The Berserkers (or berserks) were Norse warriors who are reported in the Old Norse literature to have fought in a nearly uncontrollable, trance-like fury, which gave rise to the Modern English word berserk. Berserkers are attested in several Old Norse sources. Most historians believe that berserkers worked themselves into a rage before battle, but some think that they might have utilised drugs or alcohol to achieve this state.
The term ‘berserker’ derives from the Old Norse berserkr (plural berserkir). The compound is formed from bersi (he-bear) and serkr (sark, shirt) hence bear(skin) shirt. This suggests that they wore a garment fashioned from a bear-pelt during battle. In the past the element ber- was often misinterpreted as berr-, meaning "bare", understood as indicating that the berserkers fought naked. This is false etymology.
Berserkers are described in numerous sagas and poems but many describe them merely as bloodthirsty warriors who loot, plunder, and kill indiscriminately. The earliest reference is in Hrafnsmál (also called Haraldskvæði), a skaldic poem composed by Thórbiörn Hornklofi in the late 9th century in honour of King Harald Fairhair, which describes them as ulfheðnar ("men clad in wolf skins").
At berserkja reiðu vilk spyrja,bergir hræsævar, hversu es fengitþeims í folk vaða vígdjørfum verum?
Ulfheðnar heita, þeirs í orrostumblóðgar randir bera; vigrar rjóða,es til vígs koma; þeim's þar sýst saman;áræðismønnum einum hykk þar undir feliskskyli sá enn skilvísi, þeim's í skjøld høggva.
“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 battleThey 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 menWho hack through enemy shields.”
The Úlfhéðnar (singular Úlfhéðinn), are mentioned in the Vatnsdœla saga, Haraldskvæði and the Völsunga saga. They wore a wolfskin (rather than a bearskin) and were sworn to the cult of Óðinn.
In his Ynglinga saga, Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241 CE) described true berserkers :
“His (Óðinn'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. This was called Berserkergang.”Kings used them principally as shock troops (Stoßtruppen) to break through the shield-wall. In addition to their berserk fighting-frenzy, which the Anglo-Saxons termed wód, berserks seemed to possess near invulnerability verging on the supernatural. Tales tell that neither edged weapons nor fire could stop them. For example, Saxo writes, in his Danish History :
Similarly, Hrolf Kraki's champions refuse to retreat 'from fire or iron.'
Berserks were often said to be capable of blunting their enemies’ blades with magic spells or incapacitating them with the ‘evil eye’. In the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘Beowulf’, this ability was also ascribed to the monster Grendel :
“...that no sword on earth, not the truest steel, could touch him,He was safe, by his spells, from bite of battle-blade,from edge of iron.” (Beowulf: 802-3)This ability recalls the Runatál charm in which Óðinn boasts of his runic-magic :
Það kann ek þriðja:ef mér verðr þörf mikilhafts við mína heiftmögu,eggjar ek deyfiminna andskota,bíta-t þeim vápn né velir.
“I know a third : if my need is great,it fetters any foe;It blunts my opponent’s blade;so he cannot cut me to bits !”The berserkergang appears to have happened to susceptible individuals not only in the heat of battle but during arduous work. Men thus affected were able to perform great feats of strength and endurance. The fury began with shivering, chattering of teeth and feeling of chill. Then the face became suffused and red. This was accompanied by a surging anger, leading to an ungovernable rage, during which they howled like wolves, bit the edges of their shields, champing and frothing at the mouth. They would then charge, cutting down all in their path, friend and foe alike. When the effect wore off, they would be both weak physically and emotionally drained, perhaps for as long as several days.
This seems somewhat different to the Anglo-Saxon concept of wód, the self-induced fury brought on by group chanting with one’s comrades. This type of Norse berserker was a juggernaut, over whom the king or jarl seems to have had little control. While battle-fury might be seen as the gift of Woden, this extreme form of berserkergang would be better classified as a curse.
|Pressblech foil; Woden and an Úlfhéðinn .|
This is rather like the author Robet E. Howard’s god ‘Crom’ of whom Conan states that “his sole gift to men is to bestow them at birth with the courage to survive, persevere, and vanquish adversity.”
From the Eddas and the sagas it is known that Óðinn could change his shape at will. The berserker, also, was said to be capable of changing into a bestial form or, at least to the observer, take on the ferocity of wolf or bear. For example, in the Völsung Saga, Sigmund and Sinfjötli acquire two magical wolf-skins. When they put these on, they are transformed into wolves. Similarly Hrólf Kraki’s Saga recounts the tale of the hero Bödvar Bjarki who took the form of a great bear in battle.
Such ‘shape-changed’ berserkers were said to be invulnerable to ordinary weapons - "iron could not bite into him." While in bear-form, weapons just glanced off Bödvar Bjarki. Similarly, in Vatnsdæla Saga it is noted that "those berserks who were called Úlfhéðnar had wolf shirts for mail-coats".
It is likely that the idea of the berserk’s invulnerability evolved from the battle-trance, during which he might take wounds but ignore them until the fit passed.
|Artist's Impression of an invulnerable beserker (www.artofbrandonmoore.com)|
Norse Society and the Berserker
True Berserkers had their place in the early North-West European warrior culture but were only really tolerated inside the war-band. Their place in ordinary society was limited by their uncontrolled violence when the fit was on them. Evolved for the battlefield, many could not be de-programmed and became social misfits. Even inside the brotherhood of the war-band, there could be problems; their tendency to turn on their comrades when the fury was on them could make them uncomfortable companions. The warrior-ethic demands loyalty to one’s comrades-in-arms before all else and the real Berserk was a loner who lived by no rule but his own whim.
Berserkers feared no authority and so would often rape, plunder and kill until taken down. This was often only achievable when the berserker lay in his post-berserk recovery phase.
Unemployed Berserkers often made their living by challenging men to hólmganga - a form of duel. The challenged party had little choice but to accept, or find a champion as a proxy, for to refuse would mean being named niðingr and total dishonour. Unless one was very skilled, fighting a berserker was likely to be a death sentence and the victorious berserker would take one’s wife and estate for his own. Thus, even before the demise of Odinism, berserkers became increasingly unpopular. With the advent of Christianity in Norway, Berserkers with their strong association with the Old Religion became ‘personae non gratae’ at Court. Men would still summon the ‘fighting fury’ but would utilise Christain imagery to do so.
In 1015, Jarl Eiríkr Hákonarson of Norway outlawed berserkers. Even in independant-minded Iceland, in 1123 CE, Grágás, the medieval Icelandic law code, sentenced berserker warriors to outlawry : "If someone goes berserk, he is punished with lesser outlawry and the men who are present are also banished if they do not bind him." Lesser outlawry (fjorbaugsgarðr -literally “life-money court”) involved a three years' banishment from the country....
To be continued...