What is martyrdom? (Part 1)

What is martyrdom, and is the concept relevant concerning the subject of my study, suicide in medieval Scandinavia? The question may not sound meaningful at first, but when trying to define each of the concepts, martyrdom and suicide, it becomes clear that the two concepts sometimes coincide. In both cases, an individual may actively – or passively, to follow Émile Durkheim‘s (1858–1917) admittedly sometimes contested theory of suicide – do something that directly or indirectly causes his or her death, and simultaneously, s/he may be aware of the result and certain of it, i.e. that he or she will die. In Durkheim’s theory, for instance, the aspects mentioned above are essential elements in his definition of suicide. Although we would not agree with Durkheim’s theory, we cannot dismiss the similarity between martyrdom and suicide suggested by the definition.

At this point, I will not try to produce an all-encompassing definition of martyrdom, but will consider what the phenomenon is all about and whether the concept has any relevance concerning the study of suicide in general and of the history of medieval suicide in particular. In this post, I will present some preliminary thoughts about martyrdom, bearing in mind that in the future I also need to examine how medieval Scandinavians defined “martyr” and “martyrdom” and whether their definitions followed the ideas known in Christianity (which were not always consistent and dis change over time, see e.g. Middleton 2014 on this), or whether they also show traces of native elements, typical for northern cultures and/or peripheral cultures where the Christian religion was adopted fairly late. And, what is my major concern in this project, is the question of martyrdom and voluntary death – sometimes termed as suicide – and whether medieval Scandinavians would have seen similarities between the two phenomena (and eventually: based on this knowledge, what can we say about medieval Scandinavian attitudes towards suicide).

To begin with, Ian Hacking (2008, 23–24) has emphasized the religious connotations of the word ‘martyr’ and how the martyrs are often (also ritually) commemorated and admired. The actual meaning of the word is “to bear witness”. The idea of witnessing is also expressed in the Old Icelandic word for a ‘martyr’, píningarváttr, which literally meant “witness of torture” (in some texts, also the term Guðsváttr, “God’s witness”, is used. See the words e.g. in The Icelandic-English DictionaryOrdbog over det norrøne prosasprog).

In his study of the concept of martyrdom, Paul Middleton (2014) has emphasized the connection of martyrdom to questions of identity and worldview, be it religious, theological, political, national, for instance. Martyrdom can strengthen both the identity and the worldview of a certain group, and it facilitates making distinction and creating boundaries between different groups. Accordingly, martyrdom is not an objective or neutral concept. (Middleton 2014, 118–119)

Concerning this project, especially the medieval Christian ideas of martyrdom may turn out to be helpful, since influences on the medieval Scandinavian views of Christian martyrdom would likely have been drawn from the European models. In addition, some scholars have suggested that the Christian ideas of martyrdom had Jewish correlates (e.g. in the Books of the Maccabees), but Ancient Greek and Roman views of and tradition concerning martyrs have likely influenced the development of the Christian phenomenon as well. (See Middleton 2014, 120–121; Hacking 2008, 23-24)

I will draw my first example from the early days of Christianity, when martyrdom was linked to some kind of passiveness. Asceticism, which could include self-starvation, was apparently the (permitted) cause of death of some Christian martyrs, and some of the early Christians (along with criminals and slaves) suffered the Roman capital punishment, known as damnatio ad bestias. This form of punishment practically meant that the person who had been condemned was killed by wild animals. In addition to this fairly cruel manner of death, early Christians (who for the Romans were enemies of the state) endured various forms of torture, which they often endured without a blink of an eye, at least according to later testimonies, and calm saintly martyrs who were unaffected by the torments of the flesh became the ideal image of a Christian saint. (See e.g. Cohen 2000; Hacking 2008, 24–25)

Stories of these early Christian martyrs are a good example of how martyrologies can strengthen the identity of a religious group. In these early Christian martyrologies, the confession “I am a Christian” and refusing to renounce their faith, even if under torture, is a typical characteristic associated with the early Christian martyrs. In fact, those who did not confess their faith up until the bitter end but gave it up in the pains of persecution, were in some contexts regarded as heretic. The concept of martyrdom was, however, not unproblematic in early Christianity (as it is not unproblematic today), and the definition of the term turned out to be similarly complex also later in the Middle Ages. (Middleton 2014, 122-123; I will return to this issue in my later posts as I will acquaint myself further with the medieval conceptions of martyrdom.

At this point it is good to note, however, that the possibility that there is a connection between martyrdom and suicide is not approved by everyone. Suzanne Stern-Gillet (1987), for instance, has criticized Durkheim’s definitions of suicide (on his definitions, see also here) for not giving enough attention to motivation and intention. According to her, Durkheim’s concept of suicide does not require that a suicide wants to die or actively tries to find ways to die in all situations. Instead, Durkheim included in suicides also cases where the impending death was accepted, although it was considered an ‘unfortunate consequence’, or inescapable. As a consequence of Durkheim’s definition, she states, anyone who agreed to do things and go to places where death was unavoidable, in whatever circumstances, would have been categorized as suicide. Accordingly, following Durkheim’s definition, martyrdom as well could be defined as suicide. (Stern-Gillet 1987, 160–161, 168)

Stern-Gillet appears to be reluctant to define some self-inflicted deaths as suicide, but her argument highlights the difficulty as well as the importance of inquiring in greater depth what martyrdom is and has been all about, and of investigating the cultural models of martyrdom in medieval Scandinavia, including to what extent medieval Scandinavians would have made a connection between martyrdom and suicide. Obviously martyrdom is not and was not associated with suicide in all contexts, but if it was linked with suicide in some contexts, the possible link merits a thought and may give us valuable information concerning the attitudes towards self-killing.


 How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “What is martyrdom? (Part 1).” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 31 May 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/05/31/what-is-martyrdom-part-1/  >


Works cited

Cleasby, Richard & Gudbrand Vigfusson. 1874. An Icelandic-English dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Cohen, Esther. 2000. The Animated Pain of the Body. American Historical Review 105 (2000)1: 36–68.

Durkheim, Émile. 1952 [1897]. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. [Trans. John A. Spaulding & George Simpson] London: Routledge & Kegan.

Hacking, Ian. 2008. The Suicide Weapon. Critical Inquiry 35 (2008) 1: 1–32.

Middleton, Paul. 2014. What is martyrdom? Mortality 19 (2014) 2: 117–133.

Ordbog over det norrøne prosasprog. < http://onp.ku.dk/ >

Stern-Gillet, Suzanne. 1987. The Rhetoric of Suicide. Philosophy & Rhetoric 20 (1987) 3: 160–170.

Research notes: suicidality of heroic females

The late thirteenth-century Völsunga saga, which has been categorized as one of the Legendary sagas (fornaldarsögur), tells of a Burgundian princess called Guðrún who attempts suicide, but in the end survives. The story of Guðrún’s miseries starts when her beloved husband Sigurðr is killed by her own brothers. Guðrún is then married against her will to another man called Atli, whom she despises and eventually kills, after Atli has persuaded her brothers to visit him, but arranges an ambush where all the brothers are killed. After these events Guðrún does not want to live anymore, but goes to the shore, takes stones with him and walks into the deep water, intending to take her own life. She does not succeed in her attempt, however, as the waves lift her up and carry her to the castle of king Jónakur, whom she then marries.

In fact, Guðrún’s attempt to take her own life is not the only suicidal episode in Völsunga saga. In addition, it appears to be women in particular who commit suicide in the saga or at least try to do so, as Guðrún does. Another character who dies voluntarily is Signý. She too marries her husband King Siggeir reluctantly, and the husband, who envies Signý’s father Völsungr and her brothers, invites them to his realm and kills them instead of offering them hospitality. Only one of the brothers, Sigmundr, survives. With him Signý is eventually able to avenge the death of his father and brothers. Sigmundr kills King Siggeir together with Sinfjötli, who is the son of the sister and brother, i.e. Signý and Sigmundr. After getting her revenge, Signý does not want to live anymore but says:

I have wrought at all times for the slaying of King Siggeir; and so mightily have I worked to bring about this revenge that on no terms will I live on hereafter; gladly shall I die now with King Siggeir, though against my will I married him.[1]

After her comment, Signý walks into the flames, which are already devouring the corpses of her husband and his men.

Another case in Völsunga saga is Brynhildr who is a (former) valkyrie. She and Sigurðr have been destined to each other, and they have made wows to marry each other and no one else. However, Sigurðr’s eyes are blinded by a magic potion given to him by Guðrún’s mother who wants him to be part of her own family and support her sons and defend their realm. Brynhildr on the other hand is married to Guðrún’s brother Gunnarr. As Brynhildr discovers the betrayal, she urges Gunnarr and his brothers to kill Sigurðr, and they end up doing so. Brynhildr’s sorrow over Sigurðr’s death is even greater than Guðrún’s, and she stabs herself to death to join Sigurðr in the Afterlife.

Similar to Völsunga saga, the heroic lays of Eddic poetry relate stories of the Völsungs and the Burgundians and refer to the suicidal tendencies of their female protagonists. Both the saga and the poetry are part of the so-called Völsung cycle (which also includes the Middle High German epic poem Nibelungenlied). They were both written down in the end of the thirteenth century although the material on which they are based is apparently much older. At first glance, the female tendency to attempt or commit suicide expressed in this Old Norse-Icelandic material is astounding. The men in the stories do not appear to be that eager to end their lives, although surely they are not afraid of facing their destinies. The difference may imply a cultural or authorial attitude: that the women were thought to commit more suicides than the men, or even: that a woman was held as a kind of “prototype” of a self-killer in medieval Icelandic culture.

We should not take it for granted, however, that literature solely reflects the reality. In many cases it may indeed do so, and it is admitted that reality does influence the literature and how things are described in it.[2] But literature also influences the reality; it may affect the ideas, norms and attitudes held by people. Although women would not have been over-represented in the actual cases of suicide, people may have tended to think that young women who were newly wedded but lost their spouse, or who experienced heartache, were more likely to commit suicide than rest of the population. Perhaps their suicide would have been easier to explain as their motivation for the act perhaps appeared others as more explicit. At this point of my research it is still too early to draw conclusions, however, and the possibility of a “statistical error” when studying medieval literature needs to be paid attention to.

Medieval Icelandic material does not offer material for reliable statistics, however, so even in the end of the project it may turn out to be difficult to say which groups of people were more likely to commit suicide.  What is interesting from the general perspective of the theme is that, according to earlier research on gendered suicide in the modern west, for instance, men tend to engage more in fatal suicidal behavior than women, and men may actually commit suicide more often than women, although cultural differences may occur (see e.g. Canetto 1997; Canetto & Sakinofsky 1998; Hacking, 7–8; it should be noted that the articles referred to here are mostly based on studies in English speaking countries, however). Whether medieval Scandinavian culture share characteristics with the modern western culture or not remains still to be examined.

Accordingly, no hasty conclusions should be drawn based only on sources that are part of the Volsung tradition, which contains lots of heroic and even tragic elements. Additionally, it is interesting that the three women – Signý, Brynhildr and Guðrún –apparently have a lot of authority since they can all whet their male relatives to take up revenge: Signý motivates her brother and son to do the avenging, Brynhildr her husband and his brothers, and Guðrún her three sons with King Jónakur whom she urges to avenge their half-sister who has died in the hands of her husband king Jörmunrekr (not to mention that Guðrún boldly fights beside her brothers when they are attacked by the men of King Atli). Accordingly, by medieval Icelanders, they would have been considered hvatar, i.e. “powerful, vigorous and bold”, in a society where people were not categorized strictly by the binary opposition male-female, but between hvatr, which meant ‘powerful, vigorous and bold’ and blauðr, ‘soft, weak and powerless’. The category of blauðr thus included “most women, children, slaves, and old, disabled, or otherwise disenfranchised men”, who were thus considered soft, weak and powerless compared to men (especially aristocratic men and some exceptional women) who were regarded as hvatr. (On this one gender model, see Clover 1993, 380 and passim. See also Kanerva 2015, 67–68, 70)

The three women may have cried their eyes off as they heard of the death of their beloved man, father, brothers, or daughter, but they also take action. As I will bring forth in my forthcoming article, they do not only grieve; they are apparently also motivated by emotions different from grief or despair, which were among the common explanations of suicide in medieval Europe. Having said this, it becomes apparent – again – that the causes of suicide in medieval Iceland may well have differed from those that are commonly held as “usual” causes of suicide in our modern western world, an issue that will be discussed in greater depth in my forthcoming article.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Research notes: suicidality of heroic females.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, May 16, 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/05/16/suicidality-of-heroic-females/  >


Works cited

Canetto, Silvia Sara. 1997. Meaning s of Gender and Suicidal Behavior during Adolescence. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, Vol. 27 (1997) 4, 339–351.

Canetto, Silvia Sara & Isaac Sakinofsky. 1998. The Gender Paradox in Suicide. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, Vol. 28 (1998) 1, 1–23.

Clover, Carol J. 1993. Regardless of Sex. Men, Women, and Power in Early Northern Europe. Speculum 68 (1993), 363–387.

Hacking, Ian. 2008. The Suicide Weapon. Critical Inquiry 35 (2008) 1, 1–32.

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

The Saga of the Volsungs. The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, together with the Lay of Kraka. Transl. Margaret Schlauch. Scandinavian Classics 35. New York & London: The American-Scandinavian Foundation; George Allen & Unwin.

Völsunga saga ok Ragnars saga Loðbrókar. Udgivet for Samfund til udgivelse af gammel nordisk litteratur ved Magnus Olsen. S. L. Møllers Bogtrykkeri: København 1906–1908.


[1] Hefi ek þar til unnit alla luti, at Siggeir konungr skylldi bana fá. Hefi ek ok sva mikit til unit, at fram kęmizt hefndinn, at mer er med aungum kosti lift. Skal ek nu deugia med Siggeiri konungi lostig, er ek atta hann naudig. Völsunga saga, 19. Trans. Margaret Schlauch, p. 66 .

[2] At this point I will not discuss further the case of different genres of literature, however, although their source value needs to be considered in greater depth.