Telegony and the Sacred King
Scientist of the University of South Wales proved that telegony (also known as impregnation theory), the theory stating that offspring can inherit the characteristics of a previous mate of the female parent, exists. This applies for fruit flies at least, The researchers compared the size the young by the size of the first male the mother mated with, rather than the second male that created the offspring. In other words, the first one to mate with the mother leaves some “genetic” mark which is passed on to all offspring, regardless of the other mating-partners.
The outcome of this research is very remarkable and has great implications. Although the theory of telegony has been discarded until now, it is not new. It was observed by cattle in the previous century, although not proven. The farmers knew that when a cow mate with an outstanding bull for this first time, she would give life to a very good offspring. When a mediocre bull mated with the cow for the first time, the offspring would inherit the mediocre characteristics of the bull too. Although not all characteristics were passed on, the number must have been big enough to be observed and enter in the knowledge of cattle breeding.
The idea of telegony applies to humans too, according to Aristotle. The characteristics of the one who deflowers the becoming mother will be passed on to the direct and indirect offspring too. The same happens in the mythology when gods like Zeus mate with mortal woman. Those woman give birth to a demi-god, but also her other offspring seems to inherit some heavenly characteristics.
I have been pondering on the idea whether the “ius primae noctis” finds its origin in the telegony. The “right of the first night” appears in the early antiquity. The first explicit evidence can be found in the Gilgamesh Epic from the old Babylonian period (about -1900). In this text, Gilgamesh, the tyrannical hero and ruler of Uruk, capital of Babylonia, is said to have enjoyed several privileges because of his outstanding position in the society of Uruk: “He cohabits with the betrothed bride – He first, The husband afterwards”. Classical writers mention the right of the first night in the same context, describing it as a privilege of rulers. It is explained as a good or bad custom according to the position of the ruler. We hear of other account from Libya and the island Kepahlonia. Valerius Maximus (20 AD) mentions a similar custom that arose during the revolt of the slaves of Volsinii: no free man could marry a virgin who had not previously been deflowered by a slave. This implies the inversion of the custom to breed out certain characteristics. In 1361 Edward, the Black Prince, heir to the throne of Edward III of England, resisted in marrying Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent, who had been previously married because the blood of their offspring would not be pure anymore. The offspring would still have characteristics of the first husband of Joan. It must be clear that the custom and the beliefs surrounding it, were not limited to a certain culture but was widely spread, although not always practiced.
The right of the first night was known during the Viking time. In the eighth century in the Annals of the monastery Clonmacnosie (Ireland), the Vikings are accused of demanding the right of the first night from Christian brides: “the cheefe Gouvernour of them should have the bestowinge of any woman in the k’dom the first night after her marriage, so before her own husband should have carnal knowledge of her, to whom he pleased or keep her … (Indecipherable. Part of page-end frayed) to himself by night, to satisfy his lust”. The Irish heroes of these epics are said to have enjoyed the privilege of the first night with the brides of their inferiors.
If this custom was really widely spread in the northern lands, is unknown, but the custom survived in the middle ages. A text from 15th Century Switzerland references the Lord of Maur demanding the right to take either the virginity of a bride or a fee, to be paid on the behalf of the betrothed.
In this sense J. Wettlaufer states:
The Germanic “mundium” payment of the free bridegroom to his bride or her family implied the right to take possession of the bride by means of taking her home and having the first sexual intercourse with her. If an unfree man in the early Middle Ages wanted to marry a free woman, he not only had to ask his lord’s permission; it was also the lord who paid the mundium for the servant’s bride as a loan. The unfree man was not legally entitled to act independently from his lord, and by paying the mundium, the lord acquired not only a new subject and wife for his servant but also (in a very formal sense) the right to take the woman home and to perform the “Beilager”, a symbolic custom representing the first sexual intercourse with the bride. The Germanic “Beilager” was an important part of the Germanic marriage ritual that was later integrated into the ecclesiastical ritual of marriage.
We learn that the ruler or the king had the privilege or the right to perform the act. In the Germanic culture, we know the concept of the sacred king. He stands under the protection of the gods (Óðinn) and represents the heavenly power on earth in all its aspects. The king embodies the supreme power, fertility and might. Moreover, he must be considered equal to the gods in a physical and psychological way. This function places him between gods and mortals making him the “better” human in every way.
Does this custom find its origin in the fact that the king, the representative of the gods, must leave his mark on the woman in order to spawn better offspring? The ruler or the king represents (or should represent) courage and fertility. And those are the characteristics which are considered as very important in the Germanic culture. When telegony is “proven” for fruit-flies and has been observed in cattle, it is not unlikely that it applies to humans too rendering this theory not so unrealistic.
- Wettlaufer, J., “The jus primae noctis as a male power display”, A review of historic sources with evolutionary interpretation.
- Baetke, W., Yngvi und die Ynglinger – eine quellenkritische Untersuchung über das nordische Sakralkönigtum. (1964)