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Our eighth song, in our usual set, is about a Berserker.

In the Old Norse written corpus, berserkers (Old Norse: berserkir) were those who were said to have fought in a trance-like fury, a characteristic which later gave rise to the modern English word berserk (meaning "furiously violent or out of control"). Berserkers are attested to in numerous Old Norse sources.

A modern reenactor in Germany
The Old Norse form of the word was berserk (plural berserkir). It likely means "bear-shirt" (compare the Middle English word 'serk, meaning 'shirt'), "someone who wears a coat made out of a bear's skin". Thirteenth-century historian Snorri Sturluson interpreted the meaning as "bare-shirt", that is to say that the warriors went into battle without armour, but that view has largely been abandoned.

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 observances 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 monarchs.

In battle, the berserkers were subject to fits of frenzy. They would howl like wild beasts, foam at the mouth, and gnaw the rims 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 this fever abated, they were weak and tame. Accounts can be found in the sagas.

To "go berserk" was to "hamask", which translates as "change form", in this case, as with the sense "enter a state of wild fury". Some scholars have interpreted those who could transform as a berserker as "hamrammr" or "shapestrong" – literally able to shapeshift into a bear's form. For example, the band of men who 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 has sometimes been interpreted as the band of men being "hamrammr", though there is no major consensus. Another example of "hamrammr" comes from the Saga of Hrólf Kraki. One tale within tells the story of Bödvar Bjarki, a berserker who is able to shapeshift into a bear and uses this ability to fight for king Hrólfr Kraki. "Men saw that a great bear went before King Hrolf's men, keeping always near the king. He slew more men with his fore paws than any five of the king's champions."

Frenzy warriors wearing the skins of wolves called Ulfheðnar ("Wolf-Coats"; singular Ulfheðinn), are mentioned in the Vatnsdæla saga, the Haraldskvæði and the Grettis saga and are consistently referred to in the sagas as a group of berserkers, always presented as the elite following of the first Norwegian king Harald Fairhair. They were said to wear the pelt of a wolf over their chainmail when they entered battle. Unlike berserkers, direct references to ulfheðnar are scant. Egil's Saga features a man called Kveldulf (Evening-Wolf) who is said to have transformed into a wolf at night. This Kveldulf is described as a berserker, as opposed to an ulfheðinn. Ulfheðnar 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 a scene of a one-eyed warrior with bird-horned helm, assumed to be Odin, next to a wolf-headed warrior armed with a spear and sword as distinguishing features, assumed to be a berserker with a wolf pelt: "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".

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" (a kenning) in this passage are thought to be ravens, which feasted on the slain.

The Icelandic historian and poet Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241) wrote the following description of berserkers in his Ynglinga saga:

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.[citation needed] 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.

therighttothink50 · 56-60, M
Interesting culture and history.

 
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