Were the Vikings berserk on drugs

Berserker - elite Norse warriors

I. Wild warriors in animal skins

The berserkers went down in history as fearsome warriors. The "Ber" in their name indicates that they seemingly turned into wild bears during the battle. Therefore, they went to battle dressed in animal skins. They were fearless and fought regardless of loss. They got into a real frenzy during the fray. Contemporaries felt that the berserkers were invulnerable. They didn't seem to feel pain in battle. Their roar was terrifying. The state of complete frenzy is also known as ganga berserksgangr (Berserk gang).

II. Who were the berserkers?

The name "Berserker" comes from Old Norse. “Ber” stands for either bear or the frenzy that leads to being able to fight like a bear or a wolf. "Serker" is the old Norse name for a robe or tunic. They are said to have had a particularly close connection to Odin, the father of the gods, and were considered his warriors. The berserkers are said to have Odin to thank for their special abilities. This included, for example, that fire and iron swords supposedly couldn't harm them. When the berserk rage seized them, they began to tremble and bit the shield. Their face turned discolored and they made deafening noises.

III. The role of the berserk in battle

The berserkers were held in high esteem by the kings and were personally led by them. They were among the elite among the Viking warriors and acted as royal bodyguards. They formed a closed formation during the battle. They could be counted on to be there where the fiercest fighting was going on. They went ahead and sought direct confrontation with the enemy. When they were in a state of total ecstasy (berserking), they could not be stopped.

IV. Feared by friends and foes

The berserkers were essential to victory in battle, but their unpredictability also made them a risk. Added to this was their behavior outside of the war. They challenged other men indiscriminately to a duel, robbed women and committed property crimes. As a result, they had a bad reputation and were expelled from their respective countries several times. In the sagas, they were not infrequently the villains that the hero had to get out of the way. So fought in the Gretti's saga Grettir the Strong against the predatory berserk Snækollur.

V. Why were the berserkers so wild?

There are various theories as to why the berserkers were able to get so into a raging frenzy. The Swedish theologian and historian Samuel Ödmann (1750 - 1829) put forward the thesis in 1784 that the berserkers consumed the toadstool as a drug. His contemporary Johann Samuel Halle (1727 - 1810) described the effect of the toadstool as "intoxication, madness, recklessness, tremors and (...) rage". But today we know that frenzy is not one of the after-effects of fly agaric poisoning.

Another thesis says that Sumpfporst beer triggered the riot of the berserkers. Swamp porst is a heather plant. However, this thesis is also doubtful, as beer consumption was widespread among the Vikings. Therefore, there should have been many more berserkers than are known in historical tradition.

VI. Were the berserkers epileptic?

But what led to the behavior of the berserkers? The most common medical explanation is that these warriors suffered from epilepsy. This fits the behavior of the berserkers in battle. They were characterized by ecstatic attacks and looked like wild animals in a state of intoxication. They made terrifying noises and did not seem to feel any pain. But after going berserk they were powerless. It can therefore be assumed that the berserk gang was a disease. In the Vatnsdœla saga describes Thorir that the berserk always comes over him, "when I least want it". And his brother Thorstein says of him, "that you are not in the fullness of your health like other men".

VII. The berserkers in Nordic literature

The earliest mention of the berserkers in Nordic literature comes from the skald Thorbjörn Hornklaue, who lived in the 9th century. In his work Haraldskvæði (Poem on Harald) he goes into the battle of Hafrsfjord (872). In it he describes the berserkers in stanza 8: "The berserkers roared, the fight started, the wolf pelts howled and the irons shook". After that there was a long radio silence. The term finally took hold in the 12th century berserkr by. The Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus (1160-1208) speculated in his Gesta Danorumwhether “this terrible frenzy” of the berserkers goes back to their “wild nature” or a mental illness. And the Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) describes in the Egil's saga the berserker rage as follows: "He began to howl viciously and bit his shield."

VIII. The end of the berserkers

With the Christianization of the Vikings came the end of the berserkers. They disappeared in the first half of the 11th century. Berserking was banned in Norway in 1015 and berserking was made illegal in Iceland in 1122. In Norwegian Christian rights from the 12th century, the berserkers no longer appear at all. At this point you seem to have become a relic from a distant past. This impression is underlined by the fact that the author of the Vatnsdœla saga (1260/1280) had to explain the meaning of the term "berserker" to his readers. The berserkers had apparently been forgotten. That has changed in the meantime. These warriors live on in expressions such as “rage like a berserk”.