Berserkers are a long-standing tradition in the oral history of my ancestors. My ancestors were Vikings who hailed from Denmark. In other words, quiet, peace-loving kind of guys who fought in nearly uncontrollable, trance-like states.
Many historians believe that berserkers worked themselves into a rage before battle, and others believe they partook of untested pharmaceutical substances. They’re often described as wearing animal pelts and not much else into battle and were considered to be Odin’s special warriors…”Odin’s men went without their mailcoats and were mad as hounds or wolves, bit their shields…they slew men, but neither fire nor iron had effect upon them.” An ancient artifact from Torslunda depicts a scene of Odin with a berserker—”a wolf skinned warrior with the apparently one-eyed dancer in the bird-horned helm, which is generally interpreted as showing a scene indicative of a relationship between berserkgang… and the god Odin”—with a wolf pelt and a spear as distinguishing features.
The earliest surviving reference to the term “berserker” is in an ancient epic poem written in the late 9th century in honour of King Harald Fairhair. It 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 Icelandic historian and poet Snorri Sturluson wrote the following description of berserkers in his Ynglinga Saga:
His 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.
King Harald Fairhair’s use of berserkers broadened his sphere of influence. Other Scandanavian kings used berserkers as part of their armies and sometimes ranked them as equivalent to a royal bodyguard. It may be that some of those warriors only adopted the rituals of the berserkers, or used the name as a deterrent or claim of their ferocity.
Emphasis has been placed on the frenzied nature of the berserkers, hence the modern sense of the word ‘berserk.’ However, the sources describe several other characteristics that have been ignored or neglected by modern commentators. Snorri’s assertion that ‘neither fire nor iron told upon them’ is reiterated time after time, and the sources frequently state that neither edged weapons nor fire affected the berserks, although they were not immune to clubs or other blunt instruments. For example:
Men asked Halfdan to attack Hardbeen and his champions man by man; and he not only promised to fight, but assured himself the victory with most confident words. When Hardbeen heard this, a demoniacal frenzy suddenly took him; he furiously bit and devoured the edges of his shield; he kept gulping down fiery coals; he snatched live embers in his mouth and let them pass down into his entrails; he rushed through the perils of crackling fires; and at last, when he had raved through every sort of madness, he turned his sword with raging hand against the hearts of six of his champions. It is doubtful whether this madness came from thirst for battle or natural ferocity. Then with the remaining band of his champions he attacked Halfdan, who crushed him with a hammer of wondrous size, so that he lost both victory and life; paying the penalty both to Halfdan, whom he had challenged, and to the kings whose offspring he had violently ravished.
In 1015, the berserkers faced the same fate as the modern samurai in Japan as various Scandanavian kings outlawed berserkers and sentenced them as outlaws. By the 12th century, organised berserker war-bands had disappeared.
The actual fit of madness the berserker experienced was referred to as berserkergang (“going berserk”) and was 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 colour. 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 behaviour include ingestion of materials with psychoactive properties. Some scholars believe certain examples of berserker rage to have been induced voluntarily by the consumption of drugs such as hallucinogenic mushrooms 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.
The personalized tag on my vehicle…
Dr. Shay, the author of Achilles in Vietnam, makes an explicit connection between the berserker rage of soldiers and the hyperarousal of PTSD. In the book he wrote:
If a soldier survives the berserk state, it imparts emotional deadness and vulnerability to explosive rage to his psychology and permanent hyperarousal to his physiology — hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder in combat veterans. My clinical experience with Vietnam combat veterans prompts me to place the berserk state at the heart of their most severe psychological and psychophysiological injuries.
This message was written by Dr. David Powers. You can always find me at www.drdavidpowers.com. Thanks for reading!