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Suicide is modernly considered to be a decision made by an unhealthy, troubled mind. Depression and emotional trauma often are factors in the act of taking one’s own life and the motivations for the action usually follow a mindset that does not take into account how honor and shame that accompany the concept of suicide. In old norse culture, however, honor, shame, and death go hand in hand. The characters in viking sagas have motivations that are all together very different than those of modern people, as Gautrek’s and Burning Njal’s sagas demonstrate. With intentions of upholding status in the prideful viking world, the characters in Gautrek’s and Njal’s make choices that seem misguided. Though the deaths portrayed seem avoidable, Skinflint in Gautrek’s saga and Njal decide that death is the only honorable way out of their circumstances, even if that death comes about by their own doing.
Honor is one of the most valuable assets that a viking can have, surpassing wealth, relationships, and even life itself. To retain honor, a viking man could go to great lengths, taking measures that might exceed the need for self-preservation. In Njal’s saga, Njal finds himself trapped within his own home, fire blazing all around him; he is surrounded from the attic and from outside every door by flames that rapidly consume his dwelling. Though Njal receives an offer to allow escape from this impending doom by Flosi, one of the men trapping him inside, he refuses to leave. Leaving, for Njal, means abandoning his home and his sons and placing himself again at risk for death. Njal is too old to fight if his enemies decide to betray him and even if he were to escape unharmed, he would die shamefully of old age. Gautrek’s saga takes a more casual and slightly less heroic approach to the concept of honor where death is related. The saga describes a “Family Cliff” (Gautrek 27) and this cliff is a location where family members often go to fling themselves from the edge and pass on into the afterlife, going “to Odin”, a notion that would be greatly frowned upon in modern culture (Gautrek 29). To the members of this particular family, death is more honorable than the burdens of things such as illness (even minor illnesses), starvation, injury, and age. Disease and hunger are painful and pitiful, fates that make strong men weak and desperate. The members of the family within Gautrek’s saga seem to preserve honor in situations where other families might fall. To them, this justifies the use of their cliff.
Shame falls parallel to honor and plays a major part in the deaths of Skinflint and Njal. Flosi, one of the men who has trapped Njal, says he will allow women and children to leave the house. After Njal attempts and fails to offer Flosi “atonement” from his sons for their deeds that have led the saga to this point, Flosi offers Njal a chance to escape the burning house so that he will not die needlessly (The Story of Burning Njal 1). To leave, not only would Njal be abandoning his home and those inside of it, but he would also be placing himself at the level of women and children, a shameful concept that he refuses to accept. Shame presents itself differently in Gautrek’s saga, in the actions of the family’s patriarch Skinflint. The “Family Cliff” in Gautrek’s saga is often used and in such a way that it detracts from the seriousness of the actions that the family members are committing (Gautrek’s Saga 27). A member of the family, Snorta, returns to her home one day to find that her father, Skinflint, was beginning to divide up his possessions to disperse to his family. A king has visited the family and Skinflint finds himself greatly displeased with the effects that the king’s taxing visit has had on his family, including depleted food stores and resources amongst other things. They have been “reduced to poverty” by the visit and Skinflint intends to “take my wife along to Valhalla, and my slave as well” (29). Snorta and her siblings go with their parents to the Family Cliff and watch as Skinflint, their mother, and their father’s slave cast themselves off of the cliff’s edge and went “merry and bright, on the way to Odin” (29). This description seems to make light of the suicide of Skinflint, his wife, and his slave by using language that suggests that this situation is common within the family. Snorta’s father finds great shame in the idea of death by starvation and poverty and knows that reducing the size of the family by three will aid his children and relatives by decreasing the number of mouths to feed.
Within these two instances of suicide, there seems to run a family theme. In Njal’s saga, Njal’s wife and grandson make the choice to remain in their home and burn with Njal. Likewise, in Gautrek’s saga, Skinflint’s takes his wife and his slave to the edge of the cliff to leap off with him. Skinflint views this as a favor to the slave, claiming that it is “the least I can do” for the slave’s efforts against allowing a king enter the household (Njal 29). The loyalty between members of a family, most especially a faithful husband and wife, seems to play a key role in the decision to take one’s own life. From the examples portrayed in Gautrek’s saga and Njal’s saga, death beside family members is honorable, while abandoning the family and living on until old age is viewed as extremely shameful. Indeed, the invitation to jump from the Family Cliff in Gautrek’s saga is almost described as an honor and a privilege that only worthy members of the household are entitled to.
In conclusion, suicide is not as influenced by emotion and psychology in the Viking stories as it is in the modern world. The old Norse characters find motivation in circumstance and status, viewing suicide as a choice that, when made correctly, provides an honorable escape from sticky situations in life. Whether the situation is threat of starvation brought on by poverty or a last stand against enemies, the Vikings clearly thought suicide, under the right circumstances, could justly compare to a death in battle and therefore be titled as an honorable demise. Skinflint in Gautrek’s saga and Njal both receive recognition that many Norse heroes cannot boast of: depiction on famous Viking sagas, forever immortalized because of their fates.
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