So you want to become a berserker?

You’re probably thinking that you need to consume a handful of magic mushrooms, or at least a jug or two of strong mead, gnaw on your shield rim a while, strip off and get naked and charge headlong screaming into you enemies’ packed shield wall. Right? No, actually, you’d be quite wrong.

At least, you’d be wrong according to my interpretation of the berserkir phenomenon in Old Norse culture, as told in my new Fire Born series.

The first book in the series, The Last Berserker, is out in February (order a paperback or eBook here) and it describes in detail what you have to do if you want to become a Fire Born or a Rekkr, which is what I call these elite frenzied super-warriors in my new series of novels set in the 8th century.

The Last Berserker is the first in a (hopefully) long Viking series set in the 8th century

But first things first: what is a berserker? I was a little surprised when I first began talking about this series that some people had no idea what a berserker was. They all knew the English word “berserk”, meaning to go batshit crazy, but did not realise that it came from a special kind of warrior who was venerated and feared by the violent European society of the day.

A 12th-century berserker chess piece discovered on the island of Lewis

Berserkers were warriors heedless of their own safety – suicidally brave – they were much prized by their chiefs because they could strike fear in the ranks of their enemies. A berserker enters a frenzy in battle and fights with almost supernatural ferocity. Some scholars have suggested that the word “berserker” comes from “bare-skin” an that these fighters did battle without any clothing. In some disturbed mental states, people do have a strong urge to strip off their clothes. But I think there is a more plausible explanation.

Most people agree “berserker” means “bear-shirt” and that these people are so called because they used the thick skins of bears as a kind of armour or a badge of their status. There is a theory (which I agree with) that suggests that berserkers belonged to a kind of bear cult, which worshiped the spirit of the wild animal for its strength and courage. Indeed, you can trace the wearing of fur in the European military from berserkers all the way to the Grenadier Guards of the modern age, who proudly wear bearskin helmets.

A modern military descendent of the 8th-century berserker

In fact, there were three kinds of berserkers in northern Europe* in the 8th-century, each belonging to a different animal cult: berserkir venerated the bear; ulfhednar, who worshiped the wolf and svnfylking, who celebrated the ferocious wild boar. I have included all three cults in The Last Berserker.

So how do you become one of these elite warriors – the SAS or SBS or, since there is a spiritual dimension, the Knights Templar of their day? In my novels, you achieve this by inviting a supernatural creature – a gandr or wild spirit – to come into your heart and reside there. The gandr gives you the power to become a berserker. But it is not as easy as that. Only a few special people have the propensity to become Rekkr and this quality often runs in families. You also have to enrol in the holy berserker school in a sacred shrine in northern Germany, the home of the Irminsul – the World Tree that runs through the nine realms of the universe like a gigantic axel.

The Irminsul, the sacred World Tree of the Saxons, was destroyed by Charlemagne

Then you have to undergo tests and ordeals before the gandr will come to you. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers but the tests and ordeals can be pretty extreme. Taking hallucinogenic substances is frowned on. Instead, you have to survive in the wild forest on your own, with only a knife and a fur cloak, until your gandr come to you. Once it inhabits you, you have to run through a burning ship to become a recognised Fire Born.

And once you have become a berserker, what then? In my novels, the Fire Born are hired out as mercenaries, fighting for silver and for their Gods and the honour their community. And, since recklessness and disregard for your own life is fully expected, you’re unlikely to survive more than one battle.

Are you quite sure you still want to become a berserker?

If you would like to read The Last Berserker, which comes out in February 2021, you can order a copy here. The second book in the Fire Born series, The Saxon Wolf, will be out in the autumn of the same year

  • NB The berserker phenomenon is not limited to northern Europe. In Southeast Asia they also have the tradition of people running amok, suddenly entering a murderous frenzy in which the person afflicted kills other people and animals indiscriminately. Malays claim that an evil tiger spirit enters the person and makes them go completely crazy.

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