Homicide and Suicide in Viking Age Scandinavia
By Susanne Nagel
Master of Arts Thesis in Viking and Medieval Norse Studies, University of Oslo and University of Iceland, 2018
Introduction: Violence has a wide range of meanings. For the purpose of this thesis, I will use a working definition of violence: the term will be used with the understanding of violence being physical violence against others, including fighting, murder and other physical abuses. Verbal violence will not be addressed here, even though it is a part of violence in general: “A violent structure leaves marks not only on the human body but also on the mind”. Violence is understood as a personal interaction between different parties with the intention on physically harming the opponent.
The fact that homicides and suicides occurred, were committed and part of the daily life as well in the Viking Age is obvious and does not need further debate. The way people in this society perceived homicide and suicide, and which wider cultural understanding was underlying these impressions, the dealings with violent deaths and the question of punishment, is less clear and hard to trace.
What was the perception and conception of homicide and suicide in the Viking Age Scandinavia, and to what extent is that traceable in the written and archaeological sources?
I will argue that the people in the Viking Age society defined homicide after the deed was committed by the non-executing of specific actions. In contrast to the modern-day judicial situation where homicide is based on premeditation. Furthermore, I will conclude that suicide was seen as an alternative way out of unbearable life-situations, basically due to a less dogmatic belief-system and a higher value set on honour.
Top Image: From Njáls saga: Gunnar fights his ambushers at Rangá – image by Andreas Bloch (1860–1917)