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70. VIKING BERSERKR

An extract from Armies of the Dark Ages 600-1066
by Ian Heath


70.      VIKING BERSERKR

Berserkr means ‘bear-shirt’ rather than ‘bare-shirt’, and originated in the ritualistic donning of animal skins in the hope of thereby attaining the beast’s strength. Bear-pelts continued to be worn by Berserkir throughout the Viking era and are often mentioned in Scandinavian poetry of the period.

The Berserkir were probably a mixture of psychopaths and sufferers from paranoia, lycanthropy and epilepsy. In battle they fell, or worked themselves up, into a wild frenzy, of which the commonest signs were gnawing at the shield-rim and throwing off their armour and clothing — hence the confusion ‘bare-shirt’. When in such a frenzy they had the proverbial strength of madmen and were impervious to pain and wounds. Ynglinga Saga records how they ‘went into battle without armour, like mad dogs or wolves, biting their shields, strong like bears or bulls, mowing down everything in their path, immune to fire and iron.’

Berserkir formed the bodyguards of the pagan Scandinavian kings, being highly prized as a result of their ‘supernatural’ powers. Later, when the Vikings had become Christians, the Berserkr was frowned upon as some sort of ungodly fiend, and in Iceland at least he could be fined or outlawed for going into a berserk rage.



See berserkers biting shields in the Chessmen from Uig, Lewis, western isles of Scotland, c.1150-1175.
Next: 71. VIKING ULFHEDNAR in Armies of the Dark Ages 600-1066 by Ian Heath