Bear Shirt

The Viking god Odin was the greatest of all magicians. He is a fascinating character—his name means ‘Master of Ecstasy’, and the deity is represented as a tall, old man, sporting a long grey beard.

Odin the Wanderer, as he was depicted in a late 17th century oil, has only one eye—the other, he exchanged for wisdom. Such trade-offs are not uncommon in mythology, where something of personal value—even the soul, in Robert Johnson’s case—is exchanged for a supernatural skill. For divine concessions, there is no free lunch.

Odin’s counterpart in the Norse polytheism is Freya—like him, she has a broad remit. Not for Odin or Freya a single purview—storms, crops, or hunting—between the two, they cover wisdom, sex, sorcery, fertility, runes, war, and death.

Odin was known to encourage war at a pretext, along the lines of Nietzsche’s famous quote:

You say it is the good cause that hallows even war? I say unto you: it is the good war that hallows any cause.

The Norse god was interested only in warriors of the truest mettle, and one particular group has endured through the ages.

The Viking god Odin followed by a berserker, represented in a Torslunda helmet, one of four bronze plates found on the Swedish island of Öland.

These were the berserkers, from which the word ‘berserk’ derives. In ancient Norse, this is a compound word: ‘ber’ means bear and ‘serk’ means shirt—both terms led to the equivalent English words.

Berserkers did not fight in armor—they dispensed with it, choosing only sword and shield, fighting in a trance-like state. A curious description of their behavior comes from the Ynglinga saga, by Sturluson.

His men rushed forwards without armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild oxen, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon them.

Where did Odin’s berserkers get their supernatural fighting qualities? Shamanism is often referred, but that explains little—it’s another way of describing a trance.

Drugs have been put forward as a possibility. Colossal amounts of alcohol would certainly induce indiscriminate rage, but also probably have a serious effect on coordination and motor skills. The English slight ‘Dutch courage’ is used to evoke alcohol-induced bravado—a staple of soccer fans worldwide, but there’s no evidence of enhanced fighting skills, just heightened aggression.

Magic mushrooms have their own place in mythology—in this case, the highly poisonous Amanita muscaria has been put forward as the trance drug. The fly agaric is certainly a potent beast—strong enough to kill you—and it has been reported as a hallucinogenic element in shamanic rituals in Lithuania, northern Sweden, and Siberia.

The known effects don’t suggest it would be immensely successful for massive episodes of sustained violence where the perpetrator is incapable of discriminating between friend and foe—all in all, the drug theory is tenuous.

Which doesn’t leave us with much—except the certainty that the berserkers existed, that the onset of a trance-like state was signalled by chewing and gnawing of shields and skin, and that when the berserkergang began, friends knew to get out of the way.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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