In many cultures, warriors were a vital part of society, and their peers revered the most skilled ones. But in some situations, even the most respectable warriors lost self-control during battles, and their behavior became animalistic. The perfect example of losing control and fighting in trance-like fury are Viking ruthless warriors – berserkers.
Did Viking Berserkers Exist?
It is not a lie that berserkers with their infamous reputation sometimes seem more mythological than actual people who lived and fought all over Medieval Scandinavia.
Popular culture portrays them as almost supernatural, unkempt, and blood-thirsty barbarians who ravaged everything standing in their way - history remembers them as the fiercest of all the Germanic warriors. But how much of it is right, and how many stories of berserkers were simply an addition to the Old Norse religion.
Sadly, we have to disappoint the doubters because berserkers were exactly like the legends paradoxically describe them - as noble savages.
What Drug did Viking Berserkers Use?
Infamous Viking berserkers were associated with many myths, one of which is the myth about hallucinogens. In one of his writings, Christian priest Ödmann suggested a theory that 'going berserk' came as a result of consuming various psychoactive substances. He claimed that just like the Siberian shamans, berserkers probably ingested Amanita muscaria - commonly known as fly agaric mushroom.
Nonetheless, it is necessary to remember that Ödmann's theory of 'going berserk' first appeared in 1784, which was long after the Viking Age, and that Ödmann had no previous knowledge on the effects of this toxic mushroom. Although Siberian shamans may found the impact of fly agaric mushroom satisfactory, the same thing indeed can't be told about the Vikings.
Berserkers were known in history as fierce and blood-thirsty warriors who 'bit their shields' and were 'strong as bears' and 'mad as dogs or wolves.' So it is hard to believe that their drug of choice was fly agaric, whose main effects are sedation, depression, and apathy.
Having that said, it doesn't mean Viking men didn't use other forms of remedies to ease the pain in battle. In one berserker's grave found in 1977, archaeologists found decomposed traces of Hyoscyamus niger, commonly known as stinking shade. Historians believe that stinking shade had a dual purpose during the Viking age, for it was used both as medication and as war paint to scare off the enemy.
How did Berserkers go Berserk?
However, the most probable explanation of 'going berserk' comes from neither history nor archaeology but psychiatry. Psychiatrists believe that Viking men performed spiritual rituals before battles, after which they probably went into some form of self-induced hysteria, which helped them lose control of their consciousness.
Self-induced hysteria put the berserkers into the dissociative state of mind, which caused them to act solely based on their subconscious instincts and primal impulses. This state of trance helped the berserkers break free of social constructs and critical thinking and made them act more aggressively and ruthlessly than any other warriors in history.
Old Norse religion and social practices were able to justify and even idealize this Viking way of preparing for battle, finding their excuses in often ferocious Norse mythology. In the sagas, Norse gods never went through long and thoughtful inner conflicts over right and wrong but somehow always managed to become heroes. It is no wonder that after the Christianization of Scandinavia after the 12th, together with other pagan rituals, the phenomenon of self induced hysteria started to disappear.
Although the psychomotor automatism caused by the Viking rituals shouldn't serve as an excuse for acting irrationally, it can be explained by exhaustion and emotional catharsis. This phenomenon, known as diminished responsibility or diminished capacity, is still used today as a potential defense in criminal law.
What Weapons did Berserkers Use?
Like any Viking warrior, Viking berserker also used one, but first, and, probably, the most important weapon Viking berserker had in his arsenal was a psychological one - fear. The true advantage of one warrior is never the weapon that he uses; it is the strength of his convictions and faith that neither fire nor iron can do him harm. That kind of attitude instills fear into enemy's hearts and make them think again if they are really willing and able to stand in front of a berserker while he is charging at them in the midst of battle, filled with rage, looking like a wolf, a bear, or some other dangerous animal. Also, they and their style of combat were already quite well known to their enemies, so the lone mention of the word berserk could make them break ranks and flee in front of these fierce Viking warriors. Also, when we think that a lot of times they went into the battle naked, only having animal fur on them, the demoralizing effect is even greater.
The second weapon used by Viking berserker was a sword. Well made, developed from the ancient Roman sword. It was made so that it could withstand hits and inflict a large number of hits. Also, it was made with indentations down the length of the blade so it would be lighter and stronger at the same time. This gave the opportunity to Vikings to swing strong and powerful hits. While most Vikings used swords, the berserkers usually had a great sword that was usually double-wielded.
The third weapon that, of course, has to be mentioned since it is one of the weapons that are most frequently connected to Vikings is, of course, an ax. Since most Viking warriors were essentially shock troops who entered the battle quickly, trying to destroy their foes before they even knew what was happening, an ax was a very practical weapon. It was small and practical for close combat use, especially if the warrior is well trained to use it, and all old Norse warriors were, most of all, a Viking berserker.
Different Types of Berserkers
When we hear the word berserkers, we usually think of a group of Vikings armed with some huge weapon and all might that surrounds them, strong as bears and mad as dogs or wolves.
The fact is, there is not only one type of berserkers. There are three - Berserkers (bear warriors), Úlfhéðnar (wolf warriors), and Jöfurr (boar warriors).
Going Berserk With Berserkers
Berserkers or bear warriors were followers of the cult of a bear, which was once very spread across the northern hemisphere, especially in Scandinavia and the countries surrounding it.
Despite being fierce Vikings, they were known to be very religious and were known to postpone certain scheduled fights (for example, single combats) for several days until some religious celebration passed. Also, when their life came to an end, and while they were prepared for a Viking funeral, they were wrapped in furs of bears.
In battle, they were fierce, first-line shock troops; they bit their shields and were filled with rage, waiting for the battle to begin. Also, they were often surrounded by the great aura of mysticism which could sometimes be connected to their wearing of animal fur under which they were often naked. It was said that they fought like that because they were shapeshifters. To be precise, people thought that they could transform into bears. There are mentions in sagas of that. For example, ''Saga of Hrolf Kraki'' mentions a berserker Bodvar Bjarki who was fighting for his king Hrolf while transformed in the bear form. Therefore, one could say that even though berserkers were very special warriors and Vikings, they could not transform into animals. Although, that doesn't mean that they couldn't fight in battle like animals.
Úlfhéðnar, Fighters Who Were Not Afraid of Neither Fire nor Iron
They were primarily known as Germanic warriors and were often mostly connected to Roman tales of fighting against these special warriors who were fierce worshippers of Odin.
These warriors were easily recognized by the wolf fur they were dressed in. Same as berserker warriors, they entered in a mad-like state and fought without fear or care. They were often described as something like holy warriors, similar to Christian crusaders. The main difference is that these were special berserkers of Odin. Many pieces of evidence from history tell us that all berserkers were also kinds of shamans. The main reason they were connected to shamans is that they really practiced shamanic rituals. The only difference between classic berserkers and úlfheðnar is that they had different totems, depending on which animal they worshiped.
Úlfhéðnar is mentioned in history as berserkers going in battle looking like they were mad, fighting for Odin, inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy, and it was said that neither fire nor iron could harm these wolf-like Vikings.
Jöfurr, When Viking Berserker Becomes a Boar
Most of the Gods that Viking fighters held in high regard were Aesir. A smaller part of them worshiped Vanir. Boar as an animal is closely connected with the Vanir cult among the Norse people since goddess Freya had Hildisvini, her battle boar.
Similar to the previous two types of berserkers, jöfurr wore boar fur on themselves and revered a boar as their holy animal and tried to imitate boar during the combat and tried to emulate their fighting style. Of course, they fought like madmen as well, but that is now becoming just a fact for any berserker warrior.
Viking Berserkers as Parts of Old Norse Poems & Sagas
Viking berserker warriors were mentioned in many poems and sagas written during the Viking age. At first, they were shown as elite warriors among Viking forces and were often shown as bodyguards of the king. Later, things changed for the berserker Vikings, and they were more connected with bloodlust, uncontrolled might, and Vikings who were soaked in blood, fought without pain, and instilled fear into the bones of the enemies of the Vikings.
First, they were mentioned in a poem Haraldskvæði composed in the 9th-century honor of king Harald Fairhair where úlfheðnar are mentioned in the following verses:
I'll ask of the berserks, you tasters of blood,
Those intrepid heroes, how are they treated,
Those who wade out into battle?
Wolf-skinned, they are called. In battle
They bear bloody shields.
Red with blood is their spears when they come to fight.
They form a closed group.
The prince, in his wisdom, puts trust in such men.
Who hacks through enemy shields.
In fact, it was King Harald Finehair who popularised berserkers the most since he sent them to war as shock troops instead of the bodyguards, as was the custom amongst other Norse rulers. Still, it is not known if all of the Viking fighters who counted themselves among the berserkers actually were berserkers in the traditional sense, or they just took that name to utilize it as a way of deterring enemies from attacking them.
Of course, as is the case with many sagas and poems, some supernatural attributes are included, and some of those attributes are about the berserkers. For example, it was said that they couldn't be hurt with fire and iron. Also, in some poems (Beowulf, for example), it is said that a Berserker warrior could use magic and blunt enemy's weapons with one look from their evil eyes. Even though this is obviously a figment of someone's imagination, it is funny to imagine a Viking berserker just looking at his enemies in the midst of battle and blunting their weapons like some mage of destroying offense of his enemies.
The deterioration of the image of the berserkers led to Viking leaders' attempts to bring them out of the picture. In the 11th century, they were banned in the parts of Norway, and in Iceland, they were outlawed. By the 12th century, they completely disappeared.
Theories Regarding Berserkers
One of the connections that were made over time is the connection between the Byzantine Varangian Guard, which was actually composed of Vikings. They often wore animal skins and masks and had some rites that may be connected to the berserkers.
Also, berserkers were among the first soldiers to have a sort of ''uniform,'' and it was for a good reason. When Vikings would go to war and to some battle, berserkers would be overcome with rage during the fight, and there is a great deal of chance that they would not make a difference between the men in the two armies. Because of this, they would wear animal pelts indicating who they are so that in the midst of battle, some Viking warrior wouldn't approach him because it would not end well for him.
Also, there are some theories that Viking soldiers and especially berserkers, who looked like animals because of their weird 'clothes,' which often included a naked body with fur on it and the manner in which they engaged their enemies, are the origin of the legend of werewolves.
Berserkers in Popular Culture
The idea of the Viking warrior as a lead character is especially popular nowadays, so the berserkers, as well as Vikings themselves, are very present in the popular culture of the modern world.
Assassin's Creed Valhalla - many berserkers are shown in the game, both fighting on the side of the main hero Eivor or fighting against him (or her);
Age of Empires II - Vikings have berserk infantry as their special units;
God of War - Kratos himself shows many behaviors that are almost strictly connected to berserkers. From that video game, Baldur also shows some similarities to the berserkers;
For honor - if you choose the Viking faction, you get to choose the berserker class.
Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - all inhabitants of Skellige are based on Vikings and Norse culture in general. The main quest in Skellige is surrounded among them, and in the game, being a berserker is closely connected to being a werewolf.
There are many other characters in almost every video game who show some berserker qualities.
Vikings - one berserker, is hired to kill Bjorn in the third season, but, to be fair, most of the main characters in the series fight with great ferociousness and might that are the main characteristics of the berserkers;
How to Train Your Dragon - one of the tribes in the Barbaric Archipelago is called Berserkers.
Berserk franchise - main character Guts is a berserker. There is also an anime spinoff of this book series.
Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard - the character Halfborn is a berserker.
Many other characters in many books have attributes that are similar to the berserkers.
Modern psychologists say that the behavior of Viking berserkers looks like a mix of hyperarousal and PTSD and think that Viking soldiers who went through that sort of experience and lived to tell the tale' were probably scarred by it for the rest of their lives.
These Norse warriors lived for the war, fought for Valhalla, and died so they could get glory through pain and fighting. Looking at them just as some maniacs who love war and fighting more than anything is a grave mistake, and history should remember them brave Norse fighters.
Until the next tales of Norse culture and war, we wish you all the best.