Berserkers: Warriors or Madmen?

Myth and Legend

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?

Image credit: FantasyStock

Comments

  • Nichole White
    October 22, 2010 - 2:32 pm · Reply

    Oh wow. What an interesting concept. I’ve read snippets of stories with berserkers in them, usually told in such a way that you feel pity for the character: several of these stories related that the character wished to change, but didn’t know how, in which case you are absolutely right: a tale of redemption would be well thought.

    I’m going to have to consider this some more: definitely food for thought.

    Thanks

    Nichole

    • Sarah Sawyer
      October 22, 2010 - 4:45 pm · Reply

      You’re welcome! I love stumbling across interesting bits from history and legend like this…whether I actually use any of the ideas or not, it still provides fodder for the imagination. 🙂

      I’ve actually never seen berserkers in fiction before, so it’s interesting to hear how you’ve seen them treated elsewhere. This is one of those areas where I think a Christian could handle the story in a powerful way.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      January 18, 2011 - 5:20 pm · Reply

      I’ll have to look up Daughter of the Drow–thanks for the recommendation!

      I agree with you about the inspiration for Tolkien’s shape-shifters. There are some pretty clear connection points. That said, I think he did his part to make them unique and fitting to Middle Earth. While I’d be intimidated to encounter such a person in real life, I’ve always had a soft spot for Beorn.

  • Kittie Wooden
    February 16, 2013 - 2:15 am · Reply

    Having been born in a family that had its men get “angry’ enough to lose knowledge of how to open a car door to get at his enemy, I can say that the “angry” person has vision and consiousness fade out…..when it returns, ropy saliva is drooling from a corner of the mouth, a rhymatic grunting/cough/roar is produced, AND no knowledge of what has happened during the black-out.
    I know I was trained to NEVER lose my temper or self-control. This is proably why it is a rare event. The people subject to this condition are trained by their families to avoid its occcurance.

  • Pritani
    August 31, 2013 - 5:21 pm · Reply

    Please refer to uppsalaonline.com. The author there has an absolutely riveting explanation on the berserker phenomenon, which sounds to me like Kittie Wooden’s take, in which is it is a male sex linked trait that is psychological in origin. This has had me so obsessed, it is a main feature in the book I am writing. The article makes way more sense than previous claims of alcohol or drug induced rage. It is rather like the rages of the Celtic Fianna or the Greek Manaeds.

  • Pritani
    August 31, 2013 - 5:23 pm · Reply

    By the way, Kittie Wooden, I would love to hear more about the men in your family and what training actually takes place. The Norse mercenary in my book, also undergoes training to gain control over himself and I would love to hear a real life take on this.

    • Kittie Wooden
      November 11, 2013 - 1:18 pm · Reply

      I don’t remember any training except ordinary child rearing behavior. Family stories at mealtimes did tend to be life lessons, like “this thing happened and here is how it was handled; what else could have been done and what would have been the best response?”
      One oft-repeated story was “When Timmy was not quite a year old, he was in his walker and got ahold of a breakable thing he was NOT allowed to play with. His dad removed it, giving him a safe toy instead. Timmy got mad, threw away the toy, threw himself back real stiff and held his breath. When he started to go blue in the face, ice water was thrown in his face. This shocked Timmy into gasping for breath. Then, he was grabbed up, given 4 swats on his diaper (which made a loud popping noise), and yelled at in loud, angry fashion. He was not allowed back in his walker for several hours, being held by family members (loss of freedom and independance was not as much fun as being able to move when and where he wished). Repeated explainations were given. “It is BAD to loose your temper like that. Keep your self under control.” He had 5 senses were very sensitive so this sudden overwhelming input was unpleasent to him. No injury or bruiseing occurred, jut shocked senses.
      The whole family took pride in self-control and would help each other to keep control, treating loss of control as an embarrassing weakness or like they went outside without clothes on.

  • Norwegiana
    July 14, 2014 - 4:15 pm · Reply

    It`s interesting, I was raised on this stuff, we had to read the old Edda Poems and such in school. Berserkers did exist, I think one easy way to put it, is that the berserkers were the shock troops, SWAT of the viking age, except their speical weapons and tactics was simply killing everything that moved. Combine that with the strong beliefe that the only way to get to Valhalla (the best place any viking can ever go to) is to die in battle, and you get `madmen`, men so willing to fight that it was pretty much the only thing they wanted to do. Others fight becasue they have to, these guys wanted to. And, alot of the vikings were big and freakishly tough, but the berserkers were the biggest and toughest.

    One interesting thing is that before the beserkers, there was a law that said anyone could challenge anyone to a fight. Meaning, a poor farmer could fight a rich, important guy and if he won, he could take his stuff. Then the berserkser entered the game. And the law was swiftly changed, becasue the rich and powerful got really sick of these huge guys who challenged them and then simply killed them with one hand 4 seconds into round 1, leaving them with their wifes, children, slaves, houses and gold.

  • Hoila Godod
    July 16, 2014 - 7:20 am · Reply

    There is one thing I find interesting and morbidly funny about the berserkers, they were great warriors, the kind of guys you want on your side in a battle. Some kings used them as bodyguards because they were the best. But they were not liked by the other vikings, they were often shunned and forced to live in separate camps. Why? Becasue, a berserker would fight the enemy but if he ran out of enemies, he could easily turn on his own and kill the people he fought with. They had one simple rule; kill everyone and do not stop killing until all enemies are dead. While they did this they worked themselfes into such a rage that they didnt know when to stop. And they got mad outside of battle too, there are many interesting stories about berserkers blowing up in home camp, there was no enemies or trouble but suddenly KA-BOOM, Harak the berserker just killed 8 other vikings becasue he got mad. Crazy times.

  • Devin Walker
    May 15, 2015 - 11:21 am · Reply

    Good information I have been trying to find out more about berserkers due to my viking heritage and also from personal experience you don’t need drugs like that to go into a rage like trance because my sister got her back slapped by a ruler after her surgery which could had paralyzed her i saw her laying on the floor blood coming out of her back and i attacked the kid who did it then i blacked out when i woke up the kid was unconscious and had to be rushed to the hospital i went too because apparently the kid stabbed me with a pair of scissors he found in the room right into my shoulder and man did i feel like hell.

  • Sverdet
    December 3, 2015 - 1:17 am · Reply

    A good fictional read starring a beserker hero/anti-hero is “the blade its self” trilogy. The authors character Logan is a very well depicted bererking warriour. His characters ulter ego “the bloody nine” is the beserk side of Logan. Personally as someone that has suffered from uncontrollable bouts of rage I feel berserking is more a state of mind or survival instinct rather then anything induced by drugs or alcohol although these substances can make one more susceptible to lossing control over ones emotions I don’t feel like they were ever the direct cause at least not for me. I’d also assume just about any human being is more then likely able to enter a berserk state it’s the brains reaction to chemicals released during times of crisis or intense emotion. To the OP I hope you do use a berserker hero in a story I’m rather partial to them my self and lapels love to see more people’s interpretations of that kind of state of mind, I may do a story my self featuring a berserker if I can ever get my self to sit down and type lol. Mine though will not be a seeker of redemption quite the opposite I was wanting to take a more fictional route and revolve his berserking around a form of self induced demonic possession.

  • Pritani
    December 6, 2015 - 2:58 pm · Reply

    Wow, I didn’t know this thread was still active! I have since pretty much finished writing my book and now am working on the last edits before sending query letters out to agents. If any of you are interested, here is the link to my blog where I will post updates. Right now it consists mostly of historical articles related the the writing.

    https://electroninkponderings.wordpress.com/

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