The Levirate Union: Cultures and Religions II

The practice of taking the wife (and sometimes adopting the children) of your deceased brother has lasted across a range of cultures from all over the world. In this article, you will learn about some of the instances that this custom was followed, including people from rural India and cultures in Africa.


While levirate marriages were rather common in rural India, the practice is currently seen only in a few parts of the country, such as Punjab and Haryana. It is thought that the tradition dates back centuries in societies that did not provide any work opportunities for women outside of the home. The women did not have the option of remarrying or going back to their parent’s house. Therefore, the practice allowed widows a chance to keep any land or property owned by the deceased husband in the family.

If a widow did not have any male progeny and a levirate marriage was not possible, the woman would be forced to adopt a nephew of her husband. A more common practice saw that the widow was married to an unmarried younger brother. This custom was referred to as ntyoga. Low-key ceremonies were held where families from both the widow and the husband’s side gathered. Today, this type of marriage arrangement is only seen in remote rural regions.


Africa also acknowledges levirate marriages. In Somalia, the practice is seen, where provision are made under Somali customary law to determine the bride price , an amount of money or property that determines the perceived value of a woman. In northern Cameroon, the Mambila recognize the ‘inheritance of wives’ where levirate marriages are practiced throughout the tribe. In western Kenya, Maragoli widows would remarry to the brother of their deceased husband.

The Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria commonly practiced the act of women marrying the brother of her deceased husband if she had children. This act allowed the kids to keep the identity and inheritance of their father’s family. While it is not as commonplace today, the practice is still alive. The Yoruba, the Igbo, and the Hausa-Fulani embraced the custom.

In South Africa, the Levirate marriage was called ukungena and was upheld mostly in the past. As an increase of women’s rights awareness had spread through the countries, the number of women that follow the obligation to enter such a union has fallen. Some of the last cultures to follow the custom was the Zulu, who once heavily believed in levirate unions and the ghost marriage, which meant that a deceased groom was replaced by his brother.

Historical records show that Levirate unions took place in the United Kingdom, as a way to preserve alliances that were created through marriage. This was perceived as a method of protecting the social status of royal spouses. For example, after Arthur, the Prince of Wales died, his widow Catherine of Aragon was allowed to marry his younger brother, who happened to be the future Henry VIII. This type of marriage also took place between Mary of Teck and the future George V following the death of his older brother, Prince Albert Victor (the Duke of Clarence and Avondale).