Spirit Spouses & Corpse Brides: Marrying the Dead - Part One
Posthumous marriage, necrogamy & ghost brides in rural China
In 2013 a family in Shaanxi Province, China, attempted to sell their 19 year old handicapped daughter to another family, where she was going to be killed and then married to their dead son. In 2002 a Yoruba woman was taken to her church by her husband, she had begun waking after midnight, screaming and rolling around on the floor like a baby. She had lost weight and was terrified her family would all soon die from HIV. Her pastor diagnosed her as suffering from ogun oru - dreamtime spiritual warfare - brought about by her malevolent ‘spirit husband’. In 2005 a young woman called Julia began having terrible dreams, in which a demonic woman started having sex with her, trying to use her as a conduit to sleep with her boyfriend. Julia learnt through her Pentacostal church that this ‘spouse’ was an evil spirit sent to torment her by her extended family, as a punishment for her failure to honour her ancestors. What is happening here?
One of my writing goals is to show a contemporary audience that the conceit of modern humanism or pseudo-cosmopolitanism is false. It is easy to imagine as a Westerner today that everyone around the world is basically the same, except for food and language, mostly interchangeable. I want to tear away this illusion and have people realise that pre-modern ideas of witchcraft, sorcery, magic and superstition are key features of the modern human landscape around the world. If the idea of marrying a demonic spirit in your dreams or purchasing the corpse of a young woman to wed to your dead son sounds alien and unreal, then prepare to be shocked.
Necrogamy: The Ghost Brides of China
Marriage between two or more living people is already a hellish institution to define universally, and the concept of ‘ghost marriages’ throws the whole thing into disarray. In general when we talk of a ghost marriage we mean that one or more participants to the ceremony, the spouses themselves, are deceased. This seems to come in two flavours - one purely legalistic and the other with spiritual and religious consequences. Being able to marry a dead person has many customary and lawful advantages: the legitimation of children, the preservation of inheritances within a family line or to access the social benefits of matrimony. Many western nations have allowed ghost marriages in exceptional circumstances, such as Nazi Germany during WW2. France permits dozens of ghost marriages every year, since it is permitted under Article 171 of the Civil Code. Some recent examples include the widow Magali Jaskiewicz, whose fiancé had been killed by a car two days after seeking permission to wed from the town hall, and the spouse of Xavier Jugelé - the police officer killed by a jihadi on Paris' Champs Elysees in 2017. Other notable countries and cultures which permit legalistic ghost marriages include the Nuer and Atwot Nilotic peoples of South Sudan. Here the constant feuding and raiding between pastoralists has led to a practice whereby the brother of a dead man acts as a living substitute, allowing a woman to marry the deceased. Any children are considered to be of the dead man’s lineage, and wealthy women often choose to marry a ghost groom in order to protect their wealth and hand it off to their children.
The second type of ghost marriage has much deeper implications. In both China and Japan the institution of ghost marriages resonates in the spiritual world. In China and Taiwan it is known as yinhun (阴婚) or minghun (冥婚), translating as ‘dark marriage’ (yin from the well known yin-yang) or using the term for underworld. To understand the origins we need to delve into the mists of time, reaching back to the Shang dynasty (1,600 - 1,050 BC). One of the classic features of this period was a shamanistic focus on divination and human sacrifice, many victims have been recovered from royal tombs. With the accession of the Zhou dynasties and the blossoming of Confucian, Daoist and Legalist thought, human sacrifice became to be regarded as something evil, something contrary to proper human nature. In its place came an early version of yinhun, where the deceased could be married in the spiritual realm. In the Confucian text, The Rites of Zhou, ghost marriages were prohibited, indicating that the practice was already widespread. The later Han dynasty era warlord-poet Cao Cao married his 13 year old dead son, the child prodigy Cao Chong, to a dead young woman Miss Zhen, underscoring how popular ghost marriages continued to be.
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