The medieval Icelandic Brennu-Njáls saga was written sometime around 1275–1290 by an anonymous author who was well versed in both oral tradition and Latin literature. He was interested in moral and legal issues, and it is possible that he was a clerk. (Einar Ól. Sveinsson 1954; Simek & Hermann Pálsson 2007, 280–282; Vésteinn Ólason 1993, 432–434.) Torfi H. Tulinius has examined the case of Flosi, a man who participates in one of the blood feuds in the saga, in his article “Seeking Death in Njál’s saga” (2015). In the last chapter of the saga, Flosi’s impending death is implied:
People say that the end of Flosi’s life came when he had grown old and went abroad to find wood for building a house and spent the winter in Norway. The next summer he was late in getting ready to sail. Men talked about the bad condition of the ship, but Flosi said that it was good enough for an old man doomed to die. He boarded the ship and put out to sea, and nothing was ever heard of the ship again. (Njal’s saga, 219. Trans. Robert Cook.)
The saga implies that Flosi sees himself as an old man who is feigr that is “doomed to die”. Flosi’s words suggest that he knows that he will die, but the saga is not quite clear about the cause of his death: that is, whether he expects to die because he is already old and infirm, or because he intends to bring about his own death, deliberately, by putting out to sea too late in the autumn, in a ship that is in bad repair. As Torfi H. Tulinius has brought forth:
It is therefore noteworthy that the saga emphasizes that he pays no heed to warnings against putting out to sea on a damaged ship to go to Iceland. The ship disappears somewhere between Norway and Iceland and we must assume death by drowning. There is a strange peacefulness to Flosi’s attitude, even though it might be qualified as reckless. Indeed, his decision not only puts his own life in danger, but also imperils that of his shipmates. However, the author takes care not to introduce his audience to these characters and therefore neutralizes any potential concern for them. Instead, Flosi’s behavior can be seen as noble and detached. From a literary point of view, it is a fitting end for this tragic saga. (Tulinius 2015, 100.)
As Tulinius has noted, many of the characters in Brennu-Njáls saga appear to be seeking death and are willing to die or accept their impending demise. It is not only Flosi who puts out to sea although he can be certain that he will never arrive in Iceland that acts self-destructively. Gunnarr, a participant in a long and hard blood feud refuses to leave his home although he will be outlawed. As a consequence, he is then overwhelmed and killed by his enemies. Njáll and his wife Bergþóra, then, appear as willing to die when Flosi and his men intend to burn in his their sons: Njáll and Bergþóra refuse to leave the house although they would be allowed to go in peace. Instead they wish to be burned in together with their sons to escape the obligation of revenge. (Tulinius 2015, 100, 106–107.)
Tulinius has analyzed the saga from a Freudian perspective, and pays attention to Freud’s idea of “[t]he desire of all living beings to ‘return to the quiescence of the inorganic world’”, and his concept “death wish”. (Tulinius 2015, 100.) The theory of death drive was originally proposed by the Russian psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein in her article “Die Destruction als Ursache des Werdens” in 1912 (published in English in 1994 as “Destruction as the Cause of Coming Into Being”). Freud was influenced by her ideas as he wrote his essay Jenseits des Lustprinzips in 1921 (English translation Beyond the Pleasure Principle ), where he wrote about “death drives” (Todestriebe). To summarize in brief, in psychoanalytical theory death drive (later also implied as Thanatos ) has been seen as the opposition of Eros, which is construed as a kind of life force. Death drive is seen as an unconscious drive that aims for death and yearns for nonexistence. Theoretically, it has been linked to aggression. (See also Lowenthal 1996.)
Freud’s theory is not widely accepted (see e.g. Lowenthal 1996), and, as a historian, I have not been so keen to include psychoanalytical theories in my methodological toolbox. However, the Torfi H. Tulinius’s discussion on death drive in sagas is thought-provoking since by using the concept he highlights the self-destructive nature of the characters in Brennu-Njáls saga – in other words, their suicidality. Rather that getting psychoanalytical, however, I will consider here what the characters that appear to be driven by a death instinct have in common.
Skarpheðinn, for instance, is an uncanny figure, who appears to provoke unrest, although he respects his father Njáll who always aims at reconciliation. He participates in the saga’s long-lasting blood feud in spite of the consequences. He also kills a young man called Höskuldr who has been the dearest to his father Njáll; Njáll, an old man by then, is devastated by the loss. As the attempt to reconcile a law case between the sons of Njáll and Flosi fails, a man called Síðu-Hallr regards both Skarpheðinn and Flosi as “men of misfortune”, ogæfumenn (See also Torfi H. Tulinius 2015, 111–113; Brennu-Njáls saga, 314.) As I have suggested elsewhere, ógæfa-misfortune was sometimes used in sagas to represent the inner struggles and feelings of guilt. In medieval Iceland, there was not yet any word for such an affective state that we define as guilt – sekr, “guilty”, referred to a state of affairs: that somebody had been found guilty and convicted. Ógæfa was not synonymous to guilt, however, but involved also feelings of distress and hopelessness and signified absence of approval and forgiveness or the lack of the blessing of one’s kin. (Kanerva 2012; Kanerva 2015, 84–86.) Although Skarpheðinn’s tendency to participate in blood feud and mock and insult people who could be of help to him, and his death in the fire caused by Flosi and his men can be seen as part of his fate, it is intriguing, that the self-destructive element, the death drive, is associated with an ógæfumaðr, a man of misfortune.
As far as Flosi is concerned, however, we may question whether he remained an ógæfumaðr up until the end; Flosi had performed a pilgrimage to Rome where he had received absolution for his sins from the pope himself – i.e. he had settled the matters with God. He could then have been considered a gæfumaðr, ‘lucky man’, the opposite of ógæfumaðr, which appears to have indicated a person who had made a pilgrimage (usually to Rome). (Kanerva 2012; Kanerva 2015, 84–86. See also Torfi H. Tulinius 2015, 99–100.) In addition to all that, he had also paid compensation for the killings he had performed and therefore, he had settled things with the society as well.
Is Flosi then perhaps just so old and infirm that his deliberate death was to be expected? In her study of medieval English legal records (ca. 1200–1435) Rebecca McNamara has suggested that mental and physical infirmity were seen as probable explanation when the cause of suicide – i.e. violence and crime against the self – was inspected in medieval England. The motive did not necessarily make the act excusable, but it made it more comprehensible and could sometimes be considered a mitigating factor that induced sympathy. (McNamara 2014.)
The death of Njáll and his wife Bergþóra in Brennu-Njáls saga suggests that infirmity was a factor that made people incapable of carrying out their aims and fulfilling the expectations of the society, and that this incapability could be the reason for one’s willingness to die. As mentioned above, when Flosi and his men are about to burn in the sons of Njáll, both Njáll and Bergþóra would be allowed to leave the house. Both insist in remaining inside the building and therefore, both are burnt in together with their sons. Njáll explains his decision: he finds himself too old to avenge the death of his sons. Because of his inability to take revenge, he rather chooses to die together with his sons whom he would otherwise be obligated to avenge, to avoid shame. (Brennu-Njáls saga, ch 129.) By dying willingly, Njáll escapes all possible accusations of unmanliness and disgrace. Njáll’s death is represented in the saga in a somewhat positive light in that the posthumous appearance of his corpse suggests there is something saintly in him: when people go to search for his body in the burned house they find out that his corpseis both unburned and bright (bjartr). (Brennu-Njáls saga, ch 132.)
Flosi is perhaps old and infirm, but unlike Njáll he should not have any avenging to do anymore. However, both Flosi and Njáll bring about their own death in a somewhat passive manner. Flosi knows he is doomed to die, but does not use any violence against himself per se; he lets the waves drown him. Njáll then, lets the smoke suffocate him. Gunnarr af Hlíðarendi, the outstanding hero of the saga who says killing troubles him more than it troubles the other men, refuses to leave his home, although he can then be certain that his enemies will find him and eventually kill him. Like Flosi and Njáll, he does not use violence against himself, but his enemies are many and in the end they overpower him, even though he manages to kill several men before that. (Brennu-Njáls saga, ch 77; See also Tulinius 2015, 106–110 on his analysis of the interplay of Thanatos and Eros in Gunnarr’s case).
The passivity implied in the death cases discussed above bear resemblance to the choice of the kings and warriors in fornaldarsögur who choose to fight against the overwhelming armies of their enemies, even if they can be certain that in the end they will be defeated and their demise is certain. The death cases in Brennu-Njáls saga are linked to the same heroic ideal that is expressed in the fornaldarsögur, which were situated in the mytho-heroic past, prior to the settlement of Iceland. But, the men discussed here all behave auto-destructively: their deaths could be, in some sense, avoided. But are their deaths socially accepted suicides? It is noteworthy, that none of the deliberate deaths are represented in a negative light (e.g. Gunnarr is clearly a hero), and the saga implies that the posthumous condition of Njáll’s and Skarpheðinn’s corpse is somewhat miraculous, in a positive sense. For instance, Skarpheðinn the Troublemaker’s corpse does not cause any fear in the living, who apparently had expected that Skarpheðinn would return as a restless dead. (On Skarpheðinn’s case, see Tulinius 2015, 113, who suggests that it is the cross he had burned across his chest and his acceptance of death that eventually prevented Skarpheðinn from returning posthumously as a malevolent ghost.) (Again, someone may insist that the deaths discussed here are not suicides because there is no sense of shame or dishonor in the decisions of the men who die willingly – such a view would be normative and ethnocentric, however.)
Brennu-Njáls saga is a story of feud, reconciliation and atonement, and the text betrays traces of Christian ideology. The saga was presumably written shortly before or after 1281, the year when suicide became criminalized in Iceland. The question still remains, then, why does Brennu-Njáls saga tell of so many men who faced their deaths willingly, but also somewhat passively.
How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “About ‘death drive’ in Njáls saga.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 31 May 2018. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2018/05/31/about-death-drive-in-njals-saga/ >
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Vésteinn Ólason. 1993. “Njáls saga.” In Phillip Pulsiano (ed.): Medieval Scandinavia. An Encyclopedia. New York & London: Garland, 432–434.
 Þat segja menn, at þau yrði ævilok Flosa, at hann foeri utan, þá er hann var orðinn gamall, at soekja sér húsavið, ok var hann í Nóregi þann vetr. En um sumarit varð hann síðbúinn. Roeddu menn um, at vánt væri skipit. Flosi sagði, at væri oerit gott gomlum ok feigum, ok sté á skip ok lét í haf, ok hefir til þess skips aldri spurzk síðan. (Brennu-Njáls saga, ch 159 ; Brennu-Njáls saga, 463.)