Origins and Evolution of the Marriage Ritual

Wedding and Marriage Traditions Throughout the Ages

To most in the modern world, marriage is a romantic notion based on a love shared by the partners who vow to share their lives together until death. It’s a joyous festival to be celebrated with friends and family, who will shower the couple with gifts, dance at their wedding, and send them off to a life of bliss.
Beautiful Wedding Couple
However, it wasn’t always thus. The modern day version of a wedding and the definition of marriage have gone through a long evolution that began thousands of years ago. The first evidence of wedding ceremonies goes back 4,000 years to ancient Mesopotamia, but pair bondings existed long before that as a way to share childrearing and other household tasks.

In most societies of the ancient world, from Europe to Asia, the marriage contract was just that, a contract. It was a legal avenue that was developed to protect bloodlines and grant property rights. Because of this, many marriages were arranged for the couple, particularly among the wealthy or families in ancestral leadership positions. Kings used marriage, for example, to forge relations to avoid war with other nations.

As a contract, the union had to be witnessed by others to be considered valid, and so was born the wedding ceremony. In Roman times, the ceremony and marriage contract were civil unions, the terms of which were dictated by imperial law. When the empire collapsed, the Holy Roman Church took over, and marriage became a sacrament.

Roman wedding ceremony

Until only recently, marriage to a single individual was an anomaly rather than the rule, with monogamy being exclusively practiced only in North American settlements and Western Europe. Cultures throughout history have allowed for polygamy or multiple marriages.

King Solomon, according to the Bible, had 700 wives. The Mormons in America permitted polygamy in the 19th century, only disallowing it in order for Utah to join the United States, which had laws against it. The practice of having multiple wives had a long tradition around the world, such as in China and Africa, and even today it is common in Muslim culture.

Love didn’t truly enter the picture until the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, whose innovators considered a loving marriage part of the pursuit of happiness. Until then, marriage was considered too important to be left to such a flighty emotion. Since monogamy and love have gained prominence, though, weddings have become big business as they have gained in value and importance to the couples involved.

In recent years, though, the importance of finding love has coupled with an increase in women’s individual rights to cause more to delay marriage until later in life. This condition is true in industrialized nations across the globe, including in Asia, where delayed marriage is bucking ancient traditions. In China, however, the bulk of marriages continue to occur when a couple are in their 20s.

Ancient Jewish Wedding

Many of the most common wedding traditions that are a major part of the ceremony still hearken back to the days of yore and have their roots in the pre-love era. Take the wedding and engagement rings, for example. This nearly universal tradition may have its origins in Roman culture. The circle of the ring was to symbolize an eternal connection, and it was placed on the left ring finger because the belief was that there was a vein in the finger that ran directly to the heart.

With the spread of Catholicism during the colonial era, the idea of the ring was introduced into Asian cultures, which until then had had their own traditions. In the Philippines, for example, the male suitor would mark his chosen as taken by throwing a spear at the front steps of her home.

The white wedding gown didn’t become the required choice until Queen Victoria popularized the fashion when she married Prince Albert in 1840. Until then, Western brides were open to wearing any color, with black being the common selection in Scandinavia. White is viewed in Western custom as the color of purity, but in many Asian cultures, the bride has often worn red, which is considered a sign of favorability and joy.

The current trend among nations to accept the validity of homosexual marriage also is nothing particularly new. Marriages or male bonding rituals, were common in the Mediterranean region until the 13th century when they were banned as “un-Christian.”

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