• Add description, images, menus and links to your mega menu

  • A column with no settings can be used as a spacer

  • Link to your collections, sales and even external links

  • Add up to five columns

  • Berserker : History and Legend of Viking Warriors

    November 21, 2019 9 min read

    Berserker : History and Legend of Viking Warriors

    During the Viking Age, these "warrior shamans" typically fell into two groups: the berserker ( Old Norse berserkir , "warrior-wild pace") and ulfhednar (Old Norse for "wolf skins"). These groups were a late development of the ancient Germanic war band and had much in common with the warrior shamanism of other circumpolar peoples.

    The Berserker and the Ulfhednar

    The shamanism of the Norse and other Germanic peoples took several different forms. One of the most common forms, especially among males, was the attainment and use of a battle fury closely related to a totem animal , usually a bear or wolf, and often occurring in the context of certain official military groups.

    From what we can tell today, the berserker and ulfhednar shared a common set of shamanic practices, the only substantial difference being that the totem animal of the berserker was, as the name suggests, the bear and the of the ulfhednar , the wolf. These names refer to the practice of dressing in a costume made from the skin of the totem animal. It is an outward reminder that the wearer has exceeded the limits of their humanity and have become a divine predator. It's hard to imagine a scarier thing to encounter on the battlefield of the late Iron Age.

    One of the hallmarks of shamanic traditions around the world is an initiation process characterized by symbolic (and sometimes literal) death and rebirth, where the would-be shaman acquires his powers. Berserker candidates have undergone such a process before being admitted to the group: they have spent some time in the desert, living as their totem animal and learning its ways, gaining sustenance by hunting, gathering and raiding in the nearest towns. To quote the archaeologist Dominique Briquel, " Rapto vivere, to live like wolves, is the beginning of this initiation. The connection with the wild world is indicated not only geographically, life beyond the limits of the civilized life of the cities... But also on what we could consider as a moral level: their existence is ensured by the law of the jungle. The candidate has ceased to be an ordinary human being and has become rather a man- wolf or a man-bear, more a part of the forest than of civilization.

    From then on, he had the ability to induce a state of possession by his kindred beast, gaining his strength, fearlessness, and fury. We have only a vague idea of ​​the techniques used to achieve this trance state, but we do know that fasting, exposure to extreme heat, and ceremonial "weapon dances" were part of the shamanic tool kit. of the ancient Germanic peoples. It is highly likely that the berserker used these techniques, alongside many others that have been lost over the centuries.


    viking berserker

    Berserker, Warriors of Odin

    On the battlefield, the berserker or ulfhednar would often enter the fray naked without his mask and animal skins, howling, roaring, and running with godly or demonic courage. As the Ynglinga saga says,

    Odin's men ( berserkers and ulfhednar ) entered battle unarmored and were as mad as dogs or wolves and as strong as bears or bulls. They bit their shields and killed men, while they themselves were not injured by fire or iron. This is called "going crazy". »

    By biting or shedding their shields, we see a reminder that their ultimate identity is no longer their social personality, but rather their "unity with the animal world" which they have achieved through "self-dehumanization". “The shield and weapons of a Viking warrior were the very emblems of his personality and social status; they were given to a young man who had reached adulthood by his father or a close male relative to mark his arrival in the sphere of rights and responsibilities of adult men in his society. By biting or throwing down the shield, the mythical beast triumphed over man, and the "sons of Odin" tore through the battle, psychologically insensitive to pain by virtue of their predatory trance.

    Like other northern Eurasian shamans, the berserker is sometimes depicted with "woman-spirits", in this case the valkyrie .

    In the polytheistic system of the Nordic peoples, where different kinds of people worshiped different kinds of deities, the berserker , ulfhednar and other warrior shamans were good examples of Odin."Óðr is the source of poetic inspiration and philosophical insight as well as of battle frenzy ("going mad", Old Norse berserksgangr ). It is therefore not surprising that many "sons of Odin", such as Egill Skallagrímsson and Starkaðr, were also warrior poets. not ordinary soldiers; their fighting frenzy, with all its grotesqueness and violence, was of a rarefied, even poetic kind, and, being a gift from Odin , it was inherently sacred.


    viking warrior

    Berserkers are historically depicted as participating in rituals that, before battle, would induce a collective trance-like state called berserkgang:

    This fury, which was called berserkergang, occurred not only in the heat of battle, but also during laborious work. The men thus seized accomplished things which seemed impossible for human power. It is said that this trans started with chills, teeth chattering, then the face swelled and changed color. There was a connection there with a great burning head, which eventually turned into a great rage, under which they howled like wild animals, bit the edge of their shields, and cut everything they encountered without distinguishing between friends. or enemies.

    In this state of frenzy, the Viking berserker lost all human ability, and was known to constantly scream and howl, and tear his enemies to pieces with his bare hands.

    Is the berserker under the influence?

    Assumptions have been made about the berserker , the latter would use magic mushrooms and an obscene large amount of alcohol.

    In an article in the American Journal of Psychiatry ,Howard Fabing explains that the berserkers may have taken Amanita muscaria, a psychedelic mushroom containing bufotenin. In clinical trials, bufotenin has been shown to cause hallucinations and psychophysiological effects consistent with those described in the Scandinavian sagas.

    It is also possible that they drank tons of alcohol. Mushrooms and alcohol consumption align with current knowledge of Viking rituals, although other reasons for berserker rage have been suggested, including self-induced hysteria, epilepsy, mental illness, and even death. genetic.

    The legend of the famous Berserker slaying six enemy champions.

    Berserkers were especially feared in battle, as they were seen to be invulnerable to fire, swords, and other iron weapons. A 13th-century Icelandic poet spoke of a berserker :

    "A demonic frenzy suddenly swept over him; he bit and furiously devoured the edges of his shield; he continued to swallow hot coals; he tore live embers from his mouth and let them descend into his entrails; he ran into crackling fires and finally, when he was carried away in all sorts of madness, he turned his sword with a raging hand against the hearts of the six champions of his group. It is doubtful whether this madness comes from the thirst for combat or from the natural ferocity ."

    So to recap, this viking warrior went into a frenzied state of rage, ate his own shield, swallowed fire, ran into the flames and, after exhausting all other methods to prove his madness, killed six fighting champions.

    The refusal to withdraw from fire and iron is a common theme in berserker mythology. They were not afraid of any weapon. In fact, you could even say they were in the arms, because they ate them.

    berserker viking warrior

    nordic warrior

    The berserker was more than intimidating with his lack of armor and battledress; he was also changing mentally.

    Literally, the berserker 's goal in battle was to assume the identity and characteristics of a bear or wolf. And not just by imitating. Berserkers were methodical actors. In fact, becoming a wolf or a bear was the ultimate goal of all the drugs, alcohol, and rituals the berserker participated in. Living in the woods, the imitation of these animals served as preparation for transformation, as did entering a state of frenzy.

    One of the last rituals on this path was to drink the blood of a bear or a wolf.

    The Icelandic saga Egils Saga Skallagrímsonar describes a berserker who literally turns into a bear:

    "The men saw that a great bear walked in front of King Hrolf's men, always near the king. He killed more men with his forepaws than five of the king's champions. Blades and arms saw him, and he caused men and horses to fall into the ranks of King Hjorvard, and everything that stood in his way he crushed with his teeth, so that panic and terror seized the army of the King Hjorvard..."

    Their transformation was so drastic that the Norse sagas describe berserkers as shapeshifters.

    In Scandinavian legend, "to go mad" meant "hamask", which means "to change shape"; those who changed upon entering the berserkergang were considered "hamrammr".

    In some instances, the berserker is depicted as undergoing a drastic physical transformation, though this is no doubt partly hyperbole. Yet in the Icelandic tale Egil's Saga it is written: "The hardest of men, with a touch of strangeness about a number of them...they were built and shaped more like trolls than beings humans."

    The berserker, an outlaw in the eyes of the vikings

    The first mention of Berserkers is in a Scandinavian poem about the first king of Norway, Harald Fairhair, who lived from 850 to 932. The poem mentions a gang of warriors in Harald's army fighting while they were not wore only animal skins. However, in 1015, Norway officially banned berserkers. The legal codes of ancient Iceland also specifically mentioned berserkers, branding them as outlaws.

    By the 12th century, the berserker of any organized force or military presence had all but disappeared.

    berserker warrior bear

    The image of the Vikings tarnished by the berserker

    As you may or may not know, many of the behaviors commonly attributed to Vikings have little historical connection to ancient Norse society.

    They weren't raping everyone, there was a relative sense of gender equality and fairness in social treatment, and it wasn't their watchword to destroy everything in their path.

    Where do these ideas come from?

    It is possible that they come, at least in part, from berserkers. They were the villains of many Norse sagas and are generally described as "a group of predators, brawlers and killers who repeatedly disturbed the peace of the Viking community".

    The classic image of the Viking band of rapists and raiders appears in descriptions of berserker behavior. In Gesta Danorum , the 13th century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus wrote recount :

    Young warriors harassed and looted the neighborhood and often spilled large amounts of blood. They considered it manly and proper to lay waste to houses, to slaughter cattle, to slaughter everything and carry away enormous spoils, to set fire to the houses they ransacked, and to indiscriminately slaughter men and women.

    And more specifically, about their psychotic sexual exploits: Their ways were so outrageous and unbridled that they raped other men's wives and daughters; they seemed to have outlawed chastity and driven it to the brothel. They didn't stop at married women either, but they also debauched the beds of virgins. No man's bridal chamber was safe; almost no place in the land was free from the imprints of their covetousness.

    They weren't the only monsters in the world.

    The Irish mythological hero Cuchulainn showed a warrior frenzy similar to that of the Vikings berserker. Known as war spasms, the phenomenon is described in the Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge thus:

    The Warp-Spasm overtook him: it seemed like every hair was buried in his head, so they shot straight. You'd swear a spot of fire pointed every hair. He squeezed an eye narrower than a needle's; he opened the other wider than the mouth of a goblet. He bared his jaws to the ear; he peeled his lips down to the teeth of his eye until his throat appeared. The Hero-Halo rose from the crown of his head.

    berserker warrior

    Grendel, that terrifying monster from Beowulf, was a berserker.

    Besides invulnerability to "fire and iron", the berserker was said to possess supernatural powers to weaken his opponents in battle, through tricks and spells. Norse mythology continually speaks of the berserker's ability to blunt an opponent's sword and spear with spells. It is a feature described as early as the 10th century in the epic poem Beowulf , in which it is attributed to the monster Grendel .

    An article in Lambda Alpha Journal , a publication of Wichita State University's Department of Anthropology, demonstrates the importance of understanding the significance of Grendel 's association with the berserker , given the significance of many Scandinavian motifs in Beowulf.

    Grendel closely coincides with the characteristics of berserk : Grendel appears to possess a spirit form; he undergoes a transformation during his attacks on Heorot; Grendel's appearance is horrifying; Grendel appears to have shape-shifting abilities; Grendel possesses berserker immunity to weapons; during his attacks, Grendel shows signs of berserker anger, including swelling and anger; after a battle, Grendel falls into extreme fatigue or exhaustion; and finally Grendel distinguishes himself from the society of the Danes by his violence against that society.

    Did the Berserker suffer from a mental disorder?

    In 1987, Dr. Armando Simon published an article in which he argued that berserker rage, or blind rage syndrome, should be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The syndrome is characterized by excessive violent reaction to physical, verbal, or visual insult, amnesia during the period of violence, abnormally high force, and target-directed violence. Dr. Simon presented recent case studies and explained how they match the behavior of berserkers. He also claimed the condition was diagnosed in conjunction with other violence-related disorders, such as intermittent explosive disorder.

    This idea does not explain everything the berserkers have done. Like going into a blind rage for a whole day after trying for years to become a bear, then ransacking a village and raping random people. Not that they weren't mentally ill, but maybe magic mushrooms and drinking wolf blood helped too?

    Berserk translation

    The English word 'Berserk' comes from Berserkers.

    THEMerriam-Webster dictionary defines the word "berserk" as "one whose actions are reckless and defiant" and gives another definition of the word as "an ancient Norse warrior frantic in battle and considered invulnerable".

    Today, it is said that the one who is angry to the point of being irrational has gone "crazy".

    Leave a comment

    Comments will be approved before showing up.