Berserkers (or berserks) were Norse warriors who are primarily 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 to 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 Úlfhéðnar (singular Úlfheðinn), another term associated with berserkers, mentioned in the Vatnsdœla saga, Haraldskvæði and the Völsunga saga, were said to wear the pelt of a wolf when they entered battle. Úlfhéðnar are sometimes described as 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. This is called 'going berserk.'" In addition, the helm-plate press from Torslunda depicts (below) 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 name berserker derives from the Old Norse berserkr (plural berserkir). This expression most likely arose from their reputed habit of wearing a kind of shirt or coat (serkr) made from the pelt of a bear (ber-) during battle. The bear was one of the animals representing Odin, and by wearing such a pelt the warriors sought to gain the strength of a bear and the favor of Odin.
The element ber- was sometimes interpreted as berr-, meaning "bare", which Snorri understood to mean that the warriors went into battle bare-chested, or "without armor" as men of Odin. This view has since been largely abandoned.
To "go berserk" was to “hamask”, which translates as “change form," in this case, as with the sense "enter a state of wild fury" and one who could transform as a berserker was typically thought of as “hamrammr” or “shapestrong". For example, the band of men that go with Skallagrim in Egil’s Saga to see King Harald about his brother Thorolf’s murder are described as, "all together there were twelve of them in the party, all the hardest of men, with a touch of the uncanny about a number of them...they [were] built and shaped more like trolls than human beings," which is generally interpreted as this band of men being hamrammr.
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. Later, by Christian interpreters, the berserk was even viewed as a "heathen devil".
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.
His (Odin'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.
King Harald Fairhair's use of berserker "shock troops" broadened his sphere of influence. Other Scandinavian kings used berserkers as part of their army of hirdmen and sometimes ranked them as equivalent to a royal bodyguard. It may be that some of those warriors only adopted the organization or rituals of berserk männerbünde, 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:
These 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...
Similarly, Hrolf Kraki's champions refuse to retreat 'from fire or iron'. Another frequent motif refers to berserkers blunting their enemy's blades with spells, or a glance from their evil eyes. This appears as early as Beowulf where it is a characteristic attributed to Grendel. Both the fire eating and the immunity to edged weapons are reminiscent of tricks popularly ascribed to fakirs.
In 1015, Jarl Eiríkr Hákonarson of Norway outlawed berserkers. Grágás, the medieval Icelandic law code, sentenced berserker warriors to outlawry. By the 12th century, organised berserker war-bands had disappeared.
Scholar Hilda Ellis-Davidson draws a parallel between berserkers and the mention by the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII (AD 905–959) in his book De cerimoniis aulae byzantinae ("Book of Ceremonies of the Byzantine court") of a "Gothic Dance" performed by members of his Varangian Guard (Norse warriors working in the service of the Byzantine Empire), who took part wearing animal skins and masks: she believes this may have been connected with berserker rites.
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 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.
Some scholars believe certain examples of berserker rage to have been induced voluntarily by the consumption of drugs such as the hallucinogenic mushroom Amanita muscaria 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.
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.
The word "berserker" today applies to anyone who fights with reckless abandon and disregard to even his own life, a concept used during the Vietnam War and in Vietnam-inspired literature (Michael Herr's Dispatches) and film (Oliver Stone's Platoon and Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder). "Going berserk" in this context refers to a state induced by adrenaline (or military-issued amphetamine for long missions) in the human body and brain leading a soldier to fight with fearless rage and indifference, a state strikingly similar to that of the 9th century berserkers.
"Going berserk" is also used colloquially to describe a person who is acting in a wild rage or in an uncontrolled and irrational manner. "Berserker" is also a well known character archetype and status in video games and other media.
In popular culture
- Berserkers as depicted in the Beowulf epic are incorporated as mysterious and fearsome enemies in Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead novel (1976), and in its film adaptation The 13th Warrior (1999).
- In the RPG game Baldur's Gate, the character Minsc goes into a berserk rage either deliberately, as a special power (to increase speed and strength) or when seriously wounded, during which time he will attack members of his own party. When the berserk state ends, his own health is damaged and he is exhausted, requiring rest for his full strength to return. There is also a "cursed" sword which sends the wielder into a berserk state in the presence of enemies.
- In the Graphic Novel/Manga Epic Berserk by Kentaro Miura, the main character Guts goes into a berserker rage as his armor takes the anthropomorphic shape of a ravenous wolf; effectively controlling him through his rage and granting him superhuman strength, agility, endurance and eliminating all fear of pain or death, thus making him nigh invincible and unstoppable in battle.
- In 1981, Australian band Mental As Anything released the single 'Berserk Warriors' written by their bass player Peter O'Doherty. The song interweaves Viking berserker imagery with the relationship between Abba's Bjorn and Anna.
- Berserkers are also featured in Microsoft's Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings and its expansion The Conquerors as a Viking unique unit.
- Berserkers feature as one of Denmark's unique units, replacing the Longswordsman, in a piece of DLC for Firaxis Games' Civilization V that added Denmark as a playable civilization.
- Berserkers feature fairly prominently in Rome Total War as a Germanic unit that has high attack and impossible to control once berserk.
- Berserker is a Servant class summoned for The Holy Grail War in Type-Moon's Fate/ series. The heroic spirit is summoned without their sanity or consciousness in exchange for a huge increase in power.
- In the Vinland Saga manga, the character Bjorn occasionally eats a "mushroom of the Berserker" and goes into a temporary violent trance, seeming to not initially feel severe injury, and is unable or unwilling to tell friend from foe.
- In the online strategic game Forge Of Empires the berserker is used as a soldier in the High Middle Ages epoch.
- In the video game series Dragon Age, it is a specialization available to the player if playing a warrior character, and also available to companions of the warrior class in the first game. It was created by dwarves and taught to the other races when some dwarves left their homeland. It specializes in channeling the rage of the warrior to deliver deadlier attacks.
- In the TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the berserkers are revealed as elite soldiers from Asgard who, along with the rest of the Asgardians who visited Earth, faded into Norse "myth". The source of their berserk state is a battle staff. One berserker, however, remained behind on Earth because he loved Earth. He broke his staff into three pieces and then hid the pieces at different locations across Europe in an attempt to prevent human exposure to the "dark power" of the staff.
- In an episode of the TV series The Sarah Jane Adventures, "The Mark of the Berserker", the berserkers are revealed as a race of alien warriors who visited the Earth in the distant past and encountered the Vikings, who mistakenly believed them to be ordinary humans in animal skins.
- In the fourth season of TV series Teen Wolf, there are soldiers called berserkers which are controlled by Kate Argent. These berserkers wear animal pelts and bones and are very strong.
- Simek (1995:435).
- Davidson, Hilda R.E. (1978). Shape Changing in Old Norse Sagas. Cambridge: Brewer; Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield. p. 132.
- Grundy, Stephan (1998). Shapeshifting and Berserkgang. Evanston: IL: Northwestern University Press. p. 18.
- Simek (1995:48).
- Blaney, Benjamin (1972). The Berserker: His Origin and Development in Old Norse Literature. Ph.D. Diss. University of Colorado. p. 20.
- Simek (1995:47).
- Davidson, Hilda R.E. (1978). Shape-Changing in Old Norse Sagas. Cambridge: Brewer; Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield. p. 126.
- Snorri, Sturluson (1976). Egil's Saga. Harmondsworth: Penguin. p. 66.
- Blaney, Benjamin (1972). The Berserkr: His Origin and Development in Old Norse Literature. Ph.D. Diss. University of Colorado. p. III.
- Page, R. I. (1995). Chronicles of the Vikings. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press. p. 109. ISBN 978-0-8020-7165-1.
- Laing (1889:276)
- Elton (1905). See also the Online Medieval and Classical Library Release #28a for full text.
- Ellis-Davidson, Hilda R. (1967) Pagan Scandinavia, page 100. Frederick A. Praeger Publishers ASIN B0000CNQ6I
- Fabing (1956:234).
- Howard D. Fabing. "On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry." Scientific Monthly. 83 [Nov. 1956] p. 232
- Robert Wernick. The Vikings. Alexandria VA: Time-Life Books. 1979. p. 285
- Peter G. Foote and David m. Wilson. The Viking Achievement. London: Sidgewick & Jackson. 1970. p. 285.
- Shay, J. (2000). "Killing rage: physis or nomos—or both." War and Violence in Ancient Greece, 31-56.
- Shay, Jonathan (1994). Achilles in Vietnam. New York: Scribner. p. 98. ISBN 0-689-12182-2.
- Steinsland, Gro Norrøn religion. Myter, riter, samfunn (Oslo 2005).
- Stephan Grundy, "Shapeshifting and Berserkergang", in Translation, Transformation, and Transubstantiation, ed. Carol Poster and Richard Utz (Evanston: IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998), pp. 104–22.
- Davidson, Hilda R. E. "Shape-Changing in Old Norse Sagas." In Animals in Folklore, Ed. Joshua R. Porter and William M. S. Russell. Cambridge: Brewer; Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978, pp. 126–42.
- Elton, Oliver (1905) The Nine Books of the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus. New York: Norroena Society.
- Fabing, Howard D. "On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry." Scientific Monthly, 83 [Nov. 1956].
- Laing, Samuel (1889). The Heimskringla or the Sagas of the Norse Kings. London: John. C. Nimo.
- Benjamin Blaney. "The Berserker: His Origin and Development in Old Norse Literature." Ph.D. Diss. University of Colorado, 1972.
- Snorri, Sturluson. Edda. London: Dent, 1987. Print.
- Snorri, Sturluson, Pálsson Hermann, and Paul Edwards. Egil's Saga. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976. Print.
- Snorri, Sturluson, Samuel Laing, and Jacqueline Simpson. Heimskringla,. London: Dent, 1964. Print.
- Simek, Rudolf (1995). Lexikon der germanischen Mythologie. Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner. ISBN 978-3-520-36802-7.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Tierkrieger.|
- Berserkene – hva gikk det av dem? (Jon Geir Høyersten: Journal of the Norwegian Medical Association)
- Berserkergang (Viking Answer Lady)
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Berserker". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.