History of the Berserkers
History of the Berserkers
The history of the berserkers is about as dramatic and intense as it gets. As they moved forward into battle, the troop would be completely but ass naked except for the animal skin that slightly covered their naked body. Practicing the sacred powers of ritual, and using a very dangerous left-hand path that utilized the extreme use of psychedelic drugs and alcohol, Berserkers would tear their enemies into shreds. One account noted a Berserker who ate his very own shield amidst a battle. The claim goes:
“a demoniacal frenzy suddenly took him; he furiously bit and devoured the edges of his shield; he kept gulping down fiery coals; he snatched live embers in his mouth and let them pass down into his entrails; he rushed through the perils of crackling fires; and at last, when he had raved through every sort of madness, he turned his sword with raging hand against the hearts of six of his champions. It is doubtful whether this madness came from thirst for battle or natural ferocity.”
On Becoming a Berserker
“If any grown person alone catches a boar or kills a huge bear, he is purified thereby from the shame of unchastity.”
– Ammianus Marcellinus
How did the warriors of the past become a berserker? We have every indication that Berserkers were not born with the innate ability to battle. Instead, entrance into the troop required strenuous initiations. Evidence of this is illustrated in military helmets dating as far back as 700 AD. These depictions show three different phases of the initiate; separation, marginalization, and finally, aggregation.
The Separation Phase
Thralls, or the lower classes in Viking society, were not allowed admittance into the warrior initiations. Bersekers were picked from the most noble families. While it is true that later examples of poor and criminal type berserkers emerged, this is more due to the fact that Christianity actively targeted this type of warrior in its own propaganda campaign. The prestige of this ancient warrior class was part of an active conspiracy to belittle it. Anyways, berserkers consisted of those whose familial line had embarked upon actions in the past that had enhanced the families’ prestige. Individuals in these times were considered aspects of a larger familial chain, that dictated the fates of individuals within it. One dishonorable family member could cause disgrace upon the whole familial unit.
A youth, typically in the early teenage years was selected, and placed under the care of a warlord. During this phase, the youth is degraded. He is abused and only put into ragged clothes. Since he has not yet earned a place or rank within the troop, he is treated miserably.
The Marginalization Phase
“The Germans do not think it in keeping with the divine majesty to confine gods within walls or to portray them in the likeness of any human countenance. Their holy places are woods and groves, and they apply the names of deities to that hidden presence which is seen only by the eye of reverence.”
As time goes on, the youth is then mentored by a member of the warband. This warrior leads the boy in a series of initiations that typically involve journeys into the wilderness. In the secluded location, the boy is trained and coached on developing warrior skills. Aside from battle tactics, the boy is also taught secret knowledge about the cult of Odin. At the peak of this initiation, the young teen is to fight and kill a beast within the wilderness. Most commonly these were wolves, boars, and bears. Afterwards he is supposed to wear the cloak of the animal, which grants him the animistic abilities of the one he slaughtered. Following the path of the Heruli, the teen and his mentor then act as outlaws living outside the confines of the social order. If successful, the initiate returns back to the home of the warlord.
The Aggregation Phase
Upon returning, the mentor and the initiate set up a mock battle that represents the one that occurred in the wilderness. During this, the mentor dresses as the beast. Watching the re-enactment the warriors in the band now recognize the teen as a warrior. The initiate then discards his previous name, having earned a new one that is suitable to his tier within the group. Often times this name is borrowed upon the animal that was killed during the encounter in the woods. Some of these names are still known to us, for example, “Brown-One,” “Victory-Bear,”“Battle Wolf” and “War-Band Wolf.” One final test involved a battle between the initiate and two other members of the group. If the skills of the initiate were sufficient, he was offered full admittance into the tribe as a fully functioning unit.
History of the Berserker Rage
Odin’s men went armor-less into battle and were as crazed as dogs or wolves and as strong as bears or bulls. They bit their shields and slew men, while they themselves were harmed by neither fire nor iron. This is called “going berserk.”
The violent battle-hungry rage of the Berserkers is the most known motif from the history of these warriors. Countless accounts in the northern lore describe it, as well as other non-Nordic attestations. For example, Leo Diaconus a historian from ancient Byzantine describes a tribe of Germanic warriors who howled and fought as though they were possessed by the spirit of animals.
Transfiguration in the ancient sense was not comprehended as an actual physical transformation of the body. These transformations were mental, and did not demand a new bodily shape. The nature of the Berserkers and their actions were evidence enough of their ability to invoke animalistic spirits and powers. Sources depict howling, biting, and even the consummation of blood.
The relationship between the Berserkers and Odin is best described in terms of spiritual union. Their rituals opened channels to voluntary possession, and induced the effects of their rage and fury. This state reduced all human limitations, making the berserkers numb to emotion and pain. This union also left the possessed in control of the actions. Berserkers were feared for their recklessness as much as they were admired for their skills and abilities in battle. Being viewed as insane caused great terror in the eyes of the warriors who crossed their paths. Inducing Berserker Rage was caused by rituals that created a great distance between the man and his human morals and emotions.
It was a great dishonor to outlive the opportunity of glory in these states. Often times, a Berserker would curse Odin if the vigor and ability of the youth had disappeared in old age. However, there were tactics for the ancient Berserker to move around this. Often times, if a Berserker felt that he was growing old, a staged and violent death took place. This event was done by another member of the warband. The Heruli were also known for enacting such events. To avoid dishonor, the Heruli would be stabbed to death upon their funeral pyre.
As time went on, All of Europe was assimilated into the Christian Empires of the South. Traditions were reimagined, and even outlawed. Subsequently, Berserkers were put into an illegal class of society. Some of their practices survived through social evolution. For example, Trollaukin was a magical and spiritual practice that used the runes to invoke troll spirits. These spirits would possess the invoker and grant them powers of speed, power, and agility in sport competitions. Over time, this practice also dwindled as the culture of Christianity gradually buried the practices of transfiguration in nearly all its forms.
The Bear Beliefs
For the ancient Germanic and Norse societies bears were a taboo to speak about. Invoking a bear by uttering its name could bring about a storm. In these societies the bear was believed to have descended from the sky. It was intricately tied to the hunting god. In the Finnish world we see the use of words like “the God’s Dog.” This signifies the type of relationship between the two. Often times the bear was perceived as a manifestation of the spirit of the forest. The hibernation cycles of the bear were considered a holistic manifestation of the cycles of the universe. Killing of the bear during such a state was considered a taboo that would have drastic consequences for the person and tribe the individual was attached to.
Back to the Germanic society the bear was mostly mentioned in terms of trade and economics. However, we see that the slaying of a bear was as legendary as dragon slaying would become in medieval traditions. Unlike the Finnish who hunted bear to consume their flesh, the Germanic and Norse society hunted bears as an act of marauding. The act itself presented a great opportunity of excitement, danger, and the increased prestige and honor.
The Germanic people had a great number of rituals and beliefs about the ferocious beast. There were many burial practices that utilized the fur of a bear. The dead were laid upon the bearskin and bear claws were laid out surrounding them. It was also believed that the bear had special powers, as it were. The lore mentions the ability of bears to speak with humans. Furthermore, consummation of the flesh of a bear by a pregnant woman was believed to pass on the powers of the bear to the woman’s child. The Gylfaginning mentions the possibility of the transfer of the bear powers by drinking its blood.
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