Levirate marriage

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Levirate marriage is a type of marriage in which the brother of a deceased man is obliged to marry his brother's widow, and the widow is obliged to marry her deceased husband's brother.

Levirate marriage has been practiced by societies with a strong clan structure in which exogamous marriage (i.e. marriage outside the clan) was forbidden. It has been known in many societies around the world. The practice is similar to widow inheritance, where, for example, the deceased husband's kin can dictate whom the widow may marry.

The term is a derivative of the Latin word levir meaning "husband's brother".

Background and rationale

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Levirate marriage can, at its most positive, serve as protection for the widow and her children, ensuring that they have a male provider and protector. Levirate marriage can be a positive in a society where women are not self-sufficient and must rely on men to provide for them, especially in societies where women are under the authority of, dependent on, in servitude to or regarded as possessions of their husbands, and to ensure the survival of the clan. The practice of levirate marriage is strongly associated with patriarchal societies. The practice was extremely important in ancient times (e.g., Ancient Near East), and remains so today in parts of the world. Having children enables the inheritance of land, which offers security and status.

A levirate marriage might only occur if a man died childless, in order to continue his family line. The anthropologist Ruth Mace also found that the practice of widow inheritance by younger brothers, common in many parts of Africa, serves to reduce population growth, as these men will be forced to marry older (and hence, less fertile) women.[1]


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A levirate marriage (Hebrew: yibbum) is mandated by Deuteronomy 25:5–6 of the Hebrew Bible, which obliges the oldest surviving brother of a man who dies childless to marry the widow of his childless deceased brother, with the firstborn child being treated as that of the deceased brother (see also Genesis 38:8) which renders the child the heir of the deceased brother and not the genetic father.

Religion professor Tikva Frymer-Kensky has pointed out the economic implications of a Hebrew levirate marriage: the first child born to the brother's widow would be deemed the heir of the deceased brother, and entitled to claim the deceased brother's share of inheritance. If the deceased brother was the firstborn son, the levirate child's inheritance was the double share to which the deceased was entitled. However, if the deceased brother were childless, the living brother would be entitled to inherit an increased share, or if the oldest surviving son a double share of the increased share.[2]

However, if either of the parties refuses to go through with the marriage, both are required to go through a ceremony known as halizah, involving a symbolic act of renunciation of their right to perform this marriage. Jewish law (halakha) has seen a gradual decline of yibbum in favor of halizah, to the point where in most contemporary Jewish communities the former is strongly discouraged.


Islamic law (sharia) clearly lays down rules for marriage, including who can marry whom, and although the Qur'an does not prohibit a man from marrying his brother's widow, it does prohibit a wife to be "inherited".[3]

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O you who have believed, it is not lawful for you to inherit women by compulsion. And do not make difficulties for them in order to take [back] part of what you gave them unless they commit a clear immorality. And live with them in kindness. For if you dislike them - perhaps you dislike a thing and Allah makes therein much good.

— [4]



The Soviet historian Khazanov suggests economic reasons for the longevity of the levirate over two millennia of nomadic history: "inheritance" of a wife as a part of the decedent's property and the need to support and educate children to continue the line of the deceased.

The levirate custom was revived if there were shaky economic conditions in the decedent's family. Khazanov, citing [Abramzon, 1968, p. 289 - 290], mentions that during World War II, the levirate was resurrected in Central Asia. In these circumstances, adult sons and brothers of the deceased man held themselves responsible to provide for his dependents. One of them would marry the widow and adopt her children, if there were any.[5]

Central Asia and Xiongnu

Levirate marriages were widespread among Central Asian nomads. Chinese historian Sima Qian (145-87 BC) described the practices of the Xiongnu (also transliterated "Hsiung-nu") in his magnum opus, Records of the Grand Historian. He attested that after a man's death, one of his relatives, usually a brother, marries his widow.

The levirate custom survived in the society of Northeastern Caucasus Huns until the 7th century AD. The Armenian historian Movses Kalankatuatsi states that the Savirs, one of Hunnish tribes in the area, were usually monogamous, but sometimes a married man would take his brother's widow as a polygynous wife. Ludmila Gmyrya, a Dagestani historian, asserts that the levirate survived into "ethnographic modernity" (from the context, probably 1950s). Kalankatuatsi describes the form of levirate marriage practised by the Huns. As women had a high social status, the widow had a choice whether to remarry or not. Her new husband might be a brother or a son (by another woman) of her first husband, so she could end up marrying her brother-in-law or stepson; the difference in age did not matter.[6]


"The Kirghiz practice levirate whereby the wife of a deceased male is very often married by a younger sibling of the deceased."[7] "Kirghiz ... followed levirate marriage customs, i.e., a widow who had borne at least one child was entitled to a husband from the same lineage as her deceased spouse."[8]


According to the Karo people's adat, polygyny is permitted. A study of Kutagamber, a Karo village in the 1960s, noted one instance of the practice, as a result of levirate.[9]


Levirate marriages among the Kurds are very common and also among the Kurds in Turkey, especially in Mardin.[10] Levirate is practised In Kurdistan, a widowed woman stays with her husband's family. If she is widowed when her children are young, she is obliged to marry her deceased husband's brother. This form of marriage is called Levirate. Sororate is another custom: When a man loses his wife before she bears a child or she dies leaving young children, her lineage provides another wife to the man, usually a younger sister with a lowered bride-price. Both Levirate and Sororate are practiced to guarantee the well being of children and ensure that any inheritance of land will stay within the family.[11]



In Somalia, levirate marriage is practiced, and provisions are made under Somali customary law or Xeer with regard to bride price (yarad).[12]


Among the Mambila of northern Cameroon, in regard to "Inheritance of wives : both levirates are practised throughout the tribe".[13]


In some parts of Nigeria, it is a common practice for a woman to marry her late husband's brother if she had children. This enabled the children to retain the father's family identity and inheritance. Although less common today, it is still practised:

"Levirate marriage is considered a custom of the Yoruba, the Igbo, and the Hausa-Fulani ... . ... levirate marriages ... are commonest among the [I]gbo ... . ... Under customary law among the Yoruba, ... A brother or son of the deceased husband ... was traditionally allowed to inherit the widow as a wife ... . The inheritance of the youngest wife of the deceased by the eldest son ... continues to be practiced in Yoruba land ... . ... Under Igbo customary law, ... a brother or son of the deceased Igbo husband ... was traditionally allowed to inherit the widow as a wife". Levirate marriage is also considered in the tradition of the Urhobo people, a major ethnic group in the Delta State.[14]


As among the Maragoli of western Kenya,[15] likewise "in the Luo case widows become mostly remarried to the deceased husband’s brother.".[16]

In the highlands of Kenya, it is "Nandi custom for a widow to be "taken over" ... by a brother ... of her deceased husband."[17] "According to customary law, it is tantamount to adultery for a widow to be sexually involved with a man other than a close agnate of her late husband."[18]

South Africa

In countries such as South Africa where a Levirate marriage is known as ukungenwa, the obligation for a woman to enter into a levirate marriage is on the decline due to increasing awareness of women's rights. Among the Zulu, the levirate and ghost marriage (the vicarious marriage of a woman to the name of a deceased relative) was common until relatively recently.

South Sudan

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Levirate marriages are very common among South Sudan's nilotic groups especially common among the Dinka and Nuer people.[19]

An alternate form, the ghost marriage, occurs when a groom dies before marriage. The deceased groom is replaced by his brother who serves as a stand in to the bride; any resulting children are considered children of the deceased spouse.[20]


In Zimbabwe Levirate marriage is traditionally practised by the Shona and it is commonly known as "Kugara nhaka". Under the practice, the younger brother is the one who can "inherit" the wife of the elder brother. The elder brother is not allowed to "inherit" the wife of the younger brother. As in the rest of the world, the practice is now being discouraged due to the epidemic of HIV and AIDS.



In English history, Levirate marriage practices have been followed for dynastic reasons, to preserve marriage alliances and to protect the social status of royal spouses and fiancees. Upon the death of Arthur, Prince of Wales, his widow Catherine of Aragon was married to his younger brother, the future Henry VIII. Upon the death of Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, his fiancee Mary of Teck married his younger brother, the future George V.

Popular culture

The Hallmark Hall of Fame movie Loving Leah (2009)[21] addressed the issue of Levirate marriage in an Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community.

In William Shakespeare's play Hamlet, the brother of the deceased King Hamlet, Claudius, marries the widow Gertrude in the name of defending her and the realm.

See also

  • Avunculism, a cultural custom in which a maternal uncle demonstrates some institutionalised interest in his sister’s offspring and may take on many of the responsibilities typically associated with fatherhood; this is a role, for instance, among American Indian peoples who have matrilineal cultures.
  • Fraternal polyandry, a marriage of two or more brothers and one woman
  • Genealogy of Jesus, in which Levirate marriage is offered to explain discrepancies
  • Posthumous marriage, a marriage in which at least one party is dead
  • Sororate marriage, a marriage of two or more sisters and one man
  • Widow inheritance, a modern form of levirate marriage


  1. Why Polyandry Fails: Sources of Instability in Polyandrous Marriages Nancy E. Levine; Joan B. Silk http://case.edu/affil/tibet/tibetanSociety/documents/02.pdf
  2. Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. "Tamar: Bible", Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 6, 2014)
  3. Chapter 4 (al-Nisa) verse 19
  4. al-Nisa 4:19 http://quran.com/4/19
  5. Khazanov А. M. Social history of Scythians, Moscow, 1975. p. 82 (no ISBN, but the book is available in US libraries, Russian title Sotsialnaya Istoriya Skifov, Moskva, 1975)
  6. Gmyrya L. Hun Country At The Caspian Gate, Dagestan, Makhachkala 1995, p.212 (no ISBN, but the book is available in US libraries, Russian title Strana Gunnov u Kaspiyskix vorot, Dagestan, Makhachkala, 1995)
  7. Nazif Shahiz Shahrani: The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan. University of Washington Press, 2002. p. 124
  8. Afghanistan -- Ethnicity and Tribe
  9. Masri Singarimbun, Kutagamber: A village of the Karo.
  10. (Turkish) the reasons for traditional marriages in Turkey and the effects of custom on marriages; Tuğçe P. Taçoğlu "[1]
  11. Kurdish-Families-Kurdish-Marriage-Patterns; http://family.jrank.org/pages/1026/Kurdish-Families-Kurdish-Marriage-Patterns.html
  12. James Norman Dalrymple Anderson: Islamic Law in Africa. Routledge, 1970. p.46 http://books.google.com/books?id=j5Rb6Mwd3zoC&pg=PA46&lpg=PA46&dq=%22islamic+levirate%22&source=bl&ots=lvv7iSxxtk&sig=3xKfCnLiejCkBPFLppB3nBdxyv4&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=4&ct=result
  13. D. A. Percival 1 xi 35, Notes on Dr Meek's Report on "Mambila Tribe" (page numbers refer to K. C. Meek : Tribal Studies, 1929, Vol. 1), Pp542-3
  14. Levirate marriage practices among the Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa-Fulani
  15. Jaan Valsiner: Culture and Human Development. SAGE Publications, London, 2000. p. 100a
  16. Jaan Valsiner: Culture and Human Development. SAGE Publications, London, 2000. p. 99b
  17. Regina Smith Oboler : "Nandi Widows", p. 77 In:- Betty Potash (ed.) : Widows in African Societies : Choices and Constraints. Stanford University Press, 1986. pp. 66-83
  18. Regina Smith Oboler, "Nandi Widows", pp. 77-78 In:- Betty Potash (ed.) : Widows in African Societies : Choices and Constraints. Stanford University Press, 1986. pp. 66-83
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  21. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1346983/