Berserk for berserkir: Introducing Combat Trauma to the Compendium of Theories on the Norse Berserker
By Lily Florence Lowell Geraty
Master’s Thesis, University of Iceland: Háskóli Íslands, 2015
Abstract: This thesis attempts to provide a brief overview of major pieces of the English-language scholarship concerning the Norse berserker. It tries to demonstrate consistent flaws in scholarly treatment and the hollow nature of many major theories and attitudes. In doing so, I hope to demonstrate the importance of brining in outside scholarship on the berserker, specifically the work of Jonathan Shay, who’s book Achilles in Vietnam, demonstrated a strong continuity of experience between Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, and the experiences of American soldiers in the Vietnam War. I believe his work can be equally applied to the Norse berserker, and hope to introduce Shay into the conversation.
Introduction: This paper will present a general overview of the existing English-language scholarship surrounding an old Scandinavian puzzle, a the subject of debate for many many years: the berserker. Berserkers appear all over the place in the medieval Scandinavian literature, and are best recognized as the animalistic warriors who would fly into great, murderous rages. Berserkers have been a subject of scholarly discussion for centuries and a few stable lines of thinking have developed and remained fairly well in play, for instance: the idea that the berserker was somehow responding to the effects of an ingested substance, a hallucinogenic mushroom in particular; the idea that they were ritualistic or cultic figures, involved in some sort of warrior band or cult; the change and implementation of the berserker in the sagas as an antagonistic figure; and, of course, a debate over exactly what “berserk” (berserkr/-ir in Old Icelandic) meant in the first place.
In presenting some of the basic English scholarship surrounding this figure, I hope to demonstrate the inadequacy of these previous theories to explain the berserker as a whole, including the appearance of the berserker in other cultures, to make room for another theory on the berserker which has arisen outside the field of Scandinavian studies: combat trauma and battle madness. It is outside the scope of the current project to provide anything more than a survey of the previous scholarly literature and a light introduction to the idea of combat trauma. The berserker is a figure which exists at the crossroads of many complicated and often conflicting ideas, and straying off the path here, no matter how well-intended, will get one very off-track very quickly, and if there were any easy answers on the berserker, we would not be here now. I will also keep primary source citations to a minimum: the sheer number of primary source examples makes any kind of comprehensive inclusion a massive project, and the main focus here is really the theories themselves.