'With This Yak Grease I Thee Wed'

Luckily, These Ancient Marriage Rituals Didn’t Stand the Test of Time

By Buck Wolf

Feb. 11, 2005 --   If you think getting married is tough these days, be grateful you don't live in ancient Persia. Couples back then declared their intentions by publicly drinking each other's blood.

The betrothed couple would slit their arms in dramatic fashion as villagers gathered around to celebrate, according to sex historian Lance Rancier, author of "The Sex Chronicles: Strange-But-True Tales From Around The World," (General Publishing Group), a look at courtship rituals in more than 300 ancient cultures.

Of course, oddity — like beauty — is purely in the eye of the beholder. Why did ancient Britons break bread over the bride and groom? Why did Tibetans splash newlyweds with yak grease? For the same reason we throw rice: to wish the bride and groom luck and fertility.

Weddings Are Always a Gamble

Brides who aggressively diet, fearful of the wedding photographer's unforgiving lens, might welcome how the Nigerian Ibos of West Africa showed off their wealth. A bride spent most of her engagement in a fattening house. If she wasn't plump enough, the groom could reject her.

"A plump bride is valued in [many] cultures, particularly when food is scarce," says J. Christopher Kovats-Bernat, an anthropology professor at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. "Thinness as a desired trait — a sign of wealth and power — is much more of a contemporary idea."

It's safe to say, marriage has always been a gamble. Wedding and wagering evolved from the same Anglo-Saxon word — weddian, which means "to vow."

"In a sense, the groom was gambling the future of his family on a woman," says J. Joseph Edgette, resident folklorist at Widener University in Pennsylvania. "He would pay the bride's family for the woman's hand in marriage, and on that union hung the economic future of his family."

Talk about a money-back guarantee: The Anglo-Saxon groom often stipulated that the bride's family return his payment if his wife didn't conceive in the first year. Consider it early evidence of prenuptial agreements.

Cross-Dressing Masai Prove Marriage a Drag

Women's rights didn't enter into the picture until the last century, though there are notable exceptions. In parts of ancient Greece, a man could divorce, but he could not remarry to a woman younger than his ex-wife.

The Masai tribe of East Africa required grooms to wear their wives' clothing for one month after the marriage, to give him insight into her life.

But as much as wedding rituals have varied, marriage has been an institution in nearly every society since the dawn of civilization. We humans have an innate need to publicly declare the union of husband and wife (or wives, in some cases).

Future archaeologists might laugh out loud trying to explain today's customs. Even over the last 20 years, we've seen a dwindling of such customs as throwing the bouquet and applauding the groom as he inches the garter up the bride's thigh.

But if marriage is so universal, then why is it so universally difficult?

"You can think of marriage as a form of fraternity hazing," says Kovats-Bernat. "It's a trial by ordeal. You have to prove yourself."

So, if you're not mixing blood, like in the good old days, you might be forking over $6,000 for an engagement ring.

This Valentine's Day, if you're getting ready to rent a hall, buy a dress, send out invitations, and open a bridal registry, don't let the ordeal overwhelm you. Just be happy that these traditions didn't stand the tests of time.

Ancient Marriage Rituals

Here's Mud in Your Eye: Women of some Amazonian tribes, such as the Chorowti, expressed their love by spitting in their partners' faces — either as a greeting or a sexual overture.

The Groom Got Cold Feet: In ancient Britain, women married in their finest dresses, but the groom wed "skyclad" — in the nude. This practice might explain the tradition of June weddings.

No Guts, No Glory: In ancient Rome, a marriage was not valid until the sacrifice of an animal, typically a pig. The entrails were examined for signs of a bad omen.

Who Needs a Guy?: In southern India, the Mysorian Lambadis did not allow males at the wedding ceremony, except for the Brahman priest. Even the groom was excluded.

It Pays to Marry a Stiff: Ancient Persians who died as virgins were married before burial. The corpse's spouse received a fee.

Make Love, And War: In central Europe, a Teutonic woman prided herself on standing by her man, even on the battlefield. According to superstition, she proved she was marriage-worthy by killing one of her beloved's enemies.

Look Before You Leap: In north Wales, peasants once had to jump over a broom before taking their vows. If either bride or groom failed to clear the cleaning appliance, the marriage was off.

Ironclad Commitments: The Greeks and Romans believed that a vein ran from the fourth finger straight to the heart, and many believe that's how the custom of wedding rings developed. But Romans' wedding rings were made of iron, even though they valued precious metals and gems.

"The iron was the preferred metal because of its durability," says Holt Parker, a classics professor at the University of Cincinnati. "What did it say when the ring rusted?"

Unchain My Heart: In many ancient cultures, when there was a scarcity of nubile women, men raided other villages for wives. Some cultural historians believe the wedding ring was symbolic of the shackles worn by these POW brides.

Bachelorhood at a Price: To encourage marriage in Colonial times, Connecticut levied a special tax on bachelors of 20 shillings a week.

A Youthful Crush: Polynesians sometimes held sacrificial weddings. Matchmakers chose a young man and woman to marry. Immediately after the couple exchanged vows, villagers pulled out the legs from the nuptial canopy, killing the newlyweds in an avalanche of rocks and wooden debris. Even for Jennifer Lopez, that's a short marriage.

"The ceremony was supposed to bring good luck," says Pamela Jaye Smith, a Hollywood consultant on myths and ancient civilizations. "At least they didn't have to worry about a prenup."

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays.