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.

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How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Research notes: women, emperors and supernatural things.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 29 November, 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/11/29/research-notes-women-emperors-and-supernatural-things/  >

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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. http://www.sagnagrunnur.com/

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 http://www.glaumbaer.is/static/files/Gagnabanki/xvii-stories-from-glaumbaer.pdf

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

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Sagas and the missing suicide revenants

Motives for doing research on a particular subject can be many, and this rule applies to my own study as well. The societal aspect of my study is among the strongest motives, but I have also been inspired by the earlier research of my colleagues and their questions concerning the sources I have analyzed in my earlier studies, medieval Icelandic saga literature. I became first acquainted with the history of suicide through the studies made by my colleagues Anu Salmela, who is soon about to defend her PhD thesis on female suicides in 19th and early 20th century Finland in the University of Turku, and Riikka Miettinen (University of Tampere) whose dissertation entitled Suicide in Seventeenth-Century Sweden: The Crime and Legal Praxis in the Lower Court deals with the legal processes concerning suicide in early modern Sweden and concentrates on how suicides were investigated, interpreted and convicted in the Swedish realm.

I was greatly inspired especially by the questions that Riikka once posed me, namely concerning the so-called restless dead, that is: deceased who become posthumously active – revenants –  in medieval Icelandic sources. I had been doing research on the role of the restless dead in saga literature and realized that I had never encountered in my sources any individual who was said to have committed suicide and would have returned posthumously.

This lack of suicide revenants was remarkable since restless dead are a fairly frequent motif in medieval Icelandic sagas, especially Sagas of Icelanders, Íslendingasögur, and Legendary sagas, fornaldarsögur.  Both were written in Iceland in the 13th century, some also later in the fourteenth century (some of the Legendary sagas may actually postdate 14th century). In addition, as I have pointed out also before, the sagas are not silent about suicide per se: there are people in both Íslendingasögur and fornaldarsögur who commit suicide – it is quite often said explicitly if somebody “killed himself” – but none of them become revenants.

This lack of suicide revenants in medieval Scandinavia was already noticed by Alexander Murray. Although the research he refers to at this point (Engfield 1972) discusses only few suicides in a limited number of medieval Scandinavian sources, the cases appear to represent fairly well the overall situation. In fact, Alexander Murray has noticed that anti-revenant measures for suicides, such as beheading the corpse or pinning it down in the ground with a stake, is a fairly late idea in the Germanic cultural context in general, and appeared presumably first in the 16th century. (Murray 2000, 51–52)

Naturally, as Murray has pointed out, suicides who returned posthumously were not part of official Christian doctrine and, as a consequence, ghosts who were former self-killers were not a common theme in ecclesiastical sources. The Christian view of suicide considered suicide a sin and self-killers were often denied burial in the churchyard. Those who committed suicide were also often thought to have died suddenly, and a sudden death was bad because in such a case no proper preparations for the afterlife – absolution and sacraments – could be made. Perhaps through the interaction of the views of the Church and possible popular beliefs, suicides as restless souls who returned could have been part of the social reality of lay people, however. (Signori 1994, 34–40; Murray 2000, 23–28, 471–474, 476–479;  Butler 2007, 434; on social reality, see also Berger & Luckmann 1967)

I also found in eighteenth to early twentieth-century Icelandic legends traces of the belief that self-killers would return posthumously as ghosts. In the Sagnagrunnur database of published Icelandic folk legends I have found legends that tell of men and women who committed suicide and returned after death.

For instance, the story of Miklabæjar-Solveig tells of a young woman called Solveig who wanted to marry a Lutheran priest who nevertheless did not wish to have her as his wife. Solveig was then constantly kept an eye on since she intended to kill herself, but one day she managed to flee from her guardians and was discovered too late: she had managed to cut her throat and eventually, she bled to death. However, she managed to utter her last wish before departing this life: that she would be buried in the churchyard. The priest was not given permission to bury her there by his superiors, however, as she had committed suicide, so she was interred outside the churchyard and without Christian rituals. Later, however, the priest was riding on his errands and finally came back home. Or so the people who lived on his farm thought, but they could only find his horse whereas the priest himself had vanished. The priest was never found. Later a man called Þorsteinn who worked in the vicarage wanted to know what had happened to him. One night he prepared himself in the following manner: he took some things that had belonged to the priest and put them under his head as he went to sleep. It was his intention to receive knowledge of the priest’s fate in his dream. In the night, he dreamed of Solveig: she informed him that he would never know what had become of the priest and then tried to cut his throat. Þorsteinn then woke up still feeling the wound in his throat caused by Solveig, and gave up the idea of finding out what had happened to the priest. After this dream, little was heard of Solveig, but she seemed to have occasionally harassed some people later on as well. (Miklabæjar-Solveig in Jón Árnason1862–1864: I, 295–298.)

Like in the story of Miklabæjar-Solveig, in the other stories found in the Sagnagrunnur database some of the suicides were denied Christian burial in the sacred ground, some had been interred in the churchyard without any religious ceremonies performed by the priest. Some caused trouble to the living whereas some did not.

The observations in later folklore inspired me to return to the medieval Icelandic saga sources and examine whether the suicides really remained peacefully in their mounds and graves and if yes, why, that is: what indigenous beliefs and conceptions contributed to this view. The research I conducted resulted in an article (Kanerva 2015, you can read the article here). In this article, I argued that in medieval Iceland suicide per se was not expected to make the corpse restless. People who were considered weak and powerless in life would not return after death, since posthumous restlessness required that the person had a strong will and motivation to come back. Consequently, in the case of suicides, possible posthumous restlessness depended on the person’s character in life. People with strong will and special magical skills were anticipated to return, whereas other suicides remained passive and peaceful.

Needless to say, the results of my studies of the saga revenants inspired me to find out more about this understudied subject, history of suicide in medieval Scandinavia.

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How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Sagas and the missing suicide revenants.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 24 February 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/02/24/sagas-and-the-missing-suicide-revenants/  >

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Works cited

Berger, Peter L. & Thomas Luckmann. 1967. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. London: Allen Lane.

Butler, Sara. 2007. Cultures Cultures of Suicide? Regionalism and Suicide Verdicts in Medieval England. The Historian 69 (3/2007): 427–449.

Engfield, Roy. 1972. Der Selbstmord in der germanischen Zeit. Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies 8 (1/1972): 1–14.

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2015. Having no Power to Return? Suicide and Posthumous Restlessness in Medieval Iceland. Thanatos  4 (2015) 1, 57–79.

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

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

Sagnagrunnur. A geographically mapped database of Icelandic folk legends. http://www.sagnagrunnur.com/

Signori, Gabriela. 1994. Rechtskonstruktionen und religiöse Fiktionen. Bemerkungen zur Selbstmordfrage im Mittelalter. In Trauer, Verzweiflung und Anfechtung. Selbstmord und Selbstmordversuche im mittelalterlichen und frühneuzeitlichen Gesellschaften, edited by Gabriela Signori, 9–54. Tübingen: Edition diskord.