The Last Berserker (Fire Born 1): what exactly is a berserker anyway?

Over the Christmas break, when I was talking to lots of people about what I do for a living and about my current series of Fire Born Viking novels, I was asked by several new-met friends in the pub what exactly a berserker was. And I realised that many people simply do not know. So, if you’re one of them, read on…

Put simply, a berserker – or in Old Norse berserkr – is a type of warrior from the Viking Age, usually a devotee of the Norse god Odin, who could channel the ferocity of a wild bear in battle. The warrior would go “berserk” and fear neither death nor injury in his eagerness to inflict carnage on his enemies. They were unstoppable, relentless, utterly terrifying. To distinguish him from other fighters, and to ensure that his comrades knew to avoid him in his indiscriminate battle madness, these elite warriors would wear the skin of a wild black bear as a signifier, which also incidentally works efficiently as a kind of armour. Studies have shown that fur offers better protection than leather, but probably not as much as ring-mail.

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)

In my novel The Last Berserker, the first in my new-ish Fire Born series, I look at the religious element in the phenomenon of berserkers, which comes across strongly in the sagas. I suggest that there would have been cult centres where warriors learnt how to become a berserker through a series of spiritual tests and physical ordeals and by inviting the wild animal spirit of the bear – or the wolf or the boar – to come into their bodies and take control. Not all would succeed, the failures risked death but those who managed to “graduate” would become famous and hugely respected elite warriors of their world.

They were, however, unlikely to live long. Yet, in their culture, contempt for death was an ideal. Warriors were supposed to die laughing because to a brave warrior, death and suffering are not only inevitable but unimportant. There is a saying from the Volunga Saga, which I particularly like: “Fear not death for the hour of your doom is set and none may escape it.” The Vikings knew that everyone dies and, in the violent 8th century when my Fire Born novels are set, it was the way that you died and the honour that you accrued by your “good” death that was important, not the number of years you could rack up.

I’m not a Viking, and at 57, I am increasingly aware of my own mortality. But this seems such a magnificent way to approach life and death that I am constantly in awe of the men and women who lived by this code. I try, occasionally successfully, to convey this extraordinary philosophy to any 21st century readers of the Fire Born series. And if you haven’t read any of them I suggest you take a closer look.

The Last Berserker (Fire Born 1) is available from Amazon here. There will be at least six in the series.

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