Exploring the Viking warrior culture cannot be done only through the stories of their great kings and warriors. To entirely get the big picture, one needs to also have a look at the history of the berserkers, an extremely violent and wild sect of Norsemen.
They were so crazy and uncontrollable that eventually they were banned. But before their demission, they made their mark in the history. Here we look at the top 10 facts that made the Berserkers legendary.
1. They lived as outcasts in the woods
They lived in the wild as same as their totem animals (bears and wolves). There they survived by hunting and raiding farms. Berserkers liked testing their limits by spending long periods of time in extreme isolation while exposed to cold and heat. They had lived like that from the beginning to their last days when there were none of them left.
2. They had a secret dance that turned them into the wildlings
Before every battle, they were all taking part in a ritual dance that was called berserker gang. It was a condition in which they were able to do things that ordinary men couldn’t. The transformation started with a chill in the body, chattering of the teeth, shivering, after which their face would change color and swelling.
Next, they would feel an inexplicable rage that would make them howl as the totem animals they had. According to some sources, their rage was so intense that in their fighting they often didn’t recognize friends over enemies. As a result, they would kill anyone that is in front of them.
3. They were used as shock troops
Their rage and strength were exploited by placing them in the front rows or to launch a surprise attack on opposing forces. From the available recordings, they did that with great success.
At the same time, they weren’t disciplined and were not keen on following orders. Holding a line, shield wall, flanking the enemy, were common Viking Tactics. However, not to them. All they knew was attack and kill. There are recordings of Norse kings that used them as royal guards.
4. The English word “berserk” is derived from the berserkers
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word “berserk” defines a person as “one whose actions are recklessly defiant.” Nowadays, berserk is used to describe someone that is acting in rage and irrational that has “gone berserk”.
5. Their raids were extremely violent
Their raids consisted of mindless killing, psychedelic raping, and burning entire settlements before taking everything that had some value.
Many historians think that much of the Vikings’ bad reputation is due to the berserkers and their conduct. There is no denying that there is some truth in it, but at the same time, no one can tell to what extent that is true.
6. Their transformation was so dramatic that some thought they were shapeshifters
There are actual Nordic sagas that speak of them as shapeshifters. According to Norse mythology, going berserk means to “hamask”. That translates into “change form”. Those who did that were thought to be “shape strong” or “hamrammr”.
In some of the Icelandic tales, they were described to be more like trolls than humans. At least some of them that were considered strongest. The tales speak of them rushing into battles with no shields or weapons, behaving much like animals. But even without weapons and shield, often without any clothes, they tore apart their enemies with ease. On top of everything, the stories are that they couldn’t be harmed by iron, nor by fire.
7. One of their rituals included drinking the blood of a wolf or bear
The legend is that by doing so, they managed to emulate the strength of the animal whose blood they were drinking. There is a legend about a berserker that served as a bodyguard to King Hrolf. During one of the battles, the berserk transformed himself into a wild bear that managed to kill dozens of warriors with its forepaws. The legend also speaks of never moving too far from the king, always making sure that he is protected.
8. A berserker once ate his shield before attacking
The legend is that he was so full of rage and bloodthirsty that before attacking he devoured part of his shield. Six of the greatest warriors from the opposing army went to kill him without any success. After he was done massacring them, he went on another killing spree, adding many more to his list of kills.
9. They were so mean and feared that they were outlawed
By 1015 their presence was seen as more of a treat than useful. As a result, they were outlawed. There was an actual law called Grágás that forbid their existence and if anyone involved was considered as an outlaw. By the twelfth century, there were no organized berserker warbands.
10. The state of berserkergang
At least that’s the theory. There are separate recordings of them eating psychedelic mushrooms, drinking animal blood, and crazy dancing. But again, there is no written evidence that their state was induced by one or a combination of all that.