Wedding traditions in Australia

223. Traditional Marriage Arrangements. According to Dr Bell, certain elements underpin traditional marriages:

there is the potential of marriage between certain categories of persons which is further refined by reference to actual kin, country, ritual and historical relations. Such a union is hedged in by certain taboos, including in-law avoidance. It is enmeshed in a complex web of kin obligations and responsibilities. It is underwritten by exchanges which both pre-and post-date any individual marriage. Violations or deviance from the marriage contract attract attention from different categories of person or persons.

Professor Berndt has defined four key elements as follows:

1. The couple should be eligible to marry according to local rules defining ‘ideal preferences and accepted authorities’.

2. Appropriate betrothal arrangements should have been made between the two kin groups concerned. An exchange of gifts ratifies the contract.

3. Actual marriage may be distinguished from the betrothal when the parties cohabit publicly and take on ‘marital responsibilities including sexual relations’.

4. The union is considered to be strengthened by the birth of the first child.

Marriage was a central feature of traditional Aboriginal societies. The need to maintain populations and thereby to ensure that there was always someone to attend sites and keep up traditions was matched by the desire to ensure that children were produced according to the right family groups and the correct affiliations. For these purposes freedom of marriage was restricted by the prohibitions against the marriage of certain close relatives and by the rule of exogamy, that is, marrying outside one’s group. An important factor in determining the parties to a marriage was the balancing of kinship obligations, including reciprocal obligations between individuals, families or larger groups. The interests of the parties, and their attraction or affection for each other, were considered subsidiary to these obligations. The creation of marriage alliances and the obligations that this involved were closely linked with relationships to the land. Spiritual affiliation with land included a series of ritual obligations and duties often acquired through inheritance in either the male or female line, or both. And marriage was a primary means for maintaining attachment to land. According to Dr Bell

Perhaps the most important difference between Aboriginal marriage patterns and those of white Australia is that the marriage is not seen as a contract between individuals but rather as one which implicates both kin and country men of the parties involved. If we explore the web of relations which surround an arranged marriage entered into at the time of initiation of a young male, we find that at least three generations are implicated.

224. Arranging Marriages. One important way in which marriages were arranged was infant betrothal. Usually this was between a young girl and an older man. A man’s first marriage would not necessarily fall into this category: his first wife might well be an older widow. A girl could be betrothed either as a potential mother-in-law or as a wife. Indeed it was possible for a girl to be betrothed before she was born and to grow up knowing who her future husband was likely to be. The promised relationship created a series of lifelong responsibilities and obligations between the young man and his promised wife’s relations. For example, the young man might be required to provide food for his future mother-in-law. While the girl was growing up she would normally have regular contact with her promised husband, so that when the marriage eventually took place he was no stranger to her. However, the fact that negotiations had taken place and promises made was no guarantee that a marriage would take place, or that a girl would consider herself obligated to remain married to her promised husband. Refusal to marry, or to perform obligations to family associated with marriage arrangements, would usually give rise to arguments, but if the prospective husband or wife persisted in refusal, renegotiation was possible. This might involve arranging a substitute or agreeing to compensate the aggrieved person in some way.

225. Patterns of Marriage and Remarriage. The age of marriage was very different for men and women, and differed also as between various parts of Australia. Usually, a girl would marry at or about the age of puberty; a man not until later (in his late twenties or even later). Among some Aboriginal groups, at least, marriages were often polygynous (with a husband having two or more wives): a wife, on the other hand, would have only one husband at a time, although usually she would be married to several husbands in succession, as the former husband died or the marriage broke up. There was, in most groups, no single marriage ceremony, although particular acts or events (eg sharing a campfire) would result in the recognition of the marriage by the community. Divorce could occur by mutual consent or unilaterally, again, in most cases, without any particular formality: divorce involved, and was signified by, the termination of cohabitation. However, if a wife eloped or otherwise left a husband without his consent, he might try to bring her back by force, seek to punish her or her lover, or seek compensation. In each of these respects he might be assisted by his kin. Similarly if a husband became involved with another woman his wife might be required by customary law to ritually and publicly fight the other woman.

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