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Berserker (viking)

Berserkers (or Berserks) were ferocious Norse warriors who had sworn allegiance to Viking god Odin. They worked themselves into murderous fury before the battle.

The term berserker comes from Norse “baresark”, meaning “bear shirt”. However, it could also be translated as “naked shirt” (ie. no shirt).

The origin of berserkers is unknown although Tacitus mentions groups of Germanic warriors with berserk-like fury.

It appears that Berserkers were religiously inspired warbands[?] or warrior societies[?]. Sagas mention berserker gangs with 12 members where new applicants had to go through a ritualistic or real fight to be accepted. Some berserks also took names with björn or biorn in them in reference to a bear.

Berserker bands’ fearsome reputation and the sight of raging warriors charging headlong into battle surely had a demoralizing effect on the opposition. However, allies were wary of them as well because berserkers could decide to pillage a friendly village on their own and rape their women.

Snorri Sturluson mentions berserkers in Egilssaga[?], Hrolf's Saga[?] and Ynglingasaga[?]. Many sagas describe berserkers as villains who kill, loot and plunder indiscriminately. Erik the Red might have been a berserk.

Harald Finehair, founder of kingdom of Norway, used shock troops of berserker warriors. Grettirssaga[?] tells that those warriors were ulfhedinn or "wolf-coats”, meaning that they wore wolf skins.

Many northern kings used berserkers as part of their army of hirthmen and sometimes equivalent to a royal bodyguard. It may be that at least some of those warriors just adopted the organization or rituals of berserk warbands or used the name as a deterrent or claim of their ferocity. It is doubtful any king would have accepted a band of homicidal maniacs as his closest men.

In 1015 King Erik[?] of Norway outlawed berserkers. Icelandic Christian law banned berserkers as heathens and sentenced them to outlawry[?]. By the 1100’s organized berserker warbands had disappeared.

Berserkers are reported to have worn bearskins in battle – thick fur would have worked as leather armor. Bear worship[?] was not unusual in northern Germanic areas. “Possessed” by the spirit of the bear, they might have believed they had its the strength and ferociousness and could even take the animal’s shape. In that respect, they are basis of fantasy characters like Beorn in the Lord of the Rings.

Warriors of the Varangian Guard (Norse warriors working for Byzantine Empire) also followed bear rituals.

Berserkers fought with crazed or drugged strength, heedless of danger. They worked themselves up into a bloodlust – berserker rage - before battles, banging their helmets with their weapons, biting their shields and howling. They were said to be immune to pain (or even immune to weapons) in battle. In their fury they would attack their enemies but also everything else in their path, sometimes even their own people and allies.

Proponents of the drug theory favor ergotism[?] or the use of the fly agaric mushroom. Drunken rage would do as well. It is also possible that Berserkers worked themselves into their frenzy through purely psychological processes – ie. frenzied rituals and dances. According to Saxo Grammaticus they also drank bear of wolf blood.

Berserk rage – called berserkerganga – could also happen in a middle of daily work. It begun with shivering, chattering of the teeth and chill in the body. The face swelled and changed its color. Next came great rage, howling and indiscriminate brawling. When the rage quelled, berserker was exhausted and dull of mind possibly for several days. According to sagas, many of their enemies exploited this stage to get rid of them.

US professor Jesse L Byock claims that berserker rage could have been a symptom of Paget syndrome[?]. Uncontrolled skull bone growth could have caused painful pressure in the head. He mentions the unattractive and large head of Egill Skallagrimsson in Egilssaga[?]. Other possibilities are mild epilepsy and hysteria.

Today the word "berserker" applies to anyone who fights with reckless abandon and disregard to even his own life – ie. “goes berserk”.

See also amok, werewolf

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