Sunday, 25 March 2012

Berserkers 2: Theories

Berserkers: Theories

In a previous article the history and significance of the fearsome Viking berserkers were discussed. The characteristic trance-like battle-rage of the berserkers deserves special attention. 

As a medical doctor with experience in psychiatry and pharmacology, one question springs immediately to my mind; if berserkers really existsed, how was such a state (the berserkergang) achieved?

(I am here considering only ‘ordinary battle-madness, the ‘fire-in-the-belly’, rather than the pathological state.) 

Historians have speculated that the berserk state might have been achieved by pre-battle consumption of drugs, notably the poisonous toadstool, Amanita muscaria, otherwise known as Fly Agaric. Unfortunately for this theory, there is not a scrap of documentary evidence and it makes little sense pharmacologically. Firstly, the effect of fly agaric consumption is highly variable and the chance of producing the required berserk rage would be minimal at best. The most likely results from ingesting the toxic muscimal and ibotenic acid in the mushrooms would be nausea and dizziness at best and coma and death at worst.

Fly Agaric. Almost certainly NOT source of the berserkergang
Alcohol is a much more likely candidate. Consumption of even moderate amounts impairs judgement and is a catalyst for reckless behaviour. The drawback to this theory is that significant quantities of alcohol critically impair fighting ability : a drunk driver may feel immortal but he isn’t!

The most likely explanation for the berserkergang is that warriors worked themselves into a fighting-frenzy through purely psychological methods. There is likely to have been a group hysteria effect, with one person setting off his comrades. As part of their indoctrination into the Óðinn-cult, Berserkir and Úlfhéðnar would have probably lived in all young-male enclaves, where they could be inculcated with the Wodanic religion. Believing that violent death in battle will invariably lead to Paradise is not a new idea or unique to one religion. It is also likely that the wearing of a particular totemic animal-skin, be it wolf or bear, apart from imparting a group identity and ‘uniform’, was meant in some way to impart some of the animal’s savagery to the wearer. Rituals involving animal-masks, chanting and drinking alcohol would also play a part.

Artist's impression of the beserkergang (www.artbymanon.com)
The modern English word ‘berserk’ is applied to someone who fights with reckless courage and with complete disregard for his own life. It can be thought of as an overdose of adrenaline-induced endorphins in the central nervous system. The result is a soldier who fights with fearless rage and indifference. ‘Battle Trance’ is the modern term for this specific state of altered consciousness during combat. In this state, warriors do not feel fear or pain. Moreover, all the members of the group seem to lose their individuality and work as a ‘super-organism’.

In battle, normal human-beings can behave very atypically from extreme altruism (such as sacrificing themselves to save their comrades) to extreme aggression (such as committing mass murder). Such states can occur involuntarily (such as a mother acting ‘instinctively’ and without regard for her own safety if her child is in peril) or induced by ritualistic behaviour. This usually involves loud rhythmic group chanting, foot-stamping and drumming. In the early Medieval set-piece battle between two shield-walls, the men would bang their weapons against their shields and shout war-cries. For example, at Hastings the English chanted Ut! Ut! Ut! (Out! Out! Out!). Taunts and jeers would also be directed at the enemy. All this would help to arouse the necessary aggression and feel the ‘esprit de corps’.
Shakespeare. Henry V - Act III, Scene I.
“ ..... when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect; ....”
Despite propaganda to the contrary, human beings are not natural killers and need to be taught to kill without doing themselves terrible psychological harm. Thus, during training, soldiers are taught how to achieve a degree of battle-trance, so that it can be induced at need. The warrior thus has, in effect, to leave his former self behind and become a new and radically different person. In the grip of ‘Woden’s Gift’, it seems to him that he is able to move faster than those around him, as if time were slowed. His weapons and equipment become light and he feels no pain from any wounds. This state has obvious survival advantages.

If this normal berserk state is desirable, then the opposite must be said of the person in whom the battle-trance takes over their personality. Such men were much feared and generally loathed in the Viking Age. It is likely that these individuals were uniquely susceptible to the berserker-state and, after experiencing multiple episodes of battle-fury, became psychologically and neurological damaged. This Berserk would be emotionally flat, having what is termed a ‘blunted affect’, most of the time but be prone to bouts of explosive rage. This permanent state of hyper-arousal would now be recognised as part of post-traumatic stress disorder.

By the 12th century, the animal-skin clad, Óðinn-worshipping berserker warrior-bands with their inhuman battle-fury had disappeared. In the Scaninavian homelands, no-one missed their terrifying ungovernable violence. The Berserker, however, still lives deep inside all Northern-Folk; just like ‘Mr. Hyde’, waiting to get out and run amok. Even in disciplined modern armies, prolonged battle-stress and the sub-consious desire to revenge fallen comrades, may occasionally lead to berserker-like fugue-states with fatal consequences. 

(A big thankyou to the artists who kindly provided illustrations for these articles)

1 comment:

Kelvyn said...

I was wondering about the term 'tearing them limb from limb' as a part of the berserker trance like state....? I have read, although many decades ago that in such a state super-human strength can be achieved - any thought? - James