At the beginning of the Viking age, circa 800AD, Scandinavia’s military organization was a loose affair known as “retinue,” a brotherhood of warriors serving a common master, an organization that eventually evolved to the middle ages equivalent ranks of nobility.
There was, however, a far older brotherhood of warriors in Scandinavia, one that survived into the middle ages only in the realm of the sagas, art and folklore, a brotherhood of shield-biting warriors of legend: The Berserker.
The description of a berserker stretches the boundary between fantasy and reality, as it is difficult for us today to imagine that such people can have ever existed with their mythical - and uncontrollable - destructive power. Yet, the berserkers, also known as wolfskins, were as real as their legendary rage, a special group of very skilled and dangerous warriors under the auspices of Odin, the god of war himself.
All Viking warriors looked to Odin to give them aggression and courage in battle, but the berserkers took this a step further. According to the sagas they could rout an outnumbering force, howling like wolves when attacking. It was said that neither iron nor fire could injure them, and they didn’t know pain. After a battle they were as weak as infants, totally spent both physically and psychologically.
Originally berserkers developed their own brotherhood of professional warriors who travelled around the north and took service with different chiefs. What distinguished them was that they had bears and wolves as totem animals and clad themselves in their skins in order to be endowed with the spirit and might of the animal.
In the Fornalder sagas (Sagas of Earlier Times) and in several other sagas, the king’s or the chieftain’s guard is described as made up of berserkers, usually 12 in number. The berserkers often comprised an elite troop in addition to the guard or the army in general. In sea battles they were usually stationed at the prow, to take the leading point of an attack. In the battle of Hafrsfjord, circa 872, they appear as shock troops for Harald Hårfagre (Finehair), again in groups of 12.
The title of berserker is thought sometimes to have been inherited from father to son, and there are known examples of entire families of berserkers. One such family known from the sagas is Egil Skallagrimson. Egil’s father, Skallagrim (‘ugly skull’), and his grandfather Kveldulv (‘nightwolf’) were also berserkers.
The earliest written sources of what might be berserkers are found in Roman writings from the first century AD. In his book Germania, the historian Tacitus describes correspondingly fantastic elite warriors among the German tribes in northern Europe. In the sixth century, the East Roman historian Prokopios wrote of “the wild and lawless heruli” from the north, describing how they went almost naked into battle, clad only in loincloths – this was to show disdain for their wounds. They wore neither helmet nor coat of mail, and used only a light shield to protect themselves. The people who were described as ‘heruli’ probably had their origin on Sjæland or Fyn in today’s Denmark, but they can also be traced to other parts of Scandinavia, including Norway.
The berserkers are often mentioned in sagas, skaldic poems (composed at the courts of Scandinavian and Icelandic leaders during the Viking and Middle Ages) and other literature from the Middle Ages. The oldest known written source from Scandinavia about berserkers is Haraldskvadet, a 9th-century skaldic poem honouring King Harald, attributed to the skaldic poet Torbjørn Hornklove. Writing about the battle of Hafrsfjord, he writes: “Berserkers roared where the battle raged, wolf-heathens howled and iron weapons trembled”.
Battle of Hafrsfjord.
In Grette’s Saga it is said of the warriors in that same battle: “… such berserkers as were called wolf-heathens; they had wolf-coverings as mail… and iron didn’t bite them; one of them… started roaring and bit the edge of his shield… and growled viciously”.
In the Volsung Saga, describing events in the sixth century, it is said that the berserkers were in Odin’s lifeguard and that they “went without armour, were as mad as dogs and wolves, they bit their shields, were as strong as bears or oxen, they killed everybody, and neither fire nor iron bit them; this is called going berserk”. The sagas distinguish them from other men by ascribing to them a particular ‘nature’ that made one both scornful and fearful of them at the same time, holy warriors of Odin, the god of war.
The berserkers were fearsome enemies to meet. They were often said to be so intoxicated by battle-lust that they bit their shields, attacked boulders and trees and even killed each other while they were waiting for battles to begin.
A set of chessmen from the 12th century found on the Isle of Lewis in the Scottish Hebrides includes a chess piece of a warrior biting his shield.
In 1784 a priest named Ödmann started a theory that ‘going berserk’ was the result of eating fly agaric mushrooms (Amanita muscaria). That explanation gradually became more popular, and remains so today. Ödmann based his hypothesis on reports about Siberian shamans, but it is important to note that he had no personal observations of the effects of eating this type of mushroom.
White agaric has also been suggested as a cause of the berserk fury, but considering how poisonous this is, it is quite unthinkable that it would be eaten. Eating agaric mushrooms can lead to depression and, in addition to its hallucinogenic effects, can make the user apathetic, which is not exactly how a berserker can be described.
Poisoning with the fungus Claviceps purpurea has also been suggested – it contains a compound used to synthesise the hallucinogen LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide). However, if mushrooms had been so important for the berserkers, they would surely have been mentioned in the sagas, which they are not.
The most probable explanation for ‘going berserk’ comes from psychiatry. The theory is that the groups of warriors, through ritual processes carried out before a battle (such as biting the edges of their shields), went into a self-induced hypnotic trance. In this dissociative state they lost conscious control of their actions, which are then directed subconsciously. People in this state seem remote, have little awareness of their surroundings and have reduced awareness of pain and increased muscle strength. Critical thinking and normal social inhibitions weaken, but the people affected are not unconscious.
This condition of psychomotor automatism possibly resembles what in forensic psychiatry is described as ‘diminished responsibility’. The condition is followed by a major emotional catharsis in the form of tiredness and exhaustion, sometimes followed by sleep. Researchers think that the short-term aim of the trance may have been to achieve an abreaction of strong aggressive, destructive and sadistic impulses, all the while the berserker remained in the socially defined role of the chosen of Odin.
There is a great amount of knowledge about the berserkers now lost to history, but even as the centuries old Berserker brotherhood no longer exists, its memory will never be erased.