The History And Origins Of The Berserker Warriors

The Berserkers (also known as ‘berserks’) were elite Norse warriors who fought during the Viking Age on the battlefield with intense rage and bravery. The very word ‘berserk’ (as well as ‘berserker’) entered the English language via Old Norse, its etymology attesting the ravaging physical power of these Norse champion fighters.

‘Vikings Heading for Land’ by Victorian English painter Frank Dicksee. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

In the Old Norse language, ‘berserkr’ can be broken down in two separate words as follows: ‘ber’ and ‘serkr’ respectively. Therefore, the original meaning of this term is related to a warrior who wore a bear skin straight in the battle (‘ber’ meaning ‘bear’ and ‘serkr’ meaning ‘coat’).

These berserkers would indeed enter a battle wearing nothing else but a bear coat, instead of a maille, as opposed to the standard Norse warriors. Their behaviour during the battle was absolutely terrifying for the enemy as well. As a matter of fact, their frenzy and chaotic actions were documented in the Norse sagas.

They howled like the wolves, roared like the bears, shouted like the eagles, and gnawed their shields in order to petrify their opponents. For this they were very much feared and reputed, with their ferocity and ruthlessness being used in the service of King Harald Hårfagre (King Harald Fairhair of Norway) as ‘intimidating troops’.

Icelandic historian and poet Snorri Sturluson also wrote in the Ynglinga saga that the berserkers were the warrior men of Norse god Odin. Indeed, their mythical association in the Old Norse literature abounds both in the sagas and the skaldic poems.

The Úlfhéðnar, who are mentioned in some sagas as wearing the pelt of the wolves, are closely associated with the berserkers. They were believed to be quite resistant to both the force of fire and of iron, which according to the legend, boosted up their reputation as fearsome animal warriors. In addition, their most preferred weapon was the spear.

Their fury and boldness was fully exploited by various earls and kings in Viking Age Scandinavia who recruited them as part of their royal elite armies of hirdmen/housecarls (i.e. personal guards). Eventually, their role in the Norse society gradually diminished in the wake of the tumultuous Viking Age, just as in the case of the famed Jomsvikings.

So it is that by the beginning of the 12th century, both in medieval Norway and in the Icelandic Commonwealth the berserkers were outlawed, first at the will of Eric Haakonsson, Earl of Lade (nowadays corresponding to Trøndelag and Hålogaland counties in Norway), and then by the Grágás (i.e. the Grey Goose Laws, the medieval Icelandic law code).

In early medieval art, they are depicted in some of the pieces of the Lewis Chessmen set found on the Isle of Lewis (Outer Hebrides, Scotland). They are portrayed as bitting their shields. Below you can watch a rather humorous video presentation from a youtuber’s channel on the berserks, drawing parallels between fact and fiction:

Documentation sources and external links:

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4 Responses to The History And Origins Of The Berserker Warriors

  1. Harry Andreassen says:

    I don’t think berserkr has anything to do with bearskin. Serk is a lightweight coat. Arabia, they did call Serkland, (referring to their clothes)? I think “bar serk” or only serk is a better option. It was easy and quick to move towards the heavy armor of the enemy.

  2. Joel says:

    The article didn’t mention their use of the hallucinogenic mushroom amanita muscaria, which they used to drive themselves into a frenzy and become fearless.

    • Adrienne says:

      Yes Joel, I read about the Berserkrs eating “magic mushrooms” and drinking strong mead to work themselves up into a frenzy before battle.

    • Rick Rulf says:

      To me, it seems likely that they were eating fly agaric mushroom, however, there is no known conclusive evidence of this. We know Sami people use mushrooms through ethnographic studies, but proving use of mushrooms among “Berserkers” or Norse people in general has proven elusive.

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