The problem of Óðinn’s sacrifice

The Old Norse-Icelandic Eddic poem Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”) tells of the pagan god Óðinn who hung on the world tree Yggdrasill for “nine long nights, / wounded with a spear”. In the poem, Óðinn states that he sacrificed himself to himself. As a consequence, he was able to get hold of runes that gave him access to magic and wisdom:

[St 138] I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.

[St 139] No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there. (Trans. Larrington 1996, 34.)

Earlies studies have found both pagan and Christian elements in the portrayal of Óðinn’s self-sacrificial hanging, and some suggest that the scene has been inspired by the Crucifixion of Christ. (See e.g. the summary of these elements in David A. H. Evans’s introduction (1986, 29–34) to his edition of Hávamál). Here my emphasis is not so much on the origin of these elements. Instead, I am interested in what Óðinn does.

As implied by the poem, the episode can be understood as Óðinn’s self-sacrifice: Óðinn had hanged himself on the world tree, to sacrifice himself to himself. Because of his (presumable) death, Óðinn was able to enter the otherworld. However, Óðinn survived death (after all he was a god!) and returned from the otherworld, but during his sojourn he had managed to get hold of runes, which were supposed to possess magic qualities and were possibly intended to be used in the practice of magic.

Heroes, gods and supernatural beings that visit the otherworld and come back have been a recurrent theme in literature and oral story telling tradition through ages, not only in saga literature. In light of medieval Icelandic sources, the otherworld as the land of the dead was a space where people could gain wisdom and knowledge of the future. (See e.g. Klare 1933–1934, 16; Mitchell 2017; Schjødt 2008.) Such “deaths” may have been linked to initiation rituals; it has been suggested that ritual hanging may have been part of ancient Scandinavian/Germanic initiation rituals, or was linked with ritual magic that was practiced in connection with warfare. Gautreks saga, one of the Legendary sagas (fornaldarsögur) which tell of ancient events that were thought to have taken place in the mytho-heroic past, describe an episode where a king is hanged as a sacrifice to Óðinn, for instance. Whether the source represents an actual pre-Christian practice, can be debated, however; the source in question cannot be read as an authentic testimony of actual historical events even though it may contain traces of ancient habits.It has also been discussed whether the Óðinn hanging on the tree episode refers to martyrdom, or resembles a practitionary shamanic experience. (Hamel 1932–1933; Mitchell 2017, 293–300; Schjødt 1993, 267–272; Schjødt 2008, 173–206; Ström 1942; Tolley 2009, 427–434. ) Indeed, Óðinn’s act has many labels.

Óðinn and hanging, then, appear to have had a special connection. Óðinn was not merely associated with hanging on the world tree (or human sacrifices), but also with the hanged: he was considered the “god of the hanged” (hangadrottinn). As a consequence of Óðinn’s rune magic, the hanged would speak to him, as Hávamál (st 157) states:

I know a twelfth one if I see, up in a tree,
a dangling corpse in a noose:
I can so carve and colour the runes
that the man walks
and talks with me.[1] (Trans. Larrington 1996, 37.)

In addition to the hanged, Óðinn was also connected with warriors, kings and war, in that those who died in battle (also known as the einherjar) would be brought to Valhöll – Hall of the Slain – where they prepared themselves for the battle of Ragnarök in the troops of Óðinn.

What makes Óðinn’s act in Hávamál thought-provoking as far as the history of Scandinavian suicide is concerned is that his self-sacrifice – or initiation or martyrdom or shamanistic experience – shares characteristics with suicide. Óðinn is pierced with a spear, he enters the otherworld and thus (at least symbolically) gives up his life, although he has not necessarily lost his will to live – he mainly appears to die to gain knowledge, but returns from the land of the dead afterwards – and he actively does something that directly causes his death as he sacrifices himself to himself. By his choice of method, hanging, he must be aware of the result and certain of it, i.e. that he will die. According to Emilé Durkheim (whose theory emphasizes the manner of dying instead of the moral connotations of the act) these are all essential elements in suicide. (See Durkheim 1897.)

Some may still insist that sacrifice, or any of the concepts mentioned above, is not suicide. It is true that self-sacrifice is different from suicide in that self-killing is not among the set of properties which are shared by all members of the category ‘self-sacrifice’; self-sacrifice can be defined as “[t]he giving up of one’s own interests or wishes in order to help others or advance a cause”. There are some cases of self-sacrifice that appear to share characteristics with suicide as defined by Durkheim, however. We can speak of self-sacrifice when a soldier sacrifices himself to save the lives of the other in his regiment – he may not want to die, but he is aware of the result, i.e. that he will die. Martyrdom may also involve self-killing, but calling the act either ‘martyrdom’ or ‘suicide’ often depends on the perspective of the person who makes the normative evaluation. Self-violence may also be part of an initiation ritual; among the examples of such initiation rituals are e.g. murder-suicides in some religious cults. (See e.g. Bogdan 2014, 67; Pierre 2015.)

Categories are problematic. They are a means of comprehending the world. They may differ from one culture to another. Categories are also rooted in our (culturally and historically constructed) experiences. They are not objectively “out there” in the world. Ideas, objects and entities may sometimes belong to one or two different categories. (E.g. a man can be a son, brother, father or husband.) As long as we do not know enough about how the people in the Scandinavian past categorized self-killing, martyrdom, self-sacrifice or initiation, we cannot exclude the possibility that Óðinn’s act was understood as self-killing, even though he simultaneously took part in an initiation ritual or a shamanic process, or became a martyr or a sacrifice, bearing in mind that the word for suicide in Scandinavian languages is post-medieval; i.e. that the concept of self-killing was not necessarily considered essential in Old Norse-Icelandic culture, if we follow the ideas presented by Anna Wierzbicka (1995, 19), and that in medieval Scandinavia, self-killing was represented by describing the manner of dying (e.g. that a person hanged him/herself). (On the theories of categorization, see e.g. Lakoff 1986.)


To sum up, at the moment I am still holding Hávamál a potential source in the study of the history of medieval Scandinavian suicide. Óðinn’s self-sacrifice and his return from the land of the dead takes place in mythic time, which makes Hávamál a problematic source. I expect, however, that Óðinn hanging on a tree may tell us something about attitudes towards suicide in the culture where the poem was produced, and consider the connection between Óðinn and warriors a particularly interesting detail with respect to the study of military suicide.

Many questions have emerged by now and many are still to come up as I proceed with my research. For instance, to what extent Óðinn hanging on the tree expresses Christian ethics is difficult to assess – the influence of Christian imagery in the portrayal of Óðinn may not have influenced the interpretations made of Óðinn’s self-sacrifice/suicide. Earlier studies have shown that in some saga sources Óðinn was ascribed with characteristics similar to the devil (Lassen 2011, 253–254). But ,should we interpret Óðinn’s self-sacrifice as an act of a devilish pagan god? The suicidal fools in Gautreks saga who go and jump off from their family cliff whenever an extraordinary event occurs, to “go to Óðinn” (fara til Óðins) and to “go to Valhöll” (fara til Valhallar) arouse suspicion; the story is described by its writer as “funny” (kátligr) and the suicidal characteristics are attributed to folk who live in the woods, far in the east – from medieval Icelandic perspective, that is, as they are said to live in Gautland, situated in Sweden. For medieval Icelanders these people represented the strange and the unknown otherness, in that few had visited the lands in the east. Most relied only on ancient accounts of such trips. Medieval Icelanders considered the people in Gautland pagan, as the Conversion took place there far later compared to western Scandinavia. (Aalto 2010, 76–81.) Link to Óðinn in Gautreks saga links the self-destructive behavior or the people  to pagan practices; devilish, sinful and insane actions are supposed to have taken place in the east, in the lands of the Swedes, where Christianity had not yet been established.

Or, is Óðinn’s death a culturally sanctioned suicide – a concept used by Joseph M. Pierre (2015), who has discussed different forms of culturally sanctioned manners of death, such as seppuku, euthanasia and terrorist martyrdom, which may aim at avoiding suffering, dying with dignity and defending sacred values, and are seen as expressions of duty and loyalty and an honorable way out when surrounded by enemies, for instance. These questions and several more will be tackled with by me in the near future.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “The problem of Óðinn’s sacrifice.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 27 April, 2018. <  >


Works cited

Aalto, Sirpa. 2010. Categorizing Otherness in the Kings’ Sagas. Publications of the University of Eastern Finland, Dissertations in Social Sciences and Business Studies, no. 10. University of Eastern Finland.

Bogdan, Henrik. 2014. “Purification, Illumination, and Death: Thhhe   Murder-Suicides of the Order of the Solar Temple.” In Sacred Suicide, ed. Lewis, James R. & Carole M. Cusack. Abingdon & New York: Routledge, 55–90.

Durkheim, Émile. 1897. Le suicide. Étude de sociologie. Paris: Les Presses universitaires de France. Available electronically at:

Edda = Neckel, Gustav & Hans Kuhn (ed.). Edda. Die Lieder des Codex Regius nebst verwandten Denkmälern, I. Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1963.

Evans, David A. H. 1986. “Introduction.” In Hávamál, ed. David A. H. Evans. Viking Society for Northern Research, University College of London, 1–38.

Hamel, Anton G. 1932–1933. ”Óðinn Hanging on the Tree.” Acta philological Scandinavica 7 (1932–1933), 260–288.

Klare, Hans-Joachim. 1933–1934. “Die Toten in der altnordischen Literatur.” Acta Philologica Scandinavica 8 (1933–1934): 1–56.

Lakoff, George. 1986. Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Larrington, Carolyne. 1996. The Poetic Edda. Oxford.

Lassen, Anette. 2011. Odin på kristent pergament. En teksthistorisk studie. Køpenhavn: Museum Tusculanum.

Mitchell, Stephen. 2017. “Óðinn, Charms, and Necromancy. Hávamál 157 in Its Nordic and European Contexts.” In Old Norse Mythology. Comparative Perspectives, ed. Pernille Hermann, Stephen A. Mitchell & Jens Peter Schjødt and Amber J. Rose. Cambridge, Massachusetts & London: The Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature, Harvard University, Harvard University Press, 289–321.

Pierre, Joseph M. ”Culturally sanctioned suicide: Euthanasia, seppuku, and Terrorist Martyrdom. World Journal of Psychiatry 5 (2015) 1: 4–14. Available from: URL: DOI:

Schjødt, Jens Peter. 1993. “The Relation between Two Phenomenological Categories, Initiation and Sacrifice, as Exemplified by the Norse Myth of Óðinn in the tree.” In The Problem of Ritual, ed. Tore Ahlbäck. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 261–273.

Schjødt, Jens Peter. 2008. Initiation between Two Worlds: Structure and Symbolism in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religion. The Viking Collection, 17. Odense.

Ström, Folke. 1942. On the Sacral Origin of the Germanic Death Penalties. Lund: Håkan Olssons boktryckeri.

Tolley, Clive. 2009. Shamanism in Norse Myth and Magic. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica.

Wierzbicka, Anna. 1995. “Everyday Conceptions of Emotion: A Semantic Perspective.” In Everyday Conceptions of Emotion. An Introduction to the Psychology, Anthropology and Linguistics of Emotion, ed. James A. Russell, José-Miguel Fernández-Dols, Anthony S. R. Manstead and J. C. Wellenkamp. Dordrecht, 17–47.


[1] See also Mitchell 2017, 295, who considers the possibility that the magic capability linked to Óðinn may refer to initiation practice, or torture practiced towards enemies in war, which involved hanging but did not necessarily lead to death.

Source of picture “The sayings of the high one“: Wikimedia Commons


(Who decides) What is martyrdom? (Or what is not…)

There is not so much earlier research on the history of suicide in medieval Scandinavia, but a paper presented by Ólafía Einarsdóttir in the 12th International Saga Conference in Bonn in 2003 makes an exception. The paper discusses the description of the death of King Óláfr Tryggvason in various north European sources. The results of the paper have not been widely cited and discussed, even though Ólafía Einarsdóttir makes some interesting observations, which are relevant for my study as well. I will summarize her main points here, as they are related to the definition of martyrdom in Old Norse-Icelandic society, and to the question: who decides what is martyrdom?

In his Latin history of the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen the German historian Adam of Bremen (11th century) told that after most of Óláfr Tryggvason’s men had fallen in the battle of Svöldr in 999/1000, Óláfr himself jumped into the sea and perished in this manner. He was not given any credit for converting the West Nordic people by Adam. Instead, Sveinn Haraldsson tjúguskegg (Forkbeard) – Óláfr’s enemy – is said to have ordered that Christianity should be adopted in Norway.  In addition, according to Adam, Óláfr’s death was clearly a suicide: certain of his defeat, Óláfr chose to die by drowning. (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 413-414.) As a cleric, Adam wished to emphasize that Óláfr had committed a grave sin.

In Iceland, a source that was contemporary to Adam’s history – Ari the Wise’s brief history of the Icelanders, Íslendingabók, from the beginning of the twelfth century – stated explicitly that Óláfr Tryggvason was responsible for the Christianization of Norway and Iceland. He also stated that Óláfr fell in the battle of Svöldr. Another Icelandic source, a skaldic poem by Hallfreðr vandræðaskáld (ca. 965–1007), tells that Óláfr’s body was never found, however. As a consequence, some people expected that the king was still alive, and some later stories imply that Óláfr Tryggvason had actually been seen in various places afterwards. The poet is clear to indicate, however, that he believed King Óláfr Tryggvason was in Heaven. (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 414.)

Around circa 1160–1180, two histories of the Norwegian kings were written in Latin in Norway. The first one, Historia Norwegiae (ca. 1160) praises Óláfr for bringing Christianity to Norway, and suggests that Óláfr managed to rescue himself and continued his life elsewhere. According to the writer of Historia Norwegiae, the king did throw himself into the sea. However, he also considers it possible that even though the king was wearing his armour, which would have made his movements under water difficult, he was saved by angels, or he was rescued in a boat, unless he managed to swim to safety by himself. As Ólafía Einarsdóttir suggests, Óláfr’s death in Historia Norwegiae was heroic and honourable. Nobody expected a prominent war leader to outlive his men, who had all fallen in battle already. The writer of HN and his contemporaries presumably considered Óláfr’s death a self-killing, but they did not regard his manner of death problematic in that it would have made his passing away less heroic and less honourable. (See Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 414-415.)

However, Ólafía Einarsdóttir finds the attitude expressed in HN slightly problematic since the writer would probably have been aware that in Norwegian and Icelandic laws suicides were not allowed burial in the churchyard. However, the writer of HN is, as Ólafía Einarsdóttir notes, the only one writing about King Óláfr Tryggvason who calls him Sanctus (Óláfr Haraldsson the saint on the other hand is named Sanctissimus). (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 415.) Therefore, although the writer of HN held it possible that Óláfr Tryggvason either drowned or actually did not die at the battle of Svöldr, he appears to accept that even after killing himself he could still be a Sanctus.

Adam’s history is said to have been among the sources of HN, along with some works written by the Icelandic historian Sæmundr fróði, whose texts unfortunately have not survived. (Simek & Pálsson 2007, 181.) However, the writer of Historia Norwegiae clearly has a positive attitude towards King Óláfr Tryggvason. Although Óláfr’s choice to throw himself into the water is not completely rejected, in another version he is also allowed (miraculous) escape. In addition, by disappearing from the scene, Óláfr is also allowed later (perhaps also eternal) existence. (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 415.)

In De antiquitate regum Norwagiensium from around 1180 commissioned by Eysteinn, the archbishop of Nidaros, and written by a Benedictine monk called Theodoricus, Óláfr Tryggvason is also held in esteem as the king who brought Christianity to Norway. The account of Óláfr’s death resembles that of HN. King Óláfr Tryggvason is said to have fled in a boat, and people expect that he traveled to a faraway country for the sake of the salvation of his soul. Theodoricus also tells that according to some people, Óláfr had jumped into the sea and drowned. He does not confirm or reject either of the views, but appears to think that Óláfr is now with God. (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 415-416.)

Around 1190–1210 two histories of King Óláfr Tryggvason were written in Iceland, in Latin, but only vernacular translations of these texts survive. In the saga written by a monk called Oddr Snorrason from the Þingeyri monastery, Óláfr Tryggvason appears to represent John the Baptist, whereas St Óláfr resembles Jesus Christ. In his account, Oddr relies especially on the Norse tradition, such as skaldic poetry (attributed both to the followers of Óláfr Tryggvason and his enemies). However, he was also familiar with Latin literature, such as the lives of saints, which appear to have influenced Oddr’s description of Óláfr’s death. In Oddr’s account, Óláfr Tryggvason is standing in his ship, on an elevated place where he can be seen by everyone, and he is surrounded by the bodies of fallen warriors. As his enemy is approaching him, Óláfr suddenly disappears; the enemy has bent for a second to remove the fallen men that are on his way, and during this instance Óláfr has vanished. No trace of Óláfr is found, and it remains unclear whether he is dead or not. (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 416-417.)

Oddr brings forth that his own contemporary King Sverrir of Norway (1145/1151–1202) had found Óláfr’s death and his last moments on his ship Ormr inn langi (the Long Serpent) most heroic (a view that here as elsewhere in the sources reciting Óláfr Tryggvason’s death may have been motivated by the commonly held observation that Óláfr had been fighting against an overwhelming enemy). Oddr adds a new element to the story: According to him, a bright light from the heaven suddenly came over the place where Óláfr was standing, and after the light had extinguished, the king was nowhere to be found. Ólafía Einarsdóttir then discusses how Oddr considers carefully the probability that Óláfr would have been able to save himself, should he have fallen or jumped into water. Oddr points out in the saga, for instance, that Óláfr is a very good swimmer – a ‘fact’ known also elsewhere in saga literature, such as in the thirteenth-century Laxdæla saga, which tells about Óláfr’s encounter with some Icelanders. Oddr also speculates that when Óláfr had jumped into the sea, he held his shield above him with another hand and then pulled of his heavy armour with his other hand, and would therefore have been able to swim and escape in that manner. Indeed, in Oddr’s opinion, Óláfr survived and later traveled to Syria and entered a monastery there. (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 417-418.)

As a monk, Oddr was aware of the attitudes of the Church – that suicide was regarded as a sin – which presumably influenced his eagerness to keep Óláfr from drowning. As a cleric, Oddr may not have considered the possibility that Óláfr fled from battle as a disgrace, but perhaps thought that because of his humility, Óláfr was aided by God to escape. However, Oddr also betrays in his saga an attitude that (although it was perhaps not his own view of the matter) still existed in warrior society: he describes in the saga Óláfr Tryggvason’s own view of those who fled a battle: according to Óláfr, a real king would never flee a battle but would fight to the end. (See also Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003,417.)

Indeed, two collections of king’s sagas, Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla (from the beginning of the 13th century) and Fagrskinna (possibly written by an Icelander in Norway around 1230), which are both more secular in tone compared to the sources of clerical origin discussed above, both emphasize that Óláfr did not escape but died during the battle. In Ólafía Einarsdóttir’s words, the writers of Heimskringla and Fagrskinna “value traditional Teutonic heroism, and to them Olaf’s flight would have been an outrageous disgrace and an indelible stain on the memory of the glorious king.” Ólafía Einarsdóttir’s notion is intriguing, as it raises a question: what, then, was a less disgraceful – or even heroic and respectable – way to depart, according to the writer’s of Heimskringla and Fagrskinna? (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 417-418.)

Military suicide does not appear to have been as tricky issue as might be expected. In Fagrskinna and Heimskringla, it is indicated that king Óláfr Tryggvason sprang overboard “to his deep-sea death” and died (Fagrskinna, 131–132; Heimskringla, chs 119–120). In a warrior culture, deliberate and self-inflicted death could, naturally, be a preferable option if there was a threat that after your own troops had been defeated, you would be seized by the enemy and treated in a shameful way. (Sagas do contain descriptions of such cases as well.) In addition, if captured by the enemy, the warrior would not always be able to decide by himself how he died and when he died. That self-killing was a better option compared to capture is implied in Saxo Grammaticus’s recount of Óláfr Tryggvason in his history of the Danes, Gesta Danorum (ca. 1200). Saxo’s view may have been influenced by the Norwegian archbishops (or Icelandic bishops) who visited the Danish archbishop Absalon in Lund while Saxo was writing there his Gesta Danorum for Absalon. (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 418.) However, it is also possible that Saxo’s account reflected a common Nordic view of honourable death, and behaviour that was expected in war conditions.


Therefore, in the sources Ólafía Einarsdóttir discusses, Óláfr Tryggvason’s death is treated 1) as a suicide and therefore as a sinful act (Adam of Bremen), 2) as a self-inflicted death, but the fact that Óláfr’s body is never found is emphasized and the option that Óláfr actually escaped and survived is also given (in Nordic clerical context, e.g. in Historia Norwegiae, Oddr Snorrason’s saga), or 3) as a heroic death of a warrior king who chose not to flee but fought until the end (in secular contexts in Fagrskinna and Heimskringla). Ólafía Einarsdóttir shows in her study that the portrayal of Óláfr Tryggvason’s death is heavily influenced by issues of political power. It is probable that the attitude of the German historian Adam of Bremen who wrote about the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, was affected by his dislike towards Óláfr Tryggvason’s choice to rely on English clerics who assisted him in his attempts to convert the Nordic people, even though the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen had been granted authority over the people in the North by the Pope. In addition, Adam’s view of the case may not have been that objective because the sources he used were biased: the source of Adam’s account was Sveinn Forkbeard who was Óláfr Tryggvason’s enemy. (See also Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 413-414.)

As Haki Antonsson (2004) has pointed out, many of the martyrs in the North, such as St Óláfr, were men (kings and princes) who had died a violent death. He has also shown that royal martyrs started to be borne remarkably soon after Conversion – or their cults were born first, and aspects of Christian martyrdom were added to them later. Óláfr Tryggvason never became a saint, however, even though the writer of Historia Norwegiae thought he was a Sanctus and he was widely known in Norway and Iceland as the king who Christianized the north.

Oláfía Einarsdóttir argues that Óláfr never became a saint because his death was a suicide. According to her, that there was no body to be found and placed in a shrine, similar to St Óláfr, would not have been crucial. (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 419.) It is possible that in the minds of the clerics, suicide played a crucial role, but bearing in mind the emphasis on materiality in medieval western Scandinavian culture, the hypothesis concerning the unimportance of the body can be contested; in medieval west Scandinavian thought, power was thought to reside in material objects, such as bones and corpses. (See e.g. Kanerva 2017, 29–35.) Therefore, that there was no corpse could have influenced Óláfr Tryggvason’s posthumous reputation.

However, it is remarkable that although Óláfr Tryggvason was the herald of God in Norway and in the minds of the Icelanders, his death did not give rise to multiple miracle stories. Naturally, Christian tradition in Scandinavia was still young and some of its aspects had not yet been adopted when Óláfr Tryggvason died. In addition, many of the Nordic versions (apart from Fagrskinna and Heimskringla) seem to support the idea that Óláfr Tryggvason managed to escape and survived, and that some people met him in the southern lands. St Óláfr, however, was associated with several miracles after his death. Naturally, St Óláfr may have had strong supporters, since e.g. the earliest reference to his martyrdom is made by Adam of Bremen (see Haki Antonsson 2004, 72). Good reputation in the Hamburg-Bremen archbishopric may have facilitated the recording of miraculous events that concerned St Óláfr in the North as well. In addition, it is probable that the negative attitude towards Óláfr Tryggvason expressed in Adam of Bremen’s work, and the annoyance felt in Hamburg-Bremen when Óláfr chose to communicate with English clerics and ignore the authority of Hamburg-Bremen had an affect on Óláfr’s possibilities of becoming an official saint. Whether somebody became a Christian saint or a martyr was a political issue; people who had power defined sainthood and martyrdom.

However, whether there ever was a local cult (as a result of native instead of Christian beliefs) in the first place that could have resulted in a status as a Christian saint, should the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen not have held a grudge against Óláfr, is hard to attest – that there was no proof of Óláfr’s posthumous material presence, for instance, presumably affected his status as an ancestor who according to native beliefs could observe and influence the physical and mental environment around his grave mound. As Óláfr had disapperead, there was no body to be buried.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “(Who decides) What is martyrdom? (Or what is not…).” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 31 January, 2018. < >


Works cited

Adam of Bremen: Hamburgische KirchengeschichteGesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum. Edited by Bernhard Schneidler. Hannover 1017.

Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss. In Þórhallur Vilmundarson & Bjarni Vilhjálmsson (ed.). 1991. Harðar saga. Íslenzk fornrit 13. Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka fornritafélag.

Fagrskinna. Edited by Finnur Jónsson. Køpenhavn: S. L. M, 1902–1903.

Haki Antonsson. 2004. Some Observations on Martyrdom in Post-Conversion Scandinavia. Saga-Book, 28 (2004), 70–94.

Heimskringla. English translation:  Snorri Sturluson: Heimskringla. Vol 1: The Beginnings to Óláfr Tryggvason. Trans. Alison Finlay & Anthony Faulkes. London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2011.

Historia Norwegiae = Ekrem, Inger (editor), Lars Boje Mortensen (editor) and Peter Fisher (translator). 2003. Historia Norwegie. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press. Available online at English translation: A History of Norway and the Passion and Miracles of the Blessed Óláfr. Trans. Devra Kunin. Edited with and introduction and notes by Carl Phelpstead. London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2001.

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2018. Restless Dead or Peaceful Cadavers? Preparations for Death and Afterlife in Medieval Iceland. In Dying Prepared in Medieval and Early Modern Northern Europe, ed. Anu Lahtinen and Mia Korpiola. Leiden: Brill 2018, 18–43.

Oddr Snorrason: Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar = Det Arnamagnæanske haandskrift 310 qvarto: Saga Olafs konungs Tryggvasonar er ritaði Oddr muncr. En gammel norsk bearbeidelse af Odd Snorresøns paa latin skrevne saga om kong Olaf Tryggvason. Edited by P. Groth. Christiania: Fondet, 1895.

Ólafía Einarsdóttir. 2003. Olaf Tryggvason – Rex Norwegiae 994–999. Christian Ethics versus Teutonic Heroism. In Scandinavia and Christian Europe in the Middle Ages: Papers of the 12th International Saga Conference, Bonn/Germany, 28th July—2nd August 2003, ed. Rudolf Simek & Judith Meurer. Bonn: Universität Bonn, 413–420.

Simek, Rudolf & Hermann Pálsson. 2007. Lexikon der altnordischen Literatur. Kröners Taschenausgabe 490. Stuttgart: Kröner.


Research notes: military suicide in sagas

A couple of days ago I gave a paper on military suicide in medieval Icelandic sagas in the National Finnish Conference on History Research. For a historian who concentrates on medieval sources, military suicide is not an easy subject to study. The definition of military suicide is tricky, and the sources do not always offer enough clues for interpretation. In general, warriors do not kill themselves but are killed by others. However, following Alexander Murray’s (1998) thoughts on medieval military suicide (which are reminiscent of the durkheimian definition of suicide), those who participated in medieval battles were often aware of the possibility that their death was impending.

Therefore, in the history of medieval military campaigns, defeat in a battle may have instigated desperate warriors to seek voluntary death. A soldier who challenged overwhelming enemies and was killed in the act could be judged either a courageous hero or a fool by his contemporaries. Even reckless bravery in battle could sometimes engender admiration, or was even considered part of the ethical values and virtues of chivalry. Therefore, in line with Durkheim’s theory, medieval warriors could have done – actively or passively –something that directly or indirectly had caused their death, and they were aware of the result (i.e. that they would die) and certain of it. (Murray 1998, 61–65; on Durkheim’s definition of suicide, see Durkheim 1897 and the blog article here.)

In effect, deaths in battle have even been regarded as one of the reasons for the scarcity of reported suicides among medieval noblemen: participation in warfare was a relatively easy way to get killed. Consequently, from medieval European perspective in general, military suicide was an act full of ambivalence. Depending on the perspective, the warrior could be considered brave and courageous, or desperate and suicidal, and the fallen combatant could be viewed as a saint-like figure or a military martyr. (Martyrdom indicated that the life of the warrior had not been wasted; e.g. crusades also associated religious motives in warfare.) With regard to his motives, the warrior could fight to escape accusations of shame and cowardice, or if in despair and expecting that his life was not worth living anymore, he wished to liberate himself from worldly suffering. The border between risking one’s life and giving it up deliberately was not clear-cut, and to distinguish that border in the tumults of battle was presumably near to impossible. (On medieval military suicide, see Murray 1998, 64–69.)

That is, if people felt there was a need to make a distinction between the two motives – risking one’s life and giving it up deliberately. After all, death in a battle was not as likely to cause legal concerns as a sudden death in everyday life outside the battlefields would. Consequently, unfortunate for historians, deaths in battle were not that likely to end up in legal documents as a consequence of judicial process.


Medieval Icelandic sagas tell many stories of men who start a battle or refuse to avoid an armed conflict although they knew their fate in advance and were aware that the battle would turn out to be their last, or even though they were faced with an overwhelming army they could never beat. If we believe the laws of the Jomsvikings, a group of warriors portrayed in Jómsvíkinga saga, which was written originally around 1200, an indifferent attitude towards an overwhelming enemy – or denying and avoiding fear – was indeed expected from a respectable soldier. According to the law described in the saga:

No man must run from anyone who was as doughty and well-armed as himself. […] No one must speak a word of fear or be frightened in any situation however black things looked.[1] (Trans. N. F. Blake.)

It has been suggested that the portrayal of the Jómsvikings in the saga could have been intended as a parody. (Aalto 2014, 40. On sagas as parodies, see also Willson 2009.) If the author of the saga was indeed writing a parody, it can be questioned whether the “heroic” values described in the excerpt actually represent the medieval Scandinavian codes of male honor. It is, for instance, possible that heroic self-sacrifice would not have been overly praised by the author of the saga. However, medieval Icelandic saga sources in general suggest that certain kind of codes regarding the male honor would have affected the individual’s behavior in armed conflicts. (On the concepts of honor in medieval Icelandic society, see e.g. Meulengracht Sørensen 1993; Miller 1993.) In addition, fear was definitely not considered a manly emotion. Fear was not considered a positive emotion in the first place. (Kanerva 2014, 226-233.)

Strictly speaking, a saga warrior who ended up against an overwhelming army usually did not die by his own hand. In addition, the terminology available for the description of his manner of death was limited. In medieval Iceland, there was no term for ‘suicide’ – as discussed earlier, the word sjálfsmorð, “self-murder”, appears first in eighteenth-century Icelandic sources, and prior to this era, no particular term for the act existed. The sources only spoke of the actual act (e.g. ‘killing oneself’) or used verbs that indicate the method, or referred to a ‘sudden death’ (bráðr bani).

Therefore, even if a man who had been well aware that a battle in which he was about to participate would be his last died in this battle, the terminology concerning deliberate self-killing used in sagas in general would not have been suitable for the depiction of this man’s death. The expressions used in literature concentrated on the actual act, the method used and the degree of unpredictability, i.e. the suddenness of a person’s departure from this world, not on the thoughts and motives of the individual who died.

Luckily for the historians, some sagas do describe the behavior of the suicidal heroes, which may serve as a clue to their motives (as defined by the authors of such sagas).[2] All in all, military suicide as reflected in medieval sagas is an intriguing issue, bearing in mind that the idea of Christian martyrdom was adopted in Scandinavia fairly soon after the Conversion (which started to take place – depending on the place – from the 10th century onward), and that the prototype of a medieval Scandinavian (Christian) martyr who were born in the newly Christianized North was a man of high rank (e.g. prince or king) who died a violent death. Death in battle could indeed be considered such a violent demise, suitable for a future martyr. (On Scandinavian martyrdom, see Haki Antonsson 2004.)


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Research notes: military suicide in sagas.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 25 October, 2017. <   >


Works cited

Aalto, Sirpa. 2014. Jómsvíkinga Saga as a Part of Old Norse Historiography. Scripta Islandica: Isländska Sällskapets Årsbok, Vol. 65 (2014), 33–58.

Blake, N. F. 1962. Introduction. In Blake, N. F. (ed. & trans.). 1962.  Jómsvíkinga saga. The Saga of the Jomsvikings. London, Edinburgh, Paris, Melbourne, Johannesburg, Toronto & New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, vii–xxv.

Durkheim, Émile. 1897. Le suicide. Étude de sociologie. Paris: Les Presses universitaires de France. <; [or: Durkheim, Émile. 1952 [1897]. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. [Trans. John A. Spaulding & George Simpson] London: Routledge & Kegan.]

Haki Antonsson. 2004. Some Observations on Martyrdom in Post-Conversion Scandinavia. Saga-Book, 28 (2004), 70–94.

Jómsvíkinga saga = Blake, N. F. (ed. & trans.). 1962.  Jómsvíkinga saga. The Saga of the Jomsvikings. London, Edinburgh, Paris, Melbourne, Johannesburg, Toronto & New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons.

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2014. Disturbances of the Mind and Body: Effects of the Living Dead in Medieval Iceland. In Mental (Dis)Order in Later Medieval Europe, ed. Sari Katajala-Peltomaa & Susanna Niiranen. Later Medieval Europe, 12. Leiden: Brill, 219–242.

Meulengracht Sørensen, Preben. 1993. Fortælling og ære. Studier i islændingesagaerne. [Århus]: Aarhus universitetsforlag.

Miller, William Ian. 1993. Humiliation: And Other Essays on Honor, Social Discomfort, and Violence. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press.

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

Willson, Kendra, 2009: Parody and Genre in sagas of Icelanders. In Á austrvega: Saga and East Scandinavia. Preprint papers of the 14th International Saga Conference, Uppsala, 9th—15th August 2009, ed. Agneta Ney, Henrik Williams and Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist. Gävle: Gävle University Press, 1039–1046. Available at


[1] Engi maðr skyldi þar renna fyrir jafnvígligum ok jafnbúnum. […] Engi skyldi þar æðruorð mæla ne kvíða neinum hlut hvégi óvænt sem um þœtti. Jómsvíkinga saga, 17. The text is the edition used here is based on Codex Holmianus 7, 4o, better known today as the Stockholm manuscript, Sthm. perg. 4:o nr 7, which dates from the beginning of the fourteenth century. In its original form, the manuscript has also contained many fornaldarsögur (Legendary sagas) and indigenous riddarasögur (Chivalric sagas). Therefore, the context of the saga in this manuscript is heroic instead of historical in the strict sense.This version of the saga is shorter compared to many other surviving versions of Jómsvíkinga saga. Blake 1962, xvi, xx.

[2] I discussed this issue in my conference paper, and the results of the discussion will be elaborated further in my book (work-in-process) on the history of suicide in medieval Scandinavia.