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.), Mongols, and Tibetans.
In Judaism, levirate marriage, known as yibbum, is a marital union mandated by the Torah in, obliging a brother to marry the widow of his childless deceased brother. This was practiced because children were extremely important to the Israelites as well other ancient near east societies. Having children led to security and was a sign of status. Without children there was no one to inherit the family's land which was considered very valuable since it was given to them by Yahweh. A barren woman or widow was often believed to be cursed by God so every possibility was exhausted in order to bear children. There is a provision known as halizah by which one or both of the parties may choose to become free of this duty. According to some opinions in Jewish law, yibbum is strongly discouraged, and halizah is preferred, although Scripture itself prescribes a curse on anyone who disobeys the practice . Examples of levirate marriage include the marriages of Tamar and Onan the son of Judah , 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.
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.
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.
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 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
The marriage of Queen Gertrude to her late husband's brother is the major plot point in Shakespeare's play Hamlet.
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