One of the more peculiar elements in ancient Norse sagas were tales involving a specialized group of Viking warriors known as the berserkers or berserks.
Unlike the regular Viking fighters, these attackers wore no armour, but plunged into battle dressed in the skins of wolves or bears, taking advantage of the natural human fear of wild beasts. The berserks fought so fiercely, it was believed they were actually able to shape-shift and turn into wild predators.
In preparation for battle, the berserkers entered a state of near-madness which endowed them with superhuman strength. The condition began with shivering and chills, followed by their faces swelling and changing colour. They were then seized by fits of anger which grew until they erupted into a lengthy period of uncontrollable rage.
The berserkers would scream and howl like wild animals and gnaw mindlessly on the edge of their shields. As the battle began, they advanced wildly, seeming to lose all human reason and cut down everything in their path, friend or foe. They were so strong, no one or nothing could withstand their assault.
In this state of frenzy, they were oblivious to pain. Even though, in rare cases, they were mortally wounded, they continued fighting, thus further terrifying an opponent.
Even their appearance instilled terror. They were described as horribly ugly, resembling giants or trolls. Berserks were closely identified with the god Odin and it was believed they had the power to blunt opposing weapons with a glance. Also, it often appeared that the animal skins they wore deflected any blows that threatened to hit their targets.
At least two Danish kings, Halfdan (c. 810-860), and Harald (c. 850- 933), are reported to have used them as shock troopers. Unfortunately, the berserkers also caused death and destruction in their own communities.
The Norse sagas relate that they would frequently rampage through peaceful Viking villages, robbing and pillaging, destroying property and livestock, looting and killing the populace and abducting beautiful young women. Of course, as the saga proceeded, the Viking hero would have to speed to the rescue.
There was only one way to overcome the berserkers. Following each episode of frenzy, they were left in state of extreme weakness, which lasted from one to several days. If the hero could catch the berserker during this interlude, he could exact his revenge.
Modern scholars have offered different theories to explain the berserkers’ bouts of frenzy: the consumption of hallucinatory plants, such as the agaric mushroom or bog myrtle, drinking massive quantities of alcohol, self-induced hysteria, epilepsy, mental illness or genetic flaws.
In 1015 AD King Erik outlawed berserkers. How they were actually terminated is left to the reader’s imagination..
Unintentionally, the berserkers left an interesting legacy: their name in a commonly used expression: “going berserk”. If you’ve read this article through to the end,, you’ll probably remember them just as I will, every time you hear or use the those words from now on.
Reference: The Viking Answer Lady
Date accessed: August 10, 2009
Web address: http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/berserke.shtml