Imke von Helden
Abstract: The motif of the berserkr (“one whose actions are recklessly defiant”) and of “going berserk” (“going mad”, “to become violent and uncontrolled”) has a long-standing cultural history, especially in old Scandinavian literature. The following essay aims to portray the history of the motif from Old Norse literature to its presence in today’s culture and particularly in heavy metal music. I aim to show how the motif is used to act as both a channel for aggression and as social criticism.
Introduction: Heavy metal and the madness-motif are, without any doubt, the perfect match. Madness, in its meaning of crazy and/or stupid behaviour that could be dangerous, is ubiquitous in the world of heavy metal: This kind of madness is not only present at metal concerts, where the crowd goes wild and bang their heads or perform the “Wall of Death”; it can be found in the lyrics, the music and maybe even in the attitude of fans and musicians, too. To the outsider, this world may seem threatening and nihilistic. Critics generally assume that heavy metal has a dramatic effect on teenagers as well as “causing madness and death” in that it negatively influences young people’s lives to a great extent. Some regard metal music as an attack on traditional values. Metal indeed seems to glorify violence, death and negativity itself, with band names such as Slayer, Mayhem, Twisted Sister and Napalm Death, let alone album titles like Massive Killing Capacity or Butchered at Birth – titles that can hardly be enjoyed by a healthy mind.
However, as Robert Walser correctly perceives the phenomenon by calling it critical madness, it is not madness that heavy metal brings to the world; heavy metal is merely a means of reflecting and criticising the insanity taking place in society, such as social indifference or violent conflicts between different groups of people. In fact, there are even ways of curing people with the help of heavy metal in therapy. Strangely enough, the music (among other, mostly popular mainstream music) is also used to torture people in detention camps. Deena Weinstein suggests a “figural and contextual interpretation rather than a literal reading”3 of heavy metal. Weinstein, while saying that there are basic similarities among themes of songs, states that there are “significant core thematic complexes”, namely clusters of the Dionysian and the Chaotic. Surely, the madness-motif and with it, the berserker, belongs to the latter. Like Walser, she views in motifs such as disorder, conflict, opposition and contradiction a readiness to acknowledge the facts of life and try to deal with them.