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I was recently thinking about the suicides of Hedda Gabler and Miss Julie in relation to Sophocles' Ajax.

In all three plays, the main characters come from cultures based on honor/shame. (Gabler is the daughter of a General, and Julie, daughter of a Count, is a member of the aristocracy.) Although the details of the three plays differ, the suicides are all driven by honor/shame:

  • Ajax commits suicide over the shame of having been denied Achilles' armor, his inability to exact vengeance, and dishonor of having been make a fool of by Athena, which render continued existence intolerable.
  • Hedda Gabler, after her maneuverings to secure her future fail, realizing that she is compromised and will be in another's power, chooses to end her life rather than live in such an intolerable condition. (Such condition is beneath her dignity and impugns her honor).
  • Miss Julie, unable to escape her situation, chooses suicide rather than continue to exist in an intolerable condition. (Although her suicide is implied rather than explicit, consensus as to that outcome is overwhelming. Like Ajax, the catalyst for her downfall is a single moment of passion that carries profound ramifications in the context of her culture.)

Suicide is not uncommon in military and aristocratic cultures such as Japan, China and Ancient Greece and Rome, often as an act of protest.

Because both Ibsen and Strindberg were Scandinavian writers, I'm looking for precedents in the Nordic tradition for suicide as an act of protest or means of expiating shame.

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  • Do you include suicide through reckless behaviour? I can't recall any cases of direct suicide (even if there might be), but I think it might be possible to find a few examples of redeeming yourself in battle. (It is outside the scope of the question, but otherwise, the most striking example of suicidal behaviour is when Egil receives the news that his son has droned and he tries to starve himself to death.)
    – andejons
    Jan 16, 2017 at 21:25
  • @andejons I will accept that, and would welcome any analysis you could provide. (For instance, would Egil's suicide for grief over his son be seen as shameful or potentially admirable?)
    – DukeZhou
    Jan 16, 2017 at 22:15

2 Answers 2

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Brynhild's suicide in the Short Lay of Sigurd may be of interest:

47. She was viewing
all she owned,
dead slaves
and chamber-women.
She put on her golden corslet
- no good meditated -
ere herself she pierced,
with the sword's point.

Poetic Edda/Sigurðarkviða hin skamma. (2012, April 17). In Wikisource . Retrieved 08:49, January 17, 2017, from https://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=Poetic_Edda/Sigur%C3%B0arkvi%C3%B0a_hin_skamma&oldid=3807401

Although the shieldmaiden's motivation for taking her own life is not explicitly mentioned, shame for having a hand in arranging Sigurd's death - because he had taken another wife - is a possibility.

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Suicide and honor

This will not be answer that was asked for. Instead, I will argue that the concept of honour worked in a way that suicide could not be an answer.

I will start by quoting Hávamál, verse 71:

The halt can manage a horse,
the handless a flock,
The deaf be a doughty fighter,
To be blind is better than to burn on a pyre:
There is nothing the dead can do.

Translation by W H Auden & P B Taylor

The Norse ideas of honour was not intrinsic: Honour was something you held in the eyes of others, and so was shame. You were not shamed by, for example, making a mistake. You were shamed if others treated you in a manner that indicated that you were not worthy of respect, or if you failed to demand the honour that should be due to you. If someone shamed you, the correct action would be to regain the honour in some way, typically by seeking revenge, or satisfaction through settlement or trial: any of these ways would prove that you were not someone to trifle with.

This, of course, means that suicide was generally not an acceptable way to redeem yourself, because it accomplishes nothing, or worse: it made you seem weak.

When revenge is impossible

Death might, however, be the result when revenge is impossible. Two good examples of this is Egill Skallagrímsson and Hrethel from Beowulf. The cases are similar in that they are not "clear" suicides; in both cases it is more a case of a lost will to live after accidents have claimed their sons. What makes it interesting here is that in both cases this is connected to a matter of honour: Hrethel because his son has fallen to an arrow from his brother in an hunting accident, which cannot be avenged, Egil because his son has drowned, and as he says in Sonatorrek, he does not have the might to avenge himself on the ocean. Egill is eventually turned back to life by his daughter, while Hrethel dies:

Heartsore, wearied, he turned away,
from life's joys, choose God's light
and departed...

Beowulf, lines 2468-2470, translated by Seamus Heaney

Of course, this is rather obviously influenced by Christian thoughts, so it should be taken with some salt.

Suicide in battle

I will take an example from actual history: Olaf Tryggvason, who jumped ship when he realised that he had lost the battle of Svolder. This was, of course, in no way pre-mediated. Afterwards, all his remaining men also jumped ship. Snorri does not offer any judgement of this action.

Conclusion

Taking also the account of Brynhilde from Yannis answer into account, I would say that suicide in general was a result of grief, not shame. Shame was ideally to be washed away by gaining honour through great deeds, and killing yourself did not count.

Sources

  • For the discussion of honor as a general concept, I have mostly relied on Gro Steinsland, Fornnordisk religion, even if some parts of it are my own: seh deos not specifically discuss suicide, for example. As far as I can tell, there are at least no contradictions.
  • The analysis Of Egill and Hrethel is my own, even if there is not much interpretation needed: most of the stuff is explicitly spelled out.
  • For Olaf Tryggvasson, I rely on Snorri's Heimskringla. From what I understand, the suicide is also covered by Adam of Bremen and Saxo Grammaticus.
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  • It's an interesting point on honor/shame as a function of the perception of others. This perception by others is definitely a factor with Ajax. (Also worth noting, Ajax's first impulse was to kill those who had impugned his honor, but he was led astray by the gods. With the possibility of vengeance removed, suicide seems to the the only remaining option for him.)
    – DukeZhou
    Jan 17, 2017 at 20:58

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