Translating suicide: new suicide memes in Medieval Iceland?

In the history of suicide, the methods used in suicide, or the frequency and the assumed causes of the act have varied. The methods chosen may be linked to the availability of certain instruments, such as weapons, but suicidologists have also emphasized the role of contagion, imitation and modeling in suicides – or: suicide memes. Meme, a concept coined by Richard Dawkins (1976) and later developed e.g. by Susan Blackmore (2000), refers to the cultural transmission of ideas, styles, symbols, practices and behavior. According to meme theorists, memes are similar to genes in that memes evolve and self-replicate, whereas some memes may not survive. (Lester 2009, 3–4.) The theory has been criticized to great extent and sometimes with good reason, for instance for its use of gene-meme analogy and for its disregard of the study of consciousness.  On a general level, however, the idea of cultural evolution that suggests that certain kinds of suicidal ideas and behavior – suicide memes – are contagious in that they “infect” others who then follow the same models and imitate earlier acts deserves a comment in this blog as well.

David Lester brings forth that some suicide memes may be only short-term; for instance, celebrity suicides may cause people to imitate the act right after the event, but the effect usually lasts only for a short period of time. Long-term suicide memes, then, may spread across cultures or become localized and “specific to particular regions”. (Lester 2009, 6–8.) Suicide memes may spread through various routes. In the modern era, internet and media that produces news 24/7 offer a fast and convenient channel for memes to spread, evolve and replicate themselves when the models offered are imitated.[1] In the premodern era, one source of such models – suicide memes – was literature. In earlier research it has been suggested that, for instance Goethe’s  novel The Sorrows of Young Werther affected people’s tendency to commit suicide, and also their methods. (Lester 2009, 6.) In his study of suicide in early modern Geneva Jeffrey R. Watt suggests that contemporary people were receptive to the story that presumably crystallized the current cultural trends. Watt shows that in late eighteenth-century Geneva, where firearms would have already been fairly common, there was an increase in rates of deaths that were caused by gunshot wounds, but those who had died were not victims of homicides or accidents but suicides, and men most often committed suicide by using a firearm, a method preferred also by young Werther in Goethe’s novel. (Watt 2001, 29–30, 34–35, 50, 113.)


The idea of suicide memes that spread through literature is not farfetched as such in medieval Iceland either. We do know that Icelanders had started to translate Latin historiographical works, religious texts and hagiographies already in the twelfth century and in the beginning of the thirteenth century several medieval romances were translated in Norway, commissioned by King Hákon IV Hákonarsonar and later also by his son Magnús VI Hákonarson. But did these translations offer new suicide memes, models of behavior to be imitated?

As I have discussed earlier, a story of a suicidal monk found in a saga of St Mary, Maríu saga, lists several suicide methods – drowning, jumping from high places, using knifes, swords and ropes to carry out one’s aim – which may all have been well-known in medieval Iceland, but may also have inspired some suicidal people and served as a model for those who wished to end their lives. It has been suggested that e.g. in early modern Sweden the rate of suicides increased as suicides began to be prosecuted and sentenced. The need to prosecute and sentence suicide perhaps made it necessary to record suicide cases more pedantically, but legal procedures also made people more aware of the possibility of suicide and therefore served as a kind of priming, and consequently, made them more ready to follow the example. (See Miettinen 2015, 210; on priming see Lester 2009, 8–9.)

Through Latin historiography, medieval Icelanders became familiar with the suicides of the Roman aristocracy, such as that of Mark Anthony. His death was recited in Rómverja saga, a text that was based on e.g. Sallust’s works Bellum Iugurthinum and Coniuratio Catilinae as well as Lucan’s Pharsalia (Bellum civile). The saga was presumably written around 1180, in the vicinity of Skálholt see. (Jakob Benediktsson 1993; Würth 2005, 164–165;  Simek & Hermann Pálsson 2007, 323–324.) According to Rómverja saga, after he had been defeated by Augustus, “little later Anthony killed himself with poison” (litlu sidar drap Antoníus sik sealfr. med eitrí. Rómverja saga, 388.)[2]

The actual source of this excerpt that offers a slightly different view of Anthony’s death than what is common in Ancient Roman sources where he is usually said to have killed himself with a sword is not known, but the passage made medieval Icelanders aware of some more exotic suicide methods as well. The saga describes the death of Cleopatra, who after Anthony’s defeat had tried to see Augustus but considered it a great shame that he did not want to see her:

Cleopatra let Anthony’s stone coffin be opened and sat down next to the corpse. She let the snake called asp slither on her breast, and the serpent immediately bit her to death. Then the stone coffin was closed again the way it had been earlier.

[Cleopatra] lét vpp luka steín þro Antoníj. Ok settíz nidr hia likínu. Ok lét ormínn aspidem koma á briost ser. Ok iafnskiott beit hann hana til bana. Sidan var aptr lokít steínþronní sem adr var. (Rómverja saga, 388.)

Rómverja saga is not that explicit about Cleopatra’s love towards Mark Anthony, but a Chivalric saga  (riddarasaga) known as Tristrams saga ok Ísöndar, a prose work based on Thomas of Britain’s Tristan and translated by one Brother Robert in Norway in 1226, offered another kind of model for women who had lost their beloved. (On the saga, see Kalinke 1985, 331–333, 340; Kalinke 2011a, 2; Kalinke 2011b, 10–11.) The saga presented a case of female death wish, experienced as a result of bereavement: Blensinbil (that is Blancheflor in Thomas’s Tristan) laments upon hearing about the death of her beloved Kanelangres (Rivalin) and expresses her love and will to die in many words:

There is not a woman alive who is more wretched than I. How could I survive such a glorious, gallant man? I was his life and his comfort, and he was my beloved and my life. I was his delight, and he was my joy. How shall I live on after his death? How shall I be comforted, when my joy is buried? It is fitting for us to die together. Since he cannot come to me, I must walk through death’s door, for his death hammers at my heart. How shall I be able to live here any longer? My life should follow his life. (Trans. Jorgensen in Tristrams saga ok Ísöndar, 47–49.)

Aum em ek yfir alla kvennmenn. Hvernig skal ek lifa eptir svá dýrligan dreng? Ek var hans líf ok huggun, en hann var unnasti minn ok líf mitt. Ek var hans yndi, en hann mín gleði. Hversu skal ek lifa eptir hann dauðan? Hversu skal ek huggaz, er gaman mitt er grafit? Báðum okkr sómir saman at deyja. Fyrir því hann má ekki til mín koma, þá verð ek gegnum dauðann at ganga, því hans dauði drepr á mitt hjarta. Hversu skal ek hér mega lengr lifa? Mitt líf skal hans lífi fylgja. (Tristrams saga ok Ísöndar, 46–48).

Sometimes the translated riddarasögur appear to carry a moral message in that they state explicitly that those who commit suicide will end up in Hell, as in  Flóres saga ok Blankiflúr, a translation of  Floire et Blancheflor made in Norway presumably around 1220–1230. (Carlé 1993, 200; Simek & Hermann Pálsson 2007, 96.) The version found in the fifteenth-century manuscript AM 575 a 4to  contains a passage where the mother says to Flóres who believes his beloved one, Blankiflúr, is dead, and who because of his loss has planned his own death, to be able to see her in Paradise (Antonsen 2006, 101):

”My son”, she said, ”it is childish to wish your death so much because no one is so miserable that he would not escape death if he could. And it is the greatest shame to kill yourself. And the one who does so will never reach Paradise, and never will you meet Blankiflúr, because that field [of Flowers, i.e. Paradise] welcomes only those who do not harm themselves: Hell takes them [who harm themselves], and it would have taken you too, if you had made as you wanted.”

“Son minn,” sagði hon, “bernsligt er slíkt, at girnaz svá mjök dauða, þvíat engi er svá vesall, at hann flýi eigi dauða sinn, ef hann má. Er þat ok en mesta skömm, at drepa sik sjálfr; enda á sá aldri Blómstrarvöll [i.e. Paradise], er þat gerir, ok aldri finnr þú Blankiflúr, þvíat sá völlr tekr við þeim einum, er eigi verðr sjálfr sér at skaða: tekr helvíti við þeim, ok svá mundi við þér, ef þú hefðir nú gört þinn vilja.” Flóres saga ok Blankiflúr, 24–25.


The few examples from translated literature mentioned above are interesting as such, as they show that suicide was not silenced in the process of translation. It is difficult to say, however, to what extent or how soon (and long) the ideas expressed and the acts and behavior described in the sources in question affected medieval Icelandic thought. Or, whether they caused the spreading of new suicide memes, whether the methods described in them were imitated, or whether the stories in question affected ideas about the causes of suicide or motivated bereaved people to act according to their model. Translated riddarsögur at least were fairly popular also in medieval Iceland, and their influence on other saga genres, such as Sagas of Icelanders (Íslendingasögur) have been emphasized. (Vésteinn Ólason 2005, 113–114.) However, at this stage of my research it is still too early to comment upon whether the use of poison as a method either was  adopted or increased (if the method was already known and used) in medieval Iceland, or bereavement became a more frequent motive for suicide, as a consequence of influence from translated literature. A lot of work still needs to be done on the subject before anything certain can be said about it.

Some memes can also be censored by various institutionalized authorities. In medieval Europe and Scandinavia, the Church and later also secular authorities exerted such power as far as suicide memes are concerned by defining suicide as a sin, and later as a legal felony. (On censoring memes, see also Lester 2009, 8.) The passage in Flóres saga ok Blankiflúr echoes such attempts to censor suicide memes altogether. However, simultaneously the texts mentioned above linger on the different methods available for people for taking their own lives, offering them examples, models they could follow. (Such ”method-mindedness” as Alexander Murray has called it (2000, 430-435), appears to have been a rule rather than an exception also e.g. in medieval European legal texts in general.) All in all, the texts were also part of the process where medieval Icelandic suicide discourses were shaped and created.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Translating suicide: new suicide memes in Medieval Scandinavia?” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 28 June, 2018. <  >


Works cited

Antonsen, Alina Dominte. 2006. Lost in Translation? An Examination of the Concept of courtoisie in the Old French Le Conte de Floire et Blancheflor and in the corresponding Old Norse Flóres saga ok Blankiflúr. Master’s Thesis in Nordic Viking and Medieval Studies, Centre for Viking and Medieval Studies; Department of Archaeology, Conservation and Historical Studies; Faculty of Humanities, University of Oslo.

Blackmore, Susan. 2000. The Meme Machine. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Carlé, Birte. 1993. Flóres saga ok Blankiflúr. In Phillip Pulsiano (ed.), Medieval Scandinavia. An Encyclopedia. New York & London: Garland, 200–201.

Dawkins, Richard. 1976. The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press.

Flóres saga ok Blankiflúr = Kölbing, Eugen (ed.). 1896. Flóres saga ok Blankiflúr. Altnordische Saga-Bibliothek 5. Halle: Max Niemeyer.

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

Jakob Benediktsson. 1993. Rómverja saga. In Phillip Pulsiano (ed.), Medieval Scandinavia. An Encyclopedia. New York and London: Garland, 537–538.

Kalinke, Marianne E. 1985. Norse Romance (Riddarasögur). In Carol J. Clover & John Lindow (ed.), Old Norse-Icelandic Literature. A Critical Guide. Islandica 45. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 316–363.

Kalinke, Marianne E. 2011a. Introduction. 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, 1–4.

Kalinke, Marianne E. 2011b. 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.

Lester, David. 2009. Memes and Suicide. Psychological Reports 105 (2009), 3–10. DOI 10.2466/PR0.105.1.3-10

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

Rómverja saga = Þorbjörg Helgadóttir (ed.).2010. Rómverja saga, II. Reykjavík: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar í Íslenskum fræðum.

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

Tristrams saga ok Ísöndar  = Jorgensen, Peter (ed.). 1999. Tristrams saga ok Ísöndar. In Marianne E. Kalinke (ed.), Norse Romance, I: The Tristan Legend. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 23–226.

Vésteinn Ólason. 2005. Family Sagas. In Rory McTurk (ed.),  A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture. Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture 31. Malden: Blackwell, 101–118.

Würth, Stefanie. 2005. Historiography and Pseudo-History. In Rory McTurk (ed.), A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture. Malden: Blackwell, 155–172.


[1] Consider e.g. the use of suicide as weapon, as defined and discussed by Ian Hacking (2008).

[2] Unless otherwise indicated, the translations are my own.


About ‘death drive’ in Njáls saga

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.[1] (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. <  >


Works cited

Brennu-Njáls saga, ed. Einar Ólafur Sveinsson, Íslenzk fornrit 12. Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 1954.

Einar Ól. Sveinsson (1954). “Formáli.” In Einar Ól. Sveinsson (ed.), Brennu-Njáls saga. Íslenzk Fornrit 12. Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, v–clxiii.

Freud, Sigmund. 1921. Jenseits des Lustprinzips. Leipzig, Wien & Zürich: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag, G. M. B. H.

Freud, Sigmund. 2010 [1922]. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Trans. C. J. M. Hubback. London & Vienna: Intl. Psycho-analytical; New York:

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2012. “Ógæfa (misfortune) as an Emotion in Thirteenth Century Iceland,” Scandinavian Studies 84 (2012) 1: 1–26.

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2015. Porous Bodies, Porous Minds. Emotions and the Supernatural in the Íslendingasögur (ca. 1200-1400). Turku: University of Turku.

Lowenthal, U. 1986. Autodestruction and Nonexistence: Two Distinct Aspects of the Death Drive. Psychoanalytic Review 73 (1986) 3: 349–360.

McNamara, Rebecca. 2014. “The Sorrow of Soreness: Infirmity and Suicide in Medieval England.” Parergon 31 (2014) 2: 11–34.

Njal’s saga. Trans. Robert Cook. In The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, ed. Viðar Hreinsson et al. Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997.

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

Spielrein, Sabina. 1912. “Die Destruktion als Ursache des Werdens.“ Jahrbuch für psychoanalytische und psychopathologische Forschungen 4 (1912), 464–503.

Spielrein, Sabina. 1994. “Destruction as the Cause of Coming Into Being.” Journal of Analytical Psychology 39 (1994) 2: 155–186.

Torfi H. Tulinius. 2015. “Seeking Death in Njáls saga.” In New Norse Studies: Essays on the Literature and Culture of Medieval Scandinavia, edited by Jeffrey Turco, 99–115.  Islandica 58. Ithaca: Cornell University Library, 99–115.

Vésteinn Ólason. 1993. “Njáls saga.” In Phillip Pulsiano (ed.): Medieval Scandinavia. An Encyclopedia. New York & London: Garland, 432–434.


[1] 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.)


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

A suicidal monk in a medieval Icelandic miracle story

As Alexander Murray has pointed out (2000, 189–244), although the Church considered suicide a very bad deed the subject ‘suicide’ and especially the question why suicide was wrong was not that vigorously discussed in theological writings until in the thirteenth century. What interests me, naturally, is how quickly the Christian view of suicide as a sinful act was adopted in Iceland where the process of Christianization had begun around year 1000. We do know that hagiographies and miracle stories, which also included some stories about suicides, were among the first Latin texts that were translated in Old Icelandic. Many of them were translated already in the twelfth century. Some scholars have also suggested that hagiographical literature was not read (or in an aural culture: listened) only by clerical people, but that lay people as well could have found the stories fascinating.

What makes the medieval Icelandic hagiographical literature interesting is that it contains stories that clearly enhance a view of suicide as a sinful deed. For instance, the miracles of St Mary, which were based on Latin originals, tell of a monk who was tempted to commit suicide every time he was alone:

There was yet another brother who was often incited by the old cunning devil to kill himself, so that whenever he was alone, in a secret place or going to bed, whenever he traveled in a ship or walked on high bridges, and whenever he was in such a condition that he had the place and opportunity to cause himself a lethal harm, the devil was near and incited him to commit that wickedness. And if he saw a hidden razor knife, sword or a rope, or other similar things, he [the devil] said: “See, now there is available both a place and a weapon that you can kill yourself with. Now do that, don’t hesitate. Now do it as soon as possible, that, which will happen anyway, and which you cannot escape.”

When the brother was once so terribly betrayed that he had nearly expressed his willingness to commit this crime, God immediately saw to him in the sweetness of his forgiveness. The monk recovered his senses so that his mind regained its wit, and he made with his hand the sign of the Holy Cross, and praised the Lord with his mouth and soul. He now immediately returns to the choir to the other brothers that he had left in a suicidal state. And he thanks the one he owed to, that is, God, for his mercy.

The same enemy appeared to him another time, however, and said: “You work and hope for help in vain, because your soul and body have been given under the power of the devil.” Then the unclean spirit disappeared because the brother threatened him with the sign of our Savior and spoke: “You have been a liar ever since you were created, and you don’t adhere to truth.”

Quite often this betrayer troubled the brother greatly with similar temptations as has been said before. The monk presented some brothers a solemn wish that they would remember him in their prayers, so that he would be granted God’s and his mother’s, Mary’s, mercy and forgiveness. Our Lady, who always helps sinful people and all those who call her for help, appeared in her abundant kindness to one of the maidens who was in the monastery and said: “I want to help this monk in his misery because he took sound advice when in many occasions he shared that burden of his that he did not manage to carry alone, which is so heavy that it cannot be carried with human strength only, and when he asked the others to pray for him. I love him for his faith, good deeds and holy prayers.” The earlier mentioned brother was free of all his temptations from then on and he was never again troubled by the attacks of the devil.[1]

It is not known when the miracle stories of St Mary, which are based on Latin versions of the saint’s miracles, were actually translated in Iceland. In Unger’s edition, the excerpt cited here originates from an early 18th-century manuscript AM 635 4to, but the story itself and its Old Icelandic translation are apparently older. There exists a saga of St Mary, known as Maríu saga, which is based on several Latin originals (e.g. gospels of Matthew and Luke, Antiquitates Judaicae by Flavius Josephus, the apocryphal gospels Liber de ortu beatae Mariae et infantia salvatoris and De nativitate Mariae, and works by e.g. Augustine, Jerome and Gregory the Great). The saga was presumably written in the first half of the thirteenth century, possibly by Kygri-Björn Hjaltason (the bishop of Hólar since 1236, d. 1237/1238). It seems possible that the hagiographical saga and the miracle stories would have been somewhat contemporary, although the miracle stories may also have been transmitted separately from the saga. Such manuscripts that contain both the saga and the miracles also survive, however. It is therefore possible although not certain that collections of the miracles of St Mary were in circulation in Iceland in the beginning of the thirteenth century, but whether the excerpt above was part of the earliest collections is uncertain. New miracles were added to the collections during the centuries, and new versions of one story could appear in different manuscripts. (Heizmann 1993, 407–408; Wolf 2013, 231, 236–238.) Therefore, it is possible that the story of the suicidal monk would not have been known by twelfth-century Icelanders, but it may well have circulated in thirteenth and fourteenth-century Iceland.

Accordingly, the miracle story presumably did not influence the ideas of medieval Icelanders at the early stage of their Christianization, but the didactic exemplum may have been more widely known in fourteenth-century Iceland where suicide had by then already been criminalized (in Jónsbók law from 1281). It should also be borne in mind that the translations made in medieval Iceland were often not “translations” per se but closer to adaptations: the text could be based on several different originals (like Maríu saga), and the translator was simultaneously a part-time writer in that s/he could comment on the contents of the text, make adjustments to it, correct the bits s/he thought were erroneous, or add or delete material according to what s/he found fitting, to adapt the text to the medieval Icelandic cultural context, even though Latin originals were often more literally interpreted that e.g. French romances.  (See e.g. Barnes 1977, 403–405; Würth 2007 [2005], 164–165, 167; Gropper 2011, 50; Wolf 1993, 7.)

Some details in the story of the suicidal monk appear quite interesting as they may reflect norms and ideas that thirteenth and fourteenth-century Icelanders held as possible, correct and appropriate, and seem to follow the ideas that were widespread in medieval Christianity as well. For instance, as was common in European thought, the devil – the Enemy – is represented as the instigator of a suicidal act. (Murray 2000, 191.) Similar to medieval suicides in general, committing suicide and suicidality appears in the story as an act that requires privacy; it is committed in secret, not in public, to avoid interference. (Murray 1998, 22–27.) The story also gives a fairly detailed account of various suicide methods available for medieval Christians (reminiscent of the methods used in medieval Europe in general, see Murray  1998, 403–413) and places where the deed could be committed: when travelling by sea or walking on high bridges, with knifes, swords and ropes, “or other similar things”. The question remains, whether and to what extent stories such as the one discussed here caused new suicide memes to appear, which were then copied in a culture that was receiving the influences.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “A suicidal monk in a medieval Icelandic miracle story.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 28 February, 2018. <  >


Works cited

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

Gropper, Stefanie. 2011. Breta sögur and Merlínússpá. 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, 48–60.

Heizmann, Wilhelm. 1993. Maríu saga. In Phillip Pulsiano (ed.), Medieval Scandinavia. An Encyclopedia. New York & London: Garland, 407–408.

Maríu saga = Unger, C. R. (ed.) 1871. Mariu saga: Legender om jomfru Maria og hendes jertegn. Christiania: [s.n.].

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.

Wolf, Kirsten. 1993. Alexanders saga. In Phillip Pulsiano (ed.), Medieval Scandinavia. An Encyclopedia. New York & London: Garland, 7–8.

Wolf, Kirsten. 2013. The Legends of the Saints in Old Norse-Icelandic Prose. Toronto, Buffalo & London: University of Toronto Press.

Würth, Stefanie. 2007 [2005]. Historiography and Pseudo-History. In Rory McTurk (ed.), A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture. Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture 31. Malden: Blackwell, 155–172.


[1] Sa var enn annar brodir, er optliga var med slægd hins gamla fianda til þess eggiadr, at han veitti sialfum ser dauda, suo at huar sem hann einn samt var, i leyniligum stad eda hatt uppkominn, for hann á skipi eda um háfar bruar háfar bruar, ok huar sem han var, suo at honum var stadr ok færi til at veita sialfs sins lifi skada, var fiandinn nærr honum eggiandi hann at fremia þessa ohæfu. Se hann ok leyniliga hárknif, suer eda reip eda nockurn þess hattar hlut, sagdi hann: ”Se nu er til bædi stadr ok þat uopn, er þu matt þig drepa med, ger nu at þui ok duel eigi, ger nu sem skiotazt þat, er þo skal fram koma, ok þu matt eigi undan komazt.” Sem brodirinn ward einn tima suo hormuliga suikinn, at hann hafdi naliga samþyckt þessum glæp, sa gud þegar til hans med sætleik sinnar myskunnar, ok huerfr hann aptr til sins hiarta takandi aptr sitt vit, ok gerdi fyrir ser med sinni hendi mark hins helga kross, iatandi gudi med munni ok hiarta. Hann ferr nu þegar aptr i chorinn til annarra brædra huadan hann hafdi med skadsamligri reikan brott geingit. Ok þackar gudi, sem skylldugt var, sina myskunn. Se samin ouin vitradizt honum þo annan tima syniliga ok sagdi: ”At þarflausu starfar þu eda uæntir þier hialpar, þuiat þu ert med ond ok likama gefinn i valld dioflinum.  Suo huarf ohreinn andi brott, þuiat brodirinn ognadi honum med marki vors lausnara suo segiandi: ”Þu ert lyginn fra upphafi þinnar skapanar ok stodt eigi i sannleikinum.” Sa suikari onadadi hann optliga miok med fyrr sagdri freistni. Hann bad med mikilli aluoru nockura brædr, at þeir mintizt hans i sinum bænum, at hann mætti fa nadir ok myskunn af gudi ok hans modur Maria. Wor frv, er iafnan hialpar syndugum monnum ok ollum þeim, er til hennar kalla, med nogleika sinnar milldi, vitrazt einni iungfrv, þeiri sem inni var lukt i klaustri, ok sagdi: ”Ek vil hialpa þessum munk i sinni vesold, þuiat hann tok hialpsamligt rád, þa er hann skipti i sundr i marga stadi þeiri byrdi, er hann orkadi eigi einn samt at bera, er suo er þung, at eigi færr mannligt afl borit, ok þa sem hann bad fyrir ser bidia, elskar ek fyrir sina tru, god verk ok helgar bænir.” Fyrr sagdr brodir var þadan af frials af allri sinni freistni ok war alldri sidan onadadr af umsatum diofulsins, at hit milldazta fyrirheit guds modur fylldizt. Maríu saga, 877–878.


Research notes: women, emperors and supernatural things

Lately I have been presenting my research in a couple of conferences, and in December, I will present yet another paper on the subject. Earlier this month I attended the Finnish conference on medieval studies, Dies Medievales, in Tampere, where I discussed the death of Nero and its portrayal in Scandinavia. In ancient Rome, the story of Nero’s death was told, for instance, by the Roman historian Suetonius (ca. 69- after 122), according to whom Nero first escaped from Rome, and later, as he knew he was pursued by his enemies, he stabbed himself. According to Suetonius, Nero did not die immediately, and knowing that his enemies were approaching, and to avoid being seized by them, Nero had his follower to strike the lethal blow. In practice, then, Nero’s death was an ‘assisted suicide’.

However, at some point of its transmission, new versions the story of Nero’s death started to appear in medieval northern Europe. In some versions, for instance, the role of Nero’s follower was erased, and Nero is just mentioned to have committed suicide. Some versions stated that Nero did not use any blade in his deed but had sharpened a stick with his teeth, which he then used to stab himself. An especially popular version of the story suggested that after Nero had committed suicide, his body was devoured by wolves.

In Sweden, for instance, the story of Nero the Emperor was told in the Fornsvenska legendariet, which is a legendary compiled sometime between 1276 and 1307 by an anonymous writer. In the legendary, it is first stated that St Peter and St Paul had been executed (by Nero), and , “after that Nero also got his reward: He killed himself and wolves ate him” (Thær nest fik ok nero sin løn: Han drap sik siælfwir ok vlua ato han. Fornsvenska legendariet, I:107–108).  The medieval Swedish version of Nero’s death could originate from Jacobus of Voragine’s Legenda aurea, but one question still remains: What were the sources used by Jacobus of Voragine (ca. 1230-1298) or the other medieval authors who wrote about Nero’s death and told a version that differed from the story told by the ancient historian.

In the Folklore and Old Norse Mythology conference in Helsinki in the end of November I discussed female suicide in medieval Icelandic mytho-heroic saga literature. The sources in question do not recite stories of actual suicides, and their anonymous writers did not usually express explicitly their attitudes towards selfkilling. However, as literature these mytho-heroic sources may tell of possibilities that were available for medieval Icelanders, as a kind of ‘mental toolbox’ (outillage mental), a concept introduced by Lucien Febvre.  Accordingly, they may tell us of possible methods employed in suicide, possible motives for the act, possible attitudes toward and views of suicide, and so on.

The next paper, which I will present in December in Tartu in the conference Crossing Disciplinary Borders in Viking Age Studies: Problems, Challenges and Solutions, will deal with veiled meanings: I will discuss the possibilities of using post-medieval folklore in the interpretation of certain motifs in medieval sources.  Namely, some of the Icelandic sagas contain stories of people who are killed by supernatural agents. In Grettis saga, for instance, when Glámr – who is portrayed as a wicked, unsociable pagan in the saga – dies it is implied that an evil spirit, meinvættr, which haunts the valley where Glámr is working as a shepherd, is somehow responsible for his death. Þiðranda þáttr Síðu-Hallssonar tells of the death of Þiðrandi who is loved and well-liked by everyone. The story indicates that he is killed by pagan fylgjur who wound him with their swords when he goes out one winter night.

The stories in question may well have been considered to refer to the confrontation and conflicts between the pagan and the Christian, but in this paper, I will discuss other possible interpretations of the two stories in medieval Iceland. I will take up some examples in nineteenth-century Icelandic folklore and examine a similar case in the story of Miklabæjar-Solveig, which I have discussed earlier in my blog. In this folktale, a young woman commits suicide because she had wanted to marry a priest, who nevertheless took another woman as his wife. Later the priest is said to have disappeared, but people expected that he was taken by the dead young woman to her grave, that is, he was supposed to have been killed by a supernatural agent, and his body was according to the story never found.

The folktale is based on a story of the disappearance of a real historical person who lived in the end of the 18th century. Historical sources also mention his disappearance, but they give different information on the finding of his corpse. Some of them insist that the priest’s body was never found, whereas some say that it was found one year after the actual disappearance. It has been suspected that the priest had actually been murdered by some local people, or that he had committed suicide, which in those days was still a legal felony. As a punishment, his property would have been confiscated, and his right to be buried in the churchyard would have been denied. (Sölvi Sveinsson 1986; Sigríður Sigurðardóttir 2012.) Therefore, some people undoubtedly found the story of a supernatural being that killed the priest fairly convenient.

We will never know what really happened to this priest, but in the paper that I will present in Tartu, I will consider whether the folktale and other additional information linked to the story in question may help us in the interpretation of the two medieval cases mentioned above and in examining alternative medieval readings of the stories in question.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Research notes: women, emperors and supernatural things.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 29 November, 2017. <  >


Works cited

Fornsvenska legendariet = Stephens, Georg (toim.). 1847. Ett forn-svenskt legendarium, I. P. A. Norstedt & Söner: Stockholm.

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

Sagnagrunnur. A geographically mapped database of Icelandic folk legends.

Sigríður Sigurðardóttir. 2012. ”Solveig from Miklabær.” In Stories from Glaumbær [trans. David Gislason]. Skagfirðinga Heritage Museum Booklet no XVII.  Byggðasafn Skagfirðinga, pp. 23–29. Electronic document, available at

Sölvi Sveinsson. 1986. ”Af Solveigu og séra Oddi.” Skagfirðingabók 15 (1986), 69–127.

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.

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. <  >


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.