Berserkers (or berserks) were Norse warriors who are reported in the Old Norse literature to have fought in a nearly uncontrollable, trance-like fury, a characteristic which later gave rise to the English word ‘berserk’. Berserkers are attested in numerous Old Norse sources. Most historians believe that berserkers worked themselves into a rage before battle, but some think that they might have consumed drugged foods.
The name berserker arose from their reputed habit of wearing a kind of shirt or coat (Old Norse: serkr) made from the pelt of a bear (Old Norse: ber-) during battle.
The term comes from old Norwegian berserkr (plural berserkir), meaning bear shirt and suggests a robe. In earlier studies, the element ber- was often misinterpreted as berr-, meaning “bare”, understood as indicating that the berserkers fought naked. This view has since been largely abandoned. Berserkers appear prominently in a multitude of other sagas and poems, many of which describe berserkers as ravenous men who loot, plunder, and kill indiscriminately.
The earliest surviving reference to the term “berserker” is in Haraldskvæði, a skaldic poem composed by Thórbiörn Hornklofi in the late 9th century in honour of King Harald Fairhair, as ulfheðnar (“men clad in wolf skins”). This translation from the Haraldskvæði saga describes Harald’s berserkers:
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.
The actual fit of madness the berserker experienced was referred to as berserkergang (“going berserk”). This condition has been described as follows:
This fury, which was called berserkergang, occurred not only in the heat of battle, but also during laborious work. Men who were thus seized performed things which otherwise seemed impossible for human power. This condition is said to have begun with shivering, chattering of the teeth, and chill in the body, and then the face swelled and changed its color. With this was connected a great hot-headedness, which at last gave over into a great rage, under which they howled as wild animals, bit the edge of their shields, and cut down everything they met without discriminating between friend or foe. When this condition ceased, a great dulling of the mind and feebleness followed, which could last for one or several days.
Theories about what caused berserker behavior include ingestion of materials with psychoactive properties, psychological processes, and medical conditions.
Modern scholars believe certain examples of berserker rage to have been induced voluntarily by the consumption of drugs such as the hallucinogenic mushroom Amanita muscaria, commonly known as the fly agaric or fly Amanita, or massive amounts of alcohol. While such practices would fit in with ritual usages, other explanations for the berserker’s madness have been put forward, including self-induced hysteria, epilepsy, mental illness or genetics.
Text by: Thor Lanesskog, ThorNews