Berserkers were battle-frenzied warriors devoted to the god Odin, who fought in a state of complete fury and reckless abandon. Berserkers were said to channel the bear's spirit (or, in the case of the the úlfheðnar, the wolf's spirit) and take on the berserkergangr – the berserker’s rage – to become almost invincible. But this incredible valor and prowess were accompanied by highly erratic behavior – howling and bellowing, biting the rims of their shields, bizarre physical movements, and sometimes even foaming at the mouth.
Furthermore, according to some sagas, once the animal spirit had spent itself, the berserker underwent a period of weakness, apathy, and exhaustion. These strange manifestations have left many people believing that berserkers took drugs before they went into battle. If so, what kind of drugs might they have had access to, and how would they have used them? This article will look at these questions as well as other controversies and debates surrounding them.
The term Berserker ...and the debate over what it actually means
The term ‘berserker’ (‘berserkr’ in Old Norse) meant either “bear shirt” (as in the literal or metaphorical wearing of a mantle of bear’s skin, thus taking on the shape of a bear) or “bare shirt” (that is, no shirt or armor at all). The play on words is the same in English and Old Norse, and the double meaning here may be intentional. This has left some to insist the real translation has nothing to do with bears or men wearing bear skins. These people believe the term berserker simply means one who fights without armor. While numerous sources do mention berserkers fighting without armor, however, the primary meaning of the term berserker is “bear shirt.”
Why do we believe this?
1) Warriors in period art, runestones and the sagas are often described to have bear-like characteristics. The bear is the most powerful land animal in Northern Europe, and sacred to the god Odin whom the berserkers were devoted to. Hence the bear was the ultimate totem or “spirit animal.”
Today, the concept of a bear-like warrior continues to survive in the form of the bearskin caps worn by the guards of the Danish monarchs.
2) Berserkers were not the only Vikings to fight without armor. Very little Viking armor has survived in the archaeological record, suggesting it may have been scarce. And simply fighting without armor certainly would not make one a berserker, so why would the term imply that? In fact, some berserkers may indeed have fought with armor, at least on some occasions.
3) An Isle of Lewis chess piece, as seen here, clearly portrays a berserker with mad eyes biting his shield, (exactly as berserkers were described in the Ynglinga saga). These same berserker pieces are also wearing padded coats, a possible mail hauberk, helmets and a mail coif. Thus, being unarmored was not considered the sole essential berserker feature.
For more on the Viking connections to the famous Isle of Lewis chess set, click here.
4) Berserkers were often paired with another elite groups of Viking warriors known as the úlfheðnar (which means “wolf skins,” “wolf coats,” or “wolf hides”) in poetic verse using parallel construction. Just one of the examples of this comes from Hrafnsmol, one of the oldest known poems mentioning berserkers:
The berserkers bellowed
as the battle opened,
the wolf-coats [úlfheðnar] shrieked loud
and shook their weapons.
Later in the same poem (v. 20& 21), berserkers and úlfheðnar are again paired together and mentioned as two versions of the same fighting group. So, if úlfheðnar means “wolf skins,” would it not make sense that the term berserker meant “bear shirt"?
Tenth century Byzantine Emperor Constantine the Purple-Born mentions some Vikings in his elite Varangian Guard dancing in animal skins and masks before battle, lending a Non-Norse confirmation that berserkers performed rituals in this manner. Vatnsdæla Saga speaks of úlfheðnar “wearing wolf shirts for mail coats.” A painting from the 11th century (found in Kyiv, Ukraine and seen here) is believed to represent a berserker ritual performed by Scandinavian Varangians.
However, it would be a mistake to think that berserkers always had to walk around in a bear skin (or that the úlfheðnar always walked around in a wolf skin). Rather, these “bear skins” and “wolf skins” primarily refer to the spirit (the hamr in Old Norse belief) of the beast that the warrior takes on as they enter their heightened state. As we can see, being a berserker was a complex conglomeration of ritual, magic, and blending of the human will with animal spirit. Even their name involved several shades of meaning.
Berserkers in the Primary Sources
The Ynglinga Saga describes berserkers and their relationship to Odin as such:
Óðinn could bring it about that in battle his opponents were struck with blindness or deafness or panic, and their weapons would cut no better than sticks, while his men went without mail and were as wild as dogs or wolves, biting their shields, being as strong as bears or bulls. They killed the people, but neither fire nor iron took effect on them. That is called berserk fury [or the alternate translation: “They are called berserkers”].
(Heimskringla, p. 10).
A Christian monk who watched the Vikings from the walls of Paris during Rollo’s 885 siege said this of the Vikings and their berserkers:
A frenzy beyond compare … all bare-armed and bare backed, with mocking laughter, they bang their shields with open hands; their throats strained as they shout out odious cries!
(Brown, 2015, p. 40).
These and the many other frightening descriptions of berserkers and úlfheðnar have led many to question how they did it. While tales of battlefield heroes who suddenly became both unafraid and almost unstoppable appear throughout history, it seems that the Viking berserker could bring this state on at will.
This power came with a downside, though. In addition to the previously-mentioned lows following the highs, there may have also been some long-term effects. According to numerous sagas, the berserker often became a social outcast – someone who was seen as uncontrollable and nothing but trouble. Like the bear in the wild, they defeat all in their path and devour whatever they want but are usually alone.
The Orginal Drug Theory: Mushrooms
Research into a possible link between hallucinogenic mushrooms and the berserkers’ rage began in the late 1700s when tribal shamen in Siberia were discovered using these fungi in their rituals. Since then, most of the scholarly and scientific attention concerning the berserker-mushroom connection has been focused on Amanita muscaria (commonly called the ‘fly agaric’ mushroom). Amanita muscaria is a red-capped mushroom with white nodules. It is frequently depicted in art to imply psychoactive substances or magic. Its hallucinogenic properties were part of the secret knowledge across many cultures (that is to say, widely known by those in the know). They grew in Scandinavia during the Viking Age.
Ingestion of Amanita muscaria is associated with an orgiastic/ecstatic trance accompanied by trembling limbs and facial pallor or flushing. These manifestations seem consistent with accounts of berserkers given in the Eddas and sagas.
Research on the possible link met its highest highs and lowest lows simultaneously in 1956 when Dr. Howard Fabing tested the theory by injecting the active ingredient of Amanita muscaria (bufotenine) into prisoners at the Ohio State Penitentiary. When the prisoners “went berserk,” Fabing was satisfied that his less-than-ethical experiment proved a causal link between red-cap mushroom ingestion and symptoms similar to berserkers’ rage.
Not everyone agreed. Botanists and Norse scholars alike pointed out that Amanita muscaria has several side effects (such as debilitating nausea), which would make berserkers less able to fight. Moreover, the effects of the mushroom take time to develop. In contrast, berserkers quickly take on their animal powers in the sagas, often in the face of imminent danger, after only a brief preparation period.
The preparation itself is a factor in the drug-berserker debate. The Eddas and sagas never explicitly mention drugs or potions in relation to berserkers. There may be some coded references, such as witch's brews changing behaviors or men being driven to dark deeds by being fed the flesh of wolves and snakes, but there are no explicit drug references.
However, we would expect the methods by which the berserker achieved their state of near-invincibility would necessarily be a closely guarded secret. Even if the skalds knew about it, they would not give it away to the uninitiated and undeserving.
The New Drug Theory: Henbane
More recently, a different substance has been postulated as the possible secret ingredient to the berserkers’ rage: a form of nightshade under the scientific name, Hyoscyamus niger, more commonly known as stinking henbane. Henbane was originally from the Mediterranean but spread northward into Scandinavia well before the Vikings. Like Amanita muscaria, it was well known in esoteric circles and was even outlawed explicitly in 1507. Most importantly, archeologists have found pouches of henbane seeds in Viking Age graves along with other grave goods associated with a völva sorceress (a type of shamanic practitioner or “witch”).
Grave goods are never arbitrary, and so we definitely know that Vikings used henbane – but this does not yet prove that berserkers used it.
So, Vikings would have had access to henbane, but what makes it a more likely candidate than mushrooms? According to the original researcher, ethnobotanist Karsten Fatur, henbane intoxication induces altered mental states and wild, erratic behavior, facial flushing, muscular twitching, increased physical strength, potent pain-killing effects, and the shunting of blood away from the skin (perhaps explaining why berserkers seemed impervious to blades). Henbane even provoked the urge to cast off clothing (perhaps due to thermogenic effects).
Moreover, henbane intoxication is characterized by a rebound low following the high – weakness, lethargy, apathy, and emotional exhaustion, just as some sagas mention. Long-term use of henbane can lead to insanity (why it was outlawed in 1507), which may explain why some sagas portray berserkers as antisocial, amoral, and a public menace.
So, the correlation between henbane and Berserkers’ rage seems pretty tight, but more research is probably needed. There remain some problems with the theory. For example, blood pressure changes associated with henbane could undoubtedly be detrimental in combat. Again, there is a lack of mention of substances (or the time to use them) in the berserkers’ preparations as the sagas record them.
Of course, a direct relationship between a single substance to the berserker's rage is probably unnecessary. Instead, substances could have been carefully mixed to optimize some effects while reducing others. Perhaps different berserkers had proprietary potions of fly agaric and henbane, along with as-yet-unidentified herbs and ingredients to amplify or diminish any one symptom.
Side Bar: Did Vikings Use Marijuana?
In 2019, researchers at the confirmed Viking settlement of L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland discovered curious ecological remains dated to the 11th - 13th centuries that were not indigenous to that part of Canada. One of these “ecofacts" was a layer of cannabis pollen. Naturally, this immediately grabbed headlines, as pot-smoking Vikings seemed a perfect confluence between two pop-culture trends at the time.
But real experts (including those who wrote the original paper) urge caution in drawing any conclusions about Viking marijuana use from this one find. Many different things are made from cannabis/hemp, such as rope, bags, or even clothing. There are also other possible explanations for how the pollen may have got there.
We can say that the recreational use of hashish (a purified form of cannabis) was exploding in popularity in the Arab world from the 9th century on. The Vikings actively traded with these people. So, the idea that Vikings encountered cannabis is plausible. Once experienced and appreciated, it would be easy enough for them to cultivate it. However, (as far as we are aware) there are no saga mentions and no significant archeological evidence of recreational marijuana use from other Viking sites.
As it pertains to the question of berserkers and drug use, marijuana is not associated with many of the hallmarks of the berserkergangr but usually calms people down. Therefore, there is no reason to think the berserkers used cannabis to reach their state of battle-frenzy.
Alcohol and other Possibilities
Some scholars have suggested that alcohol was responsible for the berserker's rage. While it is likely that berserkers may have used alcohol, so did almost everyone else. In Grettis Saga, Grettir gets 12 enemy berserkers drunk to diminish their effectiveness. So, it seems unlikely that the berserkergangr can be attributed simply to excessive drinking.
There may be medical explanations, too. For example, awareness has increased over the past few decades concerning a psychiatric/physical phenomenon called excited delirium. A 2019 medical textbook by Dr. John Roberts describes the condition:
The majority of affected individuals are young males. Features of ExDS [excited delirium syndromes] include uncontrolled aggression and agitation, tremendous pain tolerance, tachypnea [fast breathing], tachycardia [rapid heart rate], sweating, tactile hyperthermia, pacing, grunting, noncompliance with police orders, unusual and untiring strength, being inappropriately clothed, extreme paranoia, and having an attraction to mirror or glass. Individuals are unable to engage in rational discussion or understand or deescalate their abnormal aggressive, violent, and threatening behavior.
This sounds quite a bit like the berserker’s rage. Excited delirium is most associated with abuse of uppers like cocaine and meth (bringing us back to drugs) but can also be associated with schizophrenia and other psychiatric or medical etiologies.
Other scholars have maintained that substances are not necessary to explain the berserkergangr. Instead, they chalk the phenomenon to the natural psychosis that could arise among young men striving for personal aggrandizement within groups in very violent settings.
Of course, sometimes, the easiest way to explain a mystery is to decide it never happened in the first place. While there is far too much evidence of berserkers to dismiss, many historians believe berserkers have been misunderstood or overstated. They argue that the berserker was an elite warrior (no more and no less) who was probably a professional retainer of a king or jarl. Like many elite warriors, they were so much better at fighting than everyone else that they seemed invincible or magical.
Battlefield psychology works in both directions: to the fear-struck enemy, the brave champion seems even bigger, more frightening, and harder to hurt. Simultaneously, the champion may feel unstoppable as his enemies flee from him.
So, berserkers may have just been hand-picked, highly trained professional warriors who were so badass that they seemed inhuman. The rest is just embellishment from centuries of tall tales. They may well have been devoted to Odinic cults and even practiced strange animal dances and rituals. Still, beyond talent, attitude, and training, they were just as vulnerable and limited as everyone else.
ConclusionArcheological and literary evidence suggests that the berserker’s roots stretch back before the Bronze Age. For generations, cults of warriors used shamanic rituals to channel animal spirits and create a dissociative state. Thus, they replaced the fear of battle with power, ferocity, resolve, and burning courage. The Viking berserker was one of this long tradition's purest and most poignant expressions. Their fury in battle was so terrifying that they lent their name to an expression in our language (going berserk) and left an indelible mark in our imagination.
But the berserker was outlawed and abandoned throughout Scandinavia and Iceland around the beginning of the 11th century. As they died out, knowledge of their methods died out with them. So, we will never really know if their prowess was due to drugs, shamanic rituals, or personal merit. It may well have been due to all these things at once. Whatever the truth may have been, the memory of the berserker continues to fascinate and inspire.
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Isle of Lewis Chess Piece:
Wolf Skin Warrior: