In Old Norse sources, Viking berserkers were warriors who fought in a trance-like fury, which later gave rise to the English word “berserk”.
The name probably means “bear-shirt” (comparable to the Middle English term “serk”, meaning “shirt”), with warriors traditionally going into battle without armour, wearing bear or wolf skins instead.
Some scholars argue that the origins of the berserker can be found in the Roman period, such as the Germanic social structures described by the Roman historian Tacitus or in scene 36 on Trajan’s Column in Rome, which depicts tribal warriors wearing bear and wolf hoods.
One of the earliest written texts describing berserkers is Hrafnsmál, a fragmentary ninth-century skaldic poem by the Norwegian skald Þorbjörn Hornklofi: “They (the ships) were loaded with men, Western spears and Frankish swords. The berserkers howled; the battle was on for them; the wolfskins (berserkers) howled and waved iron spears.”
The warriors fought in a trance-like fury
“Wolfskins are called those who bear bloody shields in battle; they redden their spears when they come to war; there (at Haraldr’s court) they are seated together. There he, the sovereign wise in skill, can entrust himself only to brave men, those who cut in the shield.”
To “go mad” meant to “hamask,” which translates as “to change one’s form,” in this case meaning “to go into a state of wild rage,” or literally to change into the form of a bear. They were portrayed as indestructible in the saga, immune to most fatal misfortunes and possessing superhuman strength, writes HeritageDaily.
This is presented in the Ynglinga saga, written by the Icelandic historian and poet Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241).
“His (Odin’s) men rushed forward without armour, they were mad as dogs or wolves, they bit their shields, they were strong as bears or wild oxen, and they killed men with one blow, but neither fire nor iron was said on them. This was called the Berserkergang.”
Why did the berserker warriors disappear?
Berserkers feature prominently in many Norse poems, either as champions, heroes, elite soldiers, or as bodyguards. However, this image changed over time (especially after the conversion to Christianity of Scandinavia), being instead portrayed as criminals, thugs, robbers and criminals who kill indiscriminately.
Some researchers propose that berserker rage was caused by self-induced hysteria or epilepsy, or by consuming large amounts of alcohol or drugs – such as hallucinogenic mushrooms or the henbane plant Hyoscyamus niger (in 1977, archaeologists excavating near Fyrkat , in Denmark, found seeds from this plant in a Viking grave).
In 1015, Jarl Eiríkr Hákonarson of Norway outlawed berserkers. Grágás, the medieval Icelandic legal code, condemned berserker warriors to outlawry. By the 12th century, organized gangs of berserker warriors had disappeared.