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 itself 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. marriage outside the clan) was forbidden. It has been known in many societies around the world.
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.
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 a firstborn son, the levirate child's inheritance was the double share to which the deceased was entitled. However, if the deceased brother died childless, his living brother would be entitled to inherit an increased share, or if the oldest surviving son, a double share of the increased share.
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".
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
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.
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.
"The Kirghiz practice levirate whereby the wife of a deceased male is very often married by a younger sibling of the deceased." "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."
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.
Levirate marriages among the Kurds are very common and also among the Kurds in Turkey, especially in Mardin. 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.
In Somalia, levirate marriage is practiced, and provisions are made under Somali customary law or Xeer with regard to bride price (yarad).
Among the Mambila of northern Cameroon, in regard to "Inheritance of wives: both levirates are practised throughout the tribe".
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.
In the highlands of Kenya, it is "Nandi custom for a widow to be "taken over" ... by a brother ... of her deceased husband." "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."
Levirate marriages are very common among South Sudan's Nilotic peoples, especially among the Dinka and Nuer people.
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.
In 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)