This time we’ll tell something a bit more particular and for sure a less known story.
The story is related to a category of warriors that is located somewhere between myth and reality, due to their actions which are hard to believe. We are talking about the Berserkers, who were top Norse warriors, savage, cruel and very effective.
A primal form of special forces
These men were feared and known for their incredible appetite for fighting and destruction, and considered a “special group”, which can be somehow related to the concept of shock troops, like the German Stormtroopers or the Italian Arditi from WW1, even if the situations are a bit different.
The Berserkers are related to Odin, a God present in the Germanic and Norse mythology. Odin was associated with death, healing, battle, royalty, poetry and the runic alphabet, being also the husband of Frigg the goddess.
Exactly like in the case of more recent assault troops, the berserkers had their place in the middle of the battle, or even more precisely in front of the battle, considering that they fought in the front of the phalanx, which was a military formation of rectangular shape, usually composed of infantry troops. They had two main roles during a battle: to resist an attack or to launch one, but the plans did not always go smoothly.
The berserkers fought in a trance-like fury, being almost impossible to control. Related to that, we have the report from the battle of Stiklestad, where Olav Haraldsson put a berserkers formation in front of his phalanx, telling them to hold the position and reject any assault. Instead of doing so, the berserkers launched themselves into a ferocious attack, compromising all the discussed tactics and contributing to the king’s downfall.
The psychological advantage
Many of their influences are connected to the God Odin, who was the one attributed to the berserkers’ incredible strength and power in battle. There is a bit of confusion related to the differences between berserkers and the wolf skins. Some are stating that they were the same combat unit, under the same brotherhood, others are saying that the wolf skins were a separate faction, even more, devoted to God Odin. But one thing is for sure, and it’s related more likely to a psychological aspect of the battle and the berserkers’ involvement in it.
When they entered the battle and especially when the launched an assault, the berserkers howled like wolves, believing that nothing would affect them, neither iron or fire; the interesting fact is that also their enemies became convinced that the berserkers had some sort of magical powers, because apparently, they were unstoppable in their attacks.
It is believed that they were devoted to the bear cult, which was a cult worshiping the bear and associated also with other cultures, like the Dacians, Thracians, Gentians or Sami. While attacking foamed at the mouths, the berserkers used all their physical resources, often approaching some sort of madness, being intoxicated with adrenaline and battle lust. They used to bite their shields, attack trees or rocks and even kill each other, before the beginning of a battle, when the tension and their trance state were at the highest levels.
We all have heard about families with military tradition. For the berserkers the situation was also based on tradition, considering that such title was often inherited, existing entire families of berserkers. A known case is related to Egil Skallagrimsson, who had both his father and grandfather berserkers.
The etymology of their name has its origins from the Old Norse word ber-serkr, meaning “bear-shirt”. The term was also used in other contexts if we think about the expression of “going berserk” associated to describe some sort of madness.
For many, one of the most interesting aspects related to the berserkers would be their trance-state during battle, the unseen fury that made them so ferocious and blinded by the will of fighting.
Related to that, in 1784 a priest named Odmann stated that their trance-state was directly related to the consumption of Amanita Muscaria, a mushroom having hallucinogenic effects.
Another possibility is related to the Claviceps purpurea, another type of mushroom used to synthesize LSD, but in both cases, some side effects had to be reported, as depression and apathetic conditions, which were not something to be related to the berserkers. Anyway, if the mushrooms played such an important role in their culture and actions, they should have been reported somehow, somewhere, in a saga or mentioned in other forms, but that is not happening.
Besides the mushroom theory, the most probable one, and also accepted, is related to a mental state induced by rituals performed before the battles. Those practices made the warriors went into some kind of hypnotic condition, becoming totally dissociated and unaware of their actions. In any case, these were not characters you wanted to meet during a fight, that’s for sure.