Today, the word ‘berserk’ is used to describe anyone in an irrational, agitated state of mind who cannot or does not control his or her actions. The meaning of the word originates with the Viking berserkers , the fierce warriors who were known for battling in an uncontrollable, trance-like fury, and were alleged to be able to perform seemingly impossible super-human feats of strength. They would howl and growl like beasts, froth at the mouth, and launch an attack in a fit of frenzy.
Unruly Warrior Gang
In medieval Norse and Germanic history and folklore, the berserkers were described as members of an unruly warrior gang that worshipped Odin, the supreme Norse deity, and were commissioned to royal and noble courts as bodyguards and ‘shock troops’, who would strike fear into all who encountered them. Adding to their ferocity, and in order to intimidate the enemy, they would wear bear and wolf pelts when they fought, giving them the name Berserker, meaning “bear coat” in Old Norse.
It is proposed by some historians that by wearing the pelts, the warriors believed they could extract the power and strength from the animal.
The fury of the berserkers would start with chills and teeth chattering and give way to a purpling of the face, as they literally became ‘hot-headed’, and culminating in a great, uncontrollable rage. They would bite into their shields and gnaw at their skin before launching into battle, indiscriminately injuring, maiming and killing anything in their path.
Dating back as far as the ninth century, the berserker Norse Warriors were said to be able to do things that normal humans could not. According to ancient legend, the berserkers were indestructible, and no weapon could break them from their trance. They were described as being immune to fire and to the strike of a sword, continuing on their rampage despite injury. The Icelandic historian and poet Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241 AD) wrote the following description of berserkers in his Ynglinga saga:
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.
It is believed that this account is partially true and that their trance-like state actually prevented them from feeling pain until after the battle.
Tasters of Blood
The earliest known reference to the berserkers can be found in the 9 th century skaldic poem Hrafnsmál, which largely consists of a conversation between an unnamed valkyrie and a raven; the two discuss the life and martial deeds of King Harald Fairhair.
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.
Possession, Sorcery or Drug-Fuelled Rage?
While some researchers believe the Berserkers simply worked themselves up into a self-induced hysteria before fighting, others maintain that it was sorcery, the consumption of drugs or alcohol, or even mental illness, that accounted for their behavior. Some botanists have claimed that berserker behavior could have been caused by the ingestion of alcohol, hallucinogenic mushrooms or the plant known as bog myrtle, one of the main spices in Scandinavian alcoholic beverages.
Other more esoteric theories surround supernatural beliefs. For instance, some scholars have claimed that the Vikings believed in spirit possession and that berserkers were possessed by the animal spirits of wolves or bears. According to some theorists, berserkers learned to cultivate the ability to allow animal spirits to take over their body during a fight (an example of animal totemism) that also involved drinking the blood of the animal that they wished to be possessed by.
In 1015, Jarl Eiríkr Hákonarson of Norway outlawed berserkers, and Grágás, the medieval Icelandic law code, and sentenced berserker warriors to outlawry. By the 12th century, organised berserker war-gangs had been completely disbanded.