1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Levirate

LEVIRATE (Lat. levir, a husband’s brother), a custom, sometimes even a law, compelling a dead man’s brother to marry his widow. It seems to have been widespread in primitive times, and is common to-day. Of the origin and primitive purpose of the levirate marriage various explanations have been put forward:—

1. It has been urged that the custom was primarily based on the law of inheritance; a wife, regarded as a chattel, being inherited like other possessions. The social advantage of providing one who should maintain the widow doubtless aided the spread of the custom. The abandonment of a woman and her children in the nomadic stage of civilization would be equivalent to death for them; hence with some peoples the levirate became a duty rather than a right. Among the Thlinkets, for example, when a man dies, his brother or his sister’s son must marry the widow, a failure in this duty occasioning feuds. The obligation on a man to provide for his sister-in-law is analogous to other duties devolving on kinsfolk, such as the vendetta.

2. J. F. McLennan, however, would assume the levirate to be a relic of polyandry, and in his argument lays much stress on the fact that it is the dead man’s brother who inherits the widow. But among many races who follow the custom, such as the Fijians, Samoans, Papuans of New Guinea, the Caroline Islanders, and some tribes in the interior of Western Equatorial Africa, the rule of inheritance is to the brother first. Thus among the Santals, “when the elder brother dies, the next younger inherits the widow, children and all the property.” Further, there is no known race where it is permitted to a son to marry his own mother. Inheriting a woman in primitive societies would be always tantamount to marrying her, and, apart from any special laws of inheritance, it would be natural for the brother to take over the widow. In polygamous countries where a man leaves many widows the son would have a right of ownership over these, and could dispose of them or keep them as he pleased, his own mother alone excepted. Thus among the Bakalai, an African tribe, widows may marry the son of their dead husband, or in default of a son, can live with the brother. The Negroes of Benin and the Gabun and the Kaffirs of Natal have similar customs. In New Caledonia every man, married or single, must immediately marry his brother’s widow. In Polynesia the levirate has the force of law, and it is common throughout America and Asia.

3. Another explanation of the custom has been sought in a semi-religious motive which has had extraordinary influence in countries where to die without issue is regarded as a terrible calamity. The fear of this catastrophe would readily arise among people who did not believe in personal immortality, and to whom the extinction of their line would be tantamount to annihilation. Or it is easily conceivable as a natural result of ancestor-worship, under which failure of offspring entailed deprivation of cherished rites and service.[1] Thus it is only when the dead man has no offspring that the Jewish, Hindu and Malagasy laws prescribe that the brother shall “raise up seed” to him. In this sense the levirate forms part of the Deuteronomic Code, under which, however, the obligation is restricted to the brother who “dwelleth together” (i.e. on the family estate) with the dead man, and the first child only of the levirate marriage is regarded as that of the dead man. That the custom was obsolescent seems proved by the enjoining of ceremony on any brother who wished to evade the duty, though he had to submit to an insult from his sister-in-law, who draws off his sandal and spits in his face. The biblical story of Ruth exemplifies the custom, though with further modifications (see Ruth, Book of). Finally the custom is forbidden in Leviticus, though in New Testament times the levirate law was still observed by some Jews. The ceremony ordained by Deuteronomy is still observed among the orthodox. Among the Hindus the levir did not take his brother’s widow as wife, but he had intercourse with her. This practice was called niyoga.

4. Yet another suggested origin of the levirate is agrarian, the motive being to keep together under the levirate husband the property which would otherwise have been divided among all the brothers or next of kin.

See J. F. McLennan, Studies in Ancient History (London, 1886) and “The Levirate and Polyandry,” in The Fortnightly Review, n.s. vol. xxi. (1877); C. N. Starcke, The Primitive Family in its Origin and Development (London, 1889); Edward Westermarck, History of Human Marriage (London, 1894), pp. 510-514, where are valuable notes containing references to numerous books of travel; H. Spencer, Principles of Sociology, ii. 649; A. H. Post, Einleitung in das Stud. d. Ethnolog. Jurisprud. (1886).

  1. An expression of this idea is quoted from the Mahābhārata (Muir’s trans.), by Max Müller (Gifford Lectures), Anthropological Religion, p. 31—

    “That stage completed, seek a wife
    And gain the fruit of wedded life,
    A race of sons, by rites to seal,
    When thou art gone, thy spirit’s weal.”