‘bear-sark’, berserker, a wild warrior of the heathen age. (Geir T. Zoëga, A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic)
This chap is the subject of my thesis and will probably consititute the bulk of the posts on this blog, although anything Viking-ish is fair game. So, let’s begin by taking a quick peek at the berserkr, who he probably was and what he probably did.
The definition from Zoëga is fairly clear. ‘Bear-sark’, it’s archaic, but still clear to modern English readers; a chap that wears a bear shirt. It could be a bear’s pelt and mask or it could just be a bear’s pelt worn as clothing or armour. Presumably he killed the bear first and thus has proven that he is rather tough. I certainly believe that this meaning is the most likely one within a Viking Age Norse context, but it is not the only meaning proposed. The thirteenth-century Icelandic author, Snorri Sturluson, believed it meant ‘not wearing armour’, from the Old Norse words for naked and shirt. This is most likely a folk etymology, and Snorri demonstrably had a thing about warriors removing their armour before battle, because it is a recurring motif in Heimskringla. Nevertheless it was accepted as fact until 1854. Some later commentators have even stretched this interpretation to mean that berserkir fought naked. ARRANT NONSENSE! They did not and Snorri never meant that!! Nakedness aside, it is possible that both etymologies have some basis in fact and pre-Viking Age Germanic warriors are known to have fought duels without armour, such as the Frisian berskinze cempa, or bare-legged warrior, who fought duels wearing only a loincloth.
Berserkir are depicted in many sagas as thugs, bullies and members of the royal bodyguard. For example, in Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson mentions Haraldr hárfagri’s berserkir, who occupied the most dangerous part of his ship at the battle of Hafrsfjord and spearheaded his troops in battle. These royal bodyguards also tested newcomers to the king’s hall , as is shown in several sagas. In this initiation ritual, the hero must stand up to the berserkir to earn his place. Snorri mentions that they were Odin’s men. Grágas, the Icelandic law code, includes a law against going berserk in a section on Christian laws. This suggests that going berserk was a heathen act. So berserkir may have been cultic warriors connected to Odin.
Berserksgangr, the berserker fit, is what most remember, if they have read anything of berserkir. The fit included howling like wolves, biting their shields, and charging into battle heedless of danger. The question that everyone wants to know is how they went berserk. Various means have been proposed: mushrooms , alcohol and psychopathic or epileptic fits among others. Experiments show that it was not by means of drugs, because the physiological effects of those drugs, including loss of motor control, are inconsistent with the ability to fight well, which is an essential requirement in the berserkir’s job description. Psychological or neurological causes are plausible but do not fit all descriptions of berserkir and it is unlikely that a single psychological cause is the root of the berserker fit. It is more likely that they did not actually go berserk in the modern meaning of the term. Instead, the apparent symptoms of the berserker fit were probably posturing before battle. To bolster their own courage and frighten the enemy they howled and bit their shields.
Thus, in pre-Christian Scandinavia berserkir were members of a royal retinue, who initiated newcomers to the warband and may have had a religious function. The berserker fit was probably more show than substance, a display designed to frighten the other side. The berserkr was a professional warrior, not a psychopathic lunatic nudist, who might just ‘pop’ at any given moment.
It is worth noting at this point that our written sources are predominantly from the thirteenth century and later, while the Viking Age ended in the eleventh century, thus giving a two hundred year gap between the pagan berserkr and the Christian authors writing about them. This is significant for our interpretation of them. Also, the above description relates specifically to the pagan berserkr as he probably was in the Viking Age. The literary berserkr is a different beast in many ways and there is also a high- and late-medieval concept of the berserkr that is related but different again. I plan to return to all of these subjects and treat of them in more detail later, if only to clarify my own thinking further by writing here.