For a historical fiction writer with two successful adventure series and a passing acquaintance with magic under his (sword) belt, writing about berserkers was probably a logical next step for Angus Donald. But what, exactly, is a berserker? And how do you become one? He tells Historia…
I was a little taken aback, when I first began work on my novel The Last Berserker, to find that a large proportion of the people I told about my new project to had no idea what a berserker was. I would point out that ‘berserk’ was a pretty common word in English. But many people still looked blank. So I’d tell them that our word was derived from a special class of warrior, revered for their reckless ferocity in the Viking Age (eighth to 12th centuries).
“So what actually is a berserker, then?” they would usually come back with. And the hand-to-God answer is – nobody really knows for sure. The Old Norse words berserkr (singular) and berserkir (plural) crop up in several of the skalds’ verses. Here is a description from the 13th century Ynglingasaga, written in Old Norse by the Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson: “… his [Odin’s] men went [into battle] without mail coats and were as wild as dogs or wolves. The bit their shields, were as strong as bears or bulls; they killed people, but they themselves were hurt by neither fire nor iron. This is called going berserk.” (Translation by Professor Neil Price, author of The Viking Way.)
The Romans wrote of the Furor Teutonicus, the extraordinary ferocity of the Germanic tribes they encountered; the Byzantines noted the phenomenon among the Varangian Guard.
There are also bits and pieces of archaeological evidence from burial sites, rune stones, carvings, helmet designs and so on, which attest to the existence of these much-feared Viking fighters. A famous chess piece found on the Hebridean Isle of Lewis depicts a berserker biting his shield in his frenzy.
However, much of what we think we know about them is still a matter for debate. For example, even the original meaning of the Old Norse word berserkr is unclear. Some people insist that it means ‘bare-shirted’, meaning that these fighters went into battle naked. Others suggest that it means ‘bear-shirted’ – and that these warriors went to fight armoured by the pelts of bears.
This is the meaning I have chosen for my novel – thick animal pelts make an excellent sword-repellent, and the ancient tradition of fur-wearing among soldiers continues right down to our own Grenadier Guards and their distinctive bearskin helmets. However, I’ve hedged my bets by having my berserkers clad only in minimal clothing – loincloth, vambraces and greaves – when in their elaborate dress for religious ceremonies. It seems clear that the berserker occupied a spiritual role, that he was a holy warrior, a person beloved by Odin, perhaps of similar status to the later Knight Templar.
Apparently there were three types of berserkers – although some people say only two – and I have arranged these into three Lodges or brotherhoods in my novel: Bear, Wolf and Boar. And it is likely that berserkers were most commonly used as shock troops for various Viking warlords, and that they were employed to break the enemy shield walls as individuals with one swift, almost-certainly suicidal charge. On the other hand, the Wolf warriors – Úlfhéðnar – may have been used as light, spear-carrying troops who fought in a pack like their animal counterparts or undertook scouting duties.
So how do you become a berserker?
There are various theories that berserkers took drugs to induce their state of reckless frenzy, possibly hallucinogenic mushrooms, or that they drank large quantities of alcohol, probably mead, before a fight. This is quite possible – alcohol has been consumed in battle since the dawn of time.
But in The Last Berserker I have imagined that a berserker is someone who can summon an animal spirit, a gandr, into his heart and that individual spirit gives him the strength and ferocity he requires to fight in an appropriately insane manner.
I have imagined a sort of academy for berserkers – known as the Fyr Skola – in which candidates are encouraged to learn how to summon their gandr. This is achieved by ritual humming, which brings on an ecstatic trance state. Graduates of the Fyr Skola (called Fire Born or Rekkr) are sent off to fight as mercenaries in the war-torn world of north Germany in the late 8th century. In my narrative, these pagan heroes are battling the armies of Charlemagne, King of the Franks, and the future Holy Roman Emperor.
If you wanted to become a berserker in my novel – not that I’d recommend it, since your life span would be severely curtailed – you would travel, as my two heroes do, to the Fyr Skola, which is set in modern day Obermarsberg, in north Germany, which was then in Old Saxony.
This was (probably) the ancient site of the World Tree, the Saxons’ sacred Irminsul, which was the Germanic equivalent of the Yggdrasil of the Norse. This vast tree was the spiritual centre of their universe; the great axel that ran through all its nine realms.
Once there you would be enrolled – if found worthy – in the Fyr Skola and begin your training. You would learn a host of useful military skills but also work on your spiritual strength, undergoing tests and ordeals to facilitate the summoning, if you were lucky, of your gandr. Not all candidates attain the status of Fire Born. Many, indeed most, fail to do so.
The final tests involve living wild in the deep forest, naked with only a knife and a fur pelt to protect you, while you wait until your animal spirit comes to you. Finally, you must walk through a burning dragon ship and survive in order to be reborn as a Rekkr, a rare individual who would have been revered by the whole community, indeed by the whole Viking world.
Do you have to be a northern European man to be a berserker?
No. There is good evidence that some Viking warriors were female. One of my two main characters, Torfinna Hildarsdottir, is a ferocious young shield maiden who is easily the equal of any fur-clad, axe-wielding Viking man.
One of the most interesting things about researching The Last Berserker was making connections between the spiritual-military practices of the Vikings and those of other cultures across the globe. I discovered that, in some North American Indian tribes, they have berserker-like characters, who combine the various roles of sorcerers, warriors and shape-changers.
A Union soldier in the US Civil War (1861-65) described the rose rage of battle – a situation in which the soldier’s perception is distorted during the terrible madness of combat and the whole landscape turns slightly red.
In Southeast Asia, to this day, they have a tradition of people running amok – that is, going berserk and entering a killing frenzy. In Malaysia, they say someone who has run amok has been possessed by the spirit of a tiger. It seems this behaviour, this holy rage, this berserker-ness, is a phenomenon that has occurred not only in the distant Viking Age but throughout history.
For anyone who is interested in reading further on this subject, I would thoroughly recommend The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia by Professor Neil Price of the University of Uppsala, Sweden.
Angus has also written the Outlaw Chronicles books and a series about Holcroft Blood, based on the life of an ancestor of his during the turbulent last years of the 17th century. Read about the background to his Blood books:
Why the Glorious Revolution was . . . well, neither
The never-ending Battle of the Boyne
Berserker chess piece from the Lewis chessmen hoard: via Wikimedia
Berserker chess piece from the Lewis chessmen hoard: via Wikimedia
Torslunda helmet plate showing figures interpreted as Odin and a wolf-man or Úlfhéðinn: via Wikimedia
The destruction of the Irminsul by Charlemagne from Nordisch-germanische Götter und Helden by Wilhelm Wägner: via Wikimedia
Torslunda helmet plate showing two warriors with boar helmets: via Wikimedia