Levirate marriage

Levirate marriage

Levirate marriage is a type of marriage in which a woman marries one of her husband's brothers after her husband's death, if there were no children, in order to continue the line of the dead husband. The term is a derivative of the Latin word "levir", meaning "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 is or was known in societies including the Punjabis, Jats, Israelites, Huns (Chinese "Xiongnu", "Hsiong-nu", etc.), Apache, Mongols, and Tibetans.

In the Hebrew Bible and Judaism

In Judaism, levirate marriage, known as "yibbum", is a marital union mandated by the Torah in ), who was also cursed to death for attempting to avoid conception during the process. An extension of Levirate marriage is the idea of a kinsman redeemer as found in the book of Ruth. It holds the same idea of carrying on a lineage but instead of a brother, the duty falls to the closest kin. In the book of Ruth, Boaz acts as the kinsman redeemer. This type of union is no longer practiced.

Central Asia and Huns

Levirate marriages were widespread among Central Asian nomads. Chinese historian Sima Qian(145-87 BCE) described the practices of the Huns 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. 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 there 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. [ 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)]


Soviet historian Khazanov gives economic reasons for the longevity of the levirate over two millennia of nomadic history: inheritance of a wife as a part of the deceased’s property and the necessity to support and educate children to continue the line of the deceased.

The levirate custom was revived under shaky economic conditions in the deceased’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. [ 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)]


This type of marriage has also been practiced by many central and southern African peoples and is, to a certain degree, still in practice. In countries such as South Africa, the obligation for a woman to enter into a levirate marriage is on the decline due to increasing awareness of women's rights. Amongst the Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria it was a common practice for a woman to marry her widowed husband's brother if she had children so the children can retain the family identity and inheritance and not have to deal with step families

In literature

The marriage of Queen Gertrude to her late husband's brother is the major plot point in Shakespeare's play "Hamlet." It should be noted, however, that this was not truly a levirate marriage in the strictest sense, as it was not culturally prescribed, and Gertrude already had a child (Hamlet) with her previous husband.


ee also

* Fraternal polyandry, a marriage of two or more brothers and one woman
* Genealogy of Jesus, in which Levirate marriage is offered to explain discrepancies
* Sororate marriage, the practice of marrying one's wife's sister
* Widow inheritance, a modern form of levirate marriage

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • levirate marriage — noun A marriage in which a widow marries her late husbands brother in order to maintain the family community. See Also: sororate marriage …   Wiktionary

  • LEVIRATE MARRIAGE —    the marriage of a man to his brother s widow, provided no son has been born to the deceased man. This is practiced in many societies and is mandated in Deuteronomy 25:5 10 and the HEBREW BIBLE …   Concise dictionary of Religion

  • levirate marriage —  Левиратный брак …   Вестминстерский словарь теологических терминов

  • LEVIRATE MARRIAGE AND ḤALIẒAḤ. — Definition Levirate marriage (Heb. יִבּוּם; yibbum) is the marriage between a widow whose husband died without offspring (the yevamah) and the brother of the deceased (the yavam or levir), as prescribed in Deuteronomy 25:5–6: „ If brethren dwell… …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

  • MARRIAGE, PROHIBITED — A marriage is prohibited whenever there is a legal impediment to a kiddushin (see marriage ) between the particular parties. In some cases the prohibition has the effect of rendering the marriage, if it is celebrated nevertheless, null and void… …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

  • levirate — 1. adjective Having to do with ones husbands brother. 2. noun a) A marriage between a widow and her deceased husbands brother or, sometimes, heir. And it is, he says, impossible not to believe that the Levirate that is, the practice of marrying a …   Wiktionary

  • Marriage — For other uses, see Marriage (disambiguation). Married and Matrimony redirect here. For other uses, see Married (disambiguation) and Matrimony (disambiguation) …   Wikipedia

  • MARRIAGE — This article is arranged according to the following outline: the concept in the bible in sectarian teaching in rabbinic literature in medieval and modern times marriage ceremony in the bible in the talmud post talmudic period the marriage… …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

  • Levirate — Lev i*rate (l[e^]v [i^]*r[asl]t), Leviratical Lev i*rat ic*al ( r[a^]t [i^]*kal), a. [L. levir a husband s brother, brother in law; akin to Gr. dah r: cf. F. l[ e]virat leviration.] Of, pertaining to, or in accordance with, a law of the ancient… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • levirate — leviratic /lev euh rat ik, lee veuh /, leviratical, adj. /lev euhr it, euh rayt , lee veuhr it, veuh rayt /, n. the custom of marriage by a man with his brother s widow, such marriage required in Biblical law if the deceased was childless. Deut.… …   Universalium

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