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Title: Levirate  
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Subject: Book of Ruth, Ugarit, James the Just, Clopas
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Template:Anthropology of kinship

Not to be confused with Levite.

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., that 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

Main article: Widow inheritance

Levirate marriage can, at its most positive, serve as protection for the widow and her children, ensuring that they have a male provider responsible for them. This can be a positive in a society where women are not allowed self-sufficiency and must rely on men to provide, especially in societies where women are seen as under the authority, dependent on, in servitude, and/or possessions of their husbands. Thus practice of levirate marriage is strongly associated with patriarchal societies. The practice was extremely important in ancient societies (e.g., History of ancient Arab Near East), and remains so today in parts of the world. Having children enabled the inheritance of land, which offered 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]


Main article: Yibbum

A levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:9-10), which explains that if a man refuses to carry out this 'duty,' the woman must spit in his presence, remove one of his shoes, and the others in the town referring to him as 'the one without a shoe'. While this provision implies that a brother may opt out of Levirate marriage, there is no provision in the Books of Moses for the widow to do so.

Later authorities in Leviticus 18:16), anytime that a yibbum is not required (for example if the deceased had a child), it is forbidden.


Islamic law (sharia) clearly lays down rules for marriage, including who can marry whom, and the Qur'an prohibits a wife to be "inherited" unless she agrees.[2]

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.

According to an analysis by Iraj Bashiri of Chingiz Aitmatov's Jamila, levirate marriage was practiced in Kyrgyzstan during the Cold War. Some do or did practice levirate marriage, more often in the name of tribal practices or customary law rather than Islamic law. "Certain tribal cultures ... enforced the levirate ... according to which a brother of a deceased husband was obliged to marry his widow."[4][unreliable source?]



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 BCE) 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 CE. 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 was quite common in rural India until as recently as a few years ago, and is still practiced in certain parts of Punjab and Haryana. It is called "Latta Odhna" in the Jats of Haryana, Latta being the Haryanvi word for a cloth that women used to cover their heads and faces, and Odhna translating as "covering/wearing". This is also called "Chadar Dhakna" in other parts, Chadar being Hindi for Latta, and Dhakna being Hindi for Odhna.

The practice probably originated centuries ago in agrarian societies where vocational opportunities for women other than working at home were non-existent. Re-marriage or going back to the parents' home was not an option. The practice ensured and continues to do so that any land or property owned by the deceased husband would continue to stay in his family.

If the widow did not have any male progeny and a levirate was not possible, she would be made to adopt a nephew of her husband. The more common practice was for the widow to be married off to an unmarried younger brother—-a custom referred to as niyoga. The ceremony was generally a low-key affair where families from both the widow and the husband's side got together and came to the decision without any of the fanfare that was generally associated with weddings.

In recent years, the levirate has all but disappeared except from the remote rural areas.

Note: such marriages still take place in both rural and urban Bangladesh, especially in the lower and middle income groups.



In Somalia, levirate marriage is practiced, and provisions are made under Somali customary law or Xeer with regard to bride price (yarad).[10]


Among the Mambila of northern Cameroon, in regard to "Inheritance of wives : both levirates are practised throughout the tribe".[11]


Among the Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria, it was 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".[12]


As among the Maragoli of western Kenya,[13] likewise "in the Luo case widows become mostly remarried to the deceased husband’s brother.".[14]

In the highlands of Kenya, it is "Nandi custom for a widow to be "taken over" ... by a brother ... of her deceased husband."[15] "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."[16]

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

Levirate marriages are very common among South Sudan's nilotic groups especially common among the Dinka and Nuer people.[17]

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.[18]


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)[19] 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


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