Crazy Facts About Viking Berserkers, History's Extreme Norse Warrior-Shamans
The Vikings were known throughout Europe as fierce warriors, and no discussion of Viking warrior culture is complete without an examination of the history of berserkers, a particularly wild, violent sect of Norsemen. Berserkers entered a state of animalistic frenzy before combat. This bizarre cult of crazies was eventually outlawed, even in the warrior culture of the Scandinavian Middle Ages, but not before making their mark on history.
If you're interested in Norse berserker history, look no further than this list. Here you will find wild berserker facts and learn about the Viking berserker drugs imbibed before these beastly warriors enter the fray of war. Hold onto your battle-ax because things are about to get kinda berserk.
They Marched Into War Completely Naked, Except For An Animal PeltPhoto: John Charles Dollman / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Berserkers were a special group of elite Viking warriors who went into combat without traditional armor. Instead, they wore animal pelts, typically from bears or wolves. The word "berserker" derives from the Old Norse "serkr," meaning "coat" or "shirt," and "ber," the Norse word for "bear."
Also, they were naked under the pelt. At least according to legend.
They Lived Like Marauders In The Woods, Braving Harsh Scandinavian Winters AlonePhoto: Knud Bergslien / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Like all traditional members of shamanic secret societies, berserkers acquired their power through ritualistic practice. These practices included spending periods in extreme isolation, fasting, exposure to extreme heat and cold, and engaging in group weapon dances prior to combat.
In the wilderness, berserkers lived like their totem animal, adopting its mannerisms and habits, sustaining themselves by hunting and raiding settlements.
They Entered Battle In A Psychotic Frenzy And Ripped Enemy Soldiers To ShredsPhoto: Christian Krohg / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Berserkers are historically described as taking part in rituals that, before battle, would induce a trancelike collective state called berserkergang:
This fury, which was called berserkergang, occurred not only in the heat of battle, but also during laborious work. Men who were thus seized performed things which otherwise seemed impossible for human power. This condition is said to have begun with shivering, chattering of the teeth, and chill in the body, and then the face swelled and changed its colour. With this was connected a great hot-headedness, which at last gave over into a great rage, under which they howled as wild animals, bit the edge of their shields, and cut down everything they met without discriminating between friend or foe.
While in this frenzied state, berserkers lost all human capacity for reason or self-cognizance, and were known to scream and howl constantly, and rip enemies to shreds with their bare hands.
They Ingested Psychedelic Mushrooms And Alcohol Before BattlesPhoto: Andreas Bloch / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Though there's no definitive proof as to whether or not berserkers got blitzed before charging into battle, it's hypothesized that they used both magic mushrooms and obscene quantities of alcohol.
Writing in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Howard Fabing explains berserkers may have taken Amanita muscaria., a psychedelic mushroom containing bufotenine. In trials, bufotenine has been shown to cause hallucinations and psychophysiological effects consistent with those described in Norse sagas.
It's also possible they drank tons of alcohol. Both shrooms and booze consumption fit contemporary knowledge of Viking rituals, though other reasons for the berserker rage-trance have been suggested, including self-induced hysteria, epilepsy, mental illness, and even genetics.
One Noted Berserker Ate His Own Shield Before Felling Six Enemy ChampionsPhoto: Frank Dicksee / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Berserkers were especially feared in battle because they were perceived as invulnerable to fire, swords, and other iron weapons. An Icelandic poet from the 13th century wrote of one berserker:
...a demoniacal frenzy suddenly took him; he furiously bit and devoured the edges of his shield; he kept gulping down fiery coals; he snatched live embers in his mouth and let them pass down into his entrails; he rushed through the perils of crackling fires; and at last, when he had raved through every sort of madness, he turned his sword with raging hand against the hearts of six of his champions. It is doubtful whether this madness came from thirst for battle or natural ferocity.
So to review, this guy entered a state of frenzied rage, ate his own shield, swallowed fire, ran through flames, and, having exhausted all other methods of proving his insanity, took out six champion fighters.
Refusal to retreat from fire and iron is a common theme in berserker mythology. They feared no weapons.
Their Ultimate Goal Was To Transform Into A Wolf Or BearPhoto: Alfred Wierusz-Kowalski / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Berserkers did more than intimidate through their lack of armor; they also transformed themselves mentally. Not like, "Oh, I need a more positive state of mind, I'm going to read some Pema Chödrön." Nah, son. Berserkers assumed the mental identity of the predators they sought to emulate.
Literally, the goal of the berserker in battle was to assume the identity and characteristics of a bear or a wolf. And not just imitating, mind you. Berserkers were method actors. In fact, becoming a wolf or bear was the ultimate goal of all the drugs, drinking, and ritual in which the berserkers partook. Living in the woods, emulating these animals served as preparation for the transformation, as did entering a frenzied state.
One of the final rituals on this path entailed drinking the blood of a bear or a wolf. Icelandic Viking saga Egils Saga Skallagrímsonar describes a berserker quite literally turning into a bear:
Men saw that a great bear went before King Hrolf's men, keeping always near the king. He slew more men with his forepaws than any five of the king's champions. Blades and weapons glanced off him, and he brought down both men and horses in King Hjorvard's forces, and everything which came in his path he crushed to death with his teeth, so that panic and terror swept through King Hjorvard's army...