Berserkers (or berserks) were Norse warriors who are primarily reported in the Old Norse literature to have fought in a nearly uncontrollable, trance-like fury, a characteristic which later gave rise to the English word berserk. Berserkers are attested to in numerous Old Norse sources. Most historians believe that berserkers worked themselves into a rage before battle, but some think that they might have consumed drugged foods.
The Úlfhéðnar (singular Úlfheðinn), another term associated with berserkers, mentioned in the Vatnsdœla saga, Haraldskvæði and the Völsunga saga, were said to wear the pelt of a wolf when they entered battle. Úlfhéðnar are sometimes described as Odin's special warriors: "[Odin’s] men went without their mailcoats and were mad as hounds or wolves, bit their shields...they slew men, but neither fire nor iron had effect upon them. This is called 'going berserk.'" In addition, the helm-plate press from Torslunda depicts (below) a scene of Odin with a berserker—"a wolf skinned warrior with the dancer in the bird-horned helm, which is generally interpreted as showing a scene indicative of a relationship between berserkgang... and the god Odin"—with a wolf pelt and a spear as distinguishing features.
The name berserker derives from the Old Norseberserkr (plural berserkir). This expression most likely arose from their reputed habit of wearing a kind of shirt or coat (serkr) made from the pelt of a bear (ber-) during battle.
The element ber- was sometimes interpreted as berr-, meaning "bare", which Snorri understood to mean that the warriors went into battle bare-chested, or "without armor" as men of Odin. This view has since been largely abandoned.
To "go berserk" was to “hamask” which translates as “change form," in this case, a with the sense "enter a state of wild fury" and one who could transform as a berserker was typically thought of as “hamrammr” or “shapestrong.” For example, the band of men that go with Skallagrim in Egil’s Saga to see King Harald about his brother, Thorolf’s murder, they are described as, "all together there were twelve of them in the party, all the hardest of men, with a touch of the uncanny about a number of them...they [were] built and shaped more like trolls than human beings," which is generally interpreted as this band of men being hamrammr.
Battle of the Storm Hjørungavåg Illustration for Olav Tryggvasons saga Gerhard Munthe (1899)
Berserkers appear prominently in a multitude of other sagas and poems, many of which describe berserkers as ravenous men who loot, plunder, and kill indiscriminately. Later, by Christian interpreters, the berserk was even viewed as a "heathen devil."
The earliest surviving reference to the term "berserker" is in Haraldskvæði, a skaldic poem composed by Thórbiörn Hornklofi in the late 9th century in honour of King Harald Fairhair, as ulfheðnar ("men clad in wolf skins"). This translation from the Haraldskvæði saga describes Harald's berserkers:
I'll ask 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.
His (Odin's) men rushed forwards without armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild oxen, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon them. This was called Berserkergang.
King Harald Fairhair's use of berserker "shock troops" broadened his sphere of influence. Other Scandinavian kings used berserkers as part of their army of hirdmen and sometimes ranked them as equivalent to a royal bodyguard. It may be that some of those warriors only adopted the organization or rituals of berserk männerbünde, or used the name as a deterrent or claim of their ferocity.
Emphasis has been placed on the frenzied nature of the berserkers, hence the modern sense of the word 'berserk.' However, the sources describe several other characteristics that have been ignored or neglected by modern commentators. Snorri's assertion that 'neither fire nor iron told upon them' is reiterated time after time, and the sources frequently state that neither edged weapons nor fire affected the berserks, although they were not immune to clubs or other blunt instruments. For example:
men asked Halfdan to attack Hardbeen and his champions man by man; and he not only promised to fight, but assured himself the victory with most confident words. When Hardbeen heard this, 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. Then with the remaining band of his champions he attacked Halfdan, who crushed him with a hammer of wondrous size, so that he lost both victory and life; paying the penalty both to Halfdan, whom he had challenged, and to the kings whose offspring he had violently ravished...
Similarly, Hrolf Kraki's champions refuse to retreat 'from fire or iron.' Another frequent motif refers to berserkers blunting their enemy's blades with spells, or a glance from their evil eyes. This appears as early as Beowulf where it is a characteristic attributed to Grendel. Both the fire eating and the immunity to edged weapons are reminiscent of tricks popularly ascribed to Hindufakirs.
The actual fit of madness the berserker experienced was referred to as berserkergang ("going berserk"). This condition has been described as follows:
This fury, which was called berserkergang, occurred not only in the heat of battle, but also during laborious work. Men who were thus seized performed things which otherwise seemed impossible for human power. This condition is said to have begun with shivering, chattering of the teeth, and chill in the body, and then the face swelled and changed its colour. With this was connected a great hot-headedness, which at last gave over into a great rage, under which they howled as wild animals, bit the edge of their shields, and cut down everything they met without discriminating between friend or foe. When this condition ceased, a great dulling of the mind and feebleness followed, which could last for one or several days.
If a soldier survives the berserk state, it imparts emotional deadness and vulnerability to explosive rage to his psychology and permanent hyperarousal to his physiology — hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder in combat veterans. My clinical experience with Vietnam combat veterans prompts me to place the berserk state at the heart of their most severe psychological and psychophysiological injuries.
"Going berserk" is also used colloquially to describe a person who is acting in a wild rage or in an uncontrolled and irrational manner. "Berserker" is also a well known character archetype and status in video games and other media.
In popular culture
The character Slaine, as depicted by Simon Bisley and others in 2000AD Comics.
The comic book superhero Wolverine is sometimes depicted going into a state called a "berserker rage", where he attacks foes with unbridled ferocity.
In Clive Barker's 1990 film Nightbreed, the Berserkers are depicted as a monstrous and feral breed that were imprisoned deep in Midian due to their sheer insanity. They were released at the end of the film by Lylesburg (the leader of Midian's society) and Aaron Boone to attack the humans furiously and win the battle against them.
Berserkers are depicted in the Warhammer 40,000 universe as warriors in service to the Chaos god of blood, Khorne.
Warriors of Khorne in Warhammer Fantasy are referred to as being berserkers and display tendencies that real berserkers are purported to have had according to Norse folklore, such as biting their shields.
Fred Saberhagen's Berserker Saga of machines bent on the eradication of all organic life in the universe is likely based on the Berserkers.
In the 1997 MMORPG created and run by Norseman Games "The Realm Online", the 'Berseker Helmet' was a rare and hard to come by collectible helmet of the game. Once the player placed the helmet on their head they lost control on the battle field fighting any enemies which appeared on screen, even ones which were not recommended to fight (i.e. enemies of a much higher level than you). When a player loses a battle, items are dropped from his/her inventory. Upon losing a battle, which happened many times due to the destructive nature of the 'Berserker Helmet', the helmet was dropped and picked up by the enemy, making it a very hard helmet to keep hold of. When wearing the helmet, the players face became somewhat crazed, giving the player a scruffy beard and cross eyes.
In the 1999 Karen Marie Moning novel To Tame a Highland Warrior, main character Grimm Roderick, whose real name is Gavrael McIllioch, is a berserker who discovers he is descended from a long line of the famous warriors.
The film version of Lord of the Rings by Peter Jackson divides the Uruk army into four categories, including the berserker, depicted as particularly fierce and empowered by pouring human blood over their bodies.
In the video game series Fire Emblem, Berserk is a staff: if a character is hit by this staff, he will attack the nearest unit, whether it is an enemy or an ally. There is also a job class named Berserker, which are depicted wielding giant axes and a high critical hit rate.
The Final Fantasy video game series has incorporated a variety of abilities, job classes and status changes that are based on the concept of being in a 'berserk' state. Most of these involve the character attacking without any input from the player.
In the RPG game Baldur's Gate, the character Minsc, goes into a berserk rage either deliberately, as a special power (to increase speed and strength) or when seriously wounded, during which time he will attack members of his own party. When the berserk state ends, his own health is damaged and he is exhausted, requiring rest for his full strength to return. There is also a "cursed" sword which sends the wielder into a berserk state in the presence of enemies.
The band Black Label Society and more specifically lead singer Zakk Wylde often make reference to the term Berserker. In some instances fans of the band are referred to as Berserkers.
In 1981, Australian band Mental As Anything released the single 'Berserk Warriors' written by their bass player Peter O'Doherty. The song interweaves Viking Berserker imagery with the relationship between Abba's Bjorn and Anna.
In Duel Masters, the Berserkers are a mass-produced race of alloy pieces connected by an energy force field. They can vary in size from tanks to battleships.
In Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters (which is the reimaging of the Duel Masters franchise), the Berserkers are human-based monsters that are associated with the Fire Civilization.
The protagonists of the comic series Berserker, Aaron and Farris, are both Berserkers.
In the video game Borderlands, the character Brick is classed as a berserker. In the sequel Borderlands 2, the character Salvador is classed as a "Gunzerker"—a berserker who fights with guns.
In the video game Gears of War, Berserkers are blind reckless creatures with armor-like skin.
In the video game World of Warcraft, the warrior class has several berserker abilities (berserker stance, berserker rage), which grant substantial improvements to offensive moves.
In the video game Nox, the warrior class has an attack ability called the 'Berserker charge'.
In Michael Scott's Novel The Enchantress, the final sixth book of The Secrets if the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series, three berzerkers are sent to kill the twins in the great temple.
Berserkers feature as one of Denmark's unique units, replacing the Longswordsman, in a piece of DLC for Firaxis Games' Civilization V that added Denmark as a playable civilization.
Berserkers feature fairly prominately in Rome Total War as a Germanic unit that has high attack and impossible to control once berserk.
The character Olaf sings a song titled "Berserker" in the movie Clerks.
In the Neon Genesis Evangelion anime, sometimes the Eva units, when in great danger of being destroyed enter in a "Berserker Mode".
In the Berserk manga and anime, the main protagonist Guts often goes into berserker trance.
In the book Sabriel the character Touchstone has the ability to go into a type of berserker state
In the Vinland Saga manga, one character, Bjorn, occasionally eats a "mushroom of the Berserker" and goes into a temporary violent trance, seeming to not initially feel severe injury, and is unable or unwilling to tell friend from foe.
Joe Abercrombie's first series of fantasy novels, The First Law trilogy, feature a major protagonist, Logen Ninefingers, who suffers from an apparently involuntary form of beserk rage that transforms him into a mad, unstoppable killing machine that refers to itself as The Bloody-Nine.
In the online strategic game Forge Of Empires is the Berserker used as a soldier in High Middle Ages epoch.
The Berserkers is also the name of John Pope's group of fighters from "Falling Skies" on TNT.
In the video game series Dragon Age, it is a specialization available to the player if playing a warrior character, and also available to companions of the warrior class in the first game. It was created by dwarves and taught to the other races when some dwarves began to left their homeland. It specializes in channel the rage of the warrior to deliver deadlier attacks.
The beserker state is referred to towards the end of Thud!, the 34th Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett, when the hero Commander Samuel Vimes ends up pursuing the 'deep-down' dwarves (responsible for various murders, causing political unrest and an attempted attack on Vimes' own family) through caves below Koom Valley. Rendered temporarily mad by his physical and mental exhaustion, the pain from the fall into the mine, possession by a 'quasi-demonic entity' called the Summoning Dark and terror due to not being able to read the bedtime story 'Where's My Cow' to his young son, Vimes mercilessly attacks all the dwarves standing between him and the deep-downers — as Pratchett notes, "Against the beserker there is no defence".
In the Redwall series, a condition known as Bloodwrath has been based on this by the series' author, Brian Jacques.
In the video game Grand Theft Auto V the character Trevor Phillips is able to take drastically reduced damage while dealing increased damage due to entering an enraged state.
In Alexander Gordon Smith's third book, from the series Escape from Furnace, titled Death Sentence, the main protagnist Alex Sawyer encounters a mutated creature called a berserker in which he describes it as a creature of pure unstoppable rage and destruction; later on the Warden send 2 more advanced berserkers to kill all the prisoners of furnace until Alex, empowered with the nector that created the berserkers in the first place, gains enough strength and rage to fight off the berserkers and even kills one with a tank full of gas. In the fourth book entitled fugitives Alex slowly becomes a berserker, due to being bitten by one in the third book; after being mostly transformed and challenging the Warden he injects himself with a new form of nector, turning himself into a more lethal form of berserker so he could fight Alex; Alex drinks his blood in order to further mutate himself and kills the Warden. In the fifth book entitled Execution, Alex loses all of his sanity & humanity and has become the most powerful berserker in the world; Alex full of murderous rage vows to kill the one who turned him into a berserker and created the nector.
In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the berserkers are revealed as alien fighters from Asgard, one of whom remained on Earth. The source of their beserk state is a spear, one of which was broken into three pieces which was then hidden at different locations across Europe in an attempt to prevent human exposure to the "dark power" of the spear.
Stephan Grundy, "Shapeshifting and Berserkergang", in Translation, Transformation, and Transubstantiation, ed. Carol Poster and Richard Utz (Evanston: IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998), pp. 104–22.
Davidson, Hilda R. E. "Shape-Changing in Old Norse Sagas." In Animals in Folklore, Ed. Joshua R. Porter and William M. S. Russell. Cambridge: Brewer; Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978, pp. 126–42.
Elton, Oliver (1905) The Nine Books of the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus. New York: Norroena Society.
Fabing, Howard D. "On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry." Scientific Monthly, 83 [Nov. 1956].
Laing, Samuel (1889). The Heimskringla or the Sagas of the Norse Kings. London: John. C. Nimo.
Benjamin Blaney. "The Berserker: His Origin and Development in Old Norse Literature." Ph.D. Diss. University of Colorado, 1972.