The term berserk is a common English word used to refer to a situation in which someone is wild or over excited, or even burning with rage. But this word originated from a Norse myth that described a group of soldiers who were perfect at being soldiers but poor at being human. A king would not mind to have a group of warriors that would stop at nothing to ensure that their enemy drops dead, but the King would worry if that same warrior is unable to reason during the battle as to know when to stop, to know who is foe and friend or even to stick to the tactical plan that was designed for the battle.
This is exactly what the Viking Berserkers were. They were a group of warriors who were trained in fighting since childhood and developed toughness that would see them overcame every single battle they went to. They were so fearless that they did not ever shy away from an impending death. They revered the power of the bear and wore bear skins during wars that they believed gave them the rage, courage and strength of a bear.
Viking berserkers went through a self-initiated hypnotic trance that rendered them more animals and less human. It is believed that they used hallucinogens to initiate this trance that began from chattering of the teeth, shivering, reddening of the eyes and swelling of the face and the end product was rage. In this state, they lost the ability to reason, sensitivity to pain and howled like animals. There is more!
What is a Viking berserker?
The word Berserker comes from a combination of two words: “Ber” and “Serk” that when placed together loosely translates to a warrior wearing a bearskin. These warriors were very powerful and fierce. They were not too different from the common warriors in normal times but grew wild in emergencies and became more powerful and invincible to their opponents. Their egoless frenzy was so high that they could kill the enemies with bare hands and then collapse once their victim succumbed to their wrath. With regards to this, a Viking berserker as is described in the Norse mythology referred to the warriors among the Vikings that believed in and worshipped the bears (the strongest animal they knew) and so were confident that wearing a bear’s skin in battle would make them as strong as a bear. This myth made the high ranking and huge soldiers of the Viking troops to wear bearskin to war and armed with this strong confidence in a bear’s power, fought against their enemies like elites. They were so lethal in their rage that many historians relate this to use of hallucinogens.
Viking berserks sometimes went berserk and killed so many opponents, neither getting tired nor for having any fears. Their abilities were beyond the powers of a normal soldier and many soldiers even sought blessings from Odin to obtain the “Berserker’s rage”.
The Viking berserks were paid mercenaries for centuries during the Scandinavian Middle Ages, but the 11th Century saw them outlawed because of their fury.
Where did the Berserkers come from?
Berserkers came from a background in which wrestling was the order of the day since their childhood. Vikings engaged in sports like weightlifting, swimming, archery and most popularly wrestling. A cuspidal stone would be placed at the center in an open field and players would push against each other, picking wounds and bleeding profusely until either of them won. In order to win in such, they, from childhood were focused on practicing tactics of attack and defense and the end product of all these activities were emergence of strong, fierce, tactically smart and winning oriented soldiers. They were tough with extraordinary bravery and egoless frenzy in the battle. They designed and executed proper tactical approach to their attacks that included surprises and assaults that were divided into two phases; first phase involved throwing spears and arrows with lit torches from a distance and second phase involved following it up with close range attacks with fears and axes. The environment they grew in gave them the expertise and technical know-how to execute each of these plans with success. Given that they were Berserks, evidences shows that they saw the war to completion. They were such a nightmare to anyone who dared to pick a war with them.
The Vikings were raiders and sometimes were first to attack and given their nature of expertise, and surprise attacks, they always came out victories and expanded their territories while at it.
How Berserkers fought at sea?
Unlike in other battles where a swarm of soldiers attacked and fought the enemies together, the sea battles for the Vikings were unique in a way that each soldier had to be able to stand alone at one point and either kill all enemies by himself one at a time or himself die. Two ships carrying soldiers from the opposite armies would be bound together and a springboard placed on a bow in between. Both sides sent one soldier to fight one on one with one from the other side and they fought till one of them was killed. There was no way to surrender and retrieve back to the boat, all one could do was make sure he kills everyone or himself be killed. One would however jump into the sea if overwhelmed, but such was considered an outcast that would never be accepted back. This battle at the sea was the perfect evidence of the Viking’s toughness. Each soldier had to be tough in his own way to survive this type of battle.
How berserkers fought?
In sea battles as already discussed above, the Vikings fought, one after another and their test of toughness got revealed when each soldier had to stand for himself and resist death as much as he could.
In the land however, the elite soldiers, referred to as the berserkers were always put in front for their toughness and impenetrable nature. These warriors fought with fury and were referred to as double-edged sword for the way they could do impossible that the normal soldiers could not. They preferred to attack in smaller groups because of the confidence they had in executing personal attacks. At one point in fact, when Olav Haraldsson put the Viking berserkers in the front of his rectangular formation in the year 1030, they went berserk, broke the formation and instead of holding as they were supposed to, they attacked with fury and rage. This left the king (St Olav) exposed and he was defeated.
They were so possessed with battle -lust that they sometimes tried to bite their own weapons, attacked trees, fought and killed each other because of the impatience of waiting for a battle. They were indeed intoxicated and totally abnormal. They went into “self -induced hypnotic trance” which made them loose awareness of their surroundings, reduced sensitivity to pain but extreme energy to cause havoc.
How does a berserker go berserk?
It is believed that the berserkers initiated their hypnotic trance by shivering and teeth chattering. Berserk is a psychological condition that was most likely according to research, initiated by a hallucinogen known as henbane. This plant initiated psychoactive potions that caused sensations of wild hallucinations. After teeth chattering and the chills, their face would turn red and rage followed. This state causes loss of sensitivity to pain and fatigue, loss of reason and judgement, absolute fury and induces humanity. Literally, they became animals like, which is why just like an animal, they fought without knowing when to stop and continuously so, until their victim dropped dead or they themselves got killed while at it. Neither could they differentiate between an enemy or a comrade They would roar like wild animals, especially the bear or wolf. They did not fear to die because according to researchers, soldiers believed that there was something good waiting for them in the afterlife. The hypnotic trance subjected them into a blind rage which was very fearsome to foes.
Viking berserkers were normal soldiers during normal times but in emergencies they turned wild and, in their animosity, won battles for their people. From childhood, their background gave them toughness and a sense of superiority in war that they learned from the popular game of wrestling in the Viking culture. They feared did not fear to die because they were filled with battle-lust that made them to even attack trees as they waited for battles to begin. Berserkers preferred to face their adversities individually. They were readily available to fight on behalf of anyone that was willing to pay them. Their enemies feared them so much because from the nature of their fights, they had nothing to lose. They were however unable to stick to tactical plans in their rage and sometimes, like in the case of King Olav, they created loopholes that caused the defeat. What a group of warriors these were!