Berserkers: myths or just lost in the mists of time?

This is a piece I wrote for Historical Times magazine several weeks ago, and since I’m up to my neck in The Loki Sword (Fire Born 3) and I simply don’t have time to write a new blog, I thought I would reproduce it here. Apologies if you have read this before. But I think, even so, it might be worth a second read . . .

When I stared working on The Last Berserker, the first novel in my Fire Born Viking series, I spoke enthusiastically to anyone who would listen about various kinds of berserkers and how I imagined them. It became clear that most people I managed to speak to – ie, those who did not immediately edge away – had no idea what a berserker was. 

“But surely,” I’d say, pinning my victim to the spot with a firm hand on their shoulder, “you must have heard of the common English expression ‘to go berserk’?” Cue nervous nodding. “Well, that is a reference to an elite type of Germanic warrior called a berserker, who would go absolutely tonto on the battlefield, killing his enemies with froth-lipped fury and utter disregard for his own skin, and who was feared and revered by all his fellow fighters.”

“Ah, is that so?” the poor souls would say, trying to catch the eye a passing security guard. “And were they real then, or just mythical characters?”

This is a good question. Berserkers have been much written about in epic poems but they seem to have been ascribed unlikely, even supernatural powers. 

This is a description from the 13th-century Ynglinga saga, written in Old Norse by the celebrated Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson: “. . . [Odin’s] men went [into battle] without mail coats and were as wild as dogs or wolves. They bit their shields, were as strong as bears or bulls; they killed people, but they themselves were hurt by neither fire nor iron. This is called going berserk.” 

(Translation by Professor Neil Price, author of The Viking Way)

So the medieval Viking skalds thought they were real. But they also wrote as if the gods Odin, Thor and Freya, etc, were participants in human affairs too.

Much of what we think we know today about berserkers is still hotly disputed. Even the meaning of the Old Norse berserkr is unclear. Some scholars insist that it means “bare-shirted”, meaning that these crazed fighters went into battle naked. I find this improbable – terrifying as it would be. Others suggest it means “bear-shirted” – and that the warriors went to fight armoured by the thick pelts of bears. The wearing of a bearskin might also have been a warning signal to their comrades not to approach too closely in the full frenzy of battle.

This is the meaning I have chosen for my mad, shield-biting heroes in The Last Berserker – thick animal pelts make an excellent sword-repellent and warriors have worn furs as battle-protection for millennia. This tradition even continues down to our own elite Grenadier Guards and their bearskin helmets. 

There is disagreement, too, over the various kinds of berserkers. Some suggest there were three kinds of fighters, with the characteristics of bears (berserkr), wolves (ulfhethnar) and wild boars (svinfylking). Others say there were only two kinds, bears and wolves, and they were originally members of animal cults who worshiped the creatures, perhaps to gain their aid in hunting.

Ulfhethnar scouting the enemy forces

In my novel, I have made full use of the quasi-religious elements of this berserker theory: the initiates to my spiritual “berserker academy”, the Fyr Skola, pray under the World Tree (the Irminsul/Yggdrasil), undergo brutal, life-threatening ordeals and learn how to hum in a special sacred way to achieve a trance-like state that will allow them to summon the spirit of their animal totem. 

The Irminsul was destroyed by Charlemagne

There has also been much speculation that berserkers used hallucinogenic drugs, certain kinds of mushrooms perhaps, to enter their frenzy. Others say it was a surfeit of alcohol. I think it is neither. I have witnessed people going into trances without drink or drugs, just with music and powerful belief (see below).

Moreover, Snorri Sturluson’s claim that berserkers could be “hurt by neither fire nor iron” is perhaps not as outlandish as it might first seem. One famous berserker, recorded in his own saga, is Egill Skallagrimsson, a mighty Icelandic warrior who fought as a mercenary for the English King Aethelstan at the Battle of Brunanburh (AD937). After his death (in old age!), Egill’s body was exhumed and a vindictive enemy attempted to smash open his head with a battle-axe. According to the saga, the axe could not penetrate his hard skull, which suggests to some modern researchers that Egill may have been suffering from Paget’s disease, which greatly thickens the bones of the body during life.  

Nor is the claim to be impervious to iron and fire confined to northern Europe. My interest in altered mental states (such as going berserk) began in Bali in the late 1980s, when I was undertaking research for an MA from the University of Edinburgh in Social Anthropology. I was studying Balinese magic and witnessed many ordinary people going into trances at their religious festivals during which they sometimes walked over burning coals without scorching their feet. Later, as a journalist in India, I saw sadhus, Hindu holy men, inserting metal skewers into various intimate parts of their bodies with out drawing a drop of blood. In Malay cultures, there is also a recognition of the condition known as running “amok”, in which (usually) a man suddenly goes completely crazy and begins attacking the people around him indiscriminately. People who are “amok” are said to have superhuman strength and unusual ferocity, feel no pain, and the only cure for their often lethal madness is death.

So, then, were the Viking berserkers real? I believe they were. I think there was a special class of warriors who entered a killing trance, a blood frenzy, in battle as part of some religious ritual. And that in a very violent epoch these folk were respected and feared for their warlike skills. I also suspect that this is not a phenomenon restricted to the Viking Age. Indeed, I believe that the potential to go berserk resides in many humans today.

And perhaps in all of us.

You can buy a paperback of The Last Berserker (Fire Born 1) for just £2 for a limited time by clicking on this link here. Or the eBook here. And The Saxon Wolf (Fire Born 2) will be out in January. You can pre-order that here.

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