Precisely where and when the first wedding was held will never be known, but it was an important turning point in human society. The tribes of prehistory were nomadic in nature, grouping together for protection against predators like saber-toothed cats, wolves and bears, and also to make it easier to secure water and their own hunting territories against rival groups.
So contact between tribes was often probably a very tense affair, with deaths amongst the males, and often kidnappings of females and children. Although we now know early peoples were not as barbaric as is often stated.
Wars were not that frequent, archeologists know this because when finding ancient human skeletons from the stone age, only a relatively low number show indications of damage from flint axes or arrowheads, as would be the case in those who died in battle. Also, near some of these graves, especially those of children, the remains of flowers have been found. This, along with artifacts like flutes made of wood, horn or bone; show that the early representatives of mankind lived in a more sensitive world than is often portrayed.
The idea of a caveman bashing a cavewoman over the head before getting hold of her by the hair, which has been popularized by early movies as a Stone Age wedding, seems to be far from the truth.
Although little is known about our social history at this time, many experts suspect that group weddings were the first form of union, with a loyalty to the tribe being more important than the individual in times of hardship. Although recently, some doubt has been cast upon this, with the finding of a set of three footprints in clay from the very distant past. The first was of a man, and he was walking with a woman and a child, who both were following very closely behind him.
Although of course it is possible that this man and woman might have been a brother and sister, there is also the prospect of this pointing to individual identities and therefore personal relationships that were developing at an earlier stage than previously suspected. This might have been as a guard against incest, which although not known for sure, would most probably have been avoided.
As society grew and changed, tribes settled and formed agricultural communities, and began to trade. This advancement allowed for a mixing of peoples without conflict, so the necessity to kidnap women and children away from other tribes diminished and eventually disappeared.
Ironically, as incest became less likely due to circumstance, it was an integral part of the first civilization that recognized the idea of marriage in law; ancient Egypt. Many Pharaohs took sisters and daughters amongst their numerous wives, the idea being to keep their dynastic bloodline truer than it would otherwise had been. Although this practice was not that common among middle and lower classes. Here, the marriage also existed as a legally enforceable fact, and the wives actually had more rights in this ancient land than for a large segment of modern western history, including the right of divorce.
The engagement was also invented by the ancient Egyptians, for the couple to get to know each other better, and see that they were indeed compatible. The marriage contract stipulated all rights of both the bride and groom, and their duties as well, so they knew what to expect before the wedding itself.
The dowry was also in reverse here, where the prospective groom and his parents would go to the bride’s home, and he would pay her parent’s money to show he was capable of earning and keeping their daughter in good standing. He would also buy a personal gift for her, usually either made of gold or a gemstone.
The wedding itself would be a colorful affair, with a feast and much singing and dancing, before the newlyweds would retire for some private time together, with fresh wheat thrown into the air by the revelers to symbolize fertility.
Other civilizations of the time soon also had wedding laws in their cultures, and it was generally seen as a positive and stabilizing factor in society. With males generally thought to be calmer with a wife and children, women thought to be less troublesome with a husband, and children better off with a mother and father they knew and trusted. The kinship between families and clans brought together through the weddings also was seen as a necessity to prevent serious feuding and the breakdown of civil order.
Indeed, the family unit is often pointed to today as an example of how the world could be a better place, with peace organizations talking of how we are all brothers and sisters in a global family. Here they are doing no more than copying the ideas of most religions and cultures throughout the ages, both for internal or external peace and security. Of course, this theory is fine but practice often did and does follow a somewhat different path.
The Roman Empire was no different in considering marriage as a highly important institution. They have also handed down to us the modern word `matrimony’ meaning marriage, this comes from the Latin word `matrimonialis’ which is itself derived from `mater,’ which means `mother.’
All the emperors sought a stable empire (if only perhaps, because it was easier to rule), and harmony within would lead to a bolstering of the defenses against the world without. The Emperor Augustus particularly thought this, and duly set down laws for the monetary penalizing of all men who put off their wedding day.
Two weddings, and one divorce, were particularly on the emperor’s mind as he prescribed this. Before becoming emperor, and changing his name to Augustus, he had been known as Octavian. One of the triumvirate, who with Marcus Lepidus and Marcus Antonius (Mark Anthony), he had avenged the assassination of his uncle Julius Caesar by their defeating of the chief conspirators Brutus and Cassius in the battle of Philippi in 42 B.C.
But Octavian found relations with Mark Anthony were strained, and so to pursue peace between them, his sister Octavia wed the man who also wanted to be Caesar’s successor. This truce did not last, for as we all know, a greater love for Mark Anthony lay in Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. He was to marry her whilst still married to Octavia, and when he did divorce her later, Octavian immediately declared war on Anthony and Cleopatra. This led to one of the most famous and tragic episodes in the ancient world; Anthony and Cleopatra’s joint suicide a year after their forces were vanquished by Octavian’s ships in the sea battle of Actium in 31 B.C.
So a divorce had caused a war, most Roman weddings though, were far less dramatic than this, thankfully for the longer lives of those involved, let us now take a look at what the typical Roman wedding was like.
Of course, because it was long lasting and widely spread, the habits of the citizenry of the Empire varied a great deal, but nonetheless a lot is known about the city of Rome itself, and more so in its later years.
Here the upper classes were involved with a form of marriage called `confarreatio,’ which required a complicated series of priestly rites called `diffareatio’ to undo, unlike a normal marriage which could be annulled relatively simply be either of the couple.
The father of the family usually arranged the marriages of his children with his opposite numbers in other families with whom links would be useful. Though this is not as entirely political as it sounds, as without the consent of both of the couple, then the wedding would not go ahead. In reality, many weddings were for love as well as money, and daughters would often take it upon themselves to get engaged, and then leave it to her father and the groom’s father to get to know each other and agree to the proceedings, rather than the reverse.
The first matter on the agenda was to check that a `conudium’ or right to marry between the couple existed. This would depend on the following: That they were not close blood relatives, that neither was already engaged or married, and that neither was a slave, although freed slaves could marry under certain circumstances. If the man was a soldier, then he could not be married until his service to his Legion had ended, though in this case he could see his betrothed as if they were married without eyebrows being raised. Weddings to foreigners were permitted, but with restrictions; and the final restriction to a wedding was the ages of the couple involved, the bride had to be at least twelve, the groom, thirteen.
If everything was okay, then things could be set in motion. The first tradition was a party to announce the engagement and for the groom to give his betrothed a present of fine jewelry. When the wedding came around, first the bride would make an offering of supposedly all of her childhood toys at her family’s altar to the Roman Gods. But some, especially the younger brides, would probably leave a more cherished toy hidden away somewhere, maybe claiming it had been lost if questioned.
Then the bride would be helped with her appearance, and offered advice, by her female relatives. And wedding dresses were often made of white wool, and quite simple in appearance, and perhaps the bride had made it herself in anticipation of the big day. Although the dress itself was traditionally simple, there was also to be a highly complicated knot tied in the sash holding it up, to tease the groom and test his patience on the wedding night.
Her hair was important, and gathered in six locks, three on either side of her head, in mimicry of the style worn by Vestal Virgins, and she would wear a garland of fresh flowers and a orange or saffron colored veil. This veil was especially important, as it signified she wanted to be married until her death, and not opt for a divorce if things did not run smoothly.
This idea of the veil came from the women called Flaminica Dialis, who were the wives of priests called Flamen Dialis. This was a highly respected priesthood who could never divorce if they wanted to remain within their order. It was these priests who were officiating at a confarreatio wedding, along with a chief priest called a Pontifex Maximus.
The groom did not have any distinctive wedding clothes to wear, though most had to make sure his appearance was orderly and respectful for such an occasion. Neither did he have anyone in particular standing nearby to support him during the ceremony, unlike the bride, who had a female relative (usually her mother if possible) called a `pronuba.’ This relative or family friend had to be currently married, and not divorced in the past, for her to qualify for the position.
Attending the wedding were family members and friends of course, and amongst the number there had to be at least 10 male citizens to act as witnesses, for the wedding to be properly legal. The ceremony could vary, but central to it were the eating of a salted bread loaf by the couple, the holding of each other’s right hand as they gave spoken consent of their desire to marry each other, and the signing of the contract, which was involved with such romantic things as the size of the dowry (a gift of money from the bride’s family to the groom’s) and what would become of it if the marriage failed.
Next, after the congratulations, the groom and his family would leave first so they could welcome the bride at her new home, and a short time later, the bride would follow as part of a procession, after a traditional mock show of distress at having to leave her parent’s home.
Leading would be the pronuba and others, with lighted torches to pave the way, the bride herself would be led by three boys, one holding each of her hands and the third holding a torch. Musicians would also be a part of this march, and small food treats were often thrown to the crowds as the parade passed through.
Upon reaching her new home, the bride underwent a tradition of tying wool and spilling oil on the doorposts, before being carried across the threshold by either her groom or her friends where she would be welcomed with gifts of a small flaming torch and a vessel of water. A wedding feast would then begin around a symbolic wedding bed, and the happy couple would be given presents by all.
All roads might be said to lead to Rome, but all wedding traditions certainly do not stem from there. Around the world there developed many varied customs to celebrate that same union of man and woman. Let us now have a brief look at just some of the many ways a few different societies held their weddings.
In Japan, marriage arrangements were dealt with by a go-between called a `Nakodo.’ When a proposal had been accepted then an exchange of drinks, clothing and what were called `gifts of happiness and fortune’ were exchanged between the families through this intermediary, as well as a list of important family member’s names.
Not only did this go-between deal with the preliminaries, but he also attended the wedding with the couple, and in front of the relatives, and sometimes even read the oath as well, after the groom had on behalf of both himself and his new bride.
Thankfully however, the go-between was released of his duties at this stage.
The bride was not released fully by her family though, and the groom had to visit her every night in order to see her. Only later, when either a child was born to them or the groom’s parents had died (whichever came first) was she finally allowed by her family to live with him properly.
As might be expected from a culture not known for its shyness, Viking wedding festivities were a lengthy affair involving much rowdy feasting, music and drunkenness, which depending on the wealth of the families, could last up to a month! The guests here seemed to get a good deal, all this for free and they received a gift as well for their attendance, and did not have to reciprocate on this generosity.
In Scotland though, the guests had to more than pay their own way. Each invited family at a Highland wedding were expected to thank the couple for their invite by providing their own food for the marriage banquet, as well as often pay extra for festivities that might occur, and to give gifts as well on the day after. So most couples did very well indeed out of their weddings, and were comfortable for some time after.
These benefits were to ease the early times of marriage, and woe betides any who betrayed their vows in these staunchly religious Highland communities. Any found guilty of such an offense, male or female, was forced to stand in a barrel full of cold water at the local church doorway before the day’s service. When the congregation had all arrived, the miscreant then went inside as well, sopping wet and wearing only a shirt (a loose one presumably in the case of a female, for obvious reasons, indeed, two obvious reasons) and stood before his or her local community. After the service had ended, the humiliation was completed by the minister explaining the particulars of the sinful act.
It wasn’t a barrel of water beside a Mexican church’s doors; it was often a couple getting married! This was the original way of doing things in this then all Catholic land, with them only entering afterwards to attend mass.
During a Mexican wedding, the couple would also be tied together quite literally by the priest, who, after the exchange of vows, would wrap a very large rosary around them at their shoulders, waists, or wrists in a figure of eight looping. Alternates to a rosary for this purpose could be a string of flowers, ribbons, wooden rings, or gold bands for more wealthy families.
Then after the wedding, guns would be fired into the air in true Mexican style, before a wedding feast was held. The first dance at this celebratory banquet was often the romantic tradition of everybody linking hands and surrounding the newlyweds to form a heart shaped design. At the end of the party, another tradition sometimes observed, was the mock recapture of the bride by her family, who would only allow her back to the groom after he made promises about helping them in the future.
So weddings were and still are a varied selection of celebrations, the exchanging of rings seemed to be quite common, flowers of course, as did a parade, and the veil comparatively so as well. In Arabic history, although the prophet Mohammed advised that the couple should meet first, this recommendation was not always heeded, and sometimes the groom did not even see his wife at all until he lifted her veil after they were wed. A wide variety of emotions must have been experienced at that point through the years.
Wherever in the world it might have been, after the wedding, things tended to settle down in the community again until the next marriage came along. The honeymoon is a relatively recent addition to the wedding theme (although what happens on it is as old as the hills). This term comes from the time in the middle ages where a couple were given gifts of a mead wine, which was brewed from fermented honey and spices, to drink for a month. Honey from the mead and moon for the length of time.
So the history of weddings is almost as long as the history of humanity, and they’re not going to go away either. The dream still lives, even if the marriage may not always be as starry eyed as its beginnings can be. But weddings are not only about romance, they are also about duty. As the prophet Mohammed said: “When a man marries, he has fulfilled half of his religion, so let him fear Allah regarding the remaining half.”
Matt Jacks is a successful freelance writer providing tips and advice for consumers. His numerous articles offer moneysaving tips and valuable insight on typically confusing topics.