In Old Norse sources, Viking berserkers were warriors who fought in a trance-like fury, that later gave rise to the English word, “berserk”.
The name likely means “bear-shirt” (comparable in Middle English to the word “serk”, that means “shirt”), with warriors traditional going into battle without armour, instead wearing bear or wolf pelts.
Some scholars argue that the origins of the berserker can be found during the Roman period, such as the Germanic social structures described by the Roman historian, Tacitus, or in scene 36 on Trajan’s column in Rome, which depicts tribal warriors wearing bear hoods and wolf hoods.
One of the earliest written texts describing berserkers is the Hrafnsmál, a 9th century fragmentary skaldic poem, written by Norwegian skald, Þorbjörn Hornklofi:
‘‘They [the ships] were loaded with men and white shields, western spears and Frankish swords. Berserks bellowed; battle was under way for them; wolf-skins [berserks] howled and brandished iron spears.’
‘‘They are called wolf-skins, who bear bloody shields in combat; they redden spears when they come to war; there [at Haraldr’s court] they are seated together. There, I believe, he, the sovereign wise in understanding, may entrust himself to men of courage alone, those who hew into a shield.’’
To “go berserk” was to “hamask”, which translates as “change form”, in this case, as with the sense “enter a state of wild fury”, or literally to shapeshift into a bear’s form. They were portrayed as indestructible in the sagas, immune to most fatal woes and possessing a superhuman strength.
This is shown in the Ynglinga saga, written by the Icelandic historian and poet, Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241):
“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. This was called Berserkergang.”
Berserkers appear prominently in many Norse sagas and poems, either as champions, heroes, elite soldiers, or bodyguards. This image however changed overtime (especially after the conversion to Christianity in Scandinavia), instead being portrayed as criminals, thugs, looters and murderers who kill indiscriminately.
Some scholars propose that that the berserker rage was caused by self-induced hysteria or epilepsy, or through the consumption of large amounts of alcohol or drugs – such as hallucinogenic mushrooms, or the plant henbane Hyoscyamus niger (in 1977, archaeologists excavating near Fyrkat in Denmark found seeds from the plant in a Viking grave).
In 1015, Jarl Eiríkr Hákonarson of Norway outlawed berserkers. Grágás, the medieval Icelandic law code, sentenced berserker warriors to outlawry. By the 12th century, organised berserker war-bands had disappeared.
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