Marriage is a human institution. As those who invented it, we should be able to define it. Biology may not help here, since animals become mating pairs in many different ways. Besides, we’re selective in our application of science to the question. Not only that, human views of marriage have changed quite a bit over time, and the practice of marriage is still not uniform today. Back in biblical times, for example, polygamy was more or less normal. Marriages were arranged for tactical and economic reasons, and bonding for love had, one can only guess, very little to do with it. It was practical, pragmatic, and of use to the state. Prior to that, if the evidence is to be believed, “marriage” was a communal practice among groups of maybe 150 individuals. The purpose was the same: social harmony and cooperation.
An article on The Wild Hunt has me thinking about this again. (And you thought I was going to be discussing gay marriage, didn’t you?) According to a recent piece by Christina Harrington, handfasting, the marriage among pagan communities, has now been legally recognized in England and Wales. As far as we can tell, again delving back to the Bible, marriage was not considered a religious matter in antiquity. Part of life, it was handled by families who were witnesses to the promises made. Over time, various religious bodies came to give their blessings to people pledged to each other. In fact, for some religions marriage is perhaps the most important sacrament. Once this happened, however, dominant religions became jealous of their right to declare a marriage binding or not. Even as a child I remember a stigma attached to a merely civil wedding. It is, however, the state the declares a marriage binding.
Marriage is a convenient method to sort out tax statuses among genders with earning disparities. A government has no interest in whether a couple marries for love or not. Even gender doesn’t really matter. Can you tick that “married” box on your tax form or not? So it is that recognizing handfasting is likely, on some level, politically expedient. Meanwhile, those who marry for love have the added benefit of being with someone they chose and having a friend at hand. Tax season is upon us. Valentines Day will soon be here. And in some parts of the world the government is catching up with the times and realizing that marriage is what people make it.