Research notes: suicide and empathy in medieval Iceland

The annual conference of the International Society for Cultural History (ISCH) was held this year in Umeå, Sweden (26–29 June, 2017). The general theme of the year was “Senses, Emotions and the Affective Turn – Recent Perspectives and New Challenges in Cultural History”. In the conference, I presented a paper on suicide and empathy in medieval, ca. 13th and 14th-century Iceland. Some of the points of my paper are summarized below.

By the thirteenth century, Icelanders had been at least nominally Christian for about two hundred years (the official Conversion took place around year 1000). It is probable that by then, they also had some idea of the Christian view of suicide. It would have been known at least by the clerical people that Christian theologians regarded suicide as a morally reprehensible deed (see e.g. Murray 1998; Murray 2000). From the early twelfth century onwards, the Icelandic Church law stated that those who committed suicide should not be buried in the churchyard, unless they expressed in some way that they repented their deed. In 1262 Icelanders submitted to the Norwegian king, and after that, the Norwegian king introduced the Icelanders a new law code in 1280, known as Jónsbók. In this new law, suicide was explicitly criminalized for the first time in Iceland. Confiscation of property was declared as punishment.

Therefore, medieval Icelanders were aware that in Christian, and later also in legal context, suicide was considered a morally culpable deed. Laws may have affected their views of, norms concerning and attitudes towards suicide. These norms, views and attitudes may also have influenced their tendency to feel empathy for the suicide. However, as I argued in my paper, people’s tendency to feel empathy towards suicide may also have depended on their views of what emotions, such as empathy, are and how they operate, in other words on their theory of emotion. (For theories of emotion, see Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

“Empathy” is a fairly new term even in the English language (see e.g. Verducci 2000 and “empathy” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), and as far as medieval Iceland was concerned, there was no word for the concept. However, the ability to understand and appreciate another person’s experience and feelings was expressed, for instance, with words for sympathy and compassion (e.g. íhugi, várkunn, samharman, meðaumkan, sampíning, brjóstbragð), which implied that the person shared, minded and was conscious of the other one’s feelings and experiences and could find their actions excusable, and was emotionally moved by the other one’s pain and sorrow, or could feel pity for them.

What is interesting is that words that explicitly indicate shared or same sorrow and pain, or being moved by the other one’s suffering, were used – according to the recordings of the Dictionary of Old Norse Prose/ Ordbog over det norrøne prosasprog, which records the vocabulary of Old Norse-Icelandic prose writings, and the Icelandic-English Dictionary by Richard Cleasby and Gudbrand Vigfusson – only in sources that are of religious nature and of clerical origin.

In medieval Christianity, compassio had positive connotations. It had spiritual meanings and was linked to imitatio Christi, imitation of Christ, and accordingly, was a way to Christian salvation. (See e.g. Moyn 2006, 399.) The empathy-related words in Old Icelandic sources that can be linked with clerical origin presumably had similar positive connotations. The representation of compassio in these Old Icelandic texts may also have been linked to didactic purposes: they taught and encouraged behavior that was thought to be proper for a good Christian.

However, that’s not the whole story. Medieval Icelanders did not consider all emotions positive, and some of their views were not immediately influenced by Christian and European influences. Grief and sorrow, for instance, were considered detrimental to one’s health. Excessive grief could lead to death. Grief and sorrow could also make an individual vulnerable to the influences of the supernatural forces and agents, which could then harm the individual in many ways (more on this porous body schema, see Kanerva 2013; Kanerva 2014; Kanerva 2015; on sorrow and vulnerability to the influence of the demons and evils spirits in the European context, see also Caciola 2000, 77–78 and 80).

This medieval Icelandic understanding of emotions was part of the context where empathy-related emotions such as compassion and sympathy would have been felt. Although compassion was apparently considered a positive emotion in clerical contexts, in lay view compassion could be regarded as potentially harmful since it could involve experiencing the same sorrow that was felt by the one who was pitied, as the words for compassion and sympathy imply (e.g. samharman, which literally meant “same/shared sorrow”). Feeling the same sorrow and sharing the grief with the individual for whom compassion was felt, could make the empathetic person more vulnerable to the influence of the supernatural forces. Accordingly, feeling empathy was not construed as good for one’s own well-being in all contexts. Such a view may also have influenced people’s tendency to feel empathy towards suicide.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Suicide and Empathy in Medieval Iceland.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 30 June, 2016. <  >


Works cited

Caciola, Nancy. 2000. Spirits Seeking Bodies: Death, Possession and Communal Memory in the Middle Ages. In The Place of the Dead. Death and Remembrance in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Bruce Gordon and Peter Marshall. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 66–86.

Cleasby, Richard & Gudbrand Vigfusson. 1957. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource.

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2013. “Eigi er sá heill, er í augun verkir.“ Eye Pain in Thirteenth and Fourteenth-Century Íslendingasögur. ARV – Nordic Yearbook of Folklore 69 (2013), 7–35.

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 and Susanna Niiranen. Later Medieval Europe, 12. Leiden: Brill, 219–242.

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

Moyn, Samuel. 2006. Empathy in History, Empathizing with Humanity. History and Theory 45 (2006) 3, 397–415.

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.

Ordbog over det norrøne prosasprog.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Verducci, Susan. 2000. A Conceptual History of Empathy and a Question it Raises for Moral Education. Educational Theory 50 (2000), 63–80.

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.

Research notes: Suicide in Old Norse-Icelandic translations of Latin historiography

In the past few weeks I have been finishing a chapter in my book that deals with the representation of suicide in medieval Old Norse-Icelandic translations of Latin literature. Adoption of Christianity around 1000 in Norway and Iceland also indicated that the Scandinavians adopted the Latin alphabet and became familiar with Latin literature. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Icelanders and Norwegians were active in producing translations of Latin hagiographical literature, biblical texts and religious texts as well Latin histories. Some of the translations were even produced before the flourishing of the other, more popular saga genres (at least from the perspective of modern scholars), i.e. Sagas of Icelanders, Íslendingasögur, and Kings’ sagas, konungasögur, took place.

First of all, “translation” may be a problematic term here as the translators of Latin texts were more like part-time writers who could comment on the contents of the text, make adjustments to it, correct things they thought were erroneous, or add or delete material according to what they found fitting. The cultural context mattered: the texts needed to be understood by their Nordic audience. Consequently, some aspects perhaps needed some further explanation whereas some were thought irrelevant and, as a consequence, were not translated. As a result, Old Norse-Icelandic translations were not direct translations but sometimes closer to adaptations. Some of the “translations” were also closer to compilations since they could be based on several Latin originals.  (See e.g. Barnes 1977; Kalinke 1985; Würth;  Glauser 2007 [2005]; Kalinke 2011).

Although there are things to consider when studying Old Norse-Icelandic translations of Latin literature and it can be questioned whether they offer any material for the study of medieval Scandinavian suicide, I find studying them important as they may reveal something about the interaction between foreign influences and indigenous ideas concerning suicide. The Old Norse-Icelandic culture as the receiving culture offered the language and words for the translation and representation of suicide in the Latin original and the worldview of the transmitting culture reflected in the Latin text. Some things expressed in the Latin originals had corresponding discourses in the receiving culture, some perhaps did not. Even so, Old Norse-Icelandic translations could then influence suicide discourses in medieval Iceland. They could offer new discourses, that is, new ways to speak about and communicate about suicide. (See also  e.g. Larrington 2015 on emotion discourses.)

Literature may also influence the action and behavior of individuals in real life. For instance, although limited availability of certain instruments also limits their use in committing suicide (e.g. availability of poison, weapons etc.), suicide methods described in literature may also influence the methods used in real life. Consequently, methods described in translated literature could also “form powerful cultural memes” and as a consequence of their repetition in literature, could form “models that people have tendency to follow”. Therefore, even in medieval context and similar to modern concerns about celebrity suicides, for instance, copy-cat behavior could occur. (Miettinen 2015; Lester 2009; Mesoudi 2009; Soo Ah Jang et al. 2016). For instance, it has been suggested that already in late antiquity and in the Middle Ages, hanging and strangulation was frequently linked with suicide (Murray 2000), and the suicide method appears among the most common ones, together with drowning, also in early modern Sweden (Miettinen 2015). Naturally, finding the right instruments, such as ropes or water, may have been fairly easy, but the use of the method hanging, for instance, may also have been promoted by the infamous suicide ascribed to Judas in one tradition, which was widely known in the Middle Ages, and the popular imagery associated with his death, represented e.g. in church art. (Miettinen 2015; Murray 2000; Schnitzler 1996; Schnitzler 2000).

In the chapter that I have been finishing I did not concentrate on the models and methods of suicide that may have influenced the behavior of people per se, but I examined the attitudes towards suicide as reflected in translated literature. I found following the ideas presented by Jacques Le Goff and applied by Alexander Murray in his remarkable study of medieval suicide (1998, 2000) of examining anomalies very fruitful for my study. One particularly interesting anomaly is the death of Nero the Emperor in medieval Old Norse-Icelandic sources. In the Latin tradition Nero wishes to die and tries to stab himself, but as the wound is not lethal and his enemies are approaching, his companion strikes the lethal blow.

In the Old Norse-Icelandic versions of the story, however, nothing is said about Nero’s suicidal aims or his assisted suicide. According to this version, Nero does not commit suicide. This notion is highly interesting since fairly many of the suicides of the remarkable Ancient men and women known in Latin historiographies, such as Pilate or Anthony and Cleopatra, were recited also in the translations. Therefore the compilers of these Old Norse-Icelandic translations were not silent about suicide per se.

Somebody might claim that Nero was an irrelevant character in the eyes of medieval Scandinavians and that his suicide was excluded for that reason. What makes the absence of Nero’s suicide in the sources particularly intriguing in light of that claim is, however, that Nero’s role as the persecutor of Christians who commanded St Peter and St Paul to be executed must have been well-known in medieval Scandinavia.

In the chapter of my forthcoming book and in an article that presents a case study of Nero I will discuss the suicide anomalies I have found in Old Norse-Icelandic translations. The anomalies are few, but remarkable, and reveal traces of an indigenous view of suicide that differed from the teachings of the Church.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Research notes: Suicide in Old Norse-Icelandic translations of Latin historiography.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 7 February 2017. <  >


Works cited

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

Glauser, Jürg. 2007 [2005]. Romance (Translated riddarasögur). In A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture, ed. Rory McTurk. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 372–387.

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

Kalinke, Marianne E. 2011. 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.

Kalinke, Marianne E. 2011. Sources, Translations, Redactions, Manuscript Transmission. 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, 22–47.

Kanerva, Kirsi (an article, forthcoming). Attitudes towards Suicide in Medieval Iceland: the Case of Nero the Emperor.

Kanerva, Kirsi (a book, work in process). Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia.

Larrington, Carolyne. 2015. Learning to Feel in the Old Norse Camelot? Scandinavian Studies 87 (2015) 1: 74–94.

Lester, David. 2009. Memes and suicide. Psychological Reports 105 (2009) 1: 3–10.

Mesoudi, Alex. 2009. The Cultural Dynamics of Copycat Suicide. PLoS ONE 4 (2009) 9: e7252 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0007252

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. 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.

Schnitzler, Norbert 1996. Der Tod des Judas. Ein Beitrag zur Ikonographie des Selbstmordes im Mittelalter. In Mundus in imagine: Bildersprache und  Lebenswelten im Mittelalter. Festgabe für Klaus Schreiner, ed. Andrea Löther, Ulrich Meier, Norbert Schnitzler & Klaus Schreiner. Munich: W. Fink, 219–245.

Schnitzler, Norbert. 2000. Judas‘ Death. Some Remarks Concerning the Iconography of Suicide in the Middle Ages. The Medieval History Journal 3 (2000) 1: 103–118.

Soo Ah Jang, Ji Min Sung, Jin Young Park & Woo Taek Jeon. 2016. Copycat Suicide Induced by Entertainment Celebrity Suicides in South Korea. Psychiatry Investigation 13 (2016)1, 74–81.

Würth, Stefanie. 1998. Der Antikenromanin der isländischen Literatur des Mittelalters: eine Untersuchungen zur Übersetzung und Rezeption lateinischer Literatur im Norden. Beiträge zur nordischen Philologie 26. Basel: Helbing & Lichtenhahn.