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Having no Power to Return? Suicide and Posthumous Restlessness in Medieval Iceland
By Kirsi Kanerva
Thanatos, Vol. 4:1 (2015)
Abstract: The article examines cultural conceptions of the possible afterlives of suicides in medieval (ca. 1200–1400) Iceland: whether those who committed suicide were expected to return as restless dead. It is suggested that suicide corpses were not regarded as inherently dangerous in medieval Iceland. According to the law, those who committed suicide would not be buried in the churchyard, but repentance before the actual moment of death could still make burial in the cemetery possible. The second chance allotted to self-killers raises the question of whether the burial method implied danger and contagion, or merely social exclusion. It is argued that 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.
Introduction: The purpose of this study is to examine cultural conceptions of the possible afterlives of suicides in medieval (ca. 1200– 1400) Iceland. I will discuss whether or not medieval Icelanders, who had accepted Christianity in 999/1000, expected those who committed suicide to return posthumously – that is, as those considered restless dead: revenants that were not ethereal phantoms, but dead people appearing to the living in their reanimated physical, still recognizable bodies.
In the medieval and early modern European context, suicide has often been seen both as morally reprehensible and as a possible cause of posthumous activity. Committing suicide was considered a bad deed, especially if the act of self-killing was intentional, whereas if a person sacrificed his or her “life for good purposes”, the act was not necessarily condemned by the Church Fathers or the medieval philosophers that followed them, and might even be celebrated. Although the ideas of medieval ecclesiastical thinkers may not have been fully adopted by lay people, including those in Iceland, views of suicide as a bad death were represented also in medieval exempla with didactic intention and in European popular literature. According to this view, committing suicide ruled out any hope of salvation of the soul and ultimately of partaking in the joys of Heaven. Suicide was a sin because life was God-given and should not, therefore, be taken away by the person him/herself. Those who had committed suicide were often considered to have died suddenly and without the proper preparations for the afterlife: absolution of sins and the proper sacraments. For this reason they were denied burial in sacred ground. As a consequence, in Christian Europe their restless souls were sometimes expected to return to haunt the living. This last tradition was not part of official Christian doctrine, and, according to Alexander Murray, presumably the reason that ghosts of suicides rarely appear in medieval European ecclesiastical sources. Still, lay people may well have believed in the return of people who did not die ‘properly’.