Encouraging the nippers

I got involved with a small project for the Beeb over the summer. It was good fun and I am rather chuffed with how it turned out. Hopefully it will encourage more people to be interested in Vikings. Follow the link below to see how it turned out for yourself:

Hands on History site

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Viking Quiz

So you think you know about Vikings? Try this quiz and find out if you really do!

Viking Quiz

It’s not as easy as you might think.

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Scandinavia and the World

This is not really a medieval post as such, although there is some medieval content. Rather, it is a look at how Scandinavia views the rest of the world. Well, sort of. Scandinavia and the World is a webcomic that I enjoy. It is written by a Dane and expresses the Scandinavian view of the rest of the world rather well, as well as the rivalries between the Scandinavian countries. Clicking the picture below will take you to the start of the archive and a trip through the mind of a Dane. Most excellent!

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One area of research that interests me is the Viking in popular culture. I generally look upon it as an excuse to watch Noggin the Nog and call it research. Anyway, leaving Noggin for now, I thought to point you to some webcomics with a Norse theme. This will be an intermittent series about comics I have encountered and enjoyed, for whatever reasons. If it has a Viking or Norse theme, there is a good chance I shall be interested somewhere along the way!

This week we have Brat-halla. What was Asgard like when the gods were still children? And what did Odin’s eye get up to after it had been plucked out? This comic seeks to answer that question. It is currently on hiatus, but you can go back and read the archives. I think that is worth it.

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ber-serkr (-s, -ir), m.

‘bear-sark’, berserker, a wild warrior of the heathen age. (Geir T. Zoëga, A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic)

Berserker: Hell's Warrior
Berserker: Hell’s Warrior

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.

Posted in Berserkir, Thesis | 3 Comments

Blogging, yeah!

I set this blog up a few months back to write about stuff that interests me and might interest other people. The problem is knowing what to write. I am tempted to post random sections of my thesis here. That might entertain me, but it would hardly entertain most other people. It might also cause me problems later in my thesis. On the other hand, it might entertain people to see selections from papers I have given. We shall have to wait and see, I guess. It is also tempting to get the blog to post Dilbert strips here. I can relate to Dilbert in oh so many ways, even though I am not and never have been an engineer. It’s a cubicle thing. That would certainly fill some space. I could comment on how each strip reflects my life. Similarly, I could do the same with Piled Higher and Deeper. That might be entertaining for me, but probably best not. Anyway, I reckon the best option is to just write about what interests me and let anyone that reads this judge its entertainment value on its own merits. So, let’s set out a mission statement:

‘It is our job to competently maintain high-quality intellectual capital while continuing to continually facilitate progressive meta-services’

Um, yes, well I did not write that one. It’s from the Dilbert Mission Statement Generator that once existed online in a place I could find it. Still, I reckon I can take something from it. High quality intellectual capital? Blog posts are intellectual capital, aren’t they? So, I shall competently (or otherwise) maintain high-quality (or possibly merely mediocre) intellectual capital on this blog. Now, about these progressive meta-services. I shall define the meta-service as being providing information about my interest in Viking Age and medieval Scandinavia and related topics. How do I make it progressive? I think I shall just have to try to make some progress with it. That will have to do. And continually? Well, that does not require constant, rapid updates. Weekly posts without interruption might well be construed as continually, so I shall try to do that. That way I can meet the requirements of the mission statement I randomly found online.

Therefore, to meet the requirements of my mission statement, I shall post each week about things related to my interest in Vikings and Scandinavia. Hopefully any that read it will find it of interest. Given that I am prone to going off at a tangent, I do not promise not to post more random wittering though!

Posted in Random Wittering | 2 Comments