Science Gone Berserk

May 3, 2011

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.

Berserks aren’t the focus of the episode, but Dunning covers the all the bases briefly: berserks may have taken magic mushrooms; they may have used another substance, such as alcohol (but probably not); or they may have achieved the frenzy without any mind-altering substances. The idea that berserks may have taken something seems to be pervasive, and the history of the idea is traceable and interesting. To a large extent, it has been scientists who have explored the “magic mushroom” theory. It turns out, when science gets involved in the humanities, science is not always right.

In Dunning’s “References and Further Reading” section, he lists an article called “On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry” by Howard D. Fabing. This article was published in both The Scientific Monthly and The American Journal of Psychiatry in 1956. It is based on a paper Fabing presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. According to the author biography included in the article, Fabing was at the time of writing “in private practice of neurology and psychiatry.” Previously,

[he had] taught physiology and neurology at the University of Cincinnati. During World War II he was director of the School of Military Neuropsychiatry in the European Theater of Operations. His research activities have been in the fields of parkinsonism, narcolepsy, epilepsy, wartime blast concussion syndrome, shock therapies, and the neuro-chemistry of mental disorders.

Clearly, Fabing was eminently qualified to discuss neurological and psychiatric disorders. He was perhaps less qualified to discuss medieval Scandinavian history. He doesn’t directly quote a single primary document related to the Viking age, and indeed, it seems clear that he was not immediately familiar with the primary documents (many of which were available in translation in 1956, although often in that “ye olde” variety of English that no one ever spoke). He begins by giving the supposed legendary background of the berserks:

Berserk was a mighty hero in Norse mythology. Legend states that he was the grandson of the mythical eight-handed Starkadder. He was renowned for his consummate bravery and for the fury of his attack in battle. He had twelve sons who were his equals in courage. He never fought in armor but in his ber sark, which means “bearskin” in the Nordic languages. Thus the term berserk became synonymous with reckless courage. (232)

I was not familiar with a hero named Berserk. I have still not found him in any primary text. I have, however, found references to this story in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century re-tellings of Norse legendary material. For instance, the 1910 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica gives the following information under the entry for “berserker:”

[I]n Scandinavian mythology, the name of the twelve sons of the hero Berserk, grandson of the eight-handed Starkadder and Alfhilde. Berserk was famed for the reckless fury with which he fought, always going into battle without armour. By the daughter of of King Swafurlam, whom he had killed, he had twelve sons who were his equal in bravery. In Old Norse berserer thus became synonymous with reckless courage, and was later applied to the bodyguards of several of the Scandinavian heroes.

Starkaðr, usually Anglicized either as Starkad or Starkadder, does appear in various primary texts. There are actually two of Starkads. One or the other or both appear briefly in the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda, Heimskringla and a number of sagas. Starkad the Old plays a larger role in chapters 6-8 of Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum (translation available here) and the extremely strange Gautreks saga. Neither Starkad has a grandson named Berserk in any of these works. I suspect that the origin of this story comes from Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (The Saga of Hervor and Heidrek, translation available here). In the versions of Hervarar saga that I have seen, there is no character named Berserk. The berserk father of the twelve berserk sons is named Arngrim, and in most versions Starkad does not seem to be his grandfather. There are, however, several variant texts of the saga. In this short, strange version* of Hervarar saga, called Saga Heiðreks konúngs ens vitra (The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise) Starkad does indeed seem to be Arngrim’s grandfather, and Arngrim is called “Arngrímr berserkr” (Arngrim the berserk).

So, without citing a source, Fabing recounts a garbled version of one variant of one saga. As I said, it is clear he is not familiar with the primary texts and accepts conflated and sometimes inaccurate accounts in secondary sources. Later, he gives a description of berserks that is third-hand (“A vivid description of the behavior of the Viking hoodlums is given by Schübeler, who relied on the renowned Norse historian, Munch” 234). While this description contains a lot of the usual information, it includes symptoms that are less common: “This condition is said to have begun with shivering, chattering of the teeth, and chill in the body, and then the face swelled and changed its color” (234). These sound like medical symptoms, and they fit rather well with some of the symptoms he and other doctors have observed in patients who have taken or been given hallucinogens, but they are not common in the sagas.

Fabing goes on to note that

There is a fascinating theory that Berserksgang…may not have been a psychogenically determined habit pattern, but may rather have been the result of eating toxic mushrooms. This idea, fantastic though it may appear at first glance, has won general acceptance among Scandinavian scholars, according to Larsen. (232)

According to the endnote, this information comes from a personal communication from “H. Larsen, provost, University of Illinois.” The next note identifies him as Henning Larsen. Larsen was a professor of English who is listed as a consultant in the front matter of the Middle English Dictionary. He was also the president of the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study. Several articles he wrote are listed in the MLA Bibliography. Still, it would have been nice if Fabing had cited some actual articles or books to show this “general acceptance.” The theory does not seem to be generally accepted among Norse scholars any more.

The reasons it is not widely accepted are clear from Fabing’s article. He notes that the mushroom Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric, has been “used orgiastically” by Siberian tribes. The practice was first described in 1730 (232). Notice that Siberia is not Scandinavia, and the eighteenth-century is not the Viking age. He describes the effects in some detail. Some of these effects fit with the berserker rage: “Prodigious feats of physical strength are reported to have been accomplished under its influence” (232).  Other effects would seem to be detrimental in battle: “Suddenly his eyes dilate, he begins to gesticulate convulsively, converses with persons whom he imagines he sees, sings, and dances” (W. Jochelsen qtd. in Fabing 233). Berserks would not have been effective warriors if they raged about fighting imaginary people.

One man who accidentally poisoned himself with hallucinogenic mushrooms suffered

explosive onset of diarrhea, profuse sweating, excessive salivation and vertigo. He fell asleep and wakened…completely disoriented, irrational and violent…. He did not react to deep pain stimulation, but responded to pinprick. He was disoriented in all three spheres…. He thought that he was in hell and identified the interne, nurses, and attending physicians as Christ, Satan, God or angels (Arthur Drew qtd. in Fabing 233)

Violence and imperviousness to pain fit with descriptions of berserks. Diarrhea, vertigo, disorientation and hallucinations would seem to be drawbacks for a warrior.

As Fabing points out, the theory that berserks used some sort of mind-altering substance originated in 1784 with Samuel Lorenzo Ødman, a Swedish theologian, who read the sagas (or at least some of the fornaldarsögur) and concluded:

I am not of the opinion that these ecstasies can be explained as effects of a peculiar temperament or of autosuggestion because…they were not able to keep up their hated arrogance between paroxyms. (qtd. in Fabing 234. Ellipsis in Fabing)

Now his logic here seems flawed: because the frenzy isn’t essentially permanent, it can’t be auto-suggestion. Obviously, this is not true. One could think of berserker rages as big-boy temper tantrums: awful, but fortunately temporary. Ødman goes on to suggest that berserks used some substance from “the vegetable kingdom,” but that they “kept it secret so that their prestige would not be reduced by the general populace’s knowledge of the simplicity of the technique” (qtd. in Fabing 234). Ah, yes, they kept it secret. That’s convenient. Of course, what isn’t quite being said here is that there is NO EVIDENCE that berserks used any substance to achieve the berserker rage: NO REFERENCES to any ritual consumption of mushrooms or anything else. But if you have a cool theory, there’s no reason you should let a lack of evidence hold you back: you just have to come up with an excuse for why it doesn’t exist.

Lacking any reference to berserks consuming mushrooms, Ødman turns to accounts of the tribes of eastern Siberia and finds corroborating information:

What in particular seems to me to argue for flugswamp [the delightful Swedish name for fly agaric] is the fact that to partake of it is a custom from that part of Asia from which the pagan god Odin, with his pantheon, made their migration to our North. … The history of the Berserks in our North begins with Odin’s coming. (qtd. in Fabing 235)

While it was difficult to identify the source for the story of Berserk, son of Starkadder, this bit of misinformation is easy to identify. In both the Prose Edda and Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson euhemerizes the Norse gods, explaining that they were great men who came to be regarded as gods. He suggests that they originally came from Troy. After Virgil invented a nice history for Rome, many European lands came up with foundation myths centered on Troy. Snorri’s has about as much validity as any of the others (none whatsoever). But Snorri tosses in some completely bogus etymology as well: the gods were called Æsir because they came from Asia. Hector becomes Tror, which becomes Thor. I could go on. These etymologies are false.

So, to summarize Ødman’s argument: it is based on false assumptions; it has to explain away the complete lack of evidence; it relies on “historical” accounts that no one accepts. It doesn’t really look good for the magic mushroom theory.

It didn’t go away though. A century later, it was taken up by a Norwegian physician and botanist, F. C. Schübeler. Schübeler agreed with Ødman about pretty much everything, including the likely secrecy that surrounded the mushroom-eating. He considered other substances, but dismissed them as less likely culprits than fly agaric.

Fabing concludes by discussing his own observations. He had studied bufotenine, the active ingredient in a number of hallucinogenic mushrooms and plants (and toads). He injected healthy, mentally stable prisoners with bufotenine and recorded the results. He concludes that the effects are very similar to the berserker rage, which is odd because rage is noticeably absent from his descriptions. The subjects had hallucinations and their faces became purple, but they also became “relaxed and languid” and “lay contentedly in bed, feeling pleasantly relaxed” (236). These prisoners would make disastrously bad berserks. In addition to being supremely relaxed, they suffered from severely impaired spacial perception, and other side-effects that would again be problematic for a warrior.

The whole magic-mushroom theory is based on cherry-picking certain side effects of hallucinogens (the effects of bufotenine can vary drastically) and certain descriptions of berserks and ignoring the bits that don’t fit. More importantly, it depends on a flawed justification (that it couldn’t be auto-suggestion because the state is temporary) and false history. Oh, and also there is no evidence the berserks used any mind-altering substance to achieve the berserker rage!

*I’m not sure where this version comes from. Very little information is provided. There’s no manuscript reference. Googling the title in Icelandic or English just turns up a lot of hits for Christopher Tolkien’s edition/translation of Hervarar saga. Although he uses the name that is given to this version, this is not the text he is editing and translating.



Fabing, Howard D. “On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry.” The Scientific Monthly 83 (Nov. 1956): 232-237.

King Gautrek. Seven Viking Romances. Tr. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. London: Penguin, 1985.

Saxo Grammaticus. Gesta Danorum.

Snorri Sturluson. Edda. Tr. and ed. Anthony Faulkes. London: Everyman, 1987.

Snorri Sturluson. Heimskringla or The Lives of the Norse Kings. Ed. Erling Monsen. Tr. Monsen and A. H. Smith. 1932 New York: Dover, 1990.

Going Berserk

April 19, 2011

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.


*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.


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.