The Viking Berserkers

The Viking Berserkers – fierce warriors or drug-fuelled madmen?

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Today, the word ‘berserk’ is used to describe anyone in an irrational, agitated state of mind who cannot or does not control his or her actions. The meaning of the word originates with the Viking berserkers, the fierce warriors who were known for battling in an uncontrollable, trance-like fury, and were alleged to be able to perform seemingly impossible super-human feats of strength.

In medieval Norse and Germanic history and folklore, the berserkers were described as members of an unruly warrior gang that worshipped Odin, the supreme Norse deity, and were commissioned to royal and noble courts as bodyguards and ‘shock troops’, who would strike fear into all who encountered them. Adding to their ferocity, and in order to intimidate the enemy, they would wear bear and wolf pelts when they fought, giving them the name Berserker, meaning “bear coat” in Old Norse.

Viking berserkers

The berserkers wore wolf and bear pelts. Image source .

The fury of the berserkers would start with chills and teeth chattering and give way to a purpling of the face, as they literally became ‘hot-headed’, and culminating in a great, uncontrollable rage accompanied by grunts and howls. They would bite into their shields and gnaw at their skin before launching into battle, indiscriminately injuring, maiming and killing anything in their path.

Dating back as far as the ninth century, the berserker Norse Warriors were said to be able to do things that normal humans could not. According to ancient legend, the berserkers were indestructible, and no weapon could break them from their trance.  They were described as being immune to fire and to the strike of a sword, continuing on their rampage despite injury. The Icelandic historian and poet Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241 AD) wrote the following description of berserkers in his Ynglinga saga:

His (Odin's) men rushed forwards without armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild oxen, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon them.

It is believed that this account is partially true and that their trance-like state actually prevented them from feeling pain until after the battle.

While some researchers believe the Berserkers simply worked themselves up into a self-induced hysteria before fighting, others maintain that it was sorcery, the consumption of drugs or alcohol, or even mental illness, that accounted for their behaviour. Some botanists have claimed that berserker behaviour could have been caused by the ingestion of the plant known as bog myrtle, one of the main spices in Scandinavian alcoholic beverages.

Other more esoteric theories surround supernatural beliefs. For instance, some scholars have claimed that the Vikings believed in spirit possession and that berserkers were possessed by the animal spirits of wolves or bears. According to some theorists, berserkers learned to cultivate the ability to allow animal spirits to take over their body during a fight (an example of animal totemism) that also involved drinking the blood of the animal that they wished to be possessed by.

In 1015, Jarl Eiríkr Hákonarson of Norway outlawed berserkers, and Grágás, the medieval Icelandic law code, sentenced berserker warriors to outlawry. By the 12th century, organised berserker war-gangs had been completely disbanded.

Featured image: The Viking Berserkers. Image source: wiki.totalwar.com 

By April Holloway

References:

Berserkers – The Viking Site

Viking Warriors – Legends and Chronicles

Norse power: A brief look at Berserker rage – by Dr Mark Griffiths

Superhuman Strength during a Crisis - Skeptoid

The Viking Berserker – by Clinton Phang and Cameron Anderson

Comments

Another theory is that they used amanita muscaria, either before battle or earlier to contact animals spirits.

Amanita is poisonus when eaten raw, and always poisonus in combination with carbonated beverages.
However if you treat it properly and pick the right species (!) it could be used for intake.

Its propierties is not comparable to that of psilocybin that normally used mind altering mushrooms contain. And it does not make you "high" .
After eating and drinking properly cared for amanita a few times i belivie it could been used before fighting to reach a higher state of mind very you can anticipate and be quicker then the one you are fighting.

I have used it during work and been able to be awake on only amanita for more then 24 hours working without making a mistake and always having a very clear mind. Very clear mind.
Thats what you get from ontake of it, clarity. And if done in a medative state you can get some guidance from its spirit.
Google amanita and santaclaus ;)

Your experience of AM is poles apart from mine, believe me.

what subspecies of amanita are you refering to?

As amanita muscaria is only used very little as a drug even today, I cannot believe that scholars haven't thought about Psilocybe semilanceata, which to my sparse knowledge has a more powerful euphoria and is rather safe to use (meaning, you don't have to be a very skilled botanist to be able to intake it).

Firstly: botanists study plants (I am one)
Mycologists study fungi (actually closer to animals than plants)

Firstly: botanists study plants (I am one)
Mycologists study fungi (actually closer to animals than plants)

You're a plant?
And what comes secondly? You forgot to mention that part.

The berserker rage doesn't sound euphoric at all. I've never come across mention of anyone becoming aggressive on any psilocybin mushroom.

I am surprised that so few on here figured this out. Ergotism was a huge problem during the Middle ages. Ergotism influenced many different historical aggressive events and cultural changes…

http://www.botany.hawaii.edu/faculty/wong/BOT135/LECT12.HTM

Justbod's picture

Great article – thank you! Also enjoyed reading the comments.

Although this is a subject that has helped many a writer & film maker, and the rest of us, to paint a vivid and dramatic scene of battles & warfare from the past, I imagine it is one of the many things that we will never fully know the truth of.

 

Sculptures, carvings & artwork inspired by a love of history & nature: www.justbod.co.uk

 

 

 

very nice of you to flood the comments with your commercial spam

Both the Holloway and the Katarina articles contain so many grammatical errors that I doubt their academic authority.

aprilholloway's picture

Hello Donna, 

If you wish to be constructive, rather than critical, feel free to point out any errors in the article and they will be amended. 

April Holloway

Hi, April Holloway,

Criticism can be constructive, as we know. I do not see, however, how correcting grammatical errors via Donna's input could somehow make your article more authoritative. You evaded her premise, which would appear to be relevant. I did not notice any glaring grammatical errors while reading your piece, and the title gave me all the knowledge I needed in order to discern whether this was an academic excursion I was about to embark upon or not. It was very much "National Enquirer" bait: "Did Hillary Clinton have an alien love nest or a penthouse in Canada? And what juicy tidbits may we offer to induce you to read further, because we have no way of knowing the first and would rather avoid the mundane details of the second?" I'm certain that many of your readers enjoy your posts but I felt compelled to point out the corollary to "N.E." Perhaps Donna was seeking concrete facts to back up your suggestion that drugs fueled berserkers. I, for one, read the article and the comments as more of a light diversion. Thank you for taking the time to compose it. Bill.

Doing some studies on Rhodiola and its contemporary use as a testosterone booster. Apparently it was used in ancient Scandinavia. Thinking the berserker phenomenon might be more of an increased testosterone induced type of roid rage! Just a thought.

interesting article

I have never ever heard of AM being a "keep one awake and being able to work" drug I think that Elena is almost certainly confusing the Mushroom with another drug.

AM is not poisonous as in deadly but It does have a few toxins which can be metabolised but one needs to know before hand what the symptoms might be as the (toxic) effects can be worrying.

AM was used extensively by my much revered ancestors as a means of conecting with the divine.

I don't believe that AM can make one agressive as in beserkers. Making the connection seems counter intuitive.

If you spend all day meditating on battle and ritual battle preparation ..getting worked up to critical while on on copius amounts Aminata Musacria you will be a berserker, well not you but those warriors.

I found this article to be very informative. It was thorough in that it answered all of my inquiries and more. Well done.

Very interesting, I`m a norwegian and since I was 7 there`s been this `thing` that follows me. It starts with me getting annoyed, it gets worse and worse, I grind my teeth and I can almost hear my blood pumping. And after a while it fuels itself. And then everything turns black and I go nuts. Pure anger with no fear, I could lower my head and run straight into Mike Tyson, wouldn`t even give it a second thought. As I got older I learned to control it, but if I drink alkohol, take cover. Run, get away. I once attacked a car while drunk. And won. I beat it into submission with my bare hands. It`s eerie how similar it is to the berserkers, makes you wonder about genes and such. Crazy stuff.

I forgot one thing; why did I attack the car? It`s riddicolous, it`s a car, who does that. Well, it was there, blocking my way. That was the only reason I remember, suddenly something blocked my way and I was determined to remove it with brute force. I dont think I even relized it was a car until 5 miutes later. Yes, I was very drunk. Ps: I dont drink anymore, been years. It`s better that way.

I read some books and articles on amanita muscaria and there it's often mentioned as the drug of the berserkers sometimes together with for instance mede (honey beer).
And I saw a program once on Discovery Channel or something where an old Zulu-medicin woman told that the Zulu's won the Battle of Isandlwana among others because the Zulu warriors took a stimulant mix of Amanita Muscara and (an uplifting substance in) marihuana.

fierce warriors or drug-fuelled madmen?

Light doses of libertycap - 100% shure that was use with a vide range of substances (medicine) and other techniques. Drumming, Chanting, breathing Techniques ( check holotropic breathing technique )

In several cultures today they use a wide range of techniques to enter trance - Take those two into account and you /// ability to "travel" easy + Culture of honor in dying + Culture of high substance intake. For shure they where high as fuck - Guarnatee they would still fight with one arm chopped off - As you are supposed to impress Odin and all your fighting brothers :: Its just like a jihaddist today who blows himself up with great eager to enter the "best place"... Amanita high dose combined with libertycaps is a possibility -- and mead/ beer --- The knowledge of the plant are still used in some cultures in the artic-- Its not mainstream or talken much about but it is still there.. Vikings where settlers all over - most likely much earlier bigger culture than it is officialy said.. First russian chronicles talks about the Varangian Rus(slavik word for viking) - The ppl in siberia know this.. Vikings where known for fairness and law - the upper part of norway was settled with ppl more than 6000,- years ago.. The knowledge of the Herbs is still kept.. Some Sami shamans still use the medicine for its use.. and it is possible to get into very psycidelic high states with drumming and chanting... I think to understand more we need antrhopologist to study "warrior" cultures still "alive" and see similarities in times of war preparation / preparation to die in battle. Modern soldiers since ww2 use allot of amphetamines and traculizers -- Everything has its use -- Correctly used it makes a different... just like in sports... And there are many other not well known stimulants in nature.. Take amazon tribes as examples.. some medicine they use to not feel hunger and tierdness.. also medicine to sharpen theyr sences (sentral stimulants ) ... Another thing to take into account is that the nordic ares ppl where generally better fed - Less dence population and 1000ds of Fjords full of whales, fish, seals -- and on land huge amount.. + the farmed animals, pigs - cows.. If you compare a diet of eat as much as you can meat - fats - protein ect for generations and compare that to lower europe (famines, generations of unstability, lawlessness ect to the point of christianity) No wonder Vikings had a blast and struch such fear in their opponed.. How else can a Small band of Vikings become King and rules over Kiev ?!?!

Has intense meditation ever been considered in addition or as an alternative possibility here? So many cultures can reach states of consciousness we can't even grasp, like the ability to control body temperature, etc. Just a thought from a Norwegian woman who wonders what the truth of it all really was/is.

I has entered a state of berzerk before at a young age never used any drugs, all that was there was over whelming anger pointed at someone that pushed me down on purpose.

I was enraged I felt spikes of energy in my veins and my mind blurred one thought lingered hurt him every thing went blank, when I came too I was on top of him my fist pull downwards someone has my arm they lifted me up I was very very tired.

Little is known about the Vikings as written records were documented a few hundred years after the so called "facts" happened. Not everything that the north men achieved in the eighth century to the eleventh century can be blamed on drugs lol.

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