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Viking berserker

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. They would howl and growl like beasts, froth at the mouth, and launch an attack in a fit of frenzy. 

Unruly Warrior Gang

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.

It is proposed by some historians that by wearing the pelts, the warriors believed they could extract the power and strength from the animal. 

The Torslunda helmet: Odin followed by a berserker ( public domain )

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. 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.

A Úlfhéðnar (wolf warrior) berserker ( CC by SA 3.0 )

Tasters of Blood

The earliest known reference to the berserkers can be found in the 9 th century skaldic poem  Hrafnsmál, which largely consists of a conversation between an unnamed valkyrie and a raven; the two discuss the life and martial deeds of King Harald Fairhair. 

I'll ask of the berserks, you tasters of blood,
Those intrepid heroes, how are they treated,
Those who wade out into battle?
Wolf-skinned they are called. In battle
They bear bloody shields.
Red with blood are their spears when they come to fight.
They form a closed group.
The prince in his wisdom puts trust in such men
Who hack through enemy shields. 

Possession, Sorcery or Drug-Fuelled Rage?

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 behavior. Some botanists have claimed that berserker behavior could have been caused by the ingestion of alcohol, hallucinogenic mushrooms or 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, and sentenced berserker warriors to outlawry. By the 12th century, organised berserker war-gangs had been completely disbanded.

Top image: Viking Berserker. Credit: Fernando Cortés / Adobe Stock

By Joanna Gillan

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

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.

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 ?!?!

fierce warriors or drug-fuelled madmen?

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.

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.

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