Prospective Memory of Death in Old Norse and Icelandic Sources


This article borrows from the field of cognitive psychology to add nuance to Jan Assmann's notion of a prospective cultural memory of death. Whereas Assmann's view accounts primarily for those cultures that tend to rely upon external honor and social status to formulate a sense of prospective memory of death, those cultures that tend to rely upon internal conceptions of righteousness or culpability have little representation in Assmann's theory. For more than two decades, the field of cognitive psychology has been developing its own theory of prospective memory. There, prospective memory is the memory of (typically mundane, everyday) tasks an individual must accomplish at some point in the future (e.g., buying milk, meeting someone, or running an errand). Certain memory aids (e.g., a note in a calendar or a string tied around a finger) might assist individuals in the retrieval of prospective memories. So too might material, literary, or folkloric aids be culturally employed to assist a culture in remembering its prospects for death, dying, and the afterlife. This article explores ways that cognitive prospective memory might be useful in understanding how prospective cultural memories of death and the afterlife might have changes in Old Norse-Icelandic sources as the region's religious landscape developed during the transitions from pre-Christian to Christian, and then from Catholic to post-Reformation, worldviews.


English and Technical Communication


Article in press

Keywords and Phrases

Cognitive psychology; Cultural memory; Death and dying; Icelandic folklore; Old Norse literature; Prospective memory

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

0028-2677; 1572-8668

Document Type

Article - Journal

Document Version


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Publication Date

01 Oct 2019