The lost pages of history keep many secrets about warriors from ancient times. Much of what survives is fragmented, offering clues of a wilder, more dangerous and stranger time.
In some cases only rumors and misunderstood accounts survive, and this is certainly the case with one of the most notorious of the Viking warriors, the mighty berserkers. Feared for their ferocity in battle, these terrifying, crazed warriors had earned themselves a unique reputation for their knack for violence.
Behemoth warriors, donning bearskin hoods and charging bare-chested at the enemy in a trance-like fury, the appearance of berserkers could be enough to drive the enemy to surrender. Well, at least that is the modern picture painted of such men.
But were the berserkers real? And if so, then why is there so limited documented evidence about them? Where did the stories come from?
What were Berserkers?
Berserkers have been mentioned frequently in Norse and Germanic history as well as folklore. In the early part of the Viking Age, many military groups evolved and worked under a single king. However, in the post-pagan world of Christianity there is almost no mention of berserkers.
When you hear the word “berserk”, you would most likely think of someone completely out of control, often in a physical way. As this gives a good starting point for the Norse warriors who themselves went “berserk” and the key feature of such fighters, in that they attack without concern for their own safety.
What were the berserkers like? The general description of berserkers suggests that they were regular warriors with a special capability for entering into a trance. During the war, berserkers conducted rituals such as howling like wolves and biting their shields before the battle. This is heavily pagan and perhaps a reason they disappeared as the Norse converted to Christianity.
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The animal skin attire must have served as one of the most primal weapons of berserkers for striking fear in the enemy. On top of it, berserkers carried this trance into battle, where they would savagely attack any who were in range, without holding back any punches, friend or foe.
The mere mention of berserkers had the power to make enemy soldiers break their ranks. As exciting as the feat of berserkers in battle sounds, it is thought that they were only in such a state for a few moments only. Afterward, the berserkers would lose their aggressiveness and would become weaker and docile, exhausted by their fury.
Real Warriors or Fictional Boogeymen?
The importance of exaggerating the fighting prowess of shock troops has long been understood by battlefield generals. While such accounts of berserkers in battle and myths of their battle rituals have deepened the mystery about them, they must also be understood through the lens of terror: if you can frighten an enemy into defeat, you reduce your own losses to zero.
Most of the depictions of berserkers in popular culture have accordingly shown them as almost supernatural beings, making us think of berserkers almost as fictional boogeymen. Maybe a few distraught soldiers shared exaggerated accounts of their Viking foes. However, some traces of the history of berserkers exist: it seems they were real at some point.
Somewhere around 800 AD, during the beginning of the Viking Age, we find the first instance of berserkers fighting for King Harald Fairhair. Contrary to public assumptions, berserkers served as royal guards to Scandinavian kings. They have been known to live long careers and have fought many battles in medieval Scandinavia.
On top of it, archaeological findings have suggested that berserkers fought for many other royal causes and other kings. Berserkers were elite units in battles and had built a unique reputation for wild and reckless combat.
So, why doubt the existence of berserkers in the first place. Why would anyone try to brush off such an elite military unit from the pages of history as a myth? Rather than passing off the blame to kings who had histories written according to their whims, it is important to think of the common perception regarding berserkers.
For example, many accounts show that berserkers fought with bare bodies and had little concern for public civility. In addition, berserkers have been compared to animals based on their attire, with some stories holding that berserkers were shapeshifters, able to assume animal form.
On top of it, the Norse warriors had been portrayed as immune to swords and fire when they were in a trance. All of these put together would obviously paint the berserkers as barbaric savages, users of witchcraft and therefore unholy.
And in reality, berserkers might have served an extremely useful purpose in battle. The mythical representation of berserkers, however, has little to offer about what their life was like. The only thing anyone could say about berserkers is that they were reckless and wild warriors with a special knack for violence.
How Do You Make Yourself Berserk?
This is not an easy question for modern researchers to answer. Video games and movies have shown that berserkers are consumed by sudden rage, which elevates their physical capabilities in battle. However, how was this achieved, what caused it?
Evidence of hallucinogenic drugs such as fly agaric or henbane being the potential candidates for the trance-like state of berserkers shows that warriors did it on purpose. There are also stories of Māori warriors tying wet goat intestines around their testicles before they went into combat: as the goat intestines dried they would shrink, rendering the warriors berserk.
Given the ferocity, it is understandable how berserkers could overrun a battlefield. Think of a battle in which a group of heavily armored men with bear heads and wolf heads over them ran towards the enemy. Top it up with lots of howling and the aggressive aura of drugged Norse warriors as if they are riding to Valhalla.
The sight must have been quite fearsome for the enemy lines. Some other historians also argue that alcohol might be one of the candidates for the rage of berserkers. From the medical perspective, behaviors such as biting shields and immunity to fire and swords must have been the symptoms of self-induced hysteria in the heat of battle.
The historical accounts of berserkers and the mythical folklore associated with them show clear evidence of overlap. However, there is limited credible evidence regarding the life of berserkers other than the accounts in Viking poems. Centuries after they dominated the battlefields of Europe, berserkers have been lost in the dark corners of myth and mystery. Who were these strange men, among the greatest and most notorious warriors in the Viking age?
Top Image: Were real Viking warriors anything like the berserkers of legend? Source: Breakermaximus / Adobe Stock.
By Bipin Dimri
Hjardar, K, 2020. What were berserkers? Available at: https://www.historyextra.com/period/viking/the-truth-about-viking-berserkers/
Raven, R, 2021. The Viking Berserkers Were Norse Warriors Who Entered A Trance-Like Rage During Battle. Available at: https://allthatsinteresting.com/berserker
Ouellette, J, 2019. How Vikings Went Into a Trancelike Rage Before Battle. Available at: https://wired.com/story/how-vikings-went-into-trancelike-rage-before-battle/