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Berserker

Berserker

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Berserkers were Norse
Norsemen
Norsemen is used to refer to the group of people as a whole who spoke what is now called the Old Norse language belonging to the North Germanic branch of Indo-European languages, especially Norwegian, Icelandic, Faroese, Swedish and Danish in their earlier forms.The meaning of Norseman was "people...

 warrior
Warrior
A warrior is a person skilled in combat or warfare, especially within the context of a tribal or clan-based society that recognizes a separate warrior class.-Warrior classes in tribal culture:...

s who are reported in the Old Norse literature
Old Norse literature
Old Norse literature refers to the vernacular literature of the Scandinavian peoples up to ca. 1350. It chiefly consists of Icelandic writings.See:* Old Norse poetry* Edda* Norse saga* Icelanders' sagas* Kings' sagas* Legendary sagas...

 to have fought in a nearly uncontrollable, trance
Trance
Trance denotes a variety of processes, ecstasy, techniques, modalities and states of mind, awareness and consciousness. Trance states may occur involuntarily and unbidden.The term trance may be associated with meditation, magic, flow, and prayer...

-like fury, a characteristic which later gave rise to the English word berserk. Berserkers are attested in numerous Old Norse sources. Most historian
Historian
A historian is a person who studies and writes about the past and is regarded as an authority on it. Historians are concerned with the continuous, methodical narrative and research of past events as relating to the human race; as well as the study of all history in time. If the individual is...

s believe that berserkers worked themselves into a rage before battle, but some think that they might have consumed drug
Drug
A drug, broadly speaking, is any substance that, when absorbed into the body of a living organism, alters normal bodily function. There is no single, precise definition, as there are different meanings in drug control law, government regulations, medicine, and colloquial usage.In pharmacology, a...

ged foods.

The Úlfhéðnar (singular Úlfhéðinn), mentioned in the Vatnsdœla saga, Haraldskvæði and the Völsunga saga
Volsunga saga
The Völsungasaga is a legendary saga, a late 13th century Icelandic prose rendition of the origin and decline of the Völsung clan . It is largely based on epic poetry...

, were said to wear the pelt of a wolf when they entered battle. Úlfhéðnar are sometimes described as Odin
Odin
Odin is a major god in Norse mythology and the ruler of Asgard. Homologous with the Anglo-Saxon "Wōden" and the Old High German "Wotan", the name is descended from Proto-Germanic "*Wodanaz" or "*Wōđanaz"....

's special warriors, with the pelt from a wolf and a spear
Spear
A spear is a pole weapon consisting of a shaft, usually of wood, with a pointed head.The head may be simply the sharpened end of the shaft itself, as is the case with bamboo spears, or it may be made of a more durable material fastened to the shaft, such as flint, obsidian, iron, steel or...

 as distinguishing features.


Etymology


The name berserker arose from their reputed habit of wearing a kind of shirt or coat (Old Norse
Old Norse
Old Norse is a North Germanic language that was spoken by inhabitants of Scandinavia and inhabitants of their overseas settlements during the Viking Age, until about 1300....

: serkr) made from the pelt
Fur
Fur is a synonym for hair, used more in reference to non-human animals, usually mammals; particularly those with extensives body hair coverage. The term is sometimes used to refer to the body hair of an animal as a complete coat, also known as the "pelage". Fur is also used to refer to animal...

 of a bear (Old Norse
Old Norse
Old Norse is a North Germanic language that was spoken by inhabitants of Scandinavia and inhabitants of their overseas settlements during the Viking Age, until about 1300....

: ber-) during battle.

The term comes from old Norwegian berserkr (plural berserkir), meaning bear shirt and suggests a robe. In earlier studies, the element ber- was often misinterpreted as berr-, meaning "bare", understood as indicating that the berserkers fought naked. This view has since been largely abandoned.

Attestations



Berserkers appear prominently in a multitude of other sagas
Sagàs
Sagàs is a small town and municipality located in Catalonia, in the comarca of Berguedà. It is located in the geographical area of the pre-Pyrenees.-Population:...

 and poems, many of which describe berserkers as ravenous men who loot
Looting
Looting —also referred to as sacking, plundering, despoiling, despoliation, and pillaging—is the indiscriminate taking of goods by force as part of a military or political victory, or during a catastrophe, such as during war, natural disaster, or rioting...

, plunder, and kill indiscriminately.

The earliest surviving reference to the term "berserker" is in Haraldskvæði, a skaldic poem composed by Thórbiörn Hornklofi in the late 9th century in honour of King Harald Fairhair, as ulfheðnar ("men clad in wolf skins"). This translation from the Haraldskvæði saga describes Harald's berserkers:
The Icelandic historian and poet Snorri Sturluson
Snorri Sturluson
Snorri Sturluson was an Icelandic historian, poet, and politician. He was twice elected lawspeaker at the Icelandic parliament, the Althing...

 (1179–1241) wrote the following description of berserkers in his Ynglinga saga
Ynglinga saga
Ynglinga saga is a legendary saga, originally written in Old Norse by the Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson about 1225. It was first translated into English and published in 1844....

:
King Harald Fairhair's use of berserker "shock troops
Shock troops
Shock troops or assault troops are formations created to lead an attack. "Shock troop" is a loose translation of the German word Stoßtrupp...

" broadened his sphere of influence. Other Scandinavia
Scandinavia
Scandinavia is a cultural, historical and ethno-linguistic region in northern Europe that includes the three kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, characterized by their common ethno-cultural heritage and language. Modern Norway and Sweden proper are situated on the Scandinavian Peninsula,...

n kings used berserkers as part of their army
Army
An army An army An army (from Latin arma "arms, weapons" via Old French armée, "armed" (feminine), in the broadest sense, is the land-based military of a nation or state. It may also include other branches of the military such as the air force via means of aviation corps...

 of hirdmen and sometimes ranked them as equivalent to a royal bodyguard
Bodyguard
A bodyguard is a type of security operative or government agent who protects a person—usually a famous, wealthy, or politically important figure—from assault, kidnapping, assassination, stalking, loss of confidential information, terrorist attack or other threats.Most important public figures such...

. It may be that some of those warriors only adopted the organization or rituals of berserk männerbünde, or used the name as a deterrent or claim of their ferocity.

Emphasis has been placed on the frenzied nature of the berserkers, hence the modern sense of the word 'berserk.' However, the sources describe several other characteristics that have been ignored or neglected by modern commentators. Snorri's assertion that 'neither fire nor iron told upon them' is reiterated time after time, and the sources frequently state that neither edged weapons nor fire affected the berserks, although they were not immune to clubs or other blunt instruments. For example:
Similarly, Hrolf Kraki
Hrólf Kraki
Hrólfr Kraki, Hroðulf, Rolfo, Roluo, Rolf Krage was a legendary Danish king who appears in both Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian tradition. His name would in his own language have been *Hrōþiwulfaz .Both traditions describe him as a Danish Scylding, the nephew of Hroðgar and the grandson of Healfdene...

's champions refuse to retreat 'from fire or iron.' Another frequent motif refers to berserkers blunting their enemy's blades with spells, or a glance from their evil eyes. This appears as early as Beowulf
Beowulf
Beowulf , but modern scholars agree in naming it after the hero whose life is its subject." of an Old English heroic epic poem consisting of 3182 alliterative long lines, set in Scandinavia, commonly cited as one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature.It survives in a single...

 where it is a characteristic attributed to Grendel
Grendel
Grendel is one of three antagonists, along with Grendel's mother and the dragon, in the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf . Grendel is usually depicted as a monster, though this is the subject of scholarly debate. In the poem, Grendel is feared by all but Beowulf.-Story:The poem Beowulf is contained in...

. Both the fire eating and the immunity to edged weapons are reminiscent of tricks popularly ascribed to Hindu
Hindu
Hindu refers to an identity associated with the philosophical, religious and cultural systems that are indigenous to the Indian subcontinent. As used in the Constitution of India, the word "Hindu" is also attributed to all persons professing any Indian religion...

 fakir
Fakir
The fakir or faqir ; ) Derived from faqr is a Muslim Sufi ascetic in Middle East and South Asia. The Faqirs were wandering Dervishes teaching Islam and living on alms....

s.

In 1015, Jarl
Earl
An earl is a member of the nobility. The title is Anglo-Saxon, akin to the Scandinavian form jarl, and meant "chieftain", particularly a chieftain set to rule a territory in a king's stead. In Scandinavia, it became obsolete in the Middle Ages and was replaced with duke...

 Eiríkr Hákonarson
Eiríkr Hákonarson
Eiríkr Hákonarson or Eric of Norway or Eric of Hlathir was earl of Lade, ruler of Norway and earl of Northumbria.-Background:...

 of Norway
Norway
Norway , officially the Kingdom of Norway, is a Nordic unitary constitutional monarchy whose territory comprises the western portion of the Scandinavian Peninsula, Jan Mayen, and the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard and Bouvet Island. Norway has a total area of and a population of about 4.9 million...

 outlawed berserkers. Grágás, the medieval Iceland
Iceland
Iceland , described as the Republic of Iceland, is a Nordic and European island country in the North Atlantic Ocean, on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Iceland also refers to the main island of the country, which contains almost all the population and almost all the land area. The country has a population...

ic law code, sentenced berserker warriors to outlawry. By the 12th century, organised berserker war-bands had disappeared.

Theories


Scholar Hilda Ellis-Davidson draws a parallel between berserkers and the mention by the Byzantine
Byzantine
Byzantine usually refers to the Roman Empire during the Middle Ages.Byzantine may also refer to:* A citizen of the Byzantine Empire, or native Greek during the Middle Ages...

 emperor
Emperor
An emperor is a monarch, usually the sovereign ruler of an empire or another type of imperial realm. Empress, the female equivalent, may indicate an emperor's wife or a woman who rules in her own right...

 Constantine VII
Constantine VII
Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos or Porphyrogenitus, "the Purple-born" was the fourth Emperor of the Macedonian dynasty of the Byzantine Empire, reigning from 913 to 959...

 (AD 905–959) in her book De cerimoniis aulae byzantinae
De Ceremoniis
De Ceremoniis is the Latin title of a description of ceremonial protocol at the court of the Eastern Roman emperor in Constantinople. It is sometimes called De ceremoniis aulae byzantinae...

("Book of Ceremonies of the Byzantine court") of a "Gothic
Goths
The Goths were an East Germanic tribe of Scandinavian origin whose two branches, the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, played an important role in the fall of the Roman Empire and the emergence of Medieval Europe....

 Dance" performed by members of his Varangian Guard (Norse warriors working in the service of the Byzantine Empire
Byzantine Empire
The Byzantine Empire was the Eastern Roman Empire during the periods of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, centred on the capital of Constantinople. Known simply as the Roman Empire or Romania to its inhabitants and neighbours, the Empire was the direct continuation of the Ancient Roman State...

), who took part wearing animal skins and masks: she believes this may have been connected with berserker rites.

The actual fit of madness the berserker experienced was referred to as berserkergang ("going berserk"). This condition has been described as follows:
Theories about what caused berserker behaviour include ingestion of materials with psychoactive properties, psychological processes, and medical conditions.

Modern scholars believe certain examples of berserker rage to have been induced voluntarily by the consumption of drugs
DRUGS
Destroy Rebuild Until God Shows are an American post-hardcore band formed in 2010. They released their debut self-titled album on February 22, 2011.- Formation :...

 such as the hallucinogenic mushroom
Mushroom
A mushroom is the fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting body of a fungus, typically produced above ground on soil or on its food source. The standard for the name "mushroom" is the cultivated white button mushroom, Agaricus bisporus; hence the word "mushroom" is most often applied to those fungi that...

 Amanita muscaria
Amanita muscaria
Amanita muscaria, commonly known as the fly agaric or fly amanita , is a poisonous and psychoactive basidiomycete fungus, one of many in the genus Amanita...

, commonly known as the fly agaric or fly Amanita, or massive amounts of alcohol
Alcohol
In chemistry, an alcohol is an organic compound in which the hydroxy functional group is bound to a carbon atom. In particular, this carbon center should be saturated, having single bonds to three other atoms....

. While such practices would fit in with ritual
Ritual
A ritual is a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value. It may be prescribed by a religion or by the traditions of a community. The term usually excludes actions which are arbitrarily chosen by the performers....

 usages, other explanations for the berserker's madness have been put forward, including self-induced hysteria
Hysteria
Hysteria, in its colloquial use, describes unmanageable emotional excesses. People who are "hysterical" often lose self-control due to an overwhelming fear that may be caused by multiple events in one's past that involved some sort of severe conflict; the fear can be centered on a body part, or,...

, epilepsy
Epilepsy
Epilepsy is a common chronic neurological disorder characterized by seizures. These seizures are transient signs and/or symptoms of abnormal, excessive or hypersynchronous neuronal activity in the brain.About 50 million people worldwide have epilepsy, and nearly two out of every three new cases...

, mental illness
Mental illness
A mental disorder or mental illness is a psychological or behavioral pattern generally associated with subjective distress or disability that occurs in an individual, and which is not a part of normal development or culture. Such a disorder may consist of a combination of affective, behavioural,...

 or genetic
Genetics
Genetics , a discipline of biology, is the science of genes, heredity, and variation in living organisms....

 flaws.

Jonathan Shay, MD
Jonathan Shay
Jonathan Shay is a doctor and clinical psychiatrist. He holds a B.A from Harvard and an M.D. and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. His early medical work was with the behaviour of brain cells in and after strokes, but after suffering a stroke and financial hard times, he began work...

, makes an explicit connection between the berserker rage of soldiers and the hyperarousal of post-traumatic stress disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Posttraumaticstress disorder is a severe anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to any event that results in psychological trauma. This event may involve the threat of death to oneself or to someone else, or to one's own or someone else's physical, sexual, or psychological integrity,...

. In Achilles in Vietnam he writes:

Modern context


The word "berserker" today applies to anyone who fights with reckless abandon and disregard to even his own life, a concept used during the Vietnam War
Vietnam War
The Vietnam War was a Cold War-era military conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. This war followed the First Indochina War and was fought between North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies, and the government of...

 and in Vietnam-inspired literature
Literature
Literature is the art of written works, and is not bound to published sources...

 (Michael Herr
Michael Herr
Michael Herr is a writer and former war correspondent, best known as the author of Dispatches , a memoir of his time as a correspondent for Esquire magazine during the Vietnam War...

's Dispatches
Dispatches (book)
Dispatches is a New Journalism book by Michael Herr that describes the author's experiences in Vietnam as a war correspondent for Esquire magazine. First published in 1977, Dispatches was one of the first pieces of American literature that allowed Americans to understand the experiences of soldiers...

) and film
Film
A film, also called a movie or motion picture, is a series of still or moving images. It is produced by recording photographic images with cameras, or by creating images using animation techniques or visual effects...

 (Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone
William Oliver Stone is an American film director, producer and screenwriter. Stone became well known in the late 1980s and the early 1990s for directing a series of films about the Vietnam War, for which he had previously participated as an infantry soldier. His work frequently focuses on...

's Platoon
Platoon (film)
Platoon is a 1986 American war film written and directed by Oliver Stone and stars Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe and Charlie Sheen. It is the first of Stone's Vietnam War trilogy, followed by 1989's Born on the Fourth of July and 1993's Heaven & Earth....

 and Adrian Lyne
Adrian Lyne
Adrian Lyne is an English filmmaker and producer. He is best known for directing films that focus on sexually charged characters and often uses natural light, a fog machine and other effects to create eroticized atmospheres...

's Jacob's Ladder
Jacob's Ladder (film)
Jacob's Ladder is a 1990 American psychological thriller/horror film directed by Adrian Lyne, based on a screenplay by Bruce Joel Rubin.-Plot:Jacob Singer is a U.S. soldier deployed in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War...

).
"Going berserk" in this context refers to an overdose of adrenaline-induced opioids in the human body and brain leading a soldier
Soldier
A soldier is a member of the land component of national armed forces; whereas a soldier hired for service in a foreign army would be termed a mercenary...

 to fight with fearless rage and indifference, a state strikingly similar to that of the 9th century berserkers observed in this article.

"Going berserk" is also used colloquially to describe a person who is acting in a wild rage or in an uncontrolled and irrational manner. "Berserker" is also a well known character Archetype in video games and other media.

In popular culture


Berserkers as depicted in the Beowulf
Beowulf
Beowulf , but modern scholars agree in naming it after the hero whose life is its subject." of an Old English heroic epic poem consisting of 3182 alliterative long lines, set in Scandinavia, commonly cited as one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature.It survives in a single...

 epic are incorporated as mysterious and fearsome enemies in Michael Crichton
Michael Crichton
John Michael Crichton , best known as Michael Crichton, was an American best-selling author, producer, director, and screenwriter, best known for his work in the science fiction, medical fiction, and thriller genres. His books have sold over 200 million copies worldwide, and many have been adapted...

's Eaters of the Dead
Eaters of the Dead
Eaters of the Dead: The Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan Relating His Experiences with the Northmen in A.D. 922 is a 1976 novel by Michael Crichton...

 novel (1976), and in its film adaptation The 13th Warrior
The 13th Warrior
The 13th Warrior is a 1999 historical fiction action film starring Antonio Banderas as Ahmad ibn Fadlan and Vladimir Kulich as Buliwyf; it is based on the novel Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton. It was directed by John McTiernan and an uncredited Crichton.The 13th Warrior is regarded as a...

 (1999).
Berserkers are also depicted in the warhammer 40000 universe as warriors in service to the chaos god of war, Khorne.

See also

  • Battle trance
    Battle trance
    Battle trance is a term denoting a specific altered state of consciousness that characterizes the psychological state of combatants during a combat situation. In this state, combatants do not feel fear or pain , and all the individual members of group are acting as one collective organism...

  • Going postal
    Going postal
    Going postal, in American English slang, means becoming extremely and uncontrollably angry, often to the point of violence, and usually in a workplace environment....

  • Harii
    Harii
    The Harii were a Germanic people attested by Tacitus as being a tribe in his 1st-century-AD book Germania. He describes them as painting themselves and their shields black, and attacking at night as a ghostly army, much to the terror of their opponents...

    , a Germanic tribe
  • Trance
    Trance
    Trance denotes a variety of processes, ecstasy, techniques, modalities and states of mind, awareness and consciousness. Trance states may occur involuntarily and unbidden.The term trance may be associated with meditation, magic, flow, and prayer...

  • Warp spasm

External links