Berserker was a kind of warriors in Norse mythology. They could shift into a state of wild frenzy when becoming angry, which enabled them to engage the enemy without armor. This was also the origin of in word “Berserker” in English.
“Berserker” is composed of “Ber” and “Serk” and considered to originally mean “the warrior wearing bearskin”, as it is said that they charged only wearing bearskin. Later, this word was used to refer to a fierce warrior with exceptional power. Besides, some other relevant words were also mentioned in legends, such as “Úlfhéðnar” (the warrior wearing wolf skin) and “Svinfylking” (the warrior wearing wild boar skin).
According to legend, in normal times the Berserkers were no different from common warriors, but in a time of emergency they would be in a state of egoless frenzy, become as powerful as wolf and invincible on the battlefield. The Berserkers could even killed enemies with bare hands or bite the enemy’s throat off without armors or weapons. But they would immediately collapse once their anger subsided.
The Berserkers would have a pre-battle ceremony called “Berserkergang” before they entered in a state of collective trance. In this state, they would howl like wolves, bite the enemies’ shields and kill everything in their way regardless of enemies or friendlies.
As 13-century Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson described, “In the imperial guards of Harald I, there were Berserkers who could not be hurt by any weapon”.
The Viking Berserkers
The so-called “Berserker” refers to a kind of tough warriors in Norse mythology. As Vikings lived in the freezing Nordic region where the strongest land animal was bear, they particularly worshipped bears. The lifestyle of Vikings determined that they were often involved in cold arms battles where physical ability was the decisive factor to the victory. Vikings worshipped bears and believed that they could obtain bear-like power when wearing bearskin. Therefore, the tall and strong soldiers in Viking troops wore bearskin, used heavy weapons such as axes, and fought as elites.
The Berserkers fought much better than common warriors, because they were physically stronger, protected by bearskin and equipped with more powerful weapons. The Berserkers always played key roles in battles, and therefore they were revered by both enemies and comrades. Belligerent Vikings left many Berserker-related legends. Belligerent Nordic warriors believed that, if they received blessings from Odin, they could acquire the “Berserker rage”, the power of bear’s spirit, so that they would become the Berserkers that were invincible in the battlefield.
Vikings were known for their valor and vigor in battles. The evidence suggests Viking warriors sometimes became frenzied and launched almost brutal attacks regardless of any danger. Such acts were very terrible, and reflected Viking warriors’ strong desire to fight. The Berserkers were the warriors in Norse mythology whose abilities were beyond the limits of normal human beings. They could feel neither fatigue nor terror in the battlefield. What they would do was keeping killing with their extraordinary physical strength till the end of battle.
Where did the Berserkers come from?
Vikings liked various competitive games from their childhood. They were good at horse-riding, weightlifting, boating and swimming, and the tribal assembly held every year was also the “Olympic Games” in Nordic region. The most popular sport among Vikings was wrestling. They marked out an open field, placed a cuspidal stone at the center, then the participants would try their best to push their opponent onto the stone. Both the winner and loser were often covered with wounds and blood. Besides, they also competed in archery, skiing and skating. Even when they stayed at home and played the board game from Arabia in winter time, they were always practicing the tactics of attack and defense. All these competitions and games were held for one goal: producing stronger warriors.
Growing up in such an environment, Vikings naturally became tough warriors. They showed extraordinary frenzy, toughness and bravery in the battle. As the Berserkers were small in number, they usually relied on careful planning and surprising attacking. In usual cases, the Viking assaults could be divided into two parts: first throwing spears or launching arrows bound with lit torches at a long distance; then engaging the enemies at close quarters with swords and axes.
How Berserkers fought at sea
The battles at sea showed more about the toughness of Vikings, and they were also more brutal. When two warships encountered, different from normal pirates who would tried to make a bluff and then swarmed up onto enemy ships, Vikings usually followed their old tradition: binding two ships together and then placing a springboard on the bow. The both parties sent one man onto the springboard in each round, let them have an one-on-one fight till someone was killed. Another man would be sent when the previous one was killed. There would be neither mass fight nor permission to retreat. Every man that stepped onto the springboard had only one task: killing all the enemies. If he was killed in action, the succeeding comrade would revenge for him. If he was too afraid to fight, he could turn around and jump into the sea; no one would chase after deserters. But deserters would be despised by all the Vikings. Even his family would take him as a dead man and never allow him to return home.
A similar combat mode was called “Da Lei Tai” in ancient China. The essential of this mode was: the first man going into the combat was usually the best fighter, or the fiercest warrior like Li Kui in the Water Margin.
How Berserkers fought
Vikings went into battle bare to the waist and roared roughly. The extreme wrath made Vikings look usually powerful. They did not look like fighting desperately, but enjoying the pleasant sensation of desperate fights. Because they knew, the springboard under their feet was soaked by the blood of their ancestors. And their descendents would continue the desperate fights on the same springboard. They could not fail either their ancestors or their descendants.
The warriors who fought desperately on springboards were called the “Berserkers”. Every Viking was proud of being a Berserker and killing enemy Berserkers. Nobody knows why such primitive type of battles stimulated so amazing human nature, but the stories of Berserkers will be passed down from generation to generation as part of the spirit of Vikings.
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