Courtship and Marriage

In pre-Christian Samoa there was no hard and fast distinction between intercourse and marriage. As late as the 1970s, a boy who had deflowered a girl might appear at her wedding to another man insisting that she was already his wife.

Go-betweens (soa) handled courtships between persons of rank and then contracted their marriages in light of political considerations. The ordinary boy, like his ranking counterpart, sometimes employed a companion to speak for him in matters of the heart. For the commoner, however, sending a soa to a girl's family was problematic. Commoner boys could not expect a welcome reception because Samoan parents generally wanted their daughters to wed a high-status husband. Therefore their soa often approached the girl herself rather than her family. While the chief's soa was elaborately courteous to all parties, the common soa praised his principal, but joked with the girl he wooed. Samoan boys and girls may still get a friend to speak for them to someone in whom they feel a romantic interest.

In old Samoa, ranking marriages consisted in the girl's ritual defloration and an elaborate display of her hymeneal blood, as well as an exchange of speeches and prestations. The talking chief of the groom or the groom himself performed the defloration. Old ladies from both sides might examine the girl prior to the ritual to insure she would not embarrass both families. A taupou who did not shed blood at a defloration might be stoned. Joking Nights were a common venue for the elopements of lesser folk because they occurred when people visited from other villages. Given that Samoans calculated kinship so broadly, people within a village were often related. Samoans consider marriage with a relative, no matter how distant, incestuous.

High-status males practiced serial polygamy (technically "polygyny") and, sometimes, simultaneous polygyny. Lower-status men could also have more than one wife. With lower-status girls, marriage was a matter of the amount of time spent residing with a partner and was formerly acknowledged by their families when the couple began having children. The event that was ritualized for lower status people was not the act of intercourse but the act of childbirth. Females were forbidden to marry again if their male spouse was of high status, even if the spouse was residing with another wife or wives. An exception was made if the wife's status was equal to or surpassed that of her husband; then she could take a new husband after she had ended a marriage.

As noted, World War II was an important turning point. Many Samoan girls formed relationships with American servicemen, who appeared to be of high status. These young men usually deserted their Samoan girlfriends; the resulting children were an embarrassment to girls and their families. Christian mores made new sense in terms of this historical experience. Today there is an ideal of virginity for unmarried girls, but many young unmarried people engage in sexual relationships. Marriages are by elopement, as well as by state- and church-sanctioned unions.

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