All The Rage

A brief look at Berserkers

Posted Apr 28, 2015

Ever since I was a young boy, I have used the word ‘beserk’ (to describe someone going into a mad, wild, uncontrolled and violent rage) in my day-to-day language. However, it wasn’t until I was in my teens when I bought the Gary Numan albums The Fury and Beserker that I came to realize the origin of the word.

Beserkers is a culture-bound condition historically affecting Norsemen. The condition manifested itself among males only as an intense fury and rage (berserkergang, i.e., “going beserk”) and mostly occurred in battle situations (but could also occur when they were engaged in labour-intensive work). Dating back as far as the ninth century, the berserker Norse Warriors were alleged to be able to perform almost seemingly impossible super-human feats of strength. Nowadays, the word "berserker" refers to anyone that fearlessly fights with a disregard to their own lives. Similar conditions have been noted in other cultures. For instance, the Irishman Cúchulainn ("Culann's Hound") was recorded as displaying 'battle frenzy' and ‘foaming at the mouth’ akin to berserkers in texts such as The Tain. The Malay phenomenon of ‘running amok’ (i.e., running mad with rage) also appears to bear a close resemblance to berserkers.

Those with beserkers were also said to experience a specific set of symptoms prior to the rage (i.e., beginning with shivering and chattering of their teeth, followed by a swelling and changing of colour in the face as they literally became ‘hot-headed’). The final stage was full-blown rage and fury accompanied by noisy grunts and howls. They would then just indiscriminately injure, maim and kill anything in their path. This would be followed by one or two days of feebleness, along with a dulling of the mind. The condition of berserkergang was described in the thirteenth century by Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson:

“[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”.

The ravenous self-induced rage before battle commenced enabled the Norsemen to indiscriminately ‘loot, plunder and kill’. 
A recent book about the Vikings claimed that some battle chiefs held their berserkers “in reserve” during a battle. The berserkers were only sent into fight if one section began to weaken. An article on berserkers in the Journal of World History by Dr. M. Speidel noted that Norse berserkers were very effective killers, but could not stop killing at will. Apparently, their berserker state was only turned off once all members of the opposition were dead. László Kürti, in a 2004 encyclopedia entry on shamanism claimed that berserker is a regional form of present-day shamanism that utilizes archaic Nordic techniques – particularly the ability to go into a trance-like state.

Various theories about the causes of the condition have been speculated. Some have alleged that psychoactive drugs (such as hallucinogenic agaric mushrooms or copious alcohol drinking) were used. Some botanists claim that berserker behavior can be caused by the ingestion of the plant bog myrtle, one of the main spices in Scandinavian alcoholic beverages. Other theories speculate either pre-existing genetic and/or medical conditions or pre-existing psychological disorders (e.g., mental illness, manic depression [i.e., bipolar disorder], epilepsy). Some have even speculated that the fury may just be a consequence of post-traumatic stress. For instance, clinical psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Shay wrote in his 1994 book Achilles in Vietnam:

“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”

Professor Jesse L. Byock claimed in a 1995 issue of Scientific American, that berserker rage could perhaps have been a symptom of Paget’s Disease (i.e., uncontrolled skull bone growth that often causes painful pressure in the head). However, there doesn’t seem to be any conclusive evidence of this.

Other more esoteric theories surround spiritual and/or supernatural beliefs. For instance, some scholars have claimed that the Vikings believed in spirit possession and that berserkers were possessed by the animal spirits of wolves and/or bears. According to some theorists, berserkers learned to cultivate the ability to allow animal spirits to take over their body during a fight (an example of animal totemism) that also involved drinking the blood of the animal that they wished to be possessed by.

Back in 1987, Dr. Armando Simon published a paper in the journal Psychological Reports and argued that berserkers (or as he termed it ‘Blind Rage Syndrome’) should be incorporated into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Dr. Simon characterized the condition as (i) violent overreaction to physical, verbal, or visual insult, (ii) amnesia during the actual period of violence, (iii) abnormally great strength, and (iv) specifically target oriented violence. Some case studies are presented and a parallel is made with the Viking Berserkers of the Middle Ages. Dr. Simon also claimed that the condition had typically been diagnosed as part of other violent disorders (such as intermittent explosive disorder). However, it looks unlikely that berserkers will be making a separate entry into the DSM anytime soon.

References and further reading

Armando, S. (1987) the berserker/blind rage syndrome as a potentially new diagnostic category for the DSM-III. Psychological Reports, 60, 131-135.

Kürti, L. (2004). Shamanism – Neo (Eastern Europe). Located at: http://publikacio.uni-miskolc.hu/data/ME-PUB-31198/Kurti_Neo_shamanism_2....

Nationmaster (2012). Berserker. Located at: http://www.statemaster.com/encyclopedia/Berserker

Shay, J. (1994). Achilles in Vietnam. New York: Scribner.

Simon, A. (1987). The berserker/blind rage syndrome as a potentially new diagnostic category for the DSM-III. Psychological Reports, 60, 131-135.

Speidel, M. (2002). Berserks: A history of Indo-European ‘mad warriors’. Journal of World History, 13, 253-290.

Wikipedia (2015). Berserker. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berserker