From the Greek evxoZ + yapco (“out” + “to marry”), exogamy is the marital rule according to which the spouse must be sought outside the social group (e.g. kindred, totem, royal) one belongs to. It is the opposite of endogamy.
The explanation of exogamy has been a major concern for anthropologists. In addition, as it has been mainly linked to the interdiction of incest, which constitutes the most important form of exogamy, exogamy as a social phenomenon was considered to be of natural origin. However, Lévi-Strauss theorized that the interdiction of incest, and therefore exogamy, is not of natural but of cultural origin. Based on a quote from Tylor, he proceeded to give the succinct interpretation that man very soon realized that he needed to choose “between marrying-out and being killed-out.” Under these conditions, no society can exist without exogamy.
Just as social groups aim to preserve and transmit their constitutive elements (for example, power, wealth, religion, language) to the following generations through endogamy in order to perpetuate their existence, exogamy aims at forming alliances between the groups connected through marriage for the same purpose. This perpetuation is achieved as well through biological replenishment as well as any sort of strengthening (financial, military, etc.) and the resolution of enmities, and so on, as has been and is the case with royal families, for which exogamy is the norm. An example of this is the marriage of Eric Tudor, heir of the house of Lancaster from his mother’s side, with Elisabeth from the house of York. Eric was crowned king by setting an end to the War of the Two Roses (1455-1458), fought between the houses of Lancaster and York over the throne of England. The war took its name from the crests of the houses, Lancaster’s being a red rose and York’s a white one. With his marriage, Eric united the two roses on his crest and became the head of a new dynasty.
Consanguinity Kindred Exogamy
The most common form of exogamy occurs with the selection of the spouse outside the kindred group within which marriage would constitute incest. The stringency of the universal rule forbidding incest (and thereby enforcing exogamy) varies for different societies, ranging from the interdiction of marriage between parents and children as well as between brothers and sisters to the interdiction of marriage if even a single common ancestor is discovered.
For instance, the Greek Orthodox Church allows marriage between relatives beyond the fourth degree (i.e., the first cousins) for consanguinity kindred. However, custom appears to be stricter than religion, as it only allows marriage between relatives past the second cousins most of the time, or even past the third cousins on more rare occasions. Elsewhere, as in for example, the Aborigines in Australia, marriage is forbidden between parallel cousins, that is, children of two siblings of same sex, which are considered to be siblings (a case of exogamy). Conversely, it is allowed and even largely enforced between cross cousins, that is, children of two siblings of different sex (brother and sister), this being a case of endogamy.
Lineage and Clan Exogamy
Exogamy is also a very frequent phenomenon on a clan (a social group the members of which acknowledge a common ancestry and whose relationships are ruled by solidarity) or lineage (the group of individuals who are interconnected through consanguineal kinship either patrilinealy or matrilinealy and who acknowledge a common ancestor) level. In northern Albania and parts of southern Albania, the fis, a large group of men of patrilineal descent with a common ancestor (lineage), follows a strict exogamy. The obstacles to marriage derive from the state of consanguinity the members of the same fis share because of their “blood link,” originating from their patrilineal affiliation. If a marriage within the fis was discovered, the “culprits” were subjected to persecution and could even be assassinated. The clans in southern Mani (Greece) were also exogamic for the same reason.
A strict exogamy is obeyed by most totem clans, that is, clans bearing the names of plants, animals, or natural processes that they usually treat as their ancestors and protectors (totems). The members of the clan with this common ancestry consider each other relatives. This results in exogamy, as in the Ojibwa Native North Americans, where the term totem originates (ototeman means “is my friend or relative” in their language).
Fictitious (or Ritual) Kindred Exogamy
Apart from consanguineal (or by affinity) relatives, individuals related by fictitious (or ritual) kinship are also usually subject to exogamy. This term covers social bonds equivalent to consanguineal or affinity kinship, often using the terminology of kinship (or cognate terms, for example, father-godfather) and usually necessitating a ritual for their creation (such as godparenthood, adoption, or fraternization).
The rule of exogamy is thus particularly stringent for godparenthood in the Greek Orthodox Church, where marriage is forbidden between the godparent and the godchild as well as the godparent and the godchild’s parent. This is because the godparents are considered to be spiritual parents and the godchild their spiritual child. In order to remove the risk of such a marriage, custom dictates that men only baptize boys and women only baptize girls. This practice has yet another purpose: it eliminates the possibility of a marriage between godchildren baptized by the same godparent. The godchildren are considered siblings by custom and for whom marriage is forbidden. The danger of a marriage of this kind is particularly evident in endogamic societies. Still according to custom, marriage is also forbidden between the natural children of the godparent and their godchildren, who are considered siblings as well.
Exogamy usually applies between an adopting parent and an adopted child in most societies, as the adopted child takes the place of a natural child. In some cases, for example, in Albania, a powerful lineage could adopt a weaker one by adopting one of its children. The members of both lineages would then be subject to exogamy.
Interdiction of marriage also stands between individuals who have become siblings following a ritual (fraternization), although these individuals are most often of the same gender (usually men). Fraternization is encountered in many African and Balkan societies, where exogamy can apply to the families of the individuals linked by fraternization and often to the members of both their lineages.
- Goody J. (1983). The spiritual and the natural. In The development of family and marriage in Europe (pp. 194-221). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Lévi-Strauss, C. (1949). Endogamy et xogamy. In Les structures élémentaires de la parenté (pp. 49-60). Paris: PUF.
- Lévi-Strauss, C. (1962). Le totémisme aujourd’hui, Paris: PUF.