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. 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.)
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. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2018/06/28/translating-suicide-memes-in-Iceland >
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 Consider e.g. the use of suicide as weapon, as defined and discussed by Ian Hacking (2008).
 Unless otherwise indicated, the translations are my own.