Going Berserk

Who hasn’t at one time or another gone berserk? And by “gone berserk,” of course I mean become enraged, howled like an animal and then killed indiscriminately. What, just me? Ha ha, just kidding. Really.

But what does it really mean “to go berserk”? Berserks (Old Norse berserkr, pl. berserkir) were fearsome Viking Age warriors. They appear frequently in sagas, but it is difficult to separate legend from reality in the sagas. Sometimes they had supernatural abilities and sometimes they were stock characters–bullies who served as a foil for the protagonist. Where can we find the truth?

Where else but the History Channel. A few years ago History International ran a program called Unconventional Warfare. The first segment deals with the Trojan Horse. According to the narrator, no one really knows whether the story of the Trojan Horse is true or not, so you know off the bat that this is going to be another serious, hard-hitting, scholarly look at history.

The segment on berserks begins well enough, with information provided by real, genuine experts (and General Wesley Clark for some reason). Okay, the fact that the History Channel manages to bollox up their credentials may be a bit of a concern. They properly credit Ruth Mazo Karras as “Historian, Univ. of Minnesota,” but they identify Anatoly Liberman (more here) as a “Scandinavian Historian” at the Univ. of Minnesota as well. In fact, Liberman teaches in the department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch, and much of his work focuses on linguistics and philology. Similarly, they identify Paul Acker* as a “Norse Historian” at Saint Louis University, and, to be fair, he does look a bit like a Viking who’s given up raiding for academia. However, he is a professor of English rather than a historian. They don’t bother to give John Lindow (more here) any academic qualifications at all, identifying him as “Author ‘Handbook on Norse Mythology.'”

Regardless, the misidentified academics give a good summary of the berserks: they were fierce fighters who whipped themselves into a frenzy and fought in the front lines. In legendary tales, they are described as wearing bear or wolf skins (berserkr means “bear shirt”). They supposedly fought without armor and could not be harmed by weapons or fire. In reality, of course, they could be harmed and killed, but for the duration of  the berserker rage, they may have seemed impervious.

But what, asks the narrator, caused the berserker rage? Acker says, “Through their training and initiations, they whipped themselves into frenzy: that’s part of their jobs.”  The narrator, of course, knows better: “Some theorize, however, that the berserkers had a little help–from mood-altering substances.” Karras notes that “If you read a lot of modern works that refer to berserks, they talk about how they may have used either alcoholic beverages or perhaps hallucinogenic mushrooms to bring on the rage.”

Now, at this point, you can sense the word “however” hurtling across the room, desperate to make it before the camera cuts away, but, alas, to no avail. Magic mushrooms is what the History Channel wanted, and once someone mentioned them, they stopped. The point of Unconventional Warfare is to compare strategies used in the past to ones used much more recently. The berserks and their magic mushrooms are compared to Somali warriors who use a narcotic weed to become more aggressive.

None of the academics were told that this was the point of the segment. They only knew that the History Channel was doing a segment on berserks. When asked about the magic mushrooms, Acker and presumably Karras (quite possibly the others as well) explained that while some have speculated that the berserks used hallucinogens, there is absolutely NO evidence. There is nothing in the literature to suggest that the berserks used anything but training, natural aggression and the gift of Odin to work themselves into a frenzy. They may well have had a bit of a tipple now and then, but that hardly separates them from anyone else in Viking society.

If this is how they do history, perhaps it’s just as well that they stick with monsters and doomsday.

But enough about historical berserks; let’s talk about the literary and legendary ones–they’re much more fun. First the stock characters. These guys wander around, acting like bullies and intimidating people until they get their comeuppance from the saga protagonist. In Grettis saga, Grettir fights and kills a mound-dweller (an undead guy who attacks Grettir when Grettir is robbing his grave), a draugr (an ueber-nasty undead guy), a she-troll, a giant, a bear and lots of people. LOTS of people, including a number of berserks. Grettir meets a group of twelve berserks, led by a couple of brothers named Thorir Paunch and Ogmund the Evil.

They came from Halogaland and were bigger and stronger than anybody else. They would go berserk and spare nothing when they flew into a rage. They used to take away men’s wives and daughters and keep them for a week or two, then return them. Wherever they went, they used to plunder and cause other trouble (Saga of Grettir the Strong, p. 42)

Grettir pretends to befriend them, then gets them drunk and fights them (the alcohol is of no benefit to them, by the way). When they realize what is happening, the berserks, of course, go “berserk and [begin] howling like dogs” (p. 46). While they’re howling, Grettir thrusts a spear through Thorir and Ogmund, who bumps into him. Then he takes out the other berserks.

Later, when Grettir is staying with a man named Einar, a group of berserks arrive, and the leader challenges Einar “either to hand over his daughter or defend her if he was man enough” (p. 95).  Einar consults with Grettir, and the berserk becomes impatient:

The berserk thought that Grettir and the farmer were stalling. He started to howl loudly and bite the edge of his shield. He put his shield in his mouth, spread his lips over the corner of it and acted like a savage. Grettir strode over to him and when he came alongside the berserk’s horse he kicked the bottom of the shield up into his mouth so hard that his face ripped open and his jaws fell down to his chest (p. 95)

Then Grettir cuts off his head, and the other berserks decide to be on their way–rather quickly. Throughout the sagas, the beginning of the berserker rage is signaled by howling and shield-biting. Some of the Isle of Lewis chessman seem to depict shield-biting berserks:

As far as I know, Grettir is the only person who has the sense to kick the shield back into the berserk’s mouth. Not all berserks are slightly comic bullies, however. Some have supernatural powers. Examples may be found in Egils saga. Egil was a great warrior, an exceptional poet and a truly phenomenal drunk (again, though, his drunkenness is unrelated to his frenzies). Jesse L. Byock has argued that Egil may have suffered from Paget’s disease, which has a genetic component. Based on his saga, Egil may also have suffered from a genetic predisposition for berserkerism.

Egil’s grandfather is named Ulf. He is big and strong and a good farmer. As evening rolls around, however, he turns bad-tempered and is known as Kveldulf or Evening Wolf. You might as well wear a name tag that says, “Hi, I’m a werewolf. Ask me how.” He has two sons, Thorolf and Grim, known as Skallagrim (Bald Grim). Thorolf is tall, strong, brave, handsome, honorable (by saga standards) and an all-round swell guy. Grim is big, strong, ugly, troublesome and, like his father, has a tendency to shape-shift. Skallagrim has sons named Thorolf and Egil. Thorolf II is a carbon-copy of Thorolf I. Egil is big, strong, freakishly ugly and has the family tendency to shape-shift. The non-berserk Thorolfs both die young; the berserks all die of old age.

In one of Skallagrim’s rages, he seizes one of Egil’s friends and “[dashes] him to the ground so fiercely that he was crushed by the blow and died on the spot” (Egil’s Saga p. 63). He then seizes twelve-year-old Egil, who is rescued by his foster mother who is “as strong as a man and well versed in the magic arts” (p. 63). Skallagrim is described by an enemy as being “as vicious as a wolf” (p. 42), and Egil is mistaken for a bear on one occasion (p. 104). According to the narrator:

It is said that people who could take on the character of animals, or went berserk, became so strong in this state that no one was a match for them, but also that just after it wore off they were left weaker than usual (p. 46)

Kveldulf, Skallagrim and Egil also tend to befriend people with similar berserker characteristics. For instance, there is Egil’s friend, Onund Sjoni: “Not everyone agreed that he was not a shape-shifter” (p. 130).  Although Egil’s connection to berserker madness is less explicit than Kveldulf’s and Skallagrim’s, he performs one of the best killings in all the Icelandic family sagas. He is fighting a duel against a man named Atli, who is “strong and courageous, an experienced dueller, and skilled in the magic arts” (p. 128). Egil is able to hack Atli’s shield to bits and land blows, but the sword is unable to bite. His own shield is beginning to split, so

He threw down his sword and shield, ran for Atli and grabbed him with his hands. By his greater strength, Egil pushed Atli over backwards, then sprawled over him and bit through his throat. Atli died on the spot. Egil rushed to his feet and ran over to the sacrificial bull, took it by the nostrils with one hand and by the horns with the other, and swung it over on to its back, breaking its neck (p. 128)

Let this be a warning to you, History Channel: don’t mess with berserks.

ES

*Full disclosure: Professor Acker was my dissertation director. When the History Channel came a-filming, they collected several graduate students to sit listening in rapt attention while Prof. Acker delivered a faux lecture. We were cut.

References:

Byock, Jesse L. “Egil’s Bones.” Scientific American. Vol. 272. Jan. 1995, pp. 82-87

Egil’s Saga. Tr. Bernard Scudder. The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection. New York: Viking, pp. 8-184.

The Saga of Grettir the Strong. Tr. Bernard Scudder. London: Penguin, 2005.

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16 Responses to Going Berserk

  1. Dan says:

    The people who produce documentaries for outlets like the History Channel do not believe that they are making history. They are making entertainment.

    I know because I quit a feature-length documentary that was being produced by two well established production companies, companies with hundreds upon hundreds of PBS, History Channel and Discovery “documentaries” under their belt. I quit because of the lack of intellectual rigor, the way facts were being ignored in favor of “the story”, and really just the profound grossness of it all.

    But I can tell you this. Any time you hear a narrator in a documentary, ask yourself, “is this narrator David Attenborough or Werner Herzog?’ If the answer is no, I recommend being extremely skeptical about the veracity of the narrator’s claims.

  2. Pacal says:

    Well once again instead of offering history we get “HISTORY” from the History Channel. Why give people the real thing when you can give them sensationalistic pap. Instead of analyzing what could likely induce a homicidal frenzy in battle, it could be entirely psychological with no phamacology involved, we get magic mushroom speculation. As your examples and later discussion suggest it appears that alcohol and magic mushroom don’t seem to be indicated causing the berserkers frenzy.

    In terms of explaining the phenomena of berserker frenzy I would think a bit of research in what we know about how people work themselves into a frenzy and the sometimes homicidal frenzy that ossurs on the battlefield might have been in order rather than speculation about magic mushrooms. Also what seems to b e missing is any understanding of the context of such behavior.

    In the book Men of Blood, by Elliot Leyton he argues that over the last 700 years there has occurred in large parts of the world a “great pacification”, in which “honour” based cultural norms in which insults to “honour” were frequently avenged with violence. In fact violence was considered a perfectly acceptable way of avenging slights. THe result was a society in which people were very likely, (more so than ours), to “fly off the handle”. In fact what evidence we have would seem to indicate that murder rates in Medieval England (c. 1200 C.E.), were astronomical by toaday standards and interpersonal violence a lot more common than today. In the context of Norse culture, (Which if anything was more “honour” based, if anything than the Christian west during Pagan times) the off the wall behavior of berserkers was probably not quite so striking as it appears to us. I wonder did the show at least allude to if not discuss the religious aspects, (Its my understanding there were some), of being a Berserker and the whole phenomena.

    The literary aspects of the Icelandic Sagas is intriguing there is ussually very little if any description of peoples motives, actions and statements are descriped, quoted instead. Further the sagas are full of some the most laconic understatements I have ever read.

    Thanks for discussing the Sagas I think I will reread a few.

    • Eve says:

      No, the History Channel didn’t mention the religious aspects, and yes, there are some. The bereserker rage was a gift from Odin, the main god of war.

      Honor was certainly important in medieval Scandinavia. Insults had to be recompensed or avenged. If they weren’t, the insulted man lost standing. Icelandic law attempted to control violence through a system of payment for injury/insult (as well as through punishments such as banishment and lesser and full outlawry, which physically separated feuding parties). Jesse L. Byock discusses violence and conflict resolution in Feud in Icelandic Saga. Egil and Grettir are two saga heroes who are likely to choose violence rather than payment for injuries and slights (although Grettir is an outlaw for most of his saga and therefore has no legal standing, and Egil doesn’t get involved in feuds in Iceland). Others, like Njal (from Njal’s Saga) and Olaf the Peacock (from Laxdaela Saga) are more likely to seek peaceful means.

      Litotes or understatement for effect is used in old Germanic literature generally, but it is a particular favorite in the sagas. One of my favorite phrases is “as was to be expected.” In one saga (don’t remember which one), there is a passage that goes something like this: “The sword cut through the neck so that the head came off and he fell down dead, as was to be expected.” Well, yes, I guess that is what I would expect in the circumstances.

  3. Pacal says:

    Great example. I remember one which after describing a man I will call X (Can’t remember the name) being chopped to pieces said “X had just had a bad day”, no kidding!

  4. Eve says:

    Famous last words in sagas: in Njal’s Saga, a group of men have come to attack and kill Gunnar of Hlidarendi in his home. One guy is told to see if Gunnar is home. Gunnar impales the guy with his halberd. Attackers: “Is Gunnar home?” Guy: “I don’t know, but his halberd is.”

    In Grettir’s Saga, Grettir’s brother answers a knock on the door and gets run through with a spear: “I see the fashion is for broad-bladed spears.”

  5. […] Going Berserk Who hasn’t at one time or another gone berserk? And by “gone berserk,” of course I mean become enraged, howled like an […] […]

  6. john templeton says:

    I’d just like to point out that Wesley Clark was valedictorian of his class at West Point and attended Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. He has degrees in politics, economics, philosophy and military history. I think he might reasonably expected to answer a question or two about the Trojan War.

  7. john templeton says:

    re: my previous comment:

    My mistake – I read the article as saying he was in the segment on the Trojan war. I don’t know if Norse history is a staple of a military education, but his credentials are still considerable.

    • Eve says:

      I believe that he was in the Trojan War segment as well as the berserk segment. He may well have appeared throughout the program. To be fair, he appeared only briefly in the berserk segment and didn’t say anything absurd. It’s just that he obviously doesn’t have the same sort of specifically appropriate credentials in Norse history, literature and language that the other experts have.

  8. […] Not long ago, I wrote about how the History Channel dealt with the Norse warriors known as berserks (spoiler alert–they dealt with it badly). More recently, Brian Dunning mentioned berserks in an episode of Skeptoid on feats of superhuman strength: Such drugs [as PCP] have also been suggested to explain groups such as the Norse berserkers, a subset of Viking shock troops who fought like enraged wild animals, impervious to pain, and contemptuous of injury. Some researchers have suggested that berserkers may have taken hallucinogenic mushrooms before going into battle, as did Zulu warriors. Another theory states that they may have simply gotten really drunk, but this likely would have resulted in poorer performance in battle. It’s also possible that berserkers simply worked themselves up into a frenzy, and combined with the fight or flight response to the impending battle, did indeed gain heightened physical ability. […]

  9. There could be a potential for some form of mild schizophrenia involved in the berserkr’s rage?

    From what I have read schizophrenia like a lot of “disorders” occurs across a spectrum. Full blown schizophrenics are not functional wheras some of their close relatives with less of an expression of it can be functional (i.e. schizotypal personality disorder or a variant).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schizotypal_personality_disorder

    http://boingboing.net/2009/06/06/evolution-religion-s.html
    – stanford prof talking about schizotypal link to shamanism…and why the genes were potentially not wiped out.

    I bring this up because my mom has some form of undiagnosed schizophrenia (or variant…def. has capgras delusion).

    Without any outside influence or understanding of what hysteria could do for my strength…I would work myself into a “rage/hysteria” before competing in track and field…this is not some form of mild psyche up… I would typically do it for around 20 minutes or so…it would allow me to run approx. 1-2 seconds faster in the 400 Meters…because of this i won high school states and ran collegiately…most people thought I was just weird…but I cannot help but see a pattern for certain genetic predispositions towards a “rage” state.

    Thanks,
    Steve

    • Eve says:

      I suppose it’s possible that some berserks may have had schizophrenia or a related disorder. There are a number of saga characters (not just berserks) who seem psychologically odd, to put it mildly. But I don’t think any one disorder (or class of disorders) can really account for the whole phenomenon. The ability to work one’s self up into a state of rage would certainly be beneficial for a berserk warrior, but I suspect that it was more a matter of general personality type (rather than a psychological disorder) along with training and practice that allowed the berserks to achieve the frenzy.

  10. woodrite says:

    Some may try to describe it as a mental illness, but I think the answer lies closer to self determined evolution involving self-hypnosis mixed with adrenaline and other ‘botanicals’. Living in a society that encourages confrontation and bloodshed will quickly weed out the weak of heart. And it sounds like the Berserks had a lot of breeding on their minds. So a genetic predisposition to self-hyponosis and mind altering drugs and adrenaline evolved. As far as religious aspects and shape shifting, i have no comments, except to say the mind is a very powerful thing.

  11. Russian Skeptic says:

    I would like to correct you on Kveldulf and Egil. It is widely assumed that they are berserkers; in fact, they are not. Nowhere in the saga they are referred to as such. What Kveldulf is called is a hammrammr – a shape-shifter, but not in a single saga berserkers are classified as shape-shifters (the latter is a modern notion derived from the epithet ‘ulfheðnar’ understood as ‘werewolves’; while the only actual case of shape-shifting among berserkers is found in a very late Hrolfssaga Kraki, and this involves only one berserker out of 24 acting in the story).
    What Egilssaga actually says is that hammramm’s were somewhat alike berserkers in the way they felt weak after the fit:
    Svá er sagt, at þeim mönnum væri farit, er hamrammir eru, eða þeim, er berserksgangr var á, at meðan þat var framit, þá váru þeir svá sterkir, at ekki helzt við þeim, en fyrst, er af var gengit, þá váru þeir ómáttkari en at vanða. Kveld-Úlfr var ok svá…

  12. […] Goin' Berserk! – Find more informat at the website: Skeptical […]

  13. […] Humanities – Burzynski and his 'clinic'. – Find more informat at the website: Skeptical […]

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