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 modem people, as Gautrek‘s and Burning Njal’s sagas demonstrate.
With intentions of upholding status in the prideful viking world. the characters in Gaurrek’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” 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. 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, thisjustifies 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. 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. A member of the family. Snona, 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”. Snorta and her siblings go with their parents to the Family Cliff and watch as 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.