedding night, so an axe was placed under the newly-weds' bed. It was also meant to ensure that a boy would be conceived, because only a masculine progenitor was a sign of the wife’s acceptance by the household spirits, and thus also by the family of the husband. But there was also the other side of the coin, described by Ibrahim ibn Jakub: "If someone has two or three daughters, they become the basis of his wealth, and if they are sons, then he grows poor”. All of this is due to the dowry that the parents of the groom paid to the parents of the bride. Contrary to semblances, virginity was not all that much valued at the time, as it meant that the girl was not liked by boys. A maiden with a child was much desired, as a sign of fertility. If a man wanted to divorce from his chosen one, he could do so, but he then also lost his dowry. Slavic wives were very much attached to their husbands, and written testimonies of scarifications they inflicted upon themselves after a husband’s death bear witness to this.

South Slavs

Marriage by capture occurred among the South Slavs until the beginning of the 1800s. Common in Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the custom was known as otmitza. The practice was mentioned in a statute in the Politza, the 1605 Croatian legal code. According to Serbian folk-chronicler Vuk Karadzic, a man would dress for "battle" before capturing a woman. Physical force was a frequent element of these kidnappings. Bride kidnapping was also a custom in Bulgaria. With the consent of his parents and the aid of his friends, the abductor would accost his bride and take her to a barn away from the home, as superstition held that pre-marital intercourse might bring bad luck to the house. Whether or not the man raped his bride, the abduction would shame the girl and force her to stay with her kidnapper to keep her reputation. As in other cultures, sometimes couples would elope by staging false kidnappings to secure the parents' consent.

Old Prussians

According to Dusburg the Prussians were buying their wives and treating them as a servant of a husband. A wife had to wash her husband's feet everyday. Women had to make textiles out of linen and men had to make clothes out of wool.


A Kalash woman playing on flute in Chitral

Girls are initiated into womanhood at an early age of four or five and married at fourteen or fifteen. If a woman wants to change husbands, she will write a letter to her prospective husband informing him about how much her current husband paid for her. This is because the new husband must pay double if he wants her. Marriage by elopement is rather frequent, also involving women who are already married to another man. Indeed, wife-elopement is counted as one of the "great customs" (ghōna dastūr) together with the main festivals. Wife-elopement may lead in some rare cases to a quasi-feud between clans until peace is negotiated by mediators, in the form of the double bride-price paid by the new husband to the ex-husband.

Kalash lineages (kam) separate as marriageable descendants have separated by over seven generations. A rite of "breaking agnation" (tatbře čhin) marks that previous agnates (tatbře) are now permissible affines (därak "clan partners"). Each kam has a separate shrine in the clan's Jēṣṭak-hān, the temple to lineal or familial goddess Jēṣṭak. The historical religious practices of neighbouring Pahāṛi peoples of Nepal, Kashmir, Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh are similar to those of the Kalash people in that they "ate meat, drank alcohol, and had shamans". In addition, the Pahāṛi people "had rules of lineage exogamy that produced a segmentary system closely resembling the Kalasha one". Jestak (jéṣṭak) is the goddess of domestic life, family and marriage. Her lodge is the women's house (Jeṣṭak Han). Dezalik (ḍizálik), the sister of "Dezau" is the goddess of childbirth, the hearth, and of life force. She protects children and women.


Old Hindu literature in Sanskrit gives many different types of marriages and their categorization: "Gandharva Vivaha" - an instant marriage by mutual consent of participants only, without any need for even a single third person as witness; normal (present day) marriages; "Rakshasa Vivaha" - "demoniac" marriage, performed by abduction of one participant by the other participant, usually, but not always, with the help of other people. In the Indian subcontinent arranged marriages (the spouse's parents or an older family member choose the partner) are still predominant in comparison to the so-called love marriages. The Hindu Widow's Remarriage Act 1856 empowers a Hindu widow to remarry.

In the Rig Veda 10.85:26cd-27 it says:
Go to your new home, to be the lady of the house
Speak out with authority at the gathering
Prosper here, loved and with children
In your home, watch over the household
Join yourself with this husband
You will address the gatherning even when you are old

In 10.85:44,47:
Without evil eye, without striking your husband, be kind to cattle
With positive mindset and positive energy
Giving birth to heroes, loving the gods, gentle
Be good to the two-footed and to the four-footed.
May all the gods, and also the waters, put together our two hearts.
May Mātariśvan, Dhātṛ, and Deṣṭrī support the two of us.

Zoroastrian Persians

In the Avesta, manhood and womanhood are gained at the age of 15, when they would be ready for marriage. However, in India, the threshold for marriage is set by the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act of 1936 which states that threshold at 21 for males and 18 for females. If either of the marrying parties are below the age given in the act, the parents of the underage marrying party must sign on the marriage certificate to signify their approval.Traditionally marriages are arranged by the parents with the consent of the children.

Presents of silver coins are prepared by the ladies of both the bride and bridegroom's families in the homes of the marrying parties, each group going to the other's home. It is upon this betrothal that the bride takes the name of her husband, even if the marriage does not later occur. This betrothal is often performed quickly after a marriage is arranged. The senior priest blesses the couple by saying: May the Creator, the omniscient Lord, grant you a progeny of sons and grandsons, plenty of means to provide yourselves, heart-ravishing friendship, bodily strength, long life and an existence of 150 years! A wedding feast then occurs at which toasts are made to God, the couple, the sacred fire temples, the guests and the host. Fish, a symbol of good luck, is served.


According to historian Peter Berresford Ellis, the early Celts had a sophisticated, unified law system. Women could govern and take prominent roles in political, religious, and artistic life, and even act as judges and lawgivers. They could choose when and whom to marry. They could also divorce and they could claim damages if they were deserted, molested or maltreated. Today, two of the Celtic legal codes survive: The Irish Fénechas (known as the Brehon Law), codified during the reign of the High King Laoghaire, and the Welsh Cyfraith Hywel (the Law of Hywel Dda), codified in the tenth century by Hywel Dda.

Neither was there a dowry required for marriage, although there was a "bride-price" which the woman could keep in certain cases of divorce. Grounds for divorce that included the return of the bride price were if the husband: Left her for another woman; Failed to support her; Told lies, satirized her or seduced her into marriage by trickery or sorcery; Struck his wife causing a blemish; Told tales about their sex life; Became impotent or sterile or obese enough to prevent sex; Left her bed to exclusively practice homosexuality.

Germanic Tribes

Among ancient Germanic tribes, the bride and groom were roughly the same age and generally older than their Roman counterparts, at least according to Tacitus: "The youths partake late of the pleasures of love, and hence pass the age of puberty unexhausted: nor are the virgins hurried into marriage; the same maturity, the same full growth is required: the sexes unite equally matched and robust, and the children inherit the vigor of their parents".

Germanic marriage

Among pagan Viking Age Scandinavians marriage was essentially a business contract between two families. A marriage was arranged in two stages: the betrothal and the wedding. The initiative had to come from the man or his father, who would make the proposal of marriage to the woman's father or guardian. If the latter was agreeable, the groom promised to pay the bride-price (mundr). In Iceland the minimum payment was 8 ounces of silver; in Norway it was 12. In return, the bride's father promised to hand over her dowry at the wedding. Both the bride-price and the dowry remained the property of the bride after the wedding. The two men shook hands on the agreement in front of witnesses and agreed a date for the wedding, usually within a year. The woman's consent to the marriage might be sought but it was not necessary. Widows had more freedom than single women, as they needed only to seek their fathers' approval before remarrying. Only in the 12th century, well after the introduction of Christianity, did a woman's consent to marriage become necessary. The wedding itself took the form of a feast, usually held at the bride's family home. The marriage was considered legally binding when the couple had been seen going to bed by a minimum of six witnesses.

If a marriage was an unhappy one it could be ended by a divorce, though this does not seem to have happened very often. On the face of it, divorce was a simple procedure. All that was required of the party who was seeking a divorce was that they summon witnesses and declare himself or herself divorced. In practice it may have been more complicated than this if there was property at stake. A wife's adultery was a serious matter, and in some areas the husband had the right to kill both her and her lover if they were caught together. There was no penalty for a man if he kept a concubine or had children outside his marriage. This was very common in the higher levels of society, even after the conversion to Christianity, and overseas, where captive native women were often taken as concubines by Viking men. It was probably the widespread practice of concubinage that led some outside observers, such as Adam of Breman in the 11th century, to accuse the Scandinavians of practising polygamy, but monogamy appears actually to have been the rule, as even pagan marriage contracts recognized only one legal wife

In Norwegian folklores and tradition we find wedding formulae that seem to be quite ancient: "He weds you to honour and to be the lady of the house, to half the bed and to locks and keys, under one blanket and one sheet".

Around 970 CE Al Ghazal told the Norse king's wife that he was afraid that there would be gossip, since the two of them spent so much time together. She then consoled him by telling him of the freedom enjoyed by the women of the Northern peoples: "It is not our custom to be jealous" and "In our country, a woman can leave her husband if she no longer likes him".


Armenian families were traditionally patrilocal, requiring that the bride move to the home of the groom's parents at the time of marriage. In traditional Armenian society marriages were arranged by the families of the bride and the groom or by a matchmaker hired by the groom's family. In-law relations were very important to social life in the village, and therefore the wedding was a social event involving the entire community. The average age of a bride was between 14 and 16 years, while the average age of the groom was between 15 and 20. The bride and groom were generally, but not always, acquainted prior to the engagement. The engagement began as a series of negotiations between families and did not involve the participation of either the bride or groom.

Labor in the household economic unit was strictly divided according to the principles of gender and generation: the patriarch managed communal work and the incomes of all family members, while domestic work and the household itself were supervised by the wife of the head of the family. The rigidity of the domestic labor hierarchy and the pertinence of gender and generation to the associated social roles are best illustrated by the subordinate position of the new bride. Upon entering the household of her in-laws, the bride was expected to serve all of its members. Because cooking was the privileged work of the mother-in-law, the bride's responsibilities included menial tasks such as cleaning the shoes of all household members. Her face was usually veiled in public for at least one year (and sometimes it was tightly bound, a practice known as mounj) , and during a ritual period of silence she was allowed to speak to no one except children and her husband (should they find themselves completely alone). After the birth of her first child, she was sometimes permitted to speak to the women of her household. Some women maintained a period of ritual silence for ten years or for life. The other responsibilities of the bride included kissing the hands of elders, never falling asleep if her father-in-law was still awake, and helping him to dress and undress. Humiliating tasks were considered an initiation of the new bride into the household.

The extended family home was typically inherited by the youngest son, who remained there with his wife and children and cared for his parents after his elder brothers had moved away. Property was nevertheless generally distributed evenly among brothers. The senior male of the domestic family was usually succeeded by his eldest son, and the wife of the family head was typically succeeded by the eldest son's wife.


All evidence suggests that marriage was an important cultural rite in Hittite society. The Hittite vase from Inandik (1600 BC) portrays depictions of a wedding ceremony. Upon careful examination of these depictions, it can be discerned that weddings were both a joyful and public affair[1].

Hittite law text 27 declared that a husband takes his wife and leads her away to his house. According to Gurney, this signified that she was considered to be nothing more than ah usband's possession. However, if one carefully analyses the Hittite collection of Law texts, this is an inaccurate assessment. Law text 28b clearly indicated that a wife could play an equal role alongside her husband in her daughter's marriage negotiations. Law text 171 gave the wife the power to disown her son if she so chose. Whereas Law text 26a clearly stated that a woman had just as much right to instigate a divorce as the husband did[1].

It was extremely important that morality was practiced within a woman's marriage. Her sin could bring down the anger of the gods upon her entire familial clan if she failed to do so. Hittite marriages were mainly monogamous in practice. It was only the very wealthyhouseholds, and of course the royal males, who partook in polygamous marriages[1].

A myth of significance is the story of The Hunter Kessi and His Beautiful Wife. The theme involved a man who became obsessed with his wife, thereby causing him to neglect his societal obligations and worship of the gods. A wife was not to monopolise her husband's time. This myth appeared to be the only piece of evidence which stated that mothers were to be respected, as Kessi neglected her too. Parables existed which highlighted the son's duty to his father, and the position of dominance the father possessed[1].

Ancient Greece

In ancient Greece, no specific civil ceremony was required for the creation of a heterosexual marriage – only mutual agreement and the fact that the couple must regard each other as husband and wife accordingly. Men usually married when they were in their 20s and women in their teens. It has been suggested that these ages made sense for the Greeks because men were generally done with military service or financially established by their late 20s, and marrying a teenage girl ensured ample time for her to bear children, as life expectancies were significantly lower. Married Greek women had few rights in ancient Greek society and were expected to take care of the house and children. Time was an important factor in Greek marriage. For example, there were superstitions that being married during a full moon was good luck and, according to Robert Flacelière, Greeks married in the winter. Inheritance was more important than feelings: a woman whose father dies without male heirs could be forced to marry her nearest male relative – even if she had to divorce her husband first.

Article created on the 16th and 21st of July 2021. Article updated on the 29th of August 2022 with information about the Hittite marriages.