Polygyny, the most common form of polygamy, describes when a man has multiple wives at the same time. In plural marriages of this kind, the men frequently father dozens of children, because they're able to impregnate their many wives at the same time.
The practice dates back to Biblical times. Ancient Jewish doctrines encouraged polygyny because Jews were a minority, and they could reproduce more rapidly. Today, some orthodox Jewish sects continue to support polygyny, and some believe the Talmud even encourages it. The Koran tells Islamic believers that a man can take up to four wives if he can support them equally. And in Vietnam, polygamy is illegal, but still practiced, and it was common in China before Confucianism. Many African and Native American ethnic groups also practiced polygamy. But the religion most Northern Americans associate with polygyny is Mormonism. Though the Church of Latter Day Saints denounced the practice in 1890 [source: LDS], it still continues among fundamentalist Mormon groups.
People who practice polygyny (men marrying multiple wives) say it deters husbands from cheating, since they have so many wives to choose from. They also appreciate the hands of all those extra mothers to help care for the children.
However, all is not a bed of roses. The husband has to divide his attention among all the wives, and the wives often get jealous. Polygynist families usually share a house with the wives in separate rooms, and there is a schedule regulating with whom the husband sleeps and when. Some polygynist families, however, are extremely poor because they have so many mouths to feed. Such circumstances can even sometimes put a strain on a state's welfare system. Since polygamist marriages aren't granted by the state, many such wives are listed as single mothers, thus able to receive aid [source: CBS News]. And one fact polygamists can't get around is this: Polygamy is illegal in the U.S.
This plural family of one father, three mothers and 21 children lives in Salt Lake Valley among monogamous families. (Stephan Gladieu/Getty Images)
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