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. The term levirate is a derivative of the Latin word levir, meaning "husband's brother".[1]

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 term "levirate" is derived from the Latin levir, meaning "husband's brother".[2]

Background and rationale[edit]

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 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.[3][4]


Yibbum is the form of levirate marriage found in Judaism. As specified by Deuteronomy 25:5-10, the brother of a man who died without children is permitted and encouraged to marry the widow. 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, and in Israel by mandate of the Chief Rabbinate, yibbum is prohibited.

Sexual relations with one's brother's wife are not allowed according to Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20.[5]


Islamic law (sharia) clearly lays down rules for marriage, including who may marry whom, and although the Quran does not prohibit a man from marrying his brother's widow, it does prohibit a wife to be "inherited".[6]

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.

— al-Nisa 4:19, Sahih International translation[7]



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.[8]

Central Asia and Xiongnu[edit]

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.[9]


"The Kirghiz practice levirate whereby the wife of a deceased male is very often married by a younger sibling of the deceased."[10] "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."[11]


According to the adat (customary practice) of the Karo people in North Sumatra, Indonesia, polygyny is permitted. A study of Kutagamber, a Karo village in the 1960s, noted one instance of the practice, as a result of levirate.[12] The Indonesian term for it is "turun ranjang" (lit.: get down of one's bed).[13]


Levirate marriages among the Kurds are very common and also among the Kurds in Turkey, especially in Mardin.[14] 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 marriage 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.[15]



In Somalia, levirate marriage is practiced and is called Dumaal, and provisions are made under Somali customary law or Xeer with regard to bride price (yarad). The widow is usually given a choice in the matter. In the past few decades since the start of the Somali Civil War, this type of marriage has fallen out of favor due strict Islamic interpretations that have been imported to Somalia.[16]


Among the Mambila of northern Cameroon, in regard to "Inheritance of wives: both levirates are practised throughout the tribe".[17]


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 practiced:

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.[18]


As among the Maragoli of western Kenya,[19] likewise "in the Luo case widows become mostly remarried to the deceased husband’s brother".[20][21]

In the highlands of Kenya, it is "Nandi custom for a widow to be "taken over" ... by a brother ... of her deceased husband."[22] "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."[23]

South Sudan[edit]

Levirate marriages are very common among South Sudan's Nilotic peoples, especially among the Dinka and Nuer people.[24]

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.[25]

Popular culture[edit]

In the TV series Deadwood, Seth Bullock is married to his brother's widow. This is a plot point used to mitigate guilt in the adulterous affair between Alma (another widow), and Seth (2005).[26][circular reference] In A Song of Ice and Fire, Lord Eddard Stark marries his brother Brandon's betrothed, Catelyn Tully after the death of Brandon. In "Hell on Wheels", it makes mention of Eva's late husband Gregory Toole having killed himself, his brother having tradition to marry her as his brother's widow.

See also[edit]

  • 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
  • Widow conservation


  1. ^ David, Kenneth (December 1973). "Until Marriage Do Us Part: A Cultural Account of Jaffna Tamil Categories for Kinsman". Man. 8 (4): 521. doi:10.2307/2800737. ISSN 0025-1496.
  2. ^ [1]
  3. ^ Why Polyandry Fails: Sources of Instability in Polyandrous Marriages Nancy E. Levine; Joan B. Silk http://case.edu/affil/tibet/tibetanSociety/documents/02.pdf
  4. ^ Tirosh-Samuelson, Hava, 1950- (2004). Women and gender in Jewish philosophy. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-11103-X. OCLC 62892814.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. ^ Interpreter's Bible. 2. Abingdon Press. 1953. pp. 93 & 103 – via Internet Archive. 16. There is curiously no reference here to the so-called Levirate marriage, at one time practiced in Israel, whereby, if a man died childless, his brother would take his wife in order to raise up descendants for him. (Deut. 25:5-10).{...}21. So-called Levirate marriage is presumably excepted (see Deut. 25:5 ff.).
  6. ^ Quran Chapter 4 (al-Nisa) verse 19
  7. ^ Sahih International translation
  8. ^ 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)
  9. ^ 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)
  10. ^ Nazif Shahiz Shahrani: The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan. University of Washington Press, 2002. p. 124
  11. ^ Afghanistan -- Ethnicity and Tribe Archived 2006-12-08 at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ Masri Singarimbun, Kutagamber: A village of the Karo.
  13. ^ Indonesian dictionary definition of "turun ranjang" (in Indonesian)
  14. ^ (in Turkish) the reasons for traditional marriages in Turkey and the effects of custom on marriages; Tuğçe P. Taçoğlu "[2] Archived 2014-08-26 at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ Kurdish-Families-Kurdish-Marriage-Patterns; http://family.jrank.org/pages/1026/Kurdish-Families-Kurdish-Marriage-Patterns.html
  16. ^ James Norman Dalrymple Anderson: Islamic Law in Africa. Routledge, 1970. p.46 https://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
  17. ^ "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". Archived from the original on 2009-02-01. Retrieved 2009-01-29.
  18. ^ Levirate marriage practices among the Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa-Fulani
  19. ^ Jaan Valsiner: Culture and Human Development. SAGE Publications, London, 2000. p. 100a
  20. ^ Jaan Valsiner: Culture and Human Development. SAGE Publications, London, 2000. p. 99b
  21. ^ Potash, Betty. Wives of the grave : widows in a rural Luo community. OCLC 920988918.
  22. ^ 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
  23. ^ 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
  24. ^ Beswick, Stephanie (2001). ""We Are Bought Like Clothes": The War Over Polygyny and Levirate Marriage in South Sudan". Northeast African Studies. 8 (2): 35–61. doi:10.1353/nas.2005.0023. Retrieved 11 December 2011.
  25. ^ "Marriage Rules: Part II Unusual Marriage Arrangements". June 29, 2006. Retrieved 11 December 2011.
  26. ^ List of Deadwood characters#Martha Bullock