Savage berserks roaring mad,
And champions fierce in wolf-skins clad,
Howling like wolves;
- The skald Hornklofe
In the Viking Age a type of warrior established their reputation by way of seemingly mindless attacks on their enemies: the Norse berserker. Once the berserker rage was upon them, these were men immune to reason, their only goal to kill and destroy.
We still talk today about people “going berserk” but with little understanding of the ancient condition. What we do know was that a berserker was not a mindless animal and it was not a permanent condition. Perhaps if it was not a sudden adrenaline rush or consumption of a certain mushroom, it was an early form of neuro-linguistic programming which works with the connection between the neurological processes and learned behavior. Perhaps the warriors worked themselves into a frenzy through such techniques. In many ways, the GOP and its members seem to have fallen prey to a similar sort of rage, one which, while they have “talked themselves” into it, however, seems to have no end.They may not be on mushrooms, but they certainly act like it.
The meaning the word has come to have is familiar to all English speakers even if the origin is muddled and the etymology problematic. Old Norse berserkr comes either from “bear-sark,” literally, “bear shirt,” (berfjall meaning bearskin), or from bera, a verb meaning to “make bare,” and therefore meaning one without a shirt. In a sense, the point is moot as the evidence demonstrates that some berserks wore bearskins and some wolf. The term beserkergang (ON: berserkagangr) is used to describe the state of fury a berserk enters into. It was a frightening thing.
We get a glimpse of berserker behavior from the Icelandic story known as Egil’s Saga:
It is said of shape-strong men, or men with a fit of Berserk fury on them, that while the fit lasted they were so strong that nought could withstand them; but when it passed off, then they were weaker than their wont. Even so it was with Kveldulf. When the shape-strong fit went from him, then he felt exhaustion from the onset he had made, and became so utterly weak that he lay in bed.
The beserkers while their rage lasted were fearsome opponents. We learn from other sagas that they would howl like dogs or wolves, bite the rims of their shields and scowl over their edges like madmen. Not a face of reasonableness; clearly, negotiation was not a possibility, and compromise the most distant of dreams. Facing these men, you fought, or you died. Again, this reminds us of the behavior of certain Tea Party extremists in the House of Representatives. We have seen a great deal of shield chewing and dog-howling since 2010, and very little desire to talk except to build themselves into another rage. They don’t want to talk. They want only to destroy.
The reason might be obvious: It was also said of berserks that while in that state they could not be harmed. In his account of the Battle of Hrafr’s Fjord, Egil tells us that in that battle the king had aboard his ship twelve berserkers and that when the killing was done not “a man unwounded in the king’s ship before the mast, except those whom iron bit not—to wit the Berserks.” We are dealing today with metaphorical swords only, but like the bersekers of old, our Tea Party berserkers seem immune to harm while their rage lasts. Iron, which might stand here as a metaphor for reason, does not bite.
The Ynglingasaga describes these berserks as Oðinn’s warriors:
Oðinn could make his enemies in battle blind, or deaf, or terror-struck and their weapons so blunt that they could no more but than a willow wand; on the other hand, his men rushed forwards without armor, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields and were as strong as bears or wild bulls, and killed people with a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon themselves. These were called Berserker.
There might be something to this stated religious connection; many modern Heathens think so and it’s a not unreasonable assumption, since with the suppression of Heathenism their existence was quickly outlawed by Christian King Erik of Norway in 1015 C.E. and in Iceland as being a Heathen practice.
But berserkers were not only to be feared on the killing fields of war. During times of peace, berserks could pose a different sort of danger, and this time to friend, not foe. Gisli’s Saga relates the tale of Bjorn the Black, a berserk “much given to duels.” The saga goes on to relate the sort of behavior these men were known for:
Twelve men went at his heel, and besides he was skilled in the black art, and no steel could touch his skin. No wonder he was unbeloved by the people, for he turned aside as he listed into the houses of men, and took away their wives and daughters, and kept them with him as long as he liked. All raised an outcry when he came, and all were fain when he went away.
Even a well born man, son of a hersir (local nobleman), and his wife were not safe from these men. Gisli’s Saga recounts how Ari Thorkelsson was challenged by Bjorn to holmgang (a duel) after Ari refused to share his wife with the berserk. In the ensuing duel, Ari died. But before Bjorn could claim his prize, Gisli, Ari’s brother, challenged the berserk, whose response was, “Well and good, thou and thy kith and kin shall all fall one after the other, if ye dare to fight with me.” But Gisli borrowed a dwarf-forged sword, and this time, it was Bjorn who fell, head struck from his body. In the aftermath of the duel, Gisli’s followers attacked Bjorn’s stunned band and, killing a few of their number, put them to rout.
Egil Skallagrimsson had a run-in with one of these duelist berserks. He was spending the night at a farmhouse owned by a wealthy man, Fridgeir, when he found out that a local berserk had challenged his host to duel in order to win his sister. Gyda, Fridgeir’s mother, told Egil:
‘I will tell you, Egil, how things stand here with us. There is a man named Ljot the Pale. He is a Berserk and a duellist; he is hated. He came here and asked my daughter to wife; but we answered at once, refusing the match. Whereupon he challenged my son Fridgeir to wager of battle; and he has to go to-morrow to this combat on the island called Vors. Now I wished, Egil, that you should go to the combat with Fridgeir. It would soon be shown if Arinbjorn were here in the land, that we should not endure the overbearing of such a fellow as is Ljot.’
Being Arinbjorn’s friend, Egil saw it has his duty to see to the matter. When he arrived at the chosen spot, he saw his opponent, who like all berserks, (Egil’s Saga calls them “shape-strong”) was a large man:
Ljot was a man of vast size and strong. And as he came forward on the field to the ground of combat, a fit of Berserk fury seized him; he began to bellow hideously, and bit his shield.
In Egil, the berserk had met his match, and in the brief fight that ensued, Ljot lost his leg, then soon after, his life.
Grettir’s Saga tells us that this sort of incident was no small problem and that extreme measures were called for to suppress it. Eirik the son of Hakon before leaving for the West to join his brother-in-law King Knut the Great in England was so concerned that “pirates and berserks should be able to come into the country and challenge respectable people to the holmgang for their money or their women, no weregild being paid whichever fell. Many had lost their money and been put to shame in this way; some indeed had lost their lives. For this reason jarl Eirik abolished all holmgang in Norway and declared all robbers and berserks who disturbed the peace outlaws.”
One could make too much of such comparisons, but what is truly striking is the nihilism inherent in the example of the berserker, at least as they come down to us in the sagas – men for whom society itself seemed the enemy. It’s quite possible that Christian prejudice has colored our understanding of them, as exemplars of all that was bad about “lawless” Heathenism but in point of fact, Norse society was quite law-abiding, as witnessed by the very legalistic Heathen republic of Iceland and while Christian kings were making up laws as they went, Norse Heathens were meeting at great “things” (assemblies in which every free man had a voice) to work out their differences democratically.
The Republican Party acts like a gang of berserkers, show more monarchical than democratic tendencies, and show as little respect for the law and individual rights as Odin’s warriors. The difference is that these new berserkers serve the Christian god; they have become Jesus’ warriors, operating with mindless and destructive determination in pursuit of a largely religious agenda. Like the men Egil described as mad dogs the Republicans themselves seem to “fear neither fire nor steel” but are “straightaway the most over-reckless of men if anyone should beard (corner) them.” Look at the many examples we see of our Tea Party berserkers tearing away at the fabric of the democratic processes from state to state, shouting down speakers, insisting on reading long conspiracy-theory diatribes like Agenda 21.
In this case, Hakon’s man Vermund saw “that his ways would be greatly furthered in Iceland if he had such followers as those Bareserks were” and asked for and received their services from the Jarl. It was a decision he was to rue, for as Hakon warned him, it was unwise not to give such men what they wished. In this case, Halli wanted Vermund to find him a mate, and here we see that beserks were not the sort of match that women of breeding would seek:
Soon after Vermund came home, Halli the Bareserk fell to talk with Vermund about getting him a seemly match, but Vermund said he saw no hope that any woman of good kin would bind herself or her fortune to a Bareserk; so he hung back in that matter. But when Halli knew that, he burst out into wolfish mood and ill-will, and all went athwart betwixt them, and the Bareserks made themselves right big and rough with Vermund, so that he began to rue it that he had gotten him those Bareserks on hand.
We have seen too the dangers of not giving our own berserkers what they wish. Many of us are now also rueful.
In another comparison, we see that even rulers were not immune to the threat of berserkers. Just as a single man or a family can be bullied by a berserker, so can an entire nation by a gang of them. We are witnesses to it. A large and ruthless gang has been let loose in our land and they respect no laws and obey no authority save their own, even to the extent of laughing at the Constitution that established the fabric of our society. Of course, Norse berserkers had no corporate sponsors, and that only makes our own variety the more dangerous.
In the sagas, it was up to Norse society to rid itself of this scourge; nobody could do it for them. Nor was it easily done. It was not accomplished through negotiation; talk did not suffice to men unwilling to listen, disdainful of compromise. A berserk could had to be clubbed to death before his rampages would end, and in that perhaps is an answer (in a metaphorical sense, at least) to our own scourge – only in a show of equal force can our own salvation be found.
They have made themselves the enemies of a civil society and they must be treated as such. We must cease to rue inviting them into discussions and into our debates. They do not want to talk so why talk to them in turn? Instead they will have to be crushed on the only battlefield they recognize: the voting booth. We must show them the door and make it clear that they and their destructive activities are no longer welcome in our own society.