Who are the Berserks?
"The berserkergang was the practice of a kind of elite Viking warrior, called a berserk" (Uppsala). The etymology of the word berserk varies according to source; though it was suggested to generally mean bare skin- referring to the practice of berserks being unarmored when fighting. Berserks often would dress themselves in animal-skin garbs, such as that of a wolf or bear. These animal warriors could be split into groups, based on the animal totem they dressed and channeled. A special group of berserks, called the Ulfhednar (wolf warriors) channeled the wolf totem, while most berserks were thought to channel a bear totem* (though its suggested that boar, and predatory cat totems were used as well). Kveldulf, described in Egil's Saga, is depicted as changing shape into a wolf. Bjarki, described in Hrolf's Saga, is depicted as changing shape into a bear: " Men saw that a great bear went before King Hrolf's men... Everything which came into his path he crushed to death with his teeth, so that panic and terror swept through the King Hjorvard's army...
The berserks were called "Odin's Men". Unlike some Odinic devotees, who sought Odin's aristocratic nature, berserkers worked with Odin's madness and fury. Berserks were said to generally be in bands, consisting of 12-15 members. The leader of most berserk bands was named "Bjorn" or a variant of this, which meant "bear" in Old Norse. Some accounts suggest that initiation into a band of berserks sometimes consisted of a battle (real or simulated) with a bear or an equally terrifying opponent. In Grettir's Saga, a leader of a band of berserks throws Grettir's cloak into a bear den. Grettir slays the bear, and brings his cloak back, earning his place with the berserks.
As their names suggest, the berserks were often said to assume the form of some spiritual animal, much like Odin was said to do himself. The berserk would often dress in ritual wear, such as the skins of an animal, then put themselves into an altered state of consciousness (such as a trance or frenzy) and take on the qualities of that animal. Berserks were often found to howl and snort on the battle field, and "grenja" (which describes grinning, showing one's teeth) as they snort and snarl like animals. It is thought that this is a form of channeling the fylgja (animal spirit) and changing the shape of the hamingja (spirit, soul). Some accounts of berserks describe them as being invincible, not being harmed by any mortal weapon. It is thought that the berserk had put themselves into such frenzy that they often did not feel their wounds and continued to battle despite them.
* There is debate about whether berr in Old Norse meant bare skin or bear skin, as the original meaning of the word did change over time from bear to bare. Snorri suggests that it simply means men bare of armor, but the classification of bear-skins and wolf-skins suggests a type of bear and wolf warrior.
What was Berserkergang?
Much speculation exists are to what exactly berserkergang was and how it was achieved. Uppsala breaks those theories down into four types:
1. Alcohol induced- the idea here was that excessive consumption of alcohol could have affected the minds of the berserks and made them both short tempered and fit to bouts of excessive rage. This is thought to be unlikely, due to the fact that if a warrior had drank enough to be in fits of uncontrollable rage, they were likely not coordinated enough for fighting.
2. Amanita muscaria induced- it is thought that the consumption of a psychoactive mushroom amanita muscaria could possibly have triggered an altered state, in which the psychoactive properties are reflected in the berserks behavior. However, there is very little evidence of Vikings even knowing of the plants existence; much less any writing showing that it was used for this purpose. It also did not grow in Iceland, where many berserks were.
3. Berserks didn't really exist- really just a theory which states that since there isn't an easy explanation, berserks didn't exist. This theory is easily discredited because there is consistent writing of berserks throughout the sagas and history. Even in Christian sources.
4. Self induced frenzy- the theory which states that the state of mind achieved in berserking (often called gangr) was self-induced ecstasy that prompted temporary change. This seems to be the most likely theory, and has several backing points. For one, writing on berserking suggests that it could overcome a person unexpectedly. Some historical art shows Odin dancing with warriors covered in animal skins. And many descriptions of berserks describe them as biting upon their shields, pulling on their beards and inducing pain (high adrenaline states) before fighting. This theory is also backed by the fact that berserking is not isolated to vikings: the Greek maenads are described similarly, as are the leopard-men of Africa, the wolf-warriors of the Middle East, etc.
How is Berserkergang practiced?
Self-induced frenzy, or the state of gangr, is how Berserking is brought about today. In the past, certain techniques were used to bring about the state of mind needed to berserk. It largely centered on the help of Odin: A word often attributed to Odin is "wod", which means "fury" and "possession"- describing an ecstatic state. So the general principle of berserking was to use various techniques to produce an altered state of consciousness, wherein a person could become possessed by this state of mind, entering into that ecstatic state of gangr, and channel various totem animals or even qualities of Odin himself. (Not unlike how practitioners of Vodoun are ridden by the loa).
1. A light state of mind is first entered, to clear the mind and reach a meditative state.
2. Prayers and invocations to Odin, as Odin is the one who inspires the gangr state of mind.
3. Physical adrenaline triggers then take place, such as leaping and dancing frantically
4. Other methods then are used to deepen the altered state of mind: pain is used as a method of releasing adrenaline (such as shield-biting, hair-pulling, cutting), excitement is used to release adrenaline, the invocation of an animal spirit occurs by wearing its skin and acting in a manner consistent with its own as it is called upon, etc.
5. Energy is built up spiritually and physically through this and a state of gangr is reached.
What is the "gangr" state?
Gangr (sometimes a synonym for what is known as Somafera) is a state of mind inducing a unitary state and an alteration of the self in some manner (such as a spiritual transformation). At times, this spiritual transformation and the possession of a person by that state of mind can lead to certain physical characteristics: the body has been noted to tense, energy is built up causing the person to become more energetic and emotional, the heart rate increases, vision is sometimes altered by the state of mind (practitioners often describe it as shining, brilliant, lighted vision consistent with that of a person who has high amounts of adrenaline released into their blood), thoughts may be altered (some report that their perception of time is altered and that time outside the body occurs slower to them than normal), a person may become physically stronger (as the adrenaline increases muscle ability and energy put into action), they may also appear resistant to pain. After the gangr, or state of mind, is over practitioners often report a very heavy feeling of sudden fatigue due to the intensity and use of energy/adrenaline.
A description of the gangr state used in berserking:
" 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... 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 feeble- ness followed, which could last for one or several days "
How is Berserking used/incorporated into modern practices?
When berserking is taken out of a fighting-type of situation, it can be simplified down to the raising and directing of energy (or "wod") through an altered state of consciousness. This has many practical uses in a variety of paths. While fighting through berserking was often fighting uncontrollably, possessed by rage, practicing berserking can be much calmer- and controlled- through simply energy manipulation. Some people find that the gangr state of mind is very useful for martial arts and various fighting styles that call upon adrenaline use and energy manipulation. The gangr state of mind can be used to make a person stronger physically and spiritually, through training of both the body and the energy within.
Some practitioners use berserking as a means of channeling and possession work. Some use their fylgja, which are akin to totem animals or spirit guides. Ulfhednar are those who choose to channel wolves, taking on their qualities. It is suggested that these are the most common types of modern berserks. Bears are another commonly channeled fylgja, and are modernly called "bjornsterks" or "bear strength". Unlike ulfhednar, bjornsterks were the traditional common berserk. Chatti (meaning cat in Latin) is the term used to describe modern berserks who channel large predatory cat fylgja. Spirit-Horses are those who do not channel animal wights or fylgja, and instead channel other wights. And svipals are berserks that are considered changeable, and able through experience to take on many different animal fylgja or wights (spirits) through the gangr state. Animal fylgja mentioned through the invocation-aspect of berserking also include boar, bull, coyote, etc.
Other uses and methods for different kind of berserkergang exist. Runic Berserking can be seen as a kind of runic-magic used while in the somafera or gangr state of mind. Energy is raised through the body, then channeled through specific runes. The energy-raising aspect of berserking, or the raising of wod, is used to gain energy for other practices, such as evocation, channeling, projection, divination and possession related work. It is also used as an offering for specific deities. Ive used the energy raising aspect of Berserking in other practices, such as runic yoga and galdr.
Berserking can be tricky, however, and is not a popular practice for that reason. It is suggested that some people simply cannot reach the right state of mind needed to berserk, even with practice. I would not suggest a person to try to jump straight into Berserking without adequate research on the subject and practice at altered states and energy raising. On top of that, there can be nasty side effects. One, you wear your body down physically through much of berserking. Two, berserking revolves around a controversial lack of control: In the gangr state of mind, when emotions are elevated, it is easy for a person to slip into an uncontrolled rage- which is where the original berserking came from. When in this state of mind, you are letting go of your own control and thus if you are not in a stable or right state of mind to be doing this kind of work- you are likely to have disastrous results. Again, as mentioned in the sagas, some people when in the gangr state of mind were unable to distinguish friend from foe and often would lash out at those nearby.
I myself practice various forms of Berserking, and am open to questions or discussions about specific aspects of it. In the future, Ill try to post a more in-depth look at how to reach the gangr state, and how raising wod is used.
Ancient Germanic Warriors By Michael P. Speidel
Egil's Saga, Done Into English Out of the Icelandic By Snorri Sturluson