Monday, July 9, 2012

Vikings. Going Berserk


Norse warriors are reported in Old Norse literature to have fought in a nearly uncontrollable, trance-like fury.  They would charge their enemies in a mind-numbed rage, feeling no fear and no pain.  Individuals also were capable of going berserk.  Mediaeval scholars no longer regard Berserk madness to be a form of collective insanity; it was deliberately induced, they now believe, by the eating of fly-amanite mushrooms.

This condition is said to have begun with shivering, chattering of teeth, and chill in the body, and then the face swelled and changed its color.  With this was connected a great hot-headedness, which at last gave over into a great rage, under which they howled as wild animals, bit the edge of their shields, and cut down every thing they net without discriminating between friend or foe.  When this condition ceased, a great dulling of the mind and feebleness followed, which could last for one or several days.

Remember the movie Jacobs Ladder.  In it the US army is testing a new drug to enhance the fighting abilities of its soldiers. The horror is that the soldiers on whom the drug had been tested had attacked, killed and mutilated their fellow soldiers.


The Norse Berserks were magicians and sages, and seem to have used the scarlet amanita muscaria (fly-amanite) for inducing prophecies. They were called Berserks (Bear-shirts) because they worshipped the Bear goddess, which accounts for our Great Bear constellation, and wore bear skins in her honour. Their cult was suppressed by royal proclamation - in AD 1015 (Norway) and AD 1123 (Iceland).

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.

In 1015 King Erik outlawed berserks, along with 'holmganga' or duels.  It had become a common practice for a berserker to challenge men of property to holmgang, and upon slaying the unfortunate victim, to take possession of his goods, wealth, and women. This was a difficult tactic to counter, since a man so challenged had to appear, have a champion fight for him, or else be named 'ni(dh)ingr' and coward.

Check out the Popthems about the Fly-Amanite mushroom for its association with the Berserkers  and its influence on our civilization.

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