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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

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.

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.

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

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

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

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