Bear-shirted vikings go berserk

Origins of berserk

Berserk was a great warrior from Norse mythology, renowned for his bravery and for his fury in battle. He didn’t wear armour but went into battle in his bera serkr, in Old Norse, literally bear shirt or bearskin . He gave his name to the berserks, the wild, frenzied shock troops of the marauding Vikings.

The Icelandic poet, Snorri Sturluson, wrote the Ynglinga legendary saga in about 1225 and in it he gave a description of the berserks:

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 bulls, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon them. This was called Berserk-gang.

How did they go berserk?

How the berserks, induced the frenzied state, called berserk-gang, is unknown. Various suggestions include a form of psychosis or induced madness, but it seems most likely that it was a secret ritual using a drug to bring on the frenzy.

The berkserk-gang might have resulted from ingestion of bog myrtle (Myrica gale). Bog myrtle is a plant used throughout Europe and Scandinavia as part of the gruit used to flavour and make beer bitter and is known to have hallucinogenic properties.

The mushroom Amanita muscaria can produce temporary psychoses and is another candidate for causing berserk behaviour. It is also known as fly agaric or in Scandinavia, flugswamp. The mushrooms association with flies in both its common name, fly agaric, and in its scientific name, musca being the Latin for fly, stems from it having been known to kill flies that drank water steeped with it.

The end of the berserkers

Berserks when not engaged in battle, were a bit of a social nuisance so the practice gradually became outlawed throughout the viking kingdoms. By the 13th century there were no more of these rampaging Scandinavians to terrorise Europe and their own brethren.

Berserk, forgotten for centuries, found its way into English in 1822 when Sir Walter Scott’s wrote of them in his novel, The Pirate:

… the Berserkars were champions … who used to run like madmen on swords, and spears, and harpoons, and muskets, and snap them all into pieces, as a finner [a whale] would go through a herring-net…

Scott’s use of berserkar rather than berserk was probably a confusion and substitution of an -er agent suffix (i.e. as in builder for someone who builds, killer for someone who kills) for the old Norse use of -r to denote a masculine singular noun.

Thus berserk became used in recent times to denote not the agent but the activity, as in going berserk, and berserker became used for someone who fights recklessly and with disregard for his own life.