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Berserkers (or Berserks) were Norse warriors who are reported in the Old Norse literature to have fought in a nearly uncontrollable, trance-like fury, a characteristic which later gave rise to the English word berserk. The name berserker arose from their reputed habit of wearing a kind of shirt or coat (Old Norse: serkr) made from the pelt of a bear (Old Norse: ber-) during battle. By some; in the danish ethymological dictionary version 3 (Politikens nudansk ordbog med etymologi) it is stated that ber (bear) is less plausible than berr (bare). Icelandic Sagas also support this, see Thorolf's Saga where it at one point writes about the berserkers who go to battle without a shirt on in order to prove that they truly are immune to iron weapons.

The Úlfhéðnar (singular Úlfhéðinn), mentioned in the Vatnsdœla saga, Haraldskvæði and the Völsunga saga, were said to wear the pelt of a wolf when they entered battle. Úlfhéðnar are sometimes described as Odin's special warriors, with the pelt from a wolf and a spear as distinguishing features.

"Going berserk"

The actual fit of madness the berserker experienced was referred to as bärsärkar-gång ("going berserk"). This condition has been described as follows:

"This fury, which was called berserkergang, occurred not only in the heat of battle, but also during laborious work.
Men who were thus seized performed things which otherwise seemed impossible for human power.
This condition is said to have begun with shivering, chattering of the teeth, and chill in the body, and then the face swelled and changed its colour.
With this was connected a great hot-headedness, which at last gave over into a great rage, under which they howled as wild animals, bit the edge of their shields, and cut down everything they met without discriminating between friend or foe.
When this condition ceased, a great dulling of the mind and feebleness followed, which could last for one or several days."


Literary references

The earliest surviving reference to the term "berserker" is in Haraldskvæði, a skaldic poem composed by Thórbiörn Hornklofi in the late Ninth Century in honour of King Harald Fairhair, as Ulfheðnar ("men clad in wolf skins"). Snorri Sturluson gives the following description of berserkers in the Ynglinga saga:

Berserkers appear prominently in a multitude of other sagas and poems, many of which describe berserkers as ravenous barbarians who loot, plunder, and kill indiscriminately.

In Njal's saga, a berserker is used to "test" two fires, one built by pagans, the other by Christians; he burns in the Christian fire, "proving" the superiority of the new religion.

History

Hilda Ellis-Davidson draws a parallel between berserkers and the mention by the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII in his book De cerimoniis aulae byzantinae ("Book of Ceremonies of the Byzantine court") of a "Gothic Dance" performed by members of his Varangian Guard (Norse warriors working in the service of the Byzantine Empire), who took part wearing animal skins and masks: she believes this may have been connected with berserker rites.

In 1015, Jarl Eiríkr Hákonarson of Norwaymarker outlawed berserkers. Grágás, the medieval Icelandicmarker law code, sentenced berserker warriors to outlawry. By the 1100s, organised berserker war-bands had disappeared.

King Harald Fairhair's use of berserker "shock troops" broadened his sphere of influence. Other Scandinavian kings used berserkers as part of their army of hirdmen and sometimes ranked them as equivalent to a royal bodyguard. It may be that some of those warriors only adopted the organisation or rituals of berserk war-bands or used the name as a deterrent or claim of their ferocity.

Still, some scholars consider the frenzied and indomitable berserker and his bloodshot eyes to stand right alongside horned Viking helmets as a "feature of later literary [works] rather than contemporary historical ones", placing the legitimacy of Icelandic sagas as historical records into question. Little Icelandic literature was recorded before the middle of the Thirteenth Century, more than two hundred years after the conversion of Iceland to Christianity. The sagas are broadly interested in history, but they are re-tellings of legend and in no way constitute a proper historical record. The family sagas in particular shed more light on 13th- and 14th-Century ideas about the 9th-11th centuries than they do on the legendary period itself.

In some stories, the Irish hero Cúchulainn is overcome by ríastrad or "battle frenzy", a condition somewhat similar to berserkergang, but accompanied by bizarre physical transformations.

Theories on the causes of the berserkergang

Theories about what caused berserker behaviour include ingestion of materials with psychoactive properties, psychological processes, and medical conditions.

Modern scholars believe certain examples of berserker rage to have been induced voluntarily by the consumption of drugs such as the hallucinogenic mushroom Amanita muscaria, commonly known as the fly agaric or fly Amanita (Howard D. Fabing. "On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry." Scientific Monthly. 83 [Nov. 1956] p. 232), or massive quantities of alcohol (Robert Wernick. The Vikings. Alexandria VA: Time-Life Books. 1979. p. 285). While such practices would fit in with ritual usages, other explanations for the berserker's madness have been put forward, including self-induced hysteria, epilepsy, mental illness or genetic flaws (Peter G. Foote and David m. Wilson. The Viking Achievement. Londonmarker: Sidgewick & Jackson. 1970. p. 285).

A Horizon Book on Vikings claims that some chieftains would hold their berserkers in reserve during a battle. Once a portion of the enemy line appeared to tire or weaken, the chieftains would send the berserkers charging into the enemy ranks to hopefully open a break and even panic the enemy. The book also claimed that while on sea voyages close to land, berserkers sometimes asked to go ashore to find objects on land to wrestle or bash to give vent to their fury.

Botanists have suggested the behaviour might be tied to ingestion of bog myrtle (Myrica gale syn: Gale palustris), a plant that was one of the main spices in alcoholic beverages in Scandinavia. The drawback is that it increases the hangover headache afterwards. Drinking alcoholic beverages spiced with bog myrtle the night before going to battle might have resulted in unusually aggressive behaviour.

The notion that Nordic Vikings used the fly agaric mushroom to produce their berserker rages was first suggested by the Swedish professor Samuel Ödman in 1784. Ödman based his theory on reports about the use of fly agaric among Siberianmarker shamans. The notion has become widespread since the 19th century, but no contemporary sources mention this use or anything similar in their description of berserkers. In addition, the injection of bufotenine from Bufo marinus toad skin into humans was shown to produce similar symptoms to the "Berserker" descriptions. These findings, first examined by Howard Fabing in 1956, were later linked to the induction of zombie characteristics by ethnobotanists in 1983.

A simpler theory attributes the behaviour to drunken rage. It is also possible that berserkers worked themselves into their frenzy through purely psychological processes, perhaps using frenzied rituals and dances. According to Saxo Grammaticus they also drank bear or wolf blood.

Parallels in other cultures

Among the Irish, Cúchulainn acted in the 'battle frenzy', or 'contortion', and many other famous Irish warriors from the pre-Christian period became possessed and frenzied. They are described in texts such as The Tain as foaming at the mouth and not calming down after battle until doused with cold water.

Similar behaviour is described in the Iliad, where warriors who are "possessed" by a god or goddess exhibit superhuman powers.

In historical times, the Spartanmarker warrior Aristodemusis mentioned as acting with a berserker-like fury at the Battle of Plataea, to redeem himself from accusations of having acted with cowardice at Thermopylaemarker.

Berserk behavior is also similar to the Amok frenzy described among Moro tribesmen in the Philippines and among other tribes in Malaysia.

Modern context

The word "berserker" today applies to anyone who fights with reckless abandon and disregard to even his own life, a concept used during the Vietnam War and in Vietnam-inspired literature (Michael Herr's Dispatches) and film (Oliver Stone's Platoon and Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder). "Going berserk" in this context refers to an overdose of adrenaline-induced opioids in the human body and brain leading a soldier to fight with fearless rage and indifference, a state strikingly similar to that of the 9th century berserkers observed in this article.

Modern soldiers in battle sometimes observe in both themselves and others these occasional bouts of exceptional aggressiveness and feelings of invincibility. The main character in the novel The Red Badge Of Courage has a moment in battle where he becomes almost unaware of the danger around him and experiences an irresistible urge to destroy the enemy. Afterward, he comes back to himself and is only vaguely aware of what has happened. The testimony of Medal of Honor recipients and other combat veterans sometimes recount similar experiences of altered consciousness and heightened aggression during combat . There is, however, no real modern military tradition or documentation of the habitual inducement of a 'berserker' mental state. Since modern combat training focuses on intensive drilling, military specialties, and unit cohesion, unpredictable and individualistic 'berserker' combat is most certainly discouraged in modern military science and training.

"Going berserk" is also used colloquially to describe a person who is acting in a wild rage or in an uncontrolled and irrational manner. A recent controversy among civil rights advocates and law enforcement and emergency medicine professionals involves a state called "excited delirium," in which a "berserk" individual dies after the use of restraints.

Notes

  1. Simek (1995:47). In earlier studies, the element ber- was often misinterpreted as berr- i.e. "bare", understood as indicating that the berserkers fought naked. This view has since been abandoned.
  2. Simek (1995:435).
  3. Simek (1995:48).
  4. (Fabing (1956:234).
  5. Ellis-Davidson, Hilda R. (1967) Pagan Scandinavia, page 100. Frederick A. Praeger Publishers ASIN B0000CNQ6I
  6. Living MOH Recipients: Congressional Medal of Honor Society
  7. Brain biomarkers for identifying excited delirium as a cause of sudden death


References

  • Beard, D. J. "The Berserker in Icelandic Literature." In Approaches to Oral Literature, Ed. Robin Thelwall, Ulster: New University of Ulster, 1978, pp. 99–114.
  • Blaney, Benjamin. The Berserkr: His Origin and Development in Old Norse Literature, Ph.D. Diss. University of Colorado, 1972.
  • Davidson, Hilda R. E. "Shape-Changing in Old Norse Sagas." In Animals in Folklore, Ed. Joshua R. Porter and William M. S. Russell. Cambridge: Brewer; Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978, pp. 126–42.
  • Davis, EW (1983) "The ethnobiology of the Haitian zombie", Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 9:85-104.
  • Fabing, Howard D. "On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry." Scientific Monthly, 83 [Nov. 1956].
  • Höfler, Otto. "Berserker." Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde. Bd.2. Ed. Johannes Hoops. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. 1976. pp. 298–304.
  • Ole Högberg, Flugsvampen och människan. Section concerning the berserker myth is published online [27094] (In Swedish and PDF format) ISBN 91-7203-555-2
  • Holtsmark, Anne. "On the Werewolf Motif in Egil's saga Skalla-Grímssonar" Scientia Islandica/Science in Iceland 1 (1968), pp. 7–9.
  • von See, Klaus. "Berserker." Zeitschrift für deutsche Wortforschung 17 (1961), pp. 129–35; reprinted as "Exkurs rom Haraldskvæði: Berserker" in his Edda, Saga, Skaldendichtung: Aufsätze zur skandinavischen Literarur des Mittelalters. Heidelberg: Winter, 1981, pp. 311–7.
  • Michael P. Speidel, "Berserks: A History of Indo-European 'Mad Warriors' ", Journal of World History 13.2 (2002) 253-290 [27095]
  • Weiser, Lilly. Altgermanische Jünglingsweihen und Männerbünde: Ein Beitrag zur deutschen und nordischen Alterums- und Volkskunde. Bausteine zur Volkskunde und Religionswissenschaft, 1 Buhl: Konkordia, 1927.
  • The Sagas of Icelanders: Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition (World of the Sagas), Ed. Örnólfur Thorsson. Penguin (Non-Classics); New Ed edition (February 27, 2001). pp. 741–742.
  • Robert Wernick. The Vikings. Alexandria VA: Time-Life Books. 1979. p. 285
  • Laing, Samuel (1889). The Heimskringla or the Sagas of the Norse Kings. London: John. C. Nimmo.


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