Levirate marriage

The arrangement of marriages to promote exchanges and alliances among lineages evident in cross cousin marriage is further illustrated by the institution of the levirate. This practice specifies that a manís widow must marry his surviving brother in order to continue the relationship between their respective groups that was initiated in the original marriage. Levirate marriage is mentioned in the Bible as a standard marriage regulation among the ancient Hebrews. It is represented in many contemporary societies, including the Igbo and the Akan, and Yanomamo. Among the Akan and Yanomamo, the levirate is associated with cross cousin marriage regimes and performs very much the same function. The two groups that create and maintain an alliance through marriage attempt to preserve the continuity of their relationship by remarrying a widow to a close relative of the deceased. Among the Igbo, who specifically prohibit cross cousin marriage, it nevertheless maintains the continuity of alliance between affinal groups, even though their association may not be continued in the next generation. However, the Igbo rationalization of this practice is perhaps better understood in terms of their bride price system. Since a manís family has paid a substantial sum to acquire the reproductive powers of his wife, as well as other economic and social services, they retain these rights in her even after the death of her husband. They will usually require that she remarry within the family but can also decide to arrange a marriage with another family from which they can receive a repayment of the bride wealth. Among the Hebrews, the institution seems to have served a different purpose. Any children of a levirate marriage were considered to be the descendents of the womanís original husband, who was usually an older brother of her current partner. Thereby, the institution reinforced an emphasis on the inheritance through first born sons.

© Brian Schwimmer
University of Manitoba
Created: September 2003