Textile fragment from the Oseberg Viking ship grave, c, 834 AD: Horned figure with crossed spears facing a person wearing bear skin. (Drawing / Photo: Museum of Cultural History, Oslo)
The berserker warriors (Old Norse: ber-serkir, meaning “bear-shirt”) were said to be Odin’s special warriors and an important part of Viking kings’ and chieftains’ elite forces during battles.
In the Old Norse literature they are described to have fought in a nearly uncontrollable, trance-like fury, hence the English word “berserk” and expression “going berserk”, still used today.
Most historians believe that these warriors worked themselves into a rage before battles, while others believe they might have consumed some sort of drugged foods.
In earlier studies, the element ber- was often misinterpreted as berr-, meaning “bare”, understood as indicating that the berserkers fought naked. This interpretation has since been abandoned.
Berserkers appear in sagas and poems, many describing them as ravenous men who plundered and killed indiscriminately.
There are also descriptions of Viking berserker warriors wearing wolf skins.
Berserkers in Haraldskvæði
The earliest surviving reference to the term “berserker” is in Haraldskvæði, a skaldic poem composed by Thórbiörn Hornklofi in the late 9th century in honor of King Harald Fairhair, as ulfheðnar (“men clad in wolf skins”).
A warder (rook) taking the form of a wild-eyed Berserker biting his shield with battle fury (Photo: British Museum)
The following translation from the Haraldskvæði poem describes King Harald’s wolf-skinned warriors:
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 fury the berserkers 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.
Drugs or Alcohol or..?
Theories about what caused berserker behavior include ingestion of materials with psychoactive properties, psychological processes, and medical conditions.
Today, some researchers still 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 massive amounts of alcohol.
While such practices would fit in with ritual usages, however, it would be a drawback during battles when you had to stay sharp and focused.
Other explanations for the berserker’s madness have also been put forward, including self-induced hysteria, epilepsy, mental illness or genetics.
Or, were these men simply superior Norse warriors, and all the theories put forward are just…theories?
Text by: Thor Lanesskog, ThorNews