Sunday, February 26, 2017

Who were the Berserkers?

1872 Woodcut Image of Berserkers
Dictionaries defined berserk as out of control with anger or excitement; wild or frenzied. The word earned such a meaning from the most feared warrior among the Vikings – the Berserkers. These wild and aggressive warriors fought their way in history clad with animal skins and armed with axes, swords, shields, and uncontrollable rage.

Ber sekr

The word Berserker said to have come from the Old Norse word ber sekr, which meant bear shirt. However, Snorri Sturluson, the author of the Heimskringla, stated that the word berr in berserker meant bare, thus a man without clothes, but in this case, armor.

Wearing of Animal Skin

Berserkers did not wore armor but clad themselves only with bearskin while others preferred wolf skin, which in this case they were called Ulfhednar. Wearing animal skins rooted from several beliefs. Among them was magical protection against any weapons as described in the King Olaf Haraldson’s Saga, where King Olaf fought against a tradesman Thorer Hund who wore a reindeer coat enchanted by Finnish magic: “King Olaf hewed at Thorer Hund, and struck him across the shoulders; but the sword would not cut, and it was as if dust flew from his reindeer-skin coat.”

A character in the Saga, Sigvat, described the coat:
“…With magic song; for stroke of steel 
Thor’s reindeer coat would never feel,
Bewitched by them it turned the stroke
Of the king’s sword, -- a dust-like smoke”

Another reason pointed to a lycanthropic belief that wearing animal skins would give them the same strength and wildness of the animal that the skin belonged. By wearing bearskin, a berserker would be as wild and powerful as a bear.

Mindset and Ferocity

Berserkers earned its reputation as feared warriors from their unique mannerism and unmatched fury. In the battlefield, they showed tremendous aggression, madness, and rage. Snorri Sturluson described them:
“On the other hand, his [Odin] men rushed forward without armor, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild bulls, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon themselves. These were called Berserker.”

Berserkers showed unusual mannerisms before battles. They bite their shields, chattered their teeth, and sometimes excreted foam in their mouths. Theories suggested that Berserkers achieve such a state of wildness by taking drugs, a concoction said to be made from fly agaric, a hallucinogenic mushroom. Some suggested that Berserkers went into rage by other means such as self-induced group stimulus, through shouting and taunting.

But the fury of a Berserker caused him a great deal of stamina. After a fit of rage died down, they felt extremely exhausted as Egil’s Saga described:
“It is said of shape-strong men, or men with a fit of Berserk fury on them, that while the fit lasted they were so strong that nought could withstand them; but when it passed off, then they were weaker than their wont.” 

During battles, armed with either broad sword or battle axe, Berserkers wreaked havoc on the ranks of enemies as they fight with intense strength, fighting even wounded. Sadly, the victims of such aggressiveness of the Berserkers not only befall on enemies but also on allies. They fought with such frenzy they failed to distinguish between friends and foe alike.

Berserkers in Viking Society

As such, Vikings made Berserkers as outcast, as trust and kinship played in the vital part in the unity of a Viking party. Attacking friends in times of battle breached the trust and so Berserkers found themselves stigmatized.

Although Berserkers face isolation among Viking communities, they dedicated their lives to a path towards Valhalla. As in Snorri Sturluson’s passage above, Berserkers fought alongside the powerful warrior Norse god Odin, a great honor for any warrior. By becoming a Berserker, he secured himself a place in the afterlife – a place in the home of Odin and other gods called Valhalla. In this light, Berserkers were both honored as well as shunned.

Berserkers in Saga

Many Viking Kings placed Berserkers into their service. Berserkers’ aggression and rampage earned them a place at the vanguard of any Viking armies. Upon their charge, they opened up enemy lines for the attack of regular Viking warriors.

In King Harald Finehair’s Saga, Berserkers fought for King Harald Finehair during his campaign to unify Norway. They even fought during the famous battle of Hafrsfjord.
Battle of Hafrsfjord
Other sagas that depicted Berserkers included the Egil’s Saga, Saga of Hervor and Heidrek, and Saga of Hroflr Kraki. The Egil’s Saga showed a berserker becoming a hereditary role.  A similar story also depicted in the Saga of Hervor and Heidrek. 12 brothers were Berserkers. It also detailed how a berserker prevent beating their companions during their voyages. It stated:
“…it was their custom when they had only their own men with them, to land when they felt the berserks' fury coming upon them, and wrestle with trees or great rocks; for they had been known to slay their own men and disable their ship.”

In the Saga of Hroflr Kraki, Berserkers served close to the King. King Adils in the Saga had 12 berserkers helping him “to defend the realm from all danger and enemies.”

Berserkers indeed served many Kings. In 1066, many suggested that a Berserker fought for Norwegian King Harald Hardrada in the Battle of Stamford Bridge. It was said, that a Berserker stood in the narrow bridge, alone stopping the English from crossing. Javelins did not put down the warrior. Only when an English man underneath the bridge thrust his spear upwards and into the Berserker did it only fell and the English crossed the bridge. Although the warrior fought bravely and without fear, the King Harald Saga nor the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles clearly identified him as a berserker.

Demise of the Berserkers

Nonetheless, after the Battle of Stanford Bridge, the age of the Vikings came to an end, along with it the tradition of the Berserkers. As Christianity rose, belief in Odin and other pagan gods fell. And so the basic foundation of a Berserker, a belief in powers of Odin and the honor of being in Valhalla, disappeared. Later on, Vikings who converted to Christianity saw the Berserkers as mad and insane men, further downgrading their status in society. Worst, they became criminals as Christian Viking kings made going “berserk” a crime. Alas by the 13th century, the tradition of the Berserkers vanished. All that remains was the word itself – berserk – a word that meant fury and uncontrollable aggression.

See also:


“Berserker.” The A to Z of the Vikings. By Katherine Holman. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2003.

Coggins, Jack. The Fighting Man: An Illustrated History of the World’s Great Fighting Forcers through the Ages. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966.

Finlay, Alison. Fagrskinna, A Catalogue of the Kings of Norway: A Translation with Introduction and Notes. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2004.

Sprague, Martina. Norse Warfare: Unconventional Battle Strategies of the Ancient Vikings. New York, New York: Hippocrene Books, Inc., 2007.

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