Norse lore tells of fearsome warriors dedicated to Odin, so furiously eager for battle that they bit their shields and fought naked except for wearing skins of bears or wolves. Called berserkers (Berserkir), they inspired the English word “berserk,” meaning to be “frenzied” or “recklessly defiant.”
Although they allegedly served as “bodyguards and shock troops,” these legendary fighters remain shrouded in myth. Peter Pentz, curator of Danish Prehistory at the National Museum of Denmark, shed some light on the mysterious warriors in an interview with Military History.
The berserkers, according to Pentz, are known from written medieval sources and not from the Vikings themselves—unless one interprets some Viking depictions as berserkers. The primary documentary evidence for berserkers is found in the writings of Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson, who lived circa 1200. Sturluson referred to the berserkers as “Odin’s own men,” saying that they “went to battle without coats of mail and acted like mad dogs or wolves. They bit their shields and were as strong as bears or bulls. They killed people, and neither fire nor iron affected them. This is called berserker rage.”
Bare naked or ‘bear’ naked?
“Snorri seems to have combined both possible interpretations of the word berserkr: they were “bare”—[as in] went to battle without coats of mail—and bear-like at the same time—were as strong as bears,” Pentz explained.
Nakedness on the frontlines was, according to the National Museum of Denmark, “a good psychological weapon” which caused the warriors to be feared because “they showed such disregard for their own personal safety. In addition, the naked body may have symbolized invulnerability and was perhaps displayed to honor a war god. The berserkers were thus dedicating their lives and bodies to the battle.”
Unlike in popular myths, however, the berserkers—despite doing battle in the nude—were not entirely without bodily protection. “Wolfskin and bearskin actually do offer some protection against swords and spears. But they [berserkers] definitely are described as being in some transcendental state of mind, rage (Berserkirgangr),” said Pentz. “It has been suggested that the Berserkir idea actually was an initiation ritual and if so, the nakedness might make sense.”
The berserkers’ association with bears was no coincidence. Pentz said the Vikings admired the strength of those formidable beasts. “Wolves and bears and dogs were admired and feared predators for all the Vikings,” he said. “It is evident from the sources and depictions.”
Fans of Vikings as depicted in pop culture might expect that ancient berserker warriors in the buff would have adorned their bodies with some savagely gorgeous tattoo art—however, Pentz said, it is completely unknown whether the Vikings actually practiced tattooing.
“This we don’t know. There are a few comments from travelers mentioning a kind of body art, painting or tattoo. However, we have no proof,” said Pentz. “The Vikings would certainly have been capable of tattooing, but if they really did tattoo, we do not know.”
According to Pentz, the berserkers could be considered the Viking equivalent of Special Forces. “If we are to believe the written sources, some Berserkir actually functioned as elite forces,” he said. “For instance, there were Berserkir acting as bodyguards for the king Harald Finehair.”
Despite rumors circulating on the Internet, it is doubtful that the berserkers used drugs to work up battle energy.
“Well, the theory that they used drugs—mushrooms—was launched as late as the 18th century. Today it is believed that the Berserkirgangr—if a reality at all—was self-induced ecstatic rage,” said Pentz. “However, we know that some Viking people, like the Völva, had drugs in their repertoire. Both Völvas and Berserkir can be considered as shapeshifters, and drugs play a role in shapeshifting shamanistic practices in other parts of the world. But it [the drug theory] is basically a myth.”
Berserkers would have been armed with typical Viking weapons including swords, axes and spears. Like other males in Viking society, they would have trained for battle and gone on raids as early in life as possible—“from childhood,” Pentz said, if sagas are to be believed.
Yet the practices of the berserkers began in ancient ritual practices long before the Viking Age. “The most massive evidence of contemporary Viking warrior ethos comes from the rune stones, commemorating Viking Age masculine achievements. However, the warrior idea—I think—developed through the period. In the beginning the warrior was linked to cult, and especially the relation to the ultimate warlord, Odin,” Pentz said. “However, at the end, the Viking warriors seem to have transformed more into ordinary ‘soldiers’ like warriors in their contemporary societies, such as among the Franks. The Berserkir clearly have their origins before the Viking Age and likely linked to cult.”
Scars of honor
It seems logical to assume that berserkers, fighting on the frontlines wearing next to nothing, would have been more prone to battle scars and injuries than other Viking warriors. Yet, if a berserker was left with severe injuries or became disabled as a result of fighting without armor, they would not have been looked down on in Viking society, but instead regarded with admiration.
“It seems that injuries and defects were regarded with respect,” said Pentz. “For instance, the god of war, Tyr, lost his hand, but his abilities as a warrior were not reduced. Odin lost an eye, but he had the capacity of seeing more than anyone else. Heimdall [watchman of the gods] lost his ear, but afterwards he could hear grass growing.”
With so many Viking stories concentrating on male warriors, it might seem impossible that women would have any role in berserker lore. Yet surprisingly, according to Pentz, women are mysteriously referenced in berserker legends. “Actually, the term ‘berserkir brides’ is mentioned in the medieval texts,” he said. “What it covers is absolutely uncertain, but some [sources] say female Berserkir. Others say giantesses.”
Whatever their place in berserker legend, it is certain that Viking women—like Viking men—had high admiration for military arts. Warfare was in fact a fashion statement for Viking ladies—females commonly adorned themselves with pieces of weaponry, military symbols and battle trophies as jewelry.
“Viking women wore pieces of weapons, military gear and jewelry imitation weapon gear, but they also wore jewelry commemorating military expeditions such as reworked Irish and English fittings and pins,” Pentz said. “Miniature weapons may have protected the wearer symbolically, and as a whole the ‘military’ jewelry reflects the ideals of the Viking society.”
Pentz stressed that much of what is known about the berserkers is tenuous at best. Yet traces of the “bear warriors” live on today in historical objects. Artifacts at the National Museum of Denmark hint at a connection with the mysterious berserkers. “We have some depictions of dancing warriors and bears,” said Pentz. “These could be interpreted as Berserkir.” MH