Saturday, 15 September 2012

Crazed Naked Berserkers!

Berserkers, so prominent in Hrolf's Saga, are the remnants in Christian times of older stories. In pre-Christian Scandinavia, berserkers seem to have been members of cults connected with Odin in his capacity as god of warriors. Snorri Sturluson in Ynglinga Saga, recalling numerous elements of ancient lore, describes Odin's warriors in this way:

His men went to battle without armor and acted like mad dogs or wolves. They bit into their shields and were as strong as bears or bulls. They killed men, but neither fire nor iron harmed them. This madness is called berserker-fury.

The berserkers of the saga, who often appear as the core of the king's warband, are at times reminiscent of the retinue of warriors surrounding Odin and may ultimately derive from ancient bear cults. Debate has centered on the meaning of the word itself. Berserker could mean "bare shirt," that is, naked; berserkers, as a mark of ferocity and invincibility, are said to have fought without needing armor. The word, however, may also mean "bear-shirt," reflective of the shape and nature of the bear assumed by these warriors. More literally, it may refer to protective bearskins that such warriors may have worn into battle. When the "berserker rage" was upon him, a berserker was thought of as a sort of "were-bear" (or werewolf), part man, part beast, who was neither fully human nor fully animal. Although not specifically so called, Bodvar Bjarki is a berserker of sorts. He appears at Hrolf's final battle in the form of a huge bear, invulnerable to weapons. In both his invulnerability and his ability to change shape, Bodvar also displays preternatural abilities resembling those of Odinic champions.

The Úlfhéðnar / Ulfhednar (singular Úlfhéðinn), 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, with the pelt from a wolf and a spear as distinguishing features.

Here is a small group of crazy, pumped up and naked berserkers...viewers easily offended should look away now!

Ulfhednar Skeggi and his men prepare for battle!

Figures are from Black Tree Designs.


Paul of the Man Cave said...

Naked men from Skandenavia are about as sensible as people from Scotland wearing skirts with no underwear - good fun though and great figs!

Ruaridh said...

Great short summary of the berserkr and not too contentious! ;) The figures look great too.

Just to add a bit to your summary, it is worth noting that Snorri has a penchant for describing people throwing off their armour before battle. It is more a trope of his writing than it is a probable historical reality. That said, it is possible that under some circumstances berserkir did fight without armour. Looking at the wider pan-Germanic world, the Lex Baiwariorum describes judicial duels where the participants strip down to just a belt or loincloth. As champions of the king, berserkir may well have fought duels like this, and in thirteenth-century Norway ON berserkr is used to translate OFr chanpion, thus demonstrating that the word meant champion at that time, as well as all its other meanings.

The wearing of animal masks is recorded in various places, e.g. Constantine Porphyrogenitus' 'De ceremoniis aulis byzantinae' and in a fresco in the Hagia Sophia in Kiev. It is possible that berserkir wore animal masks like those recovered from the harbour at Hedeby for some rituals, hence the bear connection. The wearing of animal skins as a form of totem is well recorded elsewhere and the archaeology supports the view that some Germanic warriors war animal skins.

I would be a bit careful about suggesting that they were werebears or werewolves. Bodvarr Bjarki'f fylgja was a bear and fought in the battle, while his body lay inside the hall. I think the general consensus is that berserkir channelled the spirit of the animal rather than actually becoming it. It appears to be a shamanic thing.

That's enough of my wittering. Loving your progress with your Vikings and your obvious engagement with the subject.

Maxamillian Walker said...

Agree with the berserkers are meaning champions, i read it once and i remember it mentioning a text saying someone was 'God's berserkr'.
But why not the naked crazed fighter?!?!

Paul´s Bods said...

Very nice figs..every viking army need some beserkers.

wardy-la said...

Excellent feedback many thanks guys!
I certainly have a real interest in all things "Viking" but would never claim to be an expert so its great to get information and thoughts from those with more knowledge of the subject so thanks to Ruaridh - it is definitely not wittering so keep it coming!
For game purposes I definitely see these chaps being more at the 'fantasy' end of things buts its great to have them available along with a couple of giants and other beasties. I have to agree with Paul too - having them in the 'full-monty', so to speak, is probably a little ridiculous but adds a fun flavour and will make the players chuckle when they appear on the table!

Ruaridh said...

Maxamillian, there is no reason why you cannot have naked crazy fighters, if you wish. It's your game, after all. My research leads me to believe that Viking Age berserkir were not naked crazy fighters, and that berserkir did not go berserk in the modern English sense of the word. What we perceive as going berserk is really ritual posturing designed to intimidate the enemy and bolster their own morale.

The reference to God's berserkr is in 'Barlaams saga ok Ioasaphats'. I've quoted a paper I gave rather than type it out all over again but you should get the gist of it from this:
In the mid-thirteenth-century Barlaams ok Josaphats saga the Christian Antonius is referred to as a berserkr when he is beset by devils:
‘En iesus kristr glœymdi eigi holmgangu sins bersserks’.
‘But Jesus Christ did not forget the duel of his berserkr’.
This casts the berserkr in an explicitly Christian role with the hero fighting on behalf of, or in the name of, Jesus Christ. The use of the term hólmganga recognises that the berserkr might fight duels for his god even as a Christian. We also find further mention of a Christian berserkr in this saga, with the description ‘hinn vngi berserkr guðs’ ‘God’s young berserkr’ used of the hero, Josaphat.

Hope this is of interest.

wardy-la said...

They certainly intimidate me :)

Ruaridh said...

They would intimidate me properly too! :)

tidders said...

Lovely work on the berserkers

-- Allan