Berserkers. Fearsome Viking warriors, famous for their fury, toughness, and combat skills. Ancient historical records of these almost mythical people tell tales of incredible displays of strength and power.
Many theories have aimed to explain how these people gained such renown in battle, particularly in a culture famous for its raiders and warriors. An idea was put forward in the 1700s by a Swedish historian named Samuel Ödman. This theory proposed that the berserkers were consuming the toxic, psychoactive mushroom called Amanita Muscara. Ödman claimed that this mushroom would cause the warriors to go into a frenzy and attack with ferocity. Over the centuries, a debate has surrounded this theory, but new evidence suggests it could be something else altogether!
Let’s embark on a journey together and take an in-depth look at what Viking culture was genuinely like as we learn everything there is to know about the famous Berserker warriors! Were they really unstoppable war machines capable of tearing down huge swathes of men? or were they just a gang of religious cultists, starting fights overdosing on psichadelic mushrooms?
It’s time we separate the facts from the fiction and explore the realities of this fascinating, ancient culture, whose influence is still felt strongly, all across Northern Europe & Great Britain today.
Viking Culture & Berserkers
For many people, the word “Viking” inspires imagery of ferocious men wearing animal skins, tearing down their opponents with ease. Unfortunately, this imagery does not depict the average Scandinavian soldier with accuracy. However, it is much closer to a group of specialised warriors that we now call berserkers.
So who actually were the berserkers? Among historians, the answer to this question is contested. With that said, most evidence suggests that they would have been unique to the elite in society, handpicked by Jarls, who were the rulers of Ancient Scandinavian communities.
It was originally believed that the word berserker came from the Norse words “bare” and “sark”, meaning “bare-chested”. This belief comes from Ynglingsaga (pronounced ing-ling-saga), A book written by the historian poet Snorri Sturluson. In 1225, Snorri wrote, “they went without coats of mail, and acted like mad dogs and wolves…” Indicating that they fought in battle with no armour protecting their chest and behaved as animals.
English and old Norse experience the same issue: bare and bear are spelt and pronounced very similarly. As such, today’s more accepted theory is that it actually means “bear on chest”, as in, they wore bearskins upon their chests. It was not uncommon for more wealthy Scandanavians to wear bear furs. Multiple old Scandinavian texts refer to berserkers as “Ulfheddin” (pronounced ulf-hye-dinn), which translates to “a warrior wearing wolf skin.” so it is safe to assume they would have worn bearskins if possible too.
Evidence to suggest their high standing in society comes from a french poet named Chretien De Troyes, who wrote a famous poem in 1176 called “Yvain, the Knight of the Lion”. The Norwegian king, Hákon Hákonarson, had this poem translated in the thirteenth century. In this translated version the French word for champion had become “berserker”. In this context, the “champion” was a high ranking warrior explicitly chosen by the king.
Historians have spent centuries finding clues, slowly piecing together how Vikings truly lived. Today there are many misconceptions around ancient Norse culture. Separating the facts from the fiction is key if we’re going to have a more genuine understanding of this fascinating and ancient culture.
Brief Viking History & Geography
Viking’s lived in northern Europe, in the areas that are now Sweden, Denmark & Norway. They were primarily active from the 8th to the 11th century. It’s important to recognise that not all people who lived in these areas were Vikings.
So, not every Scandanavian was a Viking, but every Viking was a Scandanavian. The word Viking is almost like a job title; such a title belongs to the seafaring warriors who travelled long distances, raiding and colonising vast areas of Europe on their travels. Raids across the British Isles were common. So much so that they even established some of the biggest cities in Ireland. Dublin, Cork and Limerick were all founded by Viking settlers.
Much of Scotland belonged to the Vikings, as well as several Northern territories of England. In 866, a Viking Warband, lead by Ivar the Boneless, captured the city of Eoforwik (pronounced ee-for-wick), made it their capital and changed the name to Jorvik. Today the city is known as York.
Their expansion hit many coastlines of mainland Europe too. France’s northern coast was raided brutally, especially around Normandy. One hundred and fifty years of burning, pillaging and looting left Normandy severely weakened. Vikings loved to raid monasteries full of valuable loot, and the only people defending these treasures were helpless monks.
Now, just because these raiders enjoyed easy prey, it does not mean that they were something to be trifled with. They crafted great longships with advanced designs that could quickly travel up and along rivers. Their tactics were clever. The soldiers were fearless. In fact, their fearlessness came from their spiritual beliefs. The Vikings were initially pagan, believing in many gods belonging to the Norse pantheon. If a warrior were to die in battle, they would be promised eternal glory in the great mead halls of Valhalla.
With the promise of everlasting bliss, a Viking welcomed battle, and as such, they were fearsome opponents.
And the most elite of these soldiers were the Berserkers ….
Understanding Details Of Berserkers & Setting up Henbane Reveal
Berserkers are shrouded in mystery. How is it that so little is known about such prestigious people? Well, as Christianity became the dominant religion, many remnants of ancient Scandanavian culture were destroyed. Christianity slowly grew in Scandinavia during the 12th century. Several Christian settlements, known as dioceses, were created across Northern Europe. These dioceses were areas that were under the control of a Christian bishop. In Denmark, 1104 CE, Christians established the first diocese in Scandanavia. Then in 1151, almost 50 years later, another diocese was created in Norway. Finally, the touch of Christianity reached Sweden in 1164.
As Christianity grew, so did pagan persecution. Paganism was considered blasphemous by Christians during the middle ages. Unfortunately for Norse historians, this means a lot of valuable information was lost during the religious shift towards Christianity.
So why is this Important to Berserkers? Well, it means it’s hard to say with absolute certainty how they lived. This is why there are so many theories about them. Let’s start with the information that we do have from surviving historical texts:
Egils saga is a book written by an Icelandic poet named Egil Skallagrimsson. An excerpt from his book reads:
- “What people say about those who go into berserk fits is this: that as long as they’re in the frenzy they’re so strong that nothing is too much for them, but as soon as they’re out of it they become much weaker than normal.”
While it is very likely that the stories shared by the Norsemen are exaggerated, there must be some elements of truth. Throughout all the ancient stories, there are several consistencies that we think we can now explain.
The berserkers were said to go into a trance-like state, called berserkergang. It is said that during berserkergang, the men would be capable of incredible feats of strength, far beyond what ordinary men can do. It began with bodily shivering and cold chills. The men’s faces would grow red as they became more and more agitated. Eventually, the agitation would develop into a full-blown rage! During this fury, the Berserkers were resistant to fire and blades, and they would howl like wild animals and bite the edges of their shields. During this immense anger, the berserkers would cut down swathes of men with ease, often with such madness that they could not even tell friend from foe. As written by Egil Skallagrimsson and many others, the rage would be followed by days of weakness, often requiring bed rest.
This twelfth-century chess piece carved from walrus ivory was discovered, showing a berserker Viking gnawing on his shield. There is pretty clear evidence for berserkergang, and now we know a bit more about Vikings; let me tell you why I think Samuel Odman was wrong in his assumption that the berserkers were consuming Amanita Muscara to induce berserkergang.
Original Mushroom Theory vs Henbane
Amanita Muscara is the famous mushroom with a red cap dotted in white flecks.It is prevalent in folklore, often associated with spells, curses and rituals. It can induce psychedelic effects in those who consume it, although it is also toxic. In the 1700s (which is when Odman proposed his theory), much less was understood about the berserkers. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what happens when Amanita Muscara is consumed; it becomes clear that the results would not be desirable for a warrior on the battlefield.
Vomiting, diarrhoea, sweating, dizziness and trembling are all possible effects of the mushroom. I find it unlikely that a warrior suffering from these problems would be as terrifying as described. Although there have been some reports of rage from its consumption, it is not particularly common.
A much more likely candidate is the flowering plant called Henbane.
Henbane, also known as hogs-bean and stinking nightshade, is a hardy tall-growing plant with an ominous-looking flower. Dark vascular markings riddle its dull yellow petals, which converge in the flower’s centre, creating a dark purple core.
Much like Amanita Muscara, it is also frequently mentioned in European folklore, especially in the context of witches and dark magic. The plant originated in the Mediterranean and Balkan regions, but there is evidence to suggest that it was present in Scandanavia by the Roman iron age, around 300 CE.
The plant has a long history of medicinal and mystical uses across Europe and Asia. In 1398 a man, known as Bartholemew the Englishman, wrote an encyclopedia. Bartholomew named it “compendium De proprietatibus (prop-riya-tat-ibus) rerum”, which translates to “On The Properties of Things”. In this book, there is an excerpt referring to henbane’s properties. He writes:
“This herb is called insana wood, for the use thereof is perilous; for if it be eaten or drank, it breedeth wodness or slow likeness of sleep, therefore the herb is commonly called Morilindi, for it taketh away want of reason.”
Interestingly, “wodness” is an old English word for madness; it comes from the Norse god “Wodin”, now known as Odin. Odin was closely associated with Storm Fury. It is clear from this quote that people living in the middle ages were fearful of the herb. Across Europe, much of the folklore surrounding henbane is to do with dark spells laying ruin to crops and livestock.
Given its connotations with darkness, madness and curses in western Europe, it is interesting that in ancient Greece, it was treated almost entirely as a medicinal plant. If we look back to the quote from Bartholomew the English, he does also say it can bring about “likeness of sleep”. This likeness of sleep refers to henbane’s anaesthetic properties. It can dull pain and even bring about sleep in high enough doses. The ancient Greeks used henbane as an anaesthetic when performing minor surgeries or to dull pain for those suffering from ailments.
There are many old records, stories and suspicions around how henbane has been used over the centuries. But what do we know about it today? Is it still used? Well, yes! Henbane’s scientific name is Hyoscyamus niger (Hye-oh-cye-amus nye-jerr). It is recognised as a traditional medicine across eastern Europe and Asia, and although it’s native to Europe, it has become increasingly rare, especially in the north. Today it is classified as “endangered” on the IUCN red list.
Modern medicine recognises the plant as a potent psychoactive because of three medicinal alkaloids that are found in its leaves and stem. It’s used most frequently in India. Atropine (atro-peen), hyoscyamine (hiyo-cye-meen), and scopolamine (skuh-pol-o-meen) are all distilled out of the plant and used to create pharmaceuticals. In more casual settings, the leaves can be dried and smoked or infused with beverages to create psychedelic effects. However, I do not recommend using henbane as a drug. Its hallucinogenic effects are very unpleasant, and an incorrect dosage can lead to nasty side effects and even death.
As with many chemically active plants, traditional medicine claims henbane can remedy a vast range of ailments. Some of its uses in eastern medicine include bone problems, rheumatism, toothache, asthma, coughs, nervous diseases, and stomach pain. There is very little scientific evidence to support these claims, and modern western medicine avoids its use entirely; in fact, it is even illegal to cultivate and sell in Europe and America due to its dangerous psychoactive properties.
Let’s look at what effects we know it has on people today: In smaller quantities, common effects when the plant is drunk, smoked or eaten include hallucinations, dilated pupils, restlessness, and flushed skin, but in larger amounts, it can cause more vivid hallucinations, delirium, manic episodes, both drowsiness and restlessness and in high enough quantities, it can even cause death.
After hearing about these effects, it’s unsurprising that during the middle ages, the common person believed this plant was evil, used in dark rituals by sorcerers and witches. But with such risky side effects, why would berserkers consume this plant? Well, I imagine they would be experienced with its impact and would likely understand appropriate dosages too. Suppose I am correct that the plant was consumed during pre-battle rituals and ceremonies. In that case, a priest or priestess would likely give each berserker an adequate dose to bring out the effects that would be advantageous in battle while minimising the adverse side effects.
Applying Henbane Properties to Berserkers
It’s all starting to become more apparent that henbane is a likely candidate for a plant that could bring about Berserkergang. We can break down each of the famous qualities of mighty berserkers and see how they fit in with the herb.
The first quality is, of course, the unbridled fury. Old quotes and modern medicine show that smoking or consuming henbane can lead to fits of rage, which leads directly to the Berserkers inability to determine friend from foe. Henbane induced madness can result in “face-blindness”. Face-blindness removes a person’s ability to recognise who they are looking at. If a mighty raging warrior also loses the ability to recognise his battle companions, It’s not surprising that Berserkers would end up cutting down their own men.
As for tales of superhuman Strength, there isn’t really any scientific reason why Berserkers would gain strength. Such claims are likely due to Norsemen exaggerating old stories. There is, however, a point to be made that a man fighting with pure anger and reckless abandon is expected to use as much of their strength as possible. This could definitely give the impression that they are beyond normal strength.
In the old stories, there is repeated reference to the Berserkers resistance to fire and blades. Now, the Greeks were using henbane as an anaesthetic directly for centuries. It makes perfect sense that the Berserkers would be able to shrug off wounds with anaesthetic and adrenaline pumping through their blood. Some people also say that because the chemicals in henbane lower blood pressure and slow blood flow, that could contribute to their resilience and reduced blood loss. In truth it is unlikely that this would come into effect since, to be noticeable, it would require a dose large enough to put someone to sleep.
Chattering, twitching and bizarre behaviours such as biting shields are all common effects of drug-induced anxiety. The heat before a fight would be incredibly intense, especially as the Berserkers begin to feel the potency of the herb. After the Berserkers had raged their way through battle, they’re said to become incredibly weak, as mentioned in Egils Saga, among others. This fits perfectly with henbane’s effects, which can cause someone to become enfeebled and feverish for up to three days after its consumption.
Berserkers were considered shock troops, the people who charge in, break lines, and scatter the enemy, clearing the way for the army’s main body. These elite warriors would have taken their obligation seriously. I imagine the consuming of henbane was ritualistic in nature, an honour and a privilege in dangerous situations. But how did they actually ingest the plant? While there’s little evidence describing how they took the plant, it’s fairly easy to theorise based on what we already know. Today its most common methods of consumption are through smoking its dried leaves or infusing the plant in some kind of drink. Both of these methods are possible during the Viking era. Scandinavians were known to smoke the plant angelica through pipes, and it’s equally likely that the herb could be infused in hot water to make a tea or even in alcohol which could create additional wild effects. If the Berserkers consumed the herb in rituals, leaves could even be placed on fires, to create an atmosphere of madness for all those nearby.
Origin of Theory
This henbane hypothesis has opened an excellent discussion among historians, and every development has been fascinating. But where does this idea even come from? Well, as we know, Berserkers were typically high ranking in society, chosen by cultural leaders. As such, it is safe to assume that henbane was treated with high respect too. In Hobro of Denmark, archaeologists found a number of graves at the ring castle of Fyrkat, an old Viking settlement. In total, 30 graves were excavated, and one of them belonged to a high-status priestess. She was buried with several important accessories, including a pouch containing henbane seeds. It is likely that the priestess would have distributed these seeds among the Berserkers, the warriors of Odin, during rituals before battle.
While Samual Odman indeed proposed an exciting idea that Amanita Muscara was used to induce Berserkergang, there is just not enough evidence for it. Henbane is a highly prolific plant that was easy to find and cultivate. Amanita Muscara, on the other hand, is only found scarcely, out in the woods. It is very hard to grow yourself due to its complex biology.
Understanding the effects and potency of the Henbane we could go further on to speculate about some of the most notorious written accounts and stories portraying Berserkers.
Arguably the most iconic event involving a Berserker comes from the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25th of September 1066 between the English army of King Harold Godwinson and an invading Norwegian force led by King Harald Hardrada.
The death of King Edward the Confessor of England in January 1066 had triggered a succession struggle in which a variety of contenders from across north-western Europe fought for the English throne. These claimants included the King of Norway, Harald Hardrada. According to sources, the Norwegians assembled a fleet of 300 ships to invade England with anywhere from 7000 to 11’000 thousand men in their ranks; but it was the might of one legendary Berserker that would truly make the story.
According to The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Upon arriving at the location The English army was delayed by the need to pass through a choke-point; a bridge that they had to cross in order to face the Norwegians. Their advance however was halted by a Norse axeman who blocked their way and single-handedly held up the entire English army who must have numbered in their thousands.
It is written that he may have cut down as many as 40 Englishmen and was defeated only when an English soldier floated under the bridge in a half-barrel and thrust his spear through the planks in the bridge, mortally wounding him.
Thanks to the heroic efforts of this Berserker and quite possibly a large dose of Henbane magic and alcohol;
time was bought for the Norwegians to prepare for battle and regroup as the arrival of the English had caught them by surprise.
Despite the efforts, the Norwegians were mostly slaughtered and the invasion failed.
And The Battle of Stamford Bridge has traditionally been presented as symbolizing the end of the Viking Age.
Of course whether or not there really was a single man holding up the bridge, a retinue or not is a matter very much disputed by historians but it is a very interesting and a specific account.
The History of going Berserk however long predates Vikings and written accounts of Berserker-like behaviour can technically be found in many traditions around the world and seems to transcend culture.
Found in the Ranks of the Aztec warriors known as the quachi
And even in modern times during world war 2 such as Japanese Banzai charges.
But whether all half-naked warriors of ancient times roused themselves to fighting madness and consumed psychoactive substances to go to battle is largely unknown.
And it is perhaps for this reason that the Viking and Germanic Berserkers have been most fondly remembered in popular culture.
Thanks to the Henbane and probably a prolific consumption of alcohol they really may have believed and to a certain extent really became animals, leaving behind a thick history of legends and popular culture!
And It’s incredible discoveries like the one at Fyrkat that unlock new information and tools that we can use to help solve the mysteries of ancient civilizations. It’s amazing that we are learning so much about people that have always been so shrouded in mystery.
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