Individual Viking warriors known during the eighth through eleventh centuries for their ferocity.
The berserkers are one of the most interesting and least understood aspects of the Viking warrior society. These were individuals who fought in such a blinding fury that they lost all sense of self and became unconscious killing machines without dis crimination.
The term berserker has a disputed derivation. It has been suggested that it comes from the term “bare-sark,” meaning “bare of shirt,” or without armor. Many references to the berserkers mention their lack of body armor. The other primary suggestion is “bear-sark,” describing the wearing of animal skins. Bear skin would seem to be the logical choice of fur, but in some of the sagas the berserkers are called “Wolf Skins” or “wolf-coats” (ulfhedinn). The berserkers are often associated with the Norse god Odin, or Wodan, whose name possibly comes from the German “wut,” meaning “rage” or “fury,” and the Gothic “wods,” meaning “possessed.”
This kinship with the chief Norse god is illustrated in many of the legends concern ing berserkers. One is that, like Odin, they could alter their form and become animals, or at least assume wolf-like or bearlike qualities. Hrolf’s Saga describes the hero Bjarki taking the shape of a bear during battle and killing more men than any five warriors. Georges Dumezil, in Gods of the Ancient Northmen (1973), describes this phenomenon as the hamnigja, the spirit or soul of the animal appearing in dreams or visions as well as (so the Vikings believed) in reality. The berserkers were also reputed to have had an immunity to weapons, either naturally or through the performance of incantations. This quality is described in many of the sagas. It could possibly be explained by the thickness of the animal skins they wore as protection or their blind rage that dulled any feeling of pain or wounding. Either way, the sight of berserker warriors receiving what should be mortal wounds and continuing to fight certainly had a strong psychological effect on their enemies.
The berserkers may have belonged to a cult of Odin, whose practices and spells would have been revealed only to initiates. Emperor Constantine VII of Byzantium, who employed Vikings in his Varangian Guard, noted a dance his men engaged in while wearing animal skins. This could indicate the performance of cultish rites. Such a dance is also recorded in artwork on Swedish helmets, scabbards, and bracelets. A newly accepted member of the cult is sometimes described as having to undergo an initiation into a warrior band whereby he has to fight a bear. Such combats are also shown in artwork inscribed on Swedish helmets. In such a cult, a member probably would have learned the secrets of bringing on the fighting frenzy, and it has been suggested that the fury was a product of drugs or alcohol. One drug proposed to bring about this condition is the hallucinogenic mushroom Amanita mucaria. Other researchers put the killing frenzy down to mental illness, epilepsy, or self-induced hysteria.
The appearance of the berserker was also important in instilling fear in the enemy. The animal skin itself, especially if the head was still attached and worn over the warrior’s head, could present a frightening sight. This, along with an already established reputation as shape changers, provoked fear in the berserkers’ own forces at times. Sagas tell of warriors who in the evening would become moody and quiet before going off by themselves, and many in camp saw in this hints of a werewolf. Berserkers are also often described as being particularly ugly, to the point of being mistaken for trolls. Whether this came from genetic makeup, or intentional actions to make themselves look worse, is unknown.
Once battle was joined, the warrior would go into his frenzy, called berserker- gang. The flow of adrenaline must have been immense, because the aftermath of the fight always left the berserker drained. Hrolf’s Saga describes it thus: “On these giants fell sometimes such a fury that they could not control themselves, but killed men or cattle, whatever came in their way and did not take care of itself. While this fury lasted they were afraid of nothing, but when it left them they were so powerless that they did not have half of their strength, and were as feeble as if they had just come out of bed from a sickness. This fury lasted about one day” (Fabing, 1956). The berserkers screamed like animals and showed incredible strength. This also over time could have contributed to their reputation as shape changers who turned into bears. Indeed, many of these warriors would assume a “bear name,” by adding “bjorn” or “biorn” to their given names, for example, Arinbjorn or Esbjorn. They also are reputed to have drunk bear or wolf blood in order to take on some of the animals’ characteristics.
The berserkers were admired as warriors, and in battle they were often the vanguard. Their ties to Odin gave their commanders some elevated status as well, for Odin was seen in many societies as patron of rulers and chieftains. However, the potential for killing their own comrades was great. This put the berserkers in a kind of social limbo, for killing ones’ fellows was looked upon in Norse society as the meanest of crimes. Thus, in many sagas the berserkers are portrayed as villains. They were often accused of raping maidens or even other mens’ wives. It is probably this factor that brought about the end of the berserkers. In 1015 King Erik had them outlawed, along with duels. Prior to this reform, berserkers often challenged men to duels and then killed them while in berserker-gang. They then took their victims’ possessions and families, as was allowed under Viking law. In Iceland, the church outlawed the practice as well, stating that if anyone went berserk they would receive three years’ banishment. Being a berserker was equated with being a heathen and practicing magic, neither of which a Christian church or society would allow. Finally succumbing to these civilizing pressures, berserker-gang came to an end in the twelfth century.
References: Dumezil, Georges, Gods of the Ancient Northmen (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973); Fabing, Howard D., “On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry,” in Scientific Monthly, November 1956, vol. 83; Jones, Gwen, Eirik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961)