Some ruminations inspired by ‘The Myths and Realities of the Viking berserkr’

I received my author copies of my new book just before Christmas. When the postie knocked on the door, I was surprised, because I was not expecting them quite as early as they turned up. It was lovely to actually have physical copies of the book in my hands. It has been a long journey to get from the start of my PhD to this point, and I hope readers of the book think it was worth it.

Analysing the berserkr in Old Norse literature and the Viking Age is a fascinating topic. It has engaged people for 400 years at least, and each generation has found themselves and their research interests in that analysis. Studying the reception of berserkir through the ages is equally fascinating because of the range of theories and ideas propounded. It is also a subject that many people are interested in outside academia. Berserkir are an integral part of the pop culture viking. They may even be the archetype of a viking in popular culture. With that in mind, it has been interesting to see responses ‘in the wild’ to the thesis this book is based on.

About the same time as my thesis was submitted, Lindybeige on Youtube approached me about making a video about my conclusions. He did a pretty good job of representing my main conclusions in a 12-minute video that garnered a lot of responses running the whole gamut from enthusiastic engagement with the idea that being a berserkr was a social status, not a pathology, to outright rejection of my conclusions and stating that I am so wrong that I should hand back my thesis.

A Youtube response

Lindybeige’s video also resulted in at least three response videos claiming to refute my conclusions. One of these has since disappeared because the poster was banned from Youtube. The two remaining ones show how much people feel the need for berserkir to have existed in the form they take in modern popular culture and how much this appears to be an emotional need for the romance of the vikings to have been real.

Similar discussions happened on Reddit and on wargaming pages like the Society of Ancients forum. These have highlighted for me several interesting points about how people engage with this topic, what sources they deem credible and how they use those sources. I don’t really have any deep conclusions or discussion about them, but I highlight them because they piqued my curiosity and made me wonder.

Firstly, there are people’s reactions to being presented with new research and conclusions. Many receive them with enthusiasm. Others react strongly against the new ideas. Nothing new in that, I hear you say. True. Still, it surprised me how vehement some people were. It rather felt like their identity was being challenged. I wonder to what extent this type of response has been researched.

Secondly, there was the way in which people deployed arguments. I was struck by how often people quoted a translation of a text, as if it were the text, and without further explanation. It is fascinating to see, and reminds me of nothing so much as the envangelical Christians who used to knock on my door and ask me to read a verse from the Bible. I think in both cases, one is expected to have an epiphany upon reading the text. Again, I wonder to what extent this has been researched. It does highlight for me that people often do not recognise that a translation is not the original text. Mind you, as Judith Jesch memorably demonstrated at a Midlands Viking Symposium, neither translations nor the editions we use are the original text, and the fact that we expect there to be one original canonical text is a flawed premise rooted in our own presentism and expectations of texts. The Old Norse texts we study existed and exist in many variations. Likewise, translations are products of their time and rooted in the research of their time. The translator makes decisions that shape how we perceive and receive the text. Changes in language usage can mean that we receive older translations differently from how the contemporary audience for that translation would have received it.

Thirdly, it is interesting to note how even those who accept the idea of berserksgangr as performance will often say something along the lines of “Ah yes, but when does performing madness spill over into becoming mad?” When I argue that berserksgangr was a performance with social and cultural meaning that is lost to us, it immediately becomes performing madness in people’s minds, even though that is not what I have proposed. The battle-mad berserker of popular culture is one of several realities that berserkir have. It just isn’t a medieval or Viking Age reality. However, the popular view of berserkir as mad warriors is so strongly ingrained in the language we use to describe the historical realities too that it is hugely difficult to imagine anything different.

Finally, I am intrigued by the response where commenters ask what Scandinavian members of the relevant forum think of my research. I hear similar stories from museum worker friends. Museum visitors often privilege the information gleaned from natives of the land they are in over that from non-native, but better qualified, guides. It is somehow deemed more ‘authentic’.

I don’t have a direct response to any of these. However, I have tried to keep them in mind while redrafting and updating my thesis into book form. I hope that reframing my analysis as more clearly medial in nature addresses the substance and concerns of some of the comments. One goal has been to highlight the difference between medieval reception of berserkir and modern reception of them. Similarly, with regard to berserksgangr, I have tried to make it clearer that my analysis shows that berserkir were not seen by the medieval saga audience to be performing madness. It only looks like madness to us because the lack of detailed description and the lack of cultural context for their activities has been interpreted that way by scholars for so long that it has become received wisdom. It will be interesting to see if I have succeeded in this goal. I am not sure how I would measure that success, except perhaps if the Dictionary of Old Norse Prose definition for berserksgangr gets changed. Either way, the book is out now in hardback, Vitalsource ebook and Kindle editions. A paperback edition is due to be published at the end of 2022. If you read it, I hope you enjoy it and find it useful.

About ruarigh

Historical consultant, archaeologist and peripatetic berserkerologist. My PhD was a cognitive analysis and textual archaeology of the Old Norse berserkr in popular culture from the early medieval period to the present day.
This entry was posted in Berserkir, Books, Reception and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Some ruminations inspired by ‘The Myths and Realities of the Viking berserkr’

  1. Pingback: No Amanita – Some Berserkers Were Even Christian | Letter from Hardscrabble Creek

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