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Berserkir

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A berserkr was a ferocious Viking warrior who fought in a trance-like frenzy (berserksganga – going berserk). This frenzy involved howling and shield biting, and gave the berserkr animal strength and ferocity. They fought without armour, and their frenzy left them immune to the pain of wounds. The berserksganga was believed to be a gift from Odđn.

Berserkir appear in the Icelandic sagas where they are often portrayed as outlaws or bullying bodyguards, and are sometimes pitted against the hero of the saga.

The term ‘berserkr‘ means ‘bear shirt, and appears to have had its origins in ideas of shape-changing. Another name for the berserkr is ‘úlfheđnar’, or wolf-coat: which again reinforces the idea of shape-changing. Indeed, Grettis saga equates berserker with úlfheđnar:

“þá hét konungr á berserki sína til framgöngu. Þeir varu kallađir úlfheđnar, en á þá bitu engi járn.”

“Then the king ordered his berserks forward. They were called wolfskins; but iron could not bite on them.”

(Grettis saga ch. 2)

A helmet plate matrix from a Vendel Period grave in Torslunda shows a dancing warrior alongside a spear-carrying figure clad in a wolfskin. The warrior accompanying the wolf-skin clad figure bears a marked resemblance to the figures on the Sutton Hoo helmet, and the dancing warrior on the Finglesham Buckle.

The phrase “á þá bitu engi járn.” (iron would not bite on them) sometimes leads to the idea of a limited invulnerability for the berserker in the sagas, so that they could not be harmed by a sword, but could be killed by other methods:

"En Þórir ok þeir tólf sáman varu vargskinnsstökkum þeim, er Finnar höfđu gert þeim međ mikilli fjölkynngi.
Þá er Björn sá, at sverđit beit eigi, pá kallađi hann á konunginn ok mælti; 'Eigi bíta vápnin hundana.‘
'Beri pér pá hundana,' sagđi konungrinn. Þá tók Björn sér klubbu mikla ok laust Þóri hund, svá at feil viđ, ok ae síđan bar hann hallt höfuđ jafnan."

"For Thorir and his men were in the wolf-skin coats which Finnar had made with much magic.
When Björn saw that his sword would not bite, he called to the king and said, 'Weapons will not bite on the dogs'
'Then beat the dogs,' said the king. Then Björn took a large club and struck Thorir hund so that he fell down, and ever after carried his head to one side."

(Helgisaga Olafs konungs Haraldssonar, ch.92)

In Egils saga, Egill fights the berserkr Atli. When Egill finds that his sword will not wound Atli, he grabs hold of him and bites his throat out, thereby killing him.

(Egils saga ch. 65)

 

 


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