Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Norse Berserkers - myth or reality?

Vendel era bronze plate discovered in Öland,
Viking Berserkers were said to be fierce, wild, frenzied fighters, pumped-up with uncontrollable blood-lust and fighting in an animalistic, trance-like fury, impervious to all attacks, but did these fabled warriors ever actually exist...? 

Germanic Berserkers

Most of us are familiar with the word berserk, meaning 'out of control with anger or excitment, frenzied or wild.' Deriving from the Old Norse noun berserkr, meaning an ancient warrior who fought with unconrolled ferocity, there are two possible interpretations of the word: either a combination of bjorn (bear) and serkr (coat,) or berr (bare/without armour) and sekr.
"Odin's men rushed forwards without armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were as strong as bears or wild oxen, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon them. This was called Berserkergang."-Snorri Sturluson: Ynglinga Saga
The primary sources for Berserkers, or berserks are the Norse Sagas and poems, which also contain decriptions of the Ulfhednar, or wolf-coats. These were both groups of elite warriors, heavily associated with the God Odin, and seeming to live lives that crossed borders between supernatural 'otherworlds,' and reality. Almost indestructable in battle, they exhibited animal-like behaviour, howling and barking, frothing at the mouth and attacking their enemies with terrifying ferocity.

Vendel era Torslanda helmet plates from Ôland, Sweden
Vendel era Torslanda helmet plates from Ôland, Sweden (public domain)

It is quite possible that these northern warrior traditions originated in prehistory, deriving from 'sympathetic,' shamanic hunting magic, where the practise of imitating and 'becoming' animals, through dance, ritual, trance and drug-use, was used to aid hunting success. These practises developed rich ideas of shape-shifting and sympathetic-magic in order to take-on the attributes of particular animals, which, it seems quite logical to assume, would continue when people began to fight, and hunt, other people.

'The Sorcerer' cave painting c.13000BC Cave of the Trois-Frères, Ariège, France
'The Sorcerer' cave painting c.13000BC
Cave of the Trois-Frères, Ariège, France

Sketch of Breuil's Drawing (Public Domain)

On Trajan's column in Rome, which depicts his conquest of Dacia in 101-106 AD, there are scenes showing Germani auxiliaries, a few of which are wearing bearhoods and wolfhoods, however, the next known reference to this type of warrior is not until 872 AD in a description of the battle of Hafrsfjord:
"I'll ask you of the berserks, you tasters of blood,
Those intrepid heroes, how are they treated,
Those who wade out into battle?
Wolf-skinned they are called. In battle
They bear bloody shields.
Red with blood are their spears when they come to fight.
They form a closed group.
The prince in his wisdom puts trust in such men
Who hack through enemy shields." - skaldic Poem by Thóbiörn Hornklofi
The 'tasters of blood,' in the first line, is a reference to the ravens of the battlefield, who feasted on the dead, (more of this later.)

Also mentioned in Norse Mythology are boar-warriors who fought battles using a wedge-shaped formation or 'Svinfvlking' (boar's-head,) with two champions making up the rani, (snout.) The boar was another animal featuring heavily in Anglo-Saxon art, and it seems that the svinfvlking warriors were, just like their brethren the Berserkers and Ulfhednar, using aspects of their 'totem' animal as a foundation for their martial arts and tactics.

A great many disparate ancient societies created animal cults, many of which also contained warrior elements and could well have developed in similar ways to the Germanic cults. (The bearskin caps worn by the Royal Life Guards and Queen's Guards are a modern day survival of similar associations.) However, the colourful sagas and poems of Norse Mythology have painted such wonderful and evocative pictures of these wild, mad Berserkr warriors, ensuring that they have carried through to our modern age, and we continue to be fascinated, repulsed and sometimes thrilled by a behaviour that seems so utterly primeval and disturbing to our modern outlook.
"...Then the king ordered his berserks, the men called Wolfskins forward. No iron could hurt them, and when they charged nothing could withstand them...[one of them] began to howl and to bite the rim of his shield. He held the shield uo to his mouth and scowled over its upper edge like a madman..." - Grettir's Saga
All this talk of biting shields brings me neatly to the next section.... 

The Lewis Chessmen

A fascinating find, and undoubtably one of the most iconic archealogical discoveries ever in Scotland, the background to the creation, history and discovery of the Lewis Chessmen is a story all in itself, and many elements are still hotly debated.Possibly originating in Trondheim, (the Outer Hebrides was ruled by Norway at this time,) there were 78 chess pieces discovered in the Hoard, most of which are now in the British Museum, and the remainder in the National Museum of Scotland. (If you have time, I would thoroughly recommend reading more about the Lewis Chessmen and their story. The British Museum produce a fascinating booklet on them.) 
Lewis Chessmen photo by Andrew Dunn CC BY-SA 2.0
Some of the Kings & Queens of the Lewis Chessmen
photo by Andrew Dunn CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia

And what, might you ask, does this have to do with Berserkers? Amongst the chess pieces discovered, were twelve warders, or rooks. They are represented as foot soldiers, and each carries a shield. All, except one, have helmets and three of them are biting the top of their shields in the most disturbing way. This puzzled the early handlers of the chess pieces, and was solved by Sir Frederic Madden, Assistant Keeper of the Manuscripts at the British Museum, who worked to acquire most of the pieces for the museum. He had a keen interest in board games and, crucially, an expert knowledge of the Norse Sagas, which led him to the conclusion that these were representations of Berserkers. He published his findings in an 1853 article in Archaeologica, quoting the extract from Snorri Sturluson above. 

Lewis Berserker By Nachosan CC BY-SA 3.0
Lewis Berserker - National Museum Scotland
By Nachosan CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia

"It is the specific act of biting the shield that communicates their frenzy and places Madden's recognition of the gesture beyond a doubt." - British Museum.

By Rob Roy (Flickr: Beserker, Lewis Chessmen, British Museum) [CC BY 2.0
Warders by Rob Roy (Flickr: Beserker) CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia

Although we may view many of the Lewis chess pieces today as humorous, they were almost certainly not conceived as such, but were more likely styled to embody heroic ideals.

The Making of 'Berserker' from Justbod

I have always loved, and been fascinated by the Lewis Chessman Berserker ever since I made a cast copy of a complete Lewis Chess set as a child, and fell in love with all the pieces, but particularly the enigmatic Berserker. Since then, I have seen examples of him reproduced many times, in many different ways, and I wanted to create my own unique interpretation.

Berserker section by Justbod

My initial vision was of a Berserker framed in a doorway, surrounded by swirling birds and beasts, possibly symbolic of his mental state, possibly creators of it...

Norse warriors, and particularly Berserkers, were heavily associated with Odin, and looked to Odin to give them aggression and courage in battle. Odin is often represented with his two ravens called Huginn "thought," and Muninn "memory." Ravens have always had strong associations both with the supernatural, and with battle, and battlefields.  I decided that I wanted to include ravens within my piece.

Plate from Vendel era helmet interpreted as Odin
Plate from Vendel era helmet interpreted as Odin
accompanied by his two ravens (Public Domain)

Odin also had two wolves, Geri and Freki, another animalistic association with my envisoned piece, and its subject. 

The initial idea of my Berserker communing with ravens, a vision of them whispering in his ears, perhaps helping to build in him the battle frenzy (or, alternatively, as a torment,) was also inspired by various similar Germanic motifs of animals appearing to whisper in a warrior's ears.

Torslunda helmet plate from Öland, Sweden
Torslunda helmet plate from Öland, Sweden
(Public Domain)

Many years ago I created a relief carving of a long, sinuous paved passageway, with multiple doorways and openings along the sides. The carving was in elm burr wood that was only three quarters of an inch thick. I really enjoyed the challenges of perspective within the piece, and wanted to create an element of this within the Berserker.

The doorway became a classic Gothic arch, opening into a paved corridor, with the Berserker just behind the opening. Initial experiments with my 'swirling beasts,' showed them to be a little impractical with the other elements (I'm determined to bring them back in some future piece,) so I settled on two stylised Ravens as part of the opening itself, and two wolf-type creatures at the base of the doorway.

Stylised raven by Justbod

Although I hadn't consciously planned it, I was pleased that the 'checkerboard' patterning of the paving pays homage to the Berserkers origin as a chess piece.  

My original sculpture is now reproduced in cold-cast bronze or aluminium, cast by hand and set within a custom-made oak plaque, shaped and profiled to increase the idea of a doorway framing the Berserker. He is currently available from our 'Warriors' page on the main website. 

Viking Berserker Wall Plaque by Justbod

Each process in the creation of every Berserker, is undertaken by me, by hand.

Berserker links us back in time to the shape-shifting and sympathetic-magic of our prehistoric ancestors, through the Berserkers of Norse society and Mythology, to the idealised and characterful Lewis Chessmen of the Outer Hebrides.

Thank you for reading


Justbod Team

Unique Handcrafted Gifts in Wood
~ inspired by a love of history and nature ~ 

Justbod unique gifts inspired by a love of history and nature


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For regular updates on new products, articles & offers:


Sources and Further Information:


Vendal and Dark Age Ornamental Design by Igor D. Górewicz
The Lewis Chessmen (British Museum Objects in Focus) by James Robinson
Beasts, Birds and Gods: Interpreting the Staffordshire Hoard by Chris Fern and George Speake
Viking Art by James Graham-Campbell

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Oak: King Of The Woods

Oak Tree

No other tree has permeated our imaginations, sense of self, history, folklore and culture to quite the same extent as the mighty oak. For thousands of years Britain's largest native tree has provided the material for our shelter, our boats and ships, hidden our heroes and villains, made up our boundaries and meeting places, woven its way into our spiritual and religious lives, and provided an indomitable symbol for strength, endurance and longevity for our souls.

The (largely unoffical) National Tree of England, Ireland and Wales, it has been adopted by and associated with, leaders and Royalty throughout history, yet has also retained its 'common touch.'

Scientific Name: Quercus robur, Quercus petraea (the two white oaks from the subgenus Quercus that are native to Britain.) - Latin Quercus-'oak,' robur-'strength, hard-timber'

Common Name: (Quercus robur) common oak, penuculate oak, European oak or English oak and (Quercus petraea) sessile or Durmast oak.

(The easiest way to tell the two apart is from the acorns. The sessile oak has stalked leaves and stalkless (sessile) acorns, from which its name is derived.The sessile oak prefers upland, rocky areas, and the English oak deeper, richer soils at lower altitude.)

Family: a species of flowering plant in the beech and oak family Fagaceae

Large oak tree growing on a slope near Osmotherley North Yorkshire
Large oak tree growing on a slope near Osmotherley 
North Yorkshire

Description: Probably one of the most familiar trees to the majority of people, the oak is deciduous, growing quite rapidly in youth and then slowing in maturity. The bark is smooth and silvery brown, becoming deeply fissured with age. As oaks mature, they form a broad, open and spreading canopy that allows light to the forest floor, encouraging other plants to grow. The oak tree supports more wildlife than any of our other native trees, providing a home for hundreds of different species. In tight woodland locations they can grow tall and slender, in more open positions, spreading out. Oaks can attain a height of 45 m (147.6 ft) and reach an amazing girth of 14 m (46 ft.) Oaks are very deep rooted and branches grow low. The leaves are wavy and lobed and, alongwith the oaks fruit, the acorn, they are instantly familar to almost everyone, due to their popular use in symbols, stories and myth.

Oak tree, Skipwith Common, North Yorkshire
Oak tree, Skipwith Common, North Yorkshire

Oak leaves and acorns - Quercus robur
Oak leaves and acorns - Quercus robur

Oaks can live up to a thousand years old, the oldest examples generally being oaks that have been pollarded - a system where the upper branches of a tree are regularly cut, usually at about head height. Normally, though, they live to about 150-200 years old, maturing at about 75 years. Construction timber is usually obtained from trees that are about 150 years old.

Oaks, Skipwith Common, North Yorkshire
Oaks, Skipwith Common, North Yorkshire

Ancient Oak, Castle Howard Car Park, North Yorkshire
One of several ancient oaks in the car park 
of Castle Howard, N Yorkshire

Oak Tree Lore 

  • Because of their size, presence and longevity, as well as their role as markers, places of gathering and sacred sites, individual trees gathered importance over time within communities. As such, much of the lore of oak trees is attached to specific, well known trees, mostly with their own names.This process has also created more well-known ancient oaks than any other species of tree.
  • In the Classical world, the oak was regarded as the 'Tree Of Life,' as its roots penetrated as deep into the Underworld as its branches soared into Heaven. 

Tree Of Life Wood Carving from Justbod
Tree Of Life Wood Carving from Justbod
  • Oaks are often struck by lightening, and also often survive. Perhaps not coincidentally, many Gods associated with thunder and lightening are also associated with the oak - the Norse God Thor, and the Celtic Dagda, are two examples.
  • Druids are synonomous with oak trees, oak groves and mistletoe. The name Druid (first recorded in Latin by Julius Caesar) is probably from the Proto-Celtic word "druwits" - literally oak-knower, from the Proto-Indo-European "dóru" - tree and "weyd" - to see. The presence of ancient sacred oak groves is well-attested to by classical writers such as Strabo and Pliny, and their destruction was a major objective of the invading Romans when trying to eradicate the threat that the Druids posed. I have often felt that the fluted pillars in the interior of churches and cathedrals, which soar high, and then arch over in a crown, are very reminiscent of a grove of trees. The majority of these buildings were definitely built on very ancient sacred sites, many of which may have been sacred groves at one time or another.
  • In the Celtic early medieval alphabet of Ogham, oak is represented by the word Duir, which comes from the Gaelic and Sanskrit word meaning 'door,' and the oak represents not only the door in our homes, but also the doorway to the otherworld.
The hawthorn and the oak Beacon Banks near Husthwaite North Yorkshir
The hawthorn & the oak, framing a view that's almost like a portal
to another land....Beacon Banks Husthwaite, North Yorkshire

  • The Yule log was traditionally cut from oak, and oak was the wood most associated with the 'need-fire' - a fire originally used to ward off murrain (disease) in livestock and also a sacred fire through which the livestock were driven at Beltane. The need-fire was lit after all other fires were extinguished, and then all new hearth fires were relit from this same source.
  • During Oliver Cromwell's time - young couples were married under oak trees.-(Was this a tradition harking back to earlier times?)
Oak Leaves Unfurling, Spring
The unfurling of the oak leaf, Spring

  • Perhaps because of its strength, solidity and longevity, acorns and oak leaves have been carried for generations as protection. They are also symbols that have appeared on many British coins such as the old shilling and 6d coin. More recently the oak tree has featured on the 1987 pound coin.
1987 UK One Pound Coin
1987 UK One Pound Coin
  • Ancient Kings wore crowns of oak leaves to show their authority, and the Romans used oak garlands to mark their victors. The names of many of our settlements, farms, streets, roads and pubs reflect our long associations with the oak.
  • The 'Greenman,' the 'Wildman, Woodwose or Wodewose' are mythical nature figures often represented in church carvings throughout Europe, often clothed or bedecked with foliage, which is most often in the form of oak leaves.
Green Man Carving, West Bank Park, York, Yorkshire
Green Man Carving, West Bank Park, York

  • Many parishes used to contain a 'Gospel Oak' - an oak tree at which part of the Gospels would be read out during 'beating of the bounds' ceremonies in Spring. Again, perhaps the Christian continuation of older ceremonies.
  • Robin Hood and his Merry Troupe have several trees associated with them. The Major Oak in Sherwood Forest attracts many vistors and, although the current tree probably dates to the 16th c., it is said to be Robin's favoured place place to meet up with his merry men.
  • Two very ancient oaks - Gog and Magog - named after the last male and female giants of Britain,  occupy a special place in Somerset, near Glastonbury Tor. They are the last of a famous oak-lined processional route up to the Tor, said to have been planted by the Druids. Also known as 'The Avalon Oaks,' they were felled in 1906 to enlarge a farm.
  • In 1650, during the English Civil War, King Charles II hid from his Parliamentary pursurers in an oak tree at Boscobel House. The tree has since been known as the Royal Oak. In 1664 an act of Parliament made the event a public holiday which was celebrated on 29th May - 'Oak Apple Day.' It was formally abolished in 1859, but lives on in some English towns.
      The Cowthorpe Oak 1906 ©Yorkshire Post
      The Cowthorpe Oak 1906 'Villages Of Yorkshire' 
      Leeds & Yorkshire Mercury Photo©Yorkshire Post

      Oak Tree Uses

      • Oak produces one of the strongest and most durable timbers in the world, very long-lasting and resistant to insect attack and rot, due to its high tannin content. As such, it has been used for millennia for construction with many ancient structures still retaining some of their original timbers. Particularly used in the past for the frames of buildings, and internal panelling.
      Banqueting Hall, Cawood Castle, North Yorkshire
      Banqueting Hall Cawood Castle N Yorkshire

      • Oak was the main construction material for sailing warships due to its great strength as well as its curving boughs, which allow natural 'knees' to be cut at various angles (also useful for timber-house frames.) The Royal Navy was often described as 'the wooden walls of old England' and the Navy's official quick march is 'Heart of Oak.' Trees were grown, and forests managed especially for ship building, which was a massive industry. In Drake and Nelson's day an average ship used the wood of upwards of  2,000 oak trees. 
      Kneetimber - Boatbuilding.Wikipedia By Boatbuilder (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0]
      Kneetimber - Boatbuilding.Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0]

      • Oak planking was common on high-status Viking Longships in the 9th and 10th c. The wood being hewn from green logs with axe and wedge, to produce radial planks - similar to quarter-sawn timber.
        • Wood carvers, carpenters, cabinet-makers and artists have used oak's beautiful even-grained, honey-coloured and durable wood for centuries for wood carvings, decorative panels, furniture and functional items.
        Viking Dragon Head Wood Carving in Oak
        'Hedeby' - Viking Dragon Head Wood Carving in Oak
        • Oak barrels have been used for the storage of various alcoholic beverages for many years, the destinctive smoky/vanilla qualities of oak contributing to the final aroma and taste of the alcohol.
        • The leather industry has used the tannin-rich bark for tanning since at least Roman times, and the bark can also produce a brown dye. Harness sores on horses were also treated with a concoction made from boiling the bark.
        • Oak apples or oak galls (the oak trees reaction to the gall wasp larvae) contain the main ingredient in 'Iron Gall Ink,' - a purple-black or brown-black ink which was the standard writing and drawing ink in Europe throughout the Middle Ages.
        • Oak tree leaves, bark and acorns used to be used for the treatment of diarrhoea, inflammation and kidney stones.  

          Oak Gall or Oak Apple
          Oak Gall or 'Oak Apple'

        • Pannage was the practise from ancient times of releasing domestic pigs, in the autumn, into a forest to feast on the acorns and nuts there. Pannage was so prominent a value in the economic importance of woodland that it was often employed as a measurement, such as in the Doomsday Book. Woods were rated as to how many swine they could support, pointing to the importance and widespread nature of oak within forests during these times. 

         Oak Tree Quotes

        Of all the trees that grow so fair,
        Old England to adorn, Greater are none beneath the Sun,
        Than Oak, and Ash, and Thorn."
        - Rudyard Kipling

        Oak Tree, Skipwith Common, North Yorkshire
        Oak Tree, Skipwith Common, North Yorkshire

        "The Monarch oak, the patriarch of the trees,
        Shoots rising up, and spreads by slow degrees,
        Three centuries he grows, and three he stays,
        Supreme in state, and in three more decays."
        - John Dryden 

        "A song to the oak, the brave old oak, Who hath ruled in the greenwood long;
        Here's health and renown to his broad green crown, And his fifty arms so strong.
        There's fear in his frown when the sun goes down, And the fire in the West fades out;
        And he showeth his might on a wild midnight, When the storms through his branches shout."
        - H.F. Chorley

        "The oak, when living, monarch of the wood,
        The English oak, which, dead, commands the flood."
        - Charles Churchill

        "The tall oak, towering to the skies, 
        The fury of the wind defies, 
        From age to age, in virtue strong.
        Inured to stand, and suffer wrong."
        - James Montgomery

        Oak tree Hetchell Woods, Leeds, Yorkshire
        "For a tree to grow tall it must grow tough roots among the rocks"
        - Friedrich Nietzsche

        "Our ordinary mind always tries to persuade us that we are nothing but acorns and that our greatest happiness will be to become bigger, fatter, shinier acorns; but that is of interest only to pigs. Our faith gives us knowledge of something better: that we can become oak trees."
        - E.F. Schmacher 

        "Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn! You bury it in the ground, and it eplodes into an oak!"
        - George Bernard Shaw

        Oaks, Hetchell Wood Crags, Near Leeds
        Oaks, Hetchell Wood Crags, Near Leeds

        "The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn."
        - Ralph Waldo Emerson

        "You stand beneath the arthritic boughs of any English oak, and you survey a thousand tales"
        - Jim Crace 

        Ancient oak, Castle Howard car park , North Yorkshire
        Another Ancient One at Castle Howard car park, North Yorkshire

        "When the oak is felled the whole forest echoes with its fall, but a hundred acorns are sown in silence by an unnoticed breeze."
        - Thomas Carlyle 

        "Many a genius has been slow of growth. Oaks that flourish for a thousand years do not spring up into beauty like a reed."
        - George Henry Lewes

        "Every mighty oak tree was once a nut that stood its ground"
        - Unknown but attributed to various

        Baby oak
        Baby oak

        "Mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow."
        - Fourteenth Century Proverb

        Wood from the Oak 


        As already mentioned, oak is probably one of the most versatile, and loved, timbers available - finding an application in almost every area. Its colouring is yellowy-golden-brown with a medium coarse grain. There are a great many variants and 'character' grades of oak, from pippy/burry oak, tiger or brown oak (coloured by the beef steak fungus Fistulina Hepatica) to quarter sawn (boards sawn on the radial plane to produce greater stability and more beautiful figure in the grain.)

        Kiln dried oak
        Unfinished, kiln-dried oak

        To date, I have made quite a number of things from oak, including small and large sculptures and carvings, straight and twisty oak didgeridoos, tool handles and furniture. Using green oak, old fallen oak from woodlands, air-dried oak, and kiln-dried oak.

        The majority of oak timber that I currently use to make the plaques for Justbod, is quarter sawn English Oak. 

        Oak can be challenging to work, as it can be extremely unforgiving and frustrating at times, chipping and splitting easily, burning, and dulling tools quickly. This means it requires a lot of patience, finesse and tool sharpening! However, despite this the reward is worth it, as it is a beautiful wood, with a lovely finish and an impressive heritage. 
        Sculpted Arrowheads in Oak from Justbod
        Sculpted Arrowheads in Oak

        Working with wood is a very enveloping, sensual experience involving all the senses, including smell. At one time, I wanted to do an aroma guide to wood, but I quickly realised that to descibe a smell is extremely difficult! Also, some woods have hardly any aroma, whereas others are very distinctive. Oak is one of these. It is one of my favouite smells and is obviously very evocative to me of the sum of all of the experiences that I have had, thus far, working with oak, both in-the-green, and kiln dried, or seasoned. A sort of smoky / vanilla / sweet smell (see - its almost impossible to convey!)

        Shaman Wood Carving in Oak from Justbod
        'Shaman'' Wood Carving in Oak

        I can never completely separate the experience of meeting live trees in the wild, and the feelings they evoke in me, with the experiences of working with their wood. Somehow all of my woodland adventures become entwined with my work, which is exactly how it should be.

        Oak is a truly magnificent tree - from the twisted 'witchy' trees of rocky uplands, to the awe-inspiring giants that dominate many woodlands and vales, it really does deserve the title of 'King Of The Woods.' 

        I love oak - one of my oldest friends.

        Thanks for reading!


        Justbod Team 

        Visit our main site and shop >>

        Artwork, Carvings and Sculpture
        ~ inspired by a love of history and nature ~ 

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        Tree of Life Wall Plaque
        Visit our Tree of Life Page

        For regular updates on new products, articles & offers:


        Sources and Further Information:

        Britain's Tree Story: The history and legends of Britain's ancient trees - Julian Hight 
        The British Oak - Archie Miles 
        Trees of Britain and Europe - Tony Russell
        The Hedgerow Handbook - Adele Nozedar
        The Celtic Tree Oracle - Liz and Colin Murray
        A Tree In Your Pocket - Jacqueline Memory Paterson
        Villages of Yorkshire - Leeds and Yorkshire Mercury