Sagas and the missing suicide revenants

Motives for doing research on a particular subject can be many, and this rule applies to my own study as well. The societal aspect of my study is among the strongest motives, but I have also been inspired by the earlier research of my colleagues and their questions concerning the sources I have analyzed in my earlier studies, medieval Icelandic saga literature. I became first acquainted with the history of suicide through the studies made by my colleagues Anu Salmela, who is soon about to defend her PhD thesis on female suicides in 19th and early 20th century Finland in the University of Turku, and Riikka Miettinen (University of Tampere) whose dissertation entitled Suicide in Seventeenth-Century Sweden: The Crime and Legal Praxis in the Lower Court deals with the legal processes concerning suicide in early modern Sweden and concentrates on how suicides were investigated, interpreted and convicted in the Swedish realm.

I was greatly inspired especially by the questions that Riikka once posed me, namely concerning the so-called restless dead, that is: deceased who become posthumously active – revenants –  in medieval Icelandic sources. I had been doing research on the role of the restless dead in saga literature and realized that I had never encountered in my sources any individual who was said to have committed suicide and would have returned posthumously.

This lack of suicide revenants was remarkable since restless dead are a fairly frequent motif in medieval Icelandic sagas, especially Sagas of Icelanders, Íslendingasögur, and Legendary sagas, fornaldarsögur.  Both were written in Iceland in the 13th century, some also later in the fourteenth century (some of the Legendary sagas may actually postdate 14th century). In addition, as I have pointed out also before, the sagas are not silent about suicide per se: there are people in both Íslendingasögur and fornaldarsögur who commit suicide – it is quite often said explicitly if somebody “killed himself” – but none of them become revenants.

This lack of suicide revenants in medieval Scandinavia was already noticed by Alexander Murray. Although the research he refers to at this point (Engfield 1972) discusses only few suicides in a limited number of medieval Scandinavian sources, the cases appear to represent fairly well the overall situation. In fact, Alexander Murray has noticed that anti-revenant measures for suicides, such as beheading the corpse or pinning it down in the ground with a stake, is a fairly late idea in the Germanic cultural context in general, and appeared presumably first in the 16th century. (Murray 2000, 51–52)

Naturally, as Murray has pointed out, suicides who returned posthumously were not part of official Christian doctrine and, as a consequence, ghosts who were former self-killers were not a common theme in ecclesiastical sources. The Christian view of suicide considered suicide a sin and self-killers were often denied burial in the churchyard. Those who committed suicide were also often thought to have died suddenly, and a sudden death was bad because in such a case no proper preparations for the afterlife – absolution and sacraments – could be made. Perhaps through the interaction of the views of the Church and possible popular beliefs, suicides as restless souls who returned could have been part of the social reality of lay people, however. (Signori 1994, 34–40; Murray 2000, 23–28, 471–474, 476–479;  Butler 2007, 434; on social reality, see also Berger & Luckmann 1967)

I also found in eighteenth to early twentieth-century Icelandic legends traces of the belief that self-killers would return posthumously as ghosts. In the Sagnagrunnur database of published Icelandic folk legends I have found legends that tell of men and women who committed suicide and returned after death.

For instance, the story of Miklabæjar-Solveig tells of a young woman called Solveig who wanted to marry a Lutheran priest who nevertheless did not wish to have her as his wife. Solveig was then constantly kept an eye on since she intended to kill herself, but one day she managed to flee from her guardians and was discovered too late: she had managed to cut her throat and eventually, she bled to death. However, she managed to utter her last wish before departing this life: that she would be buried in the churchyard. The priest was not given permission to bury her there by his superiors, however, as she had committed suicide, so she was interred outside the churchyard and without Christian rituals. Later, however, the priest was riding on his errands and finally came back home. Or so the people who lived on his farm thought, but they could only find his horse whereas the priest himself had vanished. The priest was never found. Later a man called Þorsteinn who worked in the vicarage wanted to know what had happened to him. One night he prepared himself in the following manner: he took some things that had belonged to the priest and put them under his head as he went to sleep. It was his intention to receive knowledge of the priest’s fate in his dream. In the night, he dreamed of Solveig: she informed him that he would never know what had become of the priest and then tried to cut his throat. Þorsteinn then woke up still feeling the wound in his throat caused by Solveig, and gave up the idea of finding out what had happened to the priest. After this dream, little was heard of Solveig, but she seemed to have occasionally harassed some people later on as well. (Miklabæjar-Solveig in Jón Árnason1862–1864: I, 295–298.)

Like in the story of Miklabæjar-Solveig, in the other stories found in the Sagnagrunnur database some of the suicides were denied Christian burial in the sacred ground, some had been interred in the churchyard without any religious ceremonies performed by the priest. Some caused trouble to the living whereas some did not.

The observations in later folklore inspired me to return to the medieval Icelandic saga sources and examine whether the suicides really remained peacefully in their mounds and graves and if yes, why, that is: what indigenous beliefs and conceptions contributed to this view. The research I conducted resulted in an article (Kanerva 2015, you can read the article here). In this article, I argued that in medieval Iceland suicide per se was not expected to make the corpse restless. People who were considered weak and powerless in life would not return after death, since posthumous restlessness required that the person had a strong will and motivation to come back. Consequently, in the case of suicides, possible posthumous restlessness depended on the person’s character in life. People with strong will and special magical skills were anticipated to return, whereas other suicides remained passive and peaceful.

Needless to say, the results of my studies of the saga revenants inspired me to find out more about this understudied subject, history of suicide in medieval Scandinavia.

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How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Sagas and the missing suicide revenants.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 24 February 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/02/24/sagas-and-the-missing-suicide-revenants/  >

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Works cited

Berger, Peter L. & Thomas Luckmann. 1967. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. London: Allen Lane.

Butler, Sara. 2007. Cultures Cultures of Suicide? Regionalism and Suicide Verdicts in Medieval England. The Historian 69 (3/2007): 427–449.

Engfield, Roy. 1972. Der Selbstmord in der germanischen Zeit. Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies 8 (1/1972): 1–14.

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2015. Having no Power to Return? Suicide and Posthumous Restlessness in Medieval Iceland. Thanatos  4 (2015) 1, 57–79.

Miklabæjar-Solveig = Jón Árnason. 1862. Íslenzkar þjóðsögur og æfintýri, 2 vols. Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, I: 295–298.

Murray, Alexander. 2000. Suicide in the Middle Ages. Vol. 2: The Curse on Self-Murder. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Sagnagrunnur. A geographically mapped database of Icelandic folk legends. http://www.sagnagrunnur.com/

Signori, Gabriela. 1994. Rechtskonstruktionen und religiöse Fiktionen. Bemerkungen zur Selbstmordfrage im Mittelalter. In Trauer, Verzweiflung und Anfechtung. Selbstmord und Selbstmordversuche im mittelalterlichen und frühneuzeitlichen Gesellschaften, edited by Gabriela Signori, 9–54. Tübingen: Edition diskord.

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Research notes: Suicide in Old Norse-Icelandic translations of Latin historiography

In the past few weeks I have been finishing a chapter in my book that deals with the representation of suicide in medieval Old Norse-Icelandic translations of Latin literature. Adoption of Christianity around 1000 in Norway and Iceland also indicated that the Scandinavians adopted the Latin alphabet and became familiar with Latin literature. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Icelanders and Norwegians were active in producing translations of Latin hagiographical literature, biblical texts and religious texts as well Latin histories. Some of the translations were even produced before the flourishing of the other, more popular saga genres (at least from the perspective of modern scholars), i.e. Sagas of Icelanders, Íslendingasögur, and Kings’ sagas, konungasögur, took place.

First of all, “translation” may be a problematic term here as the translators of Latin texts were more like part-time writers who could comment on the contents of the text, make adjustments to it, correct things they thought were erroneous, or add or delete material according to what they found fitting. The cultural context mattered: the texts needed to be understood by their Nordic audience. Consequently, some aspects perhaps needed some further explanation whereas some were thought irrelevant and, as a consequence, were not translated. As a result, Old Norse-Icelandic translations were not direct translations but sometimes closer to adaptations. Some of the “translations” were also closer to compilations since they could be based on several Latin originals.  (See e.g. Barnes 1977; Kalinke 1985; Würth;  Glauser 2007 [2005]; Kalinke 2011).

Although there are things to consider when studying Old Norse-Icelandic translations of Latin literature and it can be questioned whether they offer any material for the study of medieval Scandinavian suicide, I find studying them important as they may reveal something about the interaction between foreign influences and indigenous ideas concerning suicide. The Old Norse-Icelandic culture as the receiving culture offered the language and words for the translation and representation of suicide in the Latin original and the worldview of the transmitting culture reflected in the Latin text. Some things expressed in the Latin originals had corresponding discourses in the receiving culture, some perhaps did not. Even so, Old Norse-Icelandic translations could then influence suicide discourses in medieval Iceland. They could offer new discourses, that is, new ways to speak about and communicate about suicide. (See also  e.g. Larrington 2015 on emotion discourses.)

Literature may also influence the action and behavior of individuals in real life. For instance, although limited availability of certain instruments also limits their use in committing suicide (e.g. availability of poison, weapons etc.), suicide methods described in literature may also influence the methods used in real life. Consequently, methods described in translated literature could also “form powerful cultural memes” and as a consequence of their repetition in literature, could form “models that people have tendency to follow”. Therefore, even in medieval context and similar to modern concerns about celebrity suicides, for instance, copy-cat behavior could occur. (Miettinen 2015; Lester 2009; Mesoudi 2009; Soo Ah Jang et al. 2016). For instance, it has been suggested that already in late antiquity and in the Middle Ages, hanging and strangulation was frequently linked with suicide (Murray 2000), and the suicide method appears among the most common ones, together with drowning, also in early modern Sweden (Miettinen 2015). Naturally, finding the right instruments, such as ropes or water, may have been fairly easy, but the use of the method hanging, for instance, may also have been promoted by the infamous suicide ascribed to Judas in one tradition, which was widely known in the Middle Ages, and the popular imagery associated with his death, represented e.g. in church art. (Miettinen 2015; Murray 2000; Schnitzler 1996; Schnitzler 2000).

In the chapter that I have been finishing I did not concentrate on the models and methods of suicide that may have influenced the behavior of people per se, but I examined the attitudes towards suicide as reflected in translated literature. I found following the ideas presented by Jacques Le Goff and applied by Alexander Murray in his remarkable study of medieval suicide (1998, 2000) of examining anomalies very fruitful for my study. One particularly interesting anomaly is the death of Nero the Emperor in medieval Old Norse-Icelandic sources. In the Latin tradition Nero wishes to die and tries to stab himself, but as the wound is not lethal and his enemies are approaching, his companion strikes the lethal blow.

In the Old Norse-Icelandic versions of the story, however, nothing is said about Nero’s suicidal aims or his assisted suicide. According to this version, Nero does not commit suicide. This notion is highly interesting since fairly many of the suicides of the remarkable Ancient men and women known in Latin historiographies, such as Pilate or Anthony and Cleopatra, were recited also in the translations. Therefore the compilers of these Old Norse-Icelandic translations were not silent about suicide per se.

Somebody might claim that Nero was an irrelevant character in the eyes of medieval Scandinavians and that his suicide was excluded for that reason. What makes the absence of Nero’s suicide in the sources particularly intriguing in light of that claim is, however, that Nero’s role as the persecutor of Christians who commanded St Peter and St Paul to be executed must have been well-known in medieval Scandinavia.

In the chapter of my forthcoming book and in an article that presents a case study of Nero I will discuss the suicide anomalies I have found in Old Norse-Icelandic translations. The anomalies are few, but remarkable, and reveal traces of an indigenous view of suicide that differed from the teachings of the Church.

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How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Research notes: Suicide in Old Norse-Icelandic translations of Latin historiography.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 7 February 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/02/07/research-notes-suicide-in-old-norse-icelandic-translations-of-latin-historiography/  >

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Works cited

Barnes, Geraldine. 1977. The riddarasögur: A Medieval Exercise in Translation. Saga-Book 19 (1974–1977), 403–441.

Glauser, Jürg. 2007 [2005]. Romance (Translated riddarasögur). In A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture, ed. Rory McTurk. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 372–387.

Kalinke, Marianne E. 1985. Norse Romance (Riddarasögur). In Carol J. Clover & John Lindow (ed.): Old Norse-Icelandic Literature. A Critical Guide. Islandica xlv. Cornell University Press: Ithaca & London 1985, 316–363.

Kalinke, Marianne E. 2011. The Introduction of the Arthurian Legend in Scandinavia. In Marianne E. Kalinke (ed.), The Arthur of the North. The Arthurian Legend in the Norse and Rus’ Realms. Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages 5. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 5–21.

Kalinke, Marianne E. 2011. Sources, Translations, Redactions, Manuscript Transmission. In Marianne E. Kalinke (ed.), The Arthur of the North. The Arthurian Legend in the Norse and Rus’ Realms. Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages 5. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 22–47.

Kanerva, Kirsi (an article, forthcoming). Attitudes towards Suicide in Medieval Iceland: the Case of Nero the Emperor.

Kanerva, Kirsi (a book, work in process). Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia.

Larrington, Carolyne. 2015. Learning to Feel in the Old Norse Camelot? Scandinavian Studies 87 (2015) 1: 74–94.

Lester, David. 2009. Memes and suicide. Psychological Reports 105 (2009) 1: 3–10.

Mesoudi, Alex. 2009. The Cultural Dynamics of Copycat Suicide. PLoS ONE 4 (2009) 9: e7252 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0007252

Miettinen, Riikka. 2015. Suicide in Seventeenth-Century Sweden: The Crime and Legal Praxis in the Lower Courts. University of Tampere, the School of Social Sciences and Humanities.

Murray, Alexander. 1998. Suicide in the Middle Ages. Vol. 1: The Violent against Themselves. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Murray, Alexander. 2000. Suicide in the Middle Ages. Vol. 2: The Curse on Self-Murder. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Schnitzler, Norbert 1996. Der Tod des Judas. Ein Beitrag zur Ikonographie des Selbstmordes im Mittelalter. In Mundus in imagine: Bildersprache und  Lebenswelten im Mittelalter. Festgabe für Klaus Schreiner, ed. Andrea Löther, Ulrich Meier, Norbert Schnitzler & Klaus Schreiner. Munich: W. Fink, 219–245.

Schnitzler, Norbert. 2000. Judas‘ Death. Some Remarks Concerning the Iconography of Suicide in the Middle Ages. The Medieval History Journal 3 (2000) 1: 103–118.

Soo Ah Jang, Ji Min Sung, Jin Young Park & Woo Taek Jeon. 2016. Copycat Suicide Induced by Entertainment Celebrity Suicides in South Korea. Psychiatry Investigation 13 (2016)1, 74–81.

Würth, Stefanie. 1998. Der Antikenromanin der isländischen Literatur des Mittelalters: eine Untersuchungen zur Übersetzung und Rezeption lateinischer Literatur im Norden. Beiträge zur nordischen Philologie 26. Basel: Helbing & Lichtenhahn.