Such is the mind of a fiction writer, and perhaps especially a fantasy writer, that the strange, the unusual, anything that simply must have a story behind it to explain things, proves utterly intriguing. It doesn’t take much, just a hint of an anomaly, or a whiff of the peculiar, and imagination takes flight.
This occurred when I heard mention of berserkers recently. I can’t even remember the reference, just that I immediately began imagining what could possibly cause the sort of behavior displayed by berserkers (of which I had heard of quite a few times before but knew little, save that they were warriors who fought in a frenzy). And plenty of questions flooded my mind. Did such warriors exist? What caused their prowess? Where did the tales come from? And so forth.
A little exploration online turned up some interesting stories, which were, by and large, consistent (though I’m by no means enough of an expert in Norse history/mythology to judge their complete veracity).
Terrifying in appearance and even more so in battle, berserkers, or berserks, were Norse warriors. They frequently appeared in old Norse literature and legends, but the fact that in 1015 King Eirik outlawed berserkers in Norway and in 1123 Iceland did as well, suggests that berserkers did exist. They fought in an uncontrolled fury, an almost trance-like rage that has since received a variety of explanations–drug consumption, cultic activity, and mental disorders to name a few. But regardless of the source of their behavior, their aggression, rage, and superhuman strength made them formidable foes, and it was said that neither fire nor any kind of edged weapon could harm them (though the more likely explanation is that battle rage so consumed them that they continued to fight regardless of injuries received).
After the heat of battle passed, a period of intense exhaustion would follow, a time of vulnerability for the berserkers. As you might guess, despite their prowess in war, the berserks were not loved, for they might turn on friends as well as foes in “battle madness.”
Many of the stories I encountered pointed toward a spiritual explanation. When Iceland became Christianized, they viewed berserker activity as part of the pagan/cultic practices present in the country (thus the decree that outlawed it), and certain descriptions of their behavior simply seem to align with demonic influence. In fact, one early 20th century history record bluntly describes their activity as such.
Though I didn’t expect the information to take a turn in this direction, it (like so many of the oddities of our world) provides potential story fodder. Now, I doubt berserk warriors will make it into my novels (though you never know), but it’s certainly interesting to consider. After all, who doesn’t love a good redemption tale? And who might need redemption more than a berserker, entrapped in a life of darkness?
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