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Berserkir: a re-examination of the phenomenon in literature and life

Berserkir: a re-examination of the phenomenon in literature and life

By Roderick Dale

PhD Dissertation, University of Nottingham, 2014

Iron helmet from a Vendel era (550-793 AD) boat grave in Vendel, Uppland, Sweden. Displayed at the Museum of History in Stockholm. Photo by Mararie  / Wikimedia Commons

Iron helmet from a Vendel era (550-793 AD) boat grave in Vendel, Uppland, Sweden. Displayed at the Museum of History in Stockholm. Photo by Mararie / Wikimedia Commons

Abstract: This thesis discusses whether berserkir really went berserk. It proposes revised paradigms for berserkir as they existed in the Viking Age and as depicted in Old Norse literature. It clarifies the Viking Age berserkr as an elite warrior whose practices have a function in warfare and ritual life rather than as an example of aberrant behaviour, and considers how usage of PDE ‘berserk’ may affect the framing of research questions about berserkir through analysis of depictions in modern popular culture. The analysis shows how berserksgangr has received greater attention than it warrants with the emphasis being on how berserkir went berserk. A critical review of Old Norse literature shows that berserkir do not go berserk, and suggests that berserksgangr was a calculated form of posturing and a ritual activity designed to bolster the courage of the berserkr.

It shows how the medieval concept of berserkir was more nuanced and less negative than is usually believed, as demonstrated by the contemporaneous existence in narratives of berserkir as king’s men, hall challengers, hólmgongumenn, Viking raiders and Christian champions, and by the presence of men with the byname berserkr in fourteenth-century documents. Old Norse literature is related to pre-Viking Age evidence to show that warriors wearing wolfskins existed and can be related to berserkir, thus making it possible to produce models for Viking Age and medieval concepts of berserkir.

The modern view of berserkir is analysed and shows that frenzy is the dominant attribute, despite going berserk not being a useful attribute in Viking Age warfare which relied upon men holding a line steady rather than charging individually.

The thesis concludes that ON berserkr may be best translated as PDE ‘champion’, while PDE ‘berserker’ describes the type of uncontrollable warrior most commonly envisaged when discussing berserkir.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Nottingham

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