Marriage and Me

Guest post by Seamus Magee

As I mentioned recently one of the most interesting facts about me at the moment is that in under 1 month I am getting married. So I started to ruminate on it and figured it might make a blog post topic.

Given my background I thought I might turn to the ancient Greeks to get their take on the whole marriage thing first… But sadly Aristophanes, the comic playwright I do the most work with, does not say that much about marriage at all. In Lysistrata, the title character describes her domestic situation as quite miserable. She refers to a insipid, dull and boorish husband who threatens her with abuse all the time, and won’t take any advice. And that’s about the extent of it.
In fact the ancient Greeks don’t mention marriage in general…. It gets mentioned a bit, but not a lot. Most of the material is made up of the occasional snide remark about how wives are horrible and marriage is “character-building”.

There’s one quote I like, it’s actually from a wedding song by the poet Sappho:
Χαίροισα νύμφα, χαιρέτω δ’ ὀ γάμβρος.
If you read it it sounds something like this:
‘Chairoisa numpha, chairetO d’ho gambros’.
And now in English:
‘The bride rejoicing, the groom should also rejoice’ (that’s the only bit of this particular wedding song that remains, it’s a fragment. No context, no dedication, no nothing, so take it for what it’s worth).

So moving along, what is marriage? And why does it matter? To me, it’s the establishment of new social entity – the family. Your spouse is the only relative in your life that you actually choose. I guess that’s what makes it important to me. That fact above all others. In marrying someone, you are forming a family. With all that entails. They’re also the only family member in your life that you can chose to sever the familial relationship with. So both the event and the maintenance of marriage really do imply a heavy commitment.

Me being me, I also see the sense and the point of having a ceremony and a ritual to it. A social ritual requires 2 things: participants and witnesses (sometimes the same group of people fulfil both these roles). A social ritual involves the participants making some kind of statement (doesn’t have to be verbal, but with a wedding clearly it is!) to the witnesses, and the witnesses acknowledging, and accepting that statement. In the wedding Chris and I will state, in no uncertain terms, that we are now a family. The witnesses will acknowledge and accept that statement, and treat us as a family from now on. Of course on the ground it won’t change a thing. We already have joint bank accounts and credit cards, co-own pets and live together. But the ceremony acts like a marker in your life where the two of you officially say “Well we’re married now” to your friends and families. Ceremonies are important. Rituals are important. I can’t enunciate why exactly, but they resonate to me…. Maybe its because they order our lives the same way humans try to order everything around them.

So that’s what I think about it in a nutshell… And that’s why I’m looking forward to forming a new family with Chris.

5 thoughts on “Marriage and Me

  1. Very interesting Seamus. I’m very happy for you and really looking forward to the wedding!I’m curious about the ancient Greek view of marriage. You refer to comments about ‘our wives are horrible’ etc, but how much do we know about their lifestyle? My understanding (probably wrong) is that there wasn’t a lot of "husband & wife" sex, for example, but mistresses were quite widespread and owner/slave sex happened a lot – that true?I like what you said about marriage being the establishment of a new family. I guess I’ve always understood that – I’ve long believed you "make your own family" in the sense that those friends and people you hold dear to you ARE your family, even if there’s no blood connection.Good post!

  2. Cheers Ed,Your questions about Greek married life is highly complex…. The simple answer is that we don’t know all that much. Like with most of the questions about any long-gone era of human history we use literature, records, depictions and archaeological evidence to give us as much of a picture as we can, and then we infer the rest to fill in the (usually very large) gaps with educated guesses…..What we do know is that marriages (among wealthy people at any rate) were usually arranged. In Aristophanes (he’s what I know best!) female characters actually crack jokes about the number of lovers they all keep, so really who knows? I’m sure plenty of people both men and women fooled around…. plenty do now too.If we look at Hesiod (he’s a very early author, around 700ish BC, 250 years before the "Classical Age") he describes a myth whereby Zeus actually creates women to punish mankind. Forcing them on men, and making them necessary for reproduction. So, it kind of casts marriage in a negative light…We do know that marriage was also considered a process by which a woman passed on from the care of 1 man (her father) to a new man (her husband). That’s from written accounts and depictions of wedding processions showing just that (a woman being taken from her father’s house to her new house with her husband). There were also dowries involved and the rest of it….As for sleeping around etc…. truth is, we really have no idea about how common it was. We guess (again based on literature) that it certainly did happen. Men also slept with other men a lot too, even after marriage. The Symposium by Plato is one of our main sources for how this might have worked. Slaves were not considered people. So to sleep with a slave was like sleeping with a blow up doll albeit a blow up doll that you could knock up/get knocked up by….Anyway I could go on…. But you get the picture. The main difference is that today marriage is a joining of equals, and so it should be.

  3. Interesting. It always amazes me how we can know so much about an ancient culture, and still know so little! And I shudder to think what historians will make of our culture 3,000 years from now…And I think I was probably confusing Ancient Roman sexuality with Ancient Greek – I’m watching Spartacus: Blood and Sand which has a very open and ‘in your face’ portrayal of Roman sex. That and listening to this podcast from Jon Faine a few months ago about Roman brothels and sex.

  4. The single most interesting fact about Roman marriage that I learned was that in the time of the Emporer Augustus, as part of a series of attempts to restore the moral fibre of Rome, he made adultery a crime..

  5. Interesting. My understanding was that a family had to contain more than one generation, that being parents and children. And that a wife and a husband were not a family. Most of the definitions I’ve come across back this, however there are one or two that align with just the husband and wife.

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