Berserker (or berserks) were champion Norse warriors who are primarily reported in Icelandic literature to have fought in a trance-like fury, a characteristic which later gave rise to the English word berserk. These champions would often go into battle without mail-coats; the word “berserk” meant going into battle wearing only wolf pelts or other animal skins. Berserkers are attested to in numerous Old Norse sources, as were the Ulfhednar (wolf-coats).
The English word berserker is derived from the Old Norse words ber-serkr (plural ber-serkir) meaning a “bear-shirt” i.e. a wild warrior or champion of the heathen age, however its interpretation remains controversial. The element ber- was interpreted by the historian Snorri Sturluson as “bare”, which he understood to mean that the warriors went into battle bare-chested, or without armor. This word is also used in ber-skjaldaðr that means “bare of shield”, or without a shield. Others derive it from the preferred berr (Germ, bär = ursus, the bear), and Snorri’s view has been largely abandoned.
It is proposed by some authors that the northern warrior tradition originated in hunting magic, and by the time of the Germanic Heroic Age it had developed into a physical and spiritual form of martial arts comparable to the Japanese Samurai code of Bushido. Its values included self-reliance, self-control, strict training, able to perform feats with weapons, and to be willing to die selflessly defending family and companions. It was a religious code. Later, the coming of Christianity would transform the religious element into the chivalrous knight and the animal totems into heraldic devices. Three main animal cults appeared in the northern martial arts: the bear, the wolf, and the wild boar.
The bas relief carvings on Trajan’s column in Rome depict scenes of Trajan’s conquest of Dacia in 101-106 AD. The scenes show his Roman soldiers plus auxiliaries and allies from Rome’s border regions, including tribal warriors from both sides of the Rhine. There are warriors depicted as bare-foot, bare-chested, bearing weapons and helmets that are associated with the Germani. Scene 36 on the column shows some of these warriors standing together, with some wearing bearhoods and some wearing wolfhoods. Nowhere else in history are Germanic bear-warriors and wolf-warriors fighting together recorded until 872 AD, with Thórbiörn Hornklofi’s description of the battle of Hafrsfjord when they fight together for King Harald Fairhair of Norway.
In the spring of 1870, four helmet plate patrices were found by Erik Gustaf Pettersson and Anders Petter Nilsson in a cairn on the lands of the farm No 5 Björnhovda in Torslunda parish, Öland, Sweden. Two relevant images are depicted below, along with two associated woodcuts made two years later in 1872.
Berserkers – bear warriors
It is proposed by some authors that the berserkers drew their power from the bear and were devoted to the bear cult, which was once widespread across the northern hemisphere. The berserkers maintained their religious devotions despite their fighting prowess, as the Svarfdæla saga tells of a challenge to single-combat that was postponed by a berserker until three days after Yule. The bodies of dead berserkers were laid out in bearskins prior to their funeral rites. The bear-warrior symbolism survives to this day in the form of the bearskin caps worn by the guards of the Danish and British monarchs, the Royal Life Guards and the Queen’s Guard.
In battle, the berserkers were subject to fits of frenzy. They would howl like wild beasts, foamed at the mouth, and gnawed the iron rim of their shields. According to belief, during these fits they were immune to steel and fire, and made great havoc in the ranks of the enemy. When the fever abated they were weak and tame. Accounts can be found in the sagas.
This expression berserk most likely arose from their reputed habit of wearing a kind of shirt or coat (serkr) made from the pelt of a bear (ber-) during battle. The bear was one of the animals representing Odin, and by wearing such a pelt the warriors sought to gain the strength of a bear and the favor of Odin.
To “go berserk” was to “hamask”, which translates as “change form”, in this case, as with the sense “enter a state of wild fury”. One who could transform as a berserker was typically thought of as “hamrammr” or “shapestrong”. For example, the band of men that go with Skallagrim in Egil’s Saga to see King Harald about his brother Thorolf’s murder are described as “the hardest of men, with a touch of the uncanny about a number of them…they [were] built and shaped more like trolls than human beings”. This is generally interpreted as the band of men being “hamrammr”.
Ulfhednar – wolf warriors
Wolf warriors appear among the legends of the Indo-Europeans, Turks, Mongols, and North American Indians. The Germanic wolf-warriors have left their trace through shields and standards that were captured by the Romans and displayed in the armilustrium in Rome.
The Úlfhéðnar (singular Úlfheðinn), another term associated with berserkers, mentioned in the Vatnsdæla saga, Haraldskvæði and the Völsunga saga, were said to wear the pelt of a wolf when they entered battle. Úlfhéðnar are sometimes described as Odin‘s special warriors: “[Odin’s] men went without their mailcoats and were mad as hounds or wolves, bit their shields…they slew men, but neither fire nor iron had effect upon them. This is called ‘going berserk’.” In addition, the helm-plate press from Torslunda depicts (below) a scene of Odin with a berserker—”a wolf skinned warrior with the apparently one-eyed dancer in the bird-horned helm, which is generally interpreted as showing a scene indicative of a relationship between berserkgang… and the god Odin”—with a wolf pelt and a spear as distinguishing features.
Svinfylking – boar warriors
In North mythology, the wild boar was an animal sacred to the Vanir. The powerful god Freyr owned the boar Gullinbursti and the goddess Freyja owned Hildisvíni (“battle swine”), and these boars can be found depicted on Swedish and Anglo-Saxon ceremonial items. The boar-warriors fought at the lead of a battle formation known as Svinfylking (“the boar’s head”) that was wedge-shaped, and two of their champions formed the rani (“snout”). They have been described as the masters of disguise, and of escape with an intimate knowledge of the landscape. Similar to the berserker and the ulfhednar, the svinfylking boar-warriors used the strength of their animal, the boar, as the foundation of their martial arts.
Berserkers appear prominently in a multitude of other sagas and poems, many of which describe berserkers as ravenous men who loot, plunder, and kill indiscriminately. Later, by Christian interpreters, the berserker was viewed as a “heathen devil”.
The earliest surviving reference to the term “berserker” is in Haraldskvæði, a skaldic poem composed by Thórbiörn Hornklofi in the late 9th century in honor of King Harald Fairhair, as ulfheðnar (“men clad in wolf skins”). This translation from the Haraldskvæði saga describes Harald’s berserkers:
I’ll ask of the berserks, you tasters of blood,
Those intrepid heroes, how are they treated,
Those who wade out into battle?
Wolf-skinned they are called. In battle
They bear bloody shields.
Red with blood are their spears when they come to fight.
They form a closed group.
The prince in his wisdom puts trust in such men
Who hack through enemy shields.
The “tasters of blood” in this passage are thought to be ravens, which feasted on the slain.
His (Odin‘s) men rushed forwards without armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild oxen, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon them. This was called Berserkergang.
King Harald Fairhair’s use of berserkers as “shock troops” broadened his sphere of influence. Other Scandinavian kings used berserkers as part of their army of hirdmen and sometimes ranked them as equivalent to a royal bodyguard. It may be that some of those warriors only adopted the organization or rituals of berserk männerbünde, or used the name as a deterrent or claim of their ferocity.
Emphasis has been placed on the frenzied nature of the berserkers, hence the modern sense of the word “berserk”. However, the sources describe several other characteristics that have been ignored or neglected by modern commentators. Snorri’s assertion that “neither fire nor iron told upon them” is reiterated time after time. The sources frequently state that neither edged weapons nor fire affected the berserks, although they were not immune to clubs or other blunt instruments. For example:
These men asked Halfdan to attack Hardbeen and his champions man by man; and he not only promised to fight, but assured himself the victory with most confident words. When Hardbeen heard this, a demoniacal frenzy suddenly took him; he furiously bit and devoured the edges of his shield; he kept gulping down fiery coals; he snatched live embers in his mouth and let them pass down into his entrails; he rushed through the perils of crackling fires; and at last, when he had raved through every sort of madness, he turned his sword with raging hand against the hearts of six of his champions. It is doubtful whether this madness came from thirst for battle or natural ferocity. Then with the remaining band of his champions he attacked Halfdan, who crushed him with a hammer of wondrous size, so that he lost both victory and life; paying the penalty both to Halfdan, whom he had challenged, and to the kings whose offspring he had violently ravished…
Similarly, Hrolf Kraki‘s champions refuse to retreat “from fire or iron”. Another frequent motif refers to berserkers blunting their enemy’s blades with spells or a glance from their evil eyes. This appears as early as Beowulf where it is a characteristic attributed to Grendel. Both the fire eating and the immunity to edged weapons are reminiscent of tricks popularly ascribed to fakirs.
In 1015, Jarl Eiríkr Hákonarson of Norway outlawed berserkers. Grágás, the medieval Icelandic law code, sentenced berserker warriors to outlawry. By the 12th century, organised berserker war-bands had disappeared.
The Lewis Chessmen, found on the Isle of Lewis (Outer Hebrides, Scotland) but thought to be of Norse manufacture, include berserkers depicted biting their shields.