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.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Sagas and the missing suicide revenants.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 24 February 2017. <  >


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.

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.