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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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


  1. Interesting theory about the berserkers, I'd go with the drug induced one as someone who is drugged up is very hard to control. Do like the chess piece he does look wild

    1. Thanks Bill - I'm sure drugs played their part in it all ☺