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Attestations in Medieval Scandinavian Literary Sources (Annotated)
This compilation of attestations of berserkers in primary sources is designed to inform, enrich and support comparative analyses of berserkers in Norse cultural traditions. It does little to dispel mystifying aspects of berserkers. Nevertheless, it can be used to investigate various theories about them and also to dispel common misconceptions echoed by popular sources.
...His men rushed forwards without armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild bulls, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon themselves. These were called Berserker (Ynglinga Saga by Sturluson, 1225 CE).
This passage from the Ynglinga Saga is perhaps the most frequently cited passage from medieval literature attesting to berserkers. It is significant not only for the description it provides, but also because it contextualizes berserkers in Norse story-telling traditions. It identifies them as Odin's men, compares them to animals, and associates them with war magic and "madness," a type of battle trance that is the essence of the word English word, berserk.
Berserker attestations are rarely epics. Few can be compared to the complex tales of berserkers in the narrative of Hrolf's Saga. Far more frequently, they are short tales or brief passages, the majority of which are embedded into longer epics of the Icelandic Sagas. Often, attestations only mention the presence of berserkers, such as the mention of Hadrada's berserkers n the Saga of the people of Vatnsdal, or hint at a character's berserker-like qualities, such as descriptions of Kveldulf in Egil's saga.
This compilation of sources is primarily intended to serve research into berserkers. With respect for symbolic dimensions, it is impossible to exhaust interpretations, but based on literary evidence presented in this inventory, there are motifs that may be regarded as consistent, if not archetypal.
BERA: THE MOTHER OF BERSERKERS?
The word berserker is rarely investigated in depth. In many popular sources, the origin of the word is accounted for as deriving from two old Norse words or word fragments, ber (bear) and serkr (shirt). The word or word fragment, ber, is commonly thought to translate to either bear as in naked, or bear as in the animal. Old norse words for the animal include bera, bjórn, bjarndýr and others. If the ber in berserker denotes the animal bear, then bera, meaning she-bear, emerges as the most likely candidate among Norse words for the animal to account for the origin of the word berserker.
Contemporary sources regularly overlook this subtly and likewise miss the mythical and linguistic significance of bera in Norse story-telling traditions. In the Saga of Hrolf Kraki, there is a woman named Bera, who's lover, Bjorn, is cursed and transformed into a bear. Bera gives birth to three sons, all of whom exhibit archetypal and zoomorphic characteristics of berserkers. Fascinatingly, and perhaps not coincidentally, the animalistic characteristics of Bera’s sons correspond to the three animals associated with Odin's berserkers in the famous passage fromYnglinga Saga. The passage compares them specifically with hounds, bears and bulls; Bjorn & Bera’s sons are likewise part hound, part bear, and part bull-moose. Thus, it is not unreasonable to question if Bera is the archetypal and linguistic mother of berserkers in Norse story-telling tradition.
Literary accounts of berserkers wearing armor add to negative evidence that berserker means "bear" as in naked or without armor. In Hrolf's saga, one of Hrolf's twelve berserkers challenges the hero Svipdag to strike a blow on his helmet. Svipdag strikes a strong blow, but does no damage. In the Saga of Hervor and Heidrek, it is told that as Odd battled eleven berserkers, his sword "bit through armor like cloth" (Trans. Crawford, 2022). Notably, the anecdote in Hrolf's saga is consistent with the attestation from the Ynglinga saga, which tells that Odin's bersekers were impervious to iron. Contrarily, no such imperviousness is associated with the twelve berserkers in Hervor and Heidrek's saga, all of whom were cut down despite wearing armor, nor with Adil's twelve berserkers, six of whom were killed by Svipdag single-handedly (the remaining six are killed during two different battles).
Also of common interest is the question of distinction between berserkers and ulfehdnar. A narrative structure in a passage in Saga of the People of Vatnsdal attests that the word, ulfhednar, denotes, "berserkir er úlfhéðnar voru kallaðir," translated as, "berserkers who were called wolfskins" (Trans. Smiley, 2001). Thus, it is apparent that ulfhednar distinguishes a specific type of berserker. The same word is variously translated as wolf-warriors and wolf-mob. The attestation is extremely rare in that it clearly indicates that some berserkers wore wolf-skins.
HEROES & VILLAINS
A comparative analysis of literary sources indicates with certainty that berserkers exhibit both heroic and villainous attributes. This is exemplified in the epic Saga of King Hrolf, which iterates complex associations between the moral characters of kings and their berserkers, and also in short tales, such as one in the Saga of the Volsungs. In this attestation, a heroic father and son acquire two mysterious wolfskins, put them on, and experience a transformation that they cannot control. It is said that in that form they achieved many great deeds, but rage overtook the father and he harmed is own son. Ultimately, the heroes cursed and burned the wolfskins. Notably, the text does not directly identify the heroes as berserkers, despite their obvious attributions.
THE NAMELESS ONES
With some exceptions, medieval literary sources rarely identify berserkers by name. This is remarkable given the significance of immortalization through poetry, song, and story attested to in heroic story-telling traditions. Contrarily, ancient poems rarely apply the berserker label to heroes that are identified by name.
To illustrate, in Hrolf's Saga, Bera's three sons are identified by name, but are not directly identified as berserkers, despite their berserker-like qualities, including zoomorphic attributes. The same saga identifies twenty-four other characters explicitly as berserkers, but none of these berserkers are identified by name. The physical description of these berserkers is extremely limited, telling only that they were large men.
The case is similar in Egil's Saga, wherein Egil's forefathers are directly compared to berserkers, but never directly identified as such. The alliterative precision is remarkable. Chapter 27 tells, "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" (Smilely Trans.). Similarly, in the Saga of the Volsungs, Sigmund and Sinfjotli take on wolflike attributes, but are never identified as berserkers. In this story, the heroic father and son go so far as to curse and burn the wolf pelts they wore.
Judging from consistency in narrative structures between stories, this tendency seems to reflect a skaldic tradition; it cannot easily be relegated as mere coincidence. This is especially significant given that the hero-poet tradition is centered around immortalization of greatness of champions in stories. It must be noted, however, that this interpretation does not account for historic Christian influences in transcriptions of the stories into text. Dehumanization of berserkers in the literature may result from later political or Christian influence, but this is debatable. The relative consistency suggests it results from an older skaldic tradition.
Informative exceptions to this device occur in Egil's Saga and in the Saga of the People of Vatnsdal . In Egil's Saga (chapter 67), Egil duels with an antagonistic berserker named Ljot, a name which is sometimes translated as ugly. Notably, the Saga of the People of Laxardal (chapter 26) attests to a woman named Ljot, described as a fjanda (fiend), who practiced a type of troll magic identified as troldami. The name Ljot denies characters of unique identities or human personalities. Similarly, in the Saga of Vatnsdal (chapter 46), townspeople defeat two antagonistic berserkers, both of whom are named Hauk (which probably means Hawk). Fitting the profile, a heroic character in the same epic named Ulfhedin (Wolf Heathen), embodies berserker attributes, but is not identified as a berserker.
Especially outstanding exceptions to this literary pattern occur in Egil's Saga and in The Saga of Hervör and Heidrek. In Egil's Saga, Kveldulf's friend, Kari, is both named and directly identified as berserker, but little is told of Kari. In The Saga of Hervör and Heidrek, six of twelve brothers are identified by name and as berserkers.
Berserkers are sometimes characterized by zoomorphic qualities.. The archetypal berserker is free from social constraints. In Hrolf's Saga, berserker boasting rites raise the question if even kings are subject to the berserkers that they employ. The sense of power and freedom evokes the power and freedom of the wild spirit itself, but also alienation from society. This form of alienation is typified in Hrolf's Saga, wherein Bera's children are excluded from participation in games due to their immense strength. In sequence, the boys follow their oldest brother and venture into the wild where they experience periods of isolation.
At their best, berserkers embody a worldview in which animistic forces and human consciousness align transcendentally through a type of battle trance - the classic berserker fury - an animistic power for confronting worldly challenges.
Gylfaginning Stanza 49
"...The Æsir took the body of Baldr and brought it to the sea. Hringhorni is the name of Baldr's ship: it was greatest of all ships; the gods would have launched it and made Baldr's pyre thereon, but the ship stirred not forward. Then word was sent to Jötunheim after that giantess who is called Hyrrokkin. When she had come, riding a wolf and having a viper for bridle, then she leaped off the steed; and Odin called to four berserks to tend the steed; but they were not able to hold it until they had felled it. Then Hyrrokkin went to the prow of the boat and thrust it out at the first push, so that fire burst from the rollers, and all lands trembled. Thor became angry and clutched his hammer, and would straightway have broken her head, had not the gods prayed for peace for her."
Trans. Brodeur 1916
"Another example is the tale told concerning the valor of Hrólfr Kraki: That king whom men call Adils ruled over Uppsala; he had to wife Yrsa, mother of Hrólfr Kraki. He was at strife with the king who ruled over Norway, whose name was Ali; the two joined battle on the ice of the lake called Vaeni. King Adils sent an embassy to Hrólfr Kraki, his stepson, praying him to come to his aid, and promised wages to all his host so long as they should be away; King Hrólfr himself should have three precious gifts, whatsoever three he might choose from all Sweden. King Hrólfr could not make the journey in person, owing to the strife in which he was engaged with the Saxons; but he sent to Adils his twelve berserks: Bödvar-Bjarki was there for one, and Hjalti the Stout-Hearted, Hvítserkr the Stern, Vöttr Véseti, and the brethren Svipdagr and Beigudr. In that battle King Áli fell, and the great part of his host with him; and King Adils took from him in death the helm Battle-Swine and his horse Raven. Then the berserks of Hrólfr Kraki demanded for their hire three pounds of gold for each man of them; and in addition they required that they might bear to Hrólfr Kraki those gifts of price which they had chosen for him: which were the Helm Battle-Boar and the birnie Finn's Heritage,--on neither of which iron would take hold,--and the gold ring which was called Pig of the Swedes, which Adils' forefathers had had. But the king denied them all these things, nor did he so much as pay their hire: the berserks went away ill-pleased with their share, and told the state of things to Hrólfr Kraki.
"Straightway he begin his journey to Uppsala; and when he had brought his ships into the river Fýri, he rode at once to Uppsala, and his twelve berserks with him, all without safe-conduct. Yrsa, his mother, welcomed him and led him to lodgings, but not to the king's hall: fires were made there before them, and ale was given them to drink. Then men of King Adils came in and heaped firewood onto the fire, and made it so great that the clothes were burnt off Hrólfr and his men. And the fellows spake: 'Is it true that Hrólfr Kraki and his berserks shun neither fire nor iron?' Then Hrólfr Kraki leapt up, and all they that were with him; and he said:
'Add we to the fire
In Adils' dwelling!'
took his shield and cast it onto the fire, and leapt over the flames, while the shield burnt; and he spake again:
'He flees not the flames
Who o'er the fire leapeth!'
Trans. Brodeur 1916
Of Odin's Accomplishments
...Odin 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 armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild bulls, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon themselves. These were called Berserker.
(Trans. Laing, 1844)
There was a man named Ulf, son of Bjalf, and Hallbera, daughter of Ulf the fearless; she was sister of Hallbjorn Half-giant in Hrafnista, and he the father of Kettle Hæing. Ulf was a man so tall and strong that none could match him, and in his youth he roved the seas as a freebooter. In fellowship with him was one Kari of Berdla, a man of renown for strength and daring; he was a Berserk. Ulf and he had one common purse, and were the dearest friends. But when they gave up freebooting, Kari went to his estate at Berdla, being a man of great wealth. Three children had Kari, one son named Eyvind Lambi, another Aulvir Hnuf, and a daughter Salbjorg, who was a most beautiful woman of a noble spirit. Her did Ulf take to wife, and then he too went to his estates. Wealthy he was both in lands and chattels; he took baron's rank as his forefathers had done, and became a great man. It was told of Ulf that he was a great householder; it was his wont to rise up early, and then go round among his labourers or where his smiths were, and to overlook his stalk and fields, and at times he would talk with such as needed his counsel, and good counsel he could give in all things, for he was very wise. But everyday as evening drew on he became sullen, so that few could come to speak with him. He was an evening sleeper, and it was commonly said that he was very shape strong. He was called Kveldulf.
(Trans. Rev. W.C. Green)
King Harold proclaimed a general levy, and gathered a fleet, summoning his forces far and wide through the land. He went out from Throndheim, and bent his course southwards, for he had heard that a large host was gathered throughout Agdir, Rogaland, and Hordaland, assembled from far, both from the inland parts above, and from the east out of Vik, and many great men were there met who purposed to defend their land from the king. Harold held on his way from the north, with a large force, having his guards on board. In the forecastle of the king's ship were Thorolf Kveldulfsson, Bard the White, Kari of Berdla's sons, Aulvir Hnuf and Eyvind Lambi, and in the prow were twelve Berserks of the king.
The fleets met south in Rogaland in Hafr's Firth. There was fought the greatest battle that king Harold had had, with much slaughter in either host. The king set his own ship in the van, and there the battle was most stubborn, but the end was that king Harold won the victory. Thorir Longchin, king of Agdir, fell there, but Kjotvi the wealthy fled with all his men that could stand, save some that surrendered after the battle. When the roll of Harold's army was called, many were they that had fallen, and many were sore wounded. Thorolf was badly wounded, Bard even worse; nor was there a man unwounded in the king's ship before the mast, except those whom iron bit not to wit the Berserks.
Then the king had his men's wounds bound up, and thanked them for their valour, and gave them gifts, adding most praise where he thought it most deserved. He promised them also further honour, naming some to be steersmen, others forecastle men, others bow-sitters. This was the last battle king Harold had within the land; after this none withstood him; he was supreme over all Norway.
Kveldulf had in his hand a battle-axe; but when he got on board, he bade his men go along the outer way by the gunwale and cut the tent from its forks, while he himself rushed aft to the stern-castle. And it is said that he then had a fit of shape-strength, as had also several of his comrades. They slew all that came in their way, the same did Skallagrim where he boarded the ship; nor did father and son stay hands till the ship was cleared. When Kveldulf came aft to the stern-castle, he brandished high his battle-axe, and smote Hallvard right through helm and head, so that the axe sank in even to the shaft; then he snatched it back towards him so forcibly that he whirled Hallvard aloft, and slung him overboard. Skallagrim cleared the forecastle, slaying Sigtrygg. Many men plunged into the sea; but Skallagrim's men took one of the boats, and rowed after and slew all that were swimming.
There were lost with Hallvard fifty men in all. The ship and the wealth that was in it Skallagrim's men took. Two or three men whom they deemed of least note they seized, and gave them their lives, asking of them who had been in the ship, and what had been the purport of the voyage. After learning all the truth about this, they looked over the slain who lay on ship-board. It was found that more had leapt overboard, and so perished, than had fallen on the ship. The sons of Guttorm had leapt overboard and perished. Of these, one was twelve years old, the other ten, and both were lads of promise.
Then Skallagrim set free the men whose lives he had spared, and bade them go to king Harold and tell him the whole tale of what had been done there, and who had been the doers of it. 'Ye shall also,' said he, 'bear to the king this ditty:
For a noble warrior slain
Vengeance now on king is ta'en:
Wolf and eagle tread as prey
Princes born to sovereign sway.
Hallvard's body cloven through
Headlong in the billows flew;
Wounds of wight once swift to fare
Swooping vulture's beak doth tear.'
After this Skallagrim and his men took out to their ships and captured ship and her cargo. And then they made an exchange, loading the ship they had taken, but emptying one of their own which was smaller; and in this they put stones, and bored holes and sank it. Then, as soon as ever the wind was fair, they sailed out to sea.
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.
(Trans. Rev. W.C. Green)
Egil Defeats the Berserker, Ljot, in Duel (Holmgang)
…Egil said to the maiden: 'Why weep you, maiden? I never see you cheerful.'
...Then Gyda went to Egil and said: '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.'
Egil said: ''Tis but my bounden duty, lady, for the sake of Arinbjorn thy kinsman that I go, if Fridgeir thinks this any help to him.'
'Herein you do well,' said Gyda. 'So we will go back into the hall, and be all together for the whole day.'
Then Egil and the rest went into the hall and drank. They sate there for the day. But in the evening came those friends of Fridgeir who had appointed to go with him, and there was a numerous company for the night, and a great banquet. On the morrow Fridgeir made ready to go, and many with him, Egil being one of the party. It was now good travelling weather.
They now start, and soon come to the island. There was a fair plain near the sea, which was to be the place of combat. The ground was marked out by stones lying round in a ring. Soon came thither Ljot and his party. Then he made him ready for the combat. He had shield and sword. 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. Fridgeir was not a tall man; he was slenderly built, comely in face, not strong. He had not been used to combats. But when Egil saw Ljot, then he sang a stave:
'It fits not young Fridgeir
To fight with this warrior,
Grim gnawer of shield-rim,
By his gods who doth curse.
I better may meet him,
May rescue the maiden;
Full fearsome he stareth,
Yet "fey" are his eyes.'
Ljot saw where Egil stood, and heard his words. He said: 'Come thou hither, big man, to the holm, and fight with me, if thou hast a wish that way. That is a far more even match than that I should fight with Fridgeir, for I shall deem me no whit the greater man though I lay him low on earth.'
Then sang Egil:
'Ljot asketh but little,
Loth were I to baulk him.
Pale wight, my hand pliant
Shall play on his mail.
Come, busk we for combat;
Nor quarter expect thou:
Strife-stirrer, in Mæri
Stern shield-cutting ours.'
After this Egil made him ready for combat with Ljot. Egil had the shield that he was wont to have, was girded with the sword which he called Adder, but in his hand he had Dragvandill. He went in over the boundary that marked the battle-ground, but Ljot was then not ready. Egil shook his sword and sang:
'Hew we with hilt-wands flashing,
Hack we shield with falchion,
Test we moony targets,
Tinge red sword in blood.
Ljot from life be sundered,
Low stern play shall lay him,
Quelled the quarrel-seeker:
Come, eagles, to your prey.'
Then Ljot came forward on the field and declared the law of combat, that he should ever after bear the name of dastard who should draw back outside the boundary stones that were set up in a ring round the field of combat. This done, they closed, and Egil dealt a blow at Ljot, which Ljot parried with his shield, but Egil then dealt blow upon blow so fast that Ljot got no chance for a blow in return. He drew back to get room for a stroke, but Egil pressed as quickly after him, dealing blows with all his vigour. Ljot went out beyond the boundary stones far into the field. So ended the first bout. Then Ljot begged for a rest. Egil let it be so. They stopped therefore and rested. And Egil sang:
Back goeth yon champion,
In craven fear crouches
This wealth-craving wight.
Not strongly fights spearmen
His strokes who delayeth.
Lo beat by a bald-head
This bragging pest flies.'
These were the laws of wager of battle in those times, that when one man challenged another on any claim, and the challenger gained the victory, then he should have as prize of victory that which he had claimed in his challenge. But if he were vanquished, then should he ransom himself for such price as should be fixed. But if he were slain on the field, then had he forfeited all his possessions, and he who slew him in the combat should take his inheritance. This was also law, that if a foreigner died who had no heir in the land, then that inheritance fell to the king's treasury.
And now Egil bade Ljot be ready.
'I will,' he said, 'that we now try to the uttermost this combat.'
Ljot sprang swiftly to his feet. Egil bounded at him and dealt at once a blow at him. He pressed him so close, that he was driven back, and the shield shifted from before him. Then smote Egil at Ljot, and the blow came on him above the knee, taking off his leg. Ljot then fell and soon expired. Then Egil went to where Fridgeir and his party stood. He was heartily thanked for this work. Then sang Egil:
'Fall'n lies the wolf-feeder,
Foul worker of mischief:
Ljot's leg by skald sever'd
Leaves Fridgeir in peace.
From the free gold-giver
Guerdon none I seek me,
Sport I deem the spear-din,
Sport with such pale foe.'
Ljot's death was little mourned, for he had been a turbulent bully. He was a Swede by birth, and had no kin there in the land. He had come thither and amassed him wealth by duels. He had slain many worthy landowners, whom he had first challenged to wager of battle for their lands and heritages; he had now become very wealthy both in lands and chattels...
(Trans. Rev. W.C Green, 1893)
King Harald's Home Affairs
King Harald then returned to Throndhjem, where he dwelt during the winter, and always afterwards called it his home. He fixed here his head residence, which is called Lade. This winter he took to wife Asa, a daughter of Earl Hakon Grjotgardson, who then stood in great favour and honour with the king. In spring the king fitted out his ships. In winter he had caused a great frigate (a dragon) to be built, and had it fitted-out in the most splendid way, and brought his house-troops and his berserks on board. The forecastle men were picked men, for they had the king's banner. From the stem to the mid-hold was called rausn, or the fore-defence; and there were the berserks. Such men only were received into King Harald's house-troop as were remarkable for strength, courage, and all kinds of dexterity; and they alone got place in his ship, for he had a good choice of house-troops from the best men of every district. King Harald had a great army, many large ships, and many men of might followed him. Hornklofe, in his poem called "Glymdrapa", tells of this; and also that King Harald had a battle with the people of Orkadal, at Opdal forest, before he went upon this expedition.
"O'er the broad heath the bowstrings twang,
While high in air the arrows sang.
The iron shower drives to flight
The foeman from the bloody fight.
The warder of great Odin's shrine,
The fair-haired son of Odin's line,
Raises the voice which gives the cheer,
First in the track of wolf or bear.
His master voice drives them along
To Hel -- a destined, trembling throng;
And Nokve's ship, with glancing sides,
Must fly to the wild ocean's tides. --
Must fly before the king who leads
Norse axe-men on their ocean steeds."
(Trans. Laing, 1844)
After this, trumpets were sounded throughout the army, and men were prepared, each according to his means. King Harold had the most of this battle. Then with him was Rognvald of More and many other great chiefs, and the berserkers who were called wolf skins [ulfhednar, wolf-warriors/wolf-mob]. They used wolf-skin cloaks for armor and guarded the bow of the king's ship, but the king himself defended the stern with the greatest splendor/bravery and masculinity/valor. Many a mighty blow could be seen there. Many great deeds were done there in a short time, with blows and spear thrusts along with fierce stone throwing. There was soon a great loss of life on both sides. Ingimund followed King Harald well/valiantly and gained a good reputation. The meeting ended, as many people know and it has become famous, that King Haraldur won a good victory and then became sovereign over all of Norway. He rewarded all the princes who followed him and then each other with the greatest greatness/generosity.
(Trans. Rulf, 2022 based on Sveinbjorn Thordarson (ed.) (n.d)
Eftir þetta kváðu við lúðrar um allan herinn og bjuggust menn til, hver eftir sínum efnum. Þenna bardaga átti Haraldur konungur mestan. Þá var með honum Rögnvaldur af Mæri og margir aðrir stórir höfðingjar og þeir berserkir er úlfhéðnar voru kallaðir. Þeir höfðu vargstakka fyrir brynjur og vörðu framstafn á konungsskipinu en konungur sjálfur varði lyftingina með hinni mestu prýði og karlmennsku. Mátti þar sjá mörg högg bæði og stór. Nú gerðust brátt mörg tíðindi og stór á skammri stundu í höggum og spjótalögum með grimmlegri grjótflaug. Gerðist nú skjótt mikið mannfall af hvorumtveggjum. Ingimundur fylgdi vel Haraldi konungi og aflaði sér góðs orðs. Fundinum lauk svo sem mörgum er kunnigt og fullfrægt er orðið að Haraldur konungur fékk ágætan sigur og varð síðan einvöldugur yfir öllum Noregi. Hann launaði höfðingjum öllum þeim er honum fylgdu og svo hverjum öðrum með hinni mestu stórmennsku.
Sveinbjorn Thordarson (ed.) (n.d).
Near this time Bishop Friðrekur and Þorvaldur Koðránsson, who was called the Far-Traveller, came to Iceland. Then another ship came out and there were two berserkers both called Haukur. They became unpopular with men because they coerced men for their women or money, otherwise they offered a duel. They howled like dogs, bit at their shields, and walked on fiery coals with bare feet. The bishop and Þorvaldur began a new custom of offering people a different religion than the one here before. They were at Gilja the first winter. The people of Iceland were disgusted by these innovations. Koðrán took faith and baptism first and then his wife. Ólafur at Haukagil was so old that he lay in bed and drank a horn. In the autumn on winter nights, Ólafur invited his friends, especially his brother-in-law Þorkel. The bishop and Thorvald were there. It was a good thing that Thorkell took them and left them alone in the house, for they had a different custom. The berserkers were observed approaching and people were very worried about them. Thorkell asked the bishop if he would suggest a way that these berserkers be killed.
The bishop asked them to accept the faith and be baptized, and that he would kill this villain "with your help."
Thorkell said, "Everything is nearer if your show men stones."
The bishop said, "Have three fires made on the floor of the pavilion."
And so it was done.
Then the bishop consecrated the fires, and said, "Now the bench shall be commanded by the men who are most daring with cudgels, for iron shall not bite, they shall be beaten to death."
Now berserkers came in through the fire first and then the second and they were badly burned. They were strangely frightened by the heat of the fire and immediately wanted to go to the benches. Then they were beaten to death and carried up a gorge called Haukagil.
The bishop now thought he had made a deal with Thorkel that he would accept the faith and be baptized.
Thorkell said he did not want to have another religion "than Thorstein Ingimund's son and Thorir my foster-father. They believed in the one who created the sun and controls all things."
(Trans. Rulf 2022, based Sveinbjorn Thordarson (ed.) (n.d). https://sagadb.org/vatnsdaela_saga.is
Account of a warrior named Ulfhedinn (Wolf Warrior)
Now Onund laid his ship alongside one board of the ship of Thorir Longchin, about the midst of the fleet, but King Harald laid his on the other board, because Thorir was the greatest bearserk, and the stoutest of men; so the fight was of the fiercest on either side. Then the king cried on his bearserks for an onslaught, and they were called the Wolf-coats, for on them would no steel bite, and when they set on nought might withstand them. Thorir defended him very stoutly, and fell in all hardihood on board his ship; then was it cleared from stem to stern, and cut from the grapplings, and let drift astern betwixt the other ships. Thereafter the king's men laid their ship alongside Onund's, and he was in the forepart thereof and fought manly; then the king's folk said, "Lo, a forward man in the forecastle there, let him have somewhat to mind him how that he was in this battle." Now Onund put one foot out over the bulwark and dealt a blow at a man, and even therewith a spear was aimed at him, and as he put the blow from him he bent backward withal, and one of the king's forecastle men smote at him, and the stroke took his leg below the knee and sheared it off, and forthwith made him unmeet for fight. Then fell the more part of the folk on board his ship; but Onund was brought to the ship of him who is called Thrand; he was the son of Biorn, and brother of Eyvind the Eastman; he was in the fight against King Harald and lay on the other board of Onund's ship.
Now the bearserks came forth from the hall, and Grettir said - "Let us go out, and I will show you Thorfinn's cloth bower." They were willing to be led there; so they came to an out-bower exceeding great; a door there was to it, and a strong lock thereon, and the store-house was very strong withal; there too was a closet good and great, and a shield panelling between the chambers; both chambers stood high, and men went up by steps to them. Now the bearserks got riotous and pushed Grettir about, and he kept tumbling away from them, and when they least thought thereof, he slipped quickly out of the bower, seized the latch, slammed the door to, and put the bolt on. Thorir and his fellows thought at first that the door must have got locked of itself, and paid no heed thereto; they had light with them, for Grettir had showed them many choice things which Thorfinn owned, and these they now noted awhile. Meantime Grettir made all speed home to the farm, and when he came in at the door he called out loudly, and asked where the goodwife was; she held her peace, for she did not dare to answer.
He said, "Here is somewhat of a chance of a good catch; but are there any weapons of avail here?" She answers, "Weapons there are, but how they may avail thee I know not."
"Let us talk thereof anon," says he, "but now let every man do his best, for later on no better chance shall there be."
The good wife said, "Now God were in garth if our lot might better: over Thorfinn's bed hangs the barbed spear, the big one that was owned by Karr the Old; there, too, is a helmet and a byrni, and the short-sword, the good one and the arms will not fail if thine heart does well."
Grettir seizes the helmet and spear, girds himself with the short-sword, and rushed out swiftly; and the mistress called upon the house-carles, bidding them follow such a dauntless man, four of them rushed forth and seized their weapons, but the other four durst come nowhere nigh. Now it is to be said of the bearserks that they thought Grettir delayed his coming back strangely; and now they began to doubt if there were not some guile in the matter. They rushed against the door and found it was locked, and now they try the timber walls so that every beam creaked again; at last they brought things so far that they broke down the shield-panelling, got into the passage, and thence out to the steps. Now bearserks'-gang seized them, and they howled like dogs. In that very nick of time Grettir came up and with both hands thrust his spear at the midst of Thorir, as he was about to get down the steps, so that it went through him at once. Now the spear-head was both long and broad, and Ogmund the Evil ran on to Thorir and pushed him on to Grettir's thrust, so that all went up to the barb-ends; then the spear stood out through Thorir's back and into Ogmund's breast, and they both tumbled dead off the spear; then of the others each rushed down the steps as he came forth; Grettir set on each one of them, and in turn hewed with the sword, or thrust with the spear; but they defended themselves with logs that lay on the green, and whatso thing they could lay hands on, therefore the greatest danger it was to deal with them, because of their strength, even though they were weaponless.
Two of the Halogalanders Grettir slew on the green, and then came up the house-carles; they could not come to one mind as to what weapons each should have; now they set on whenever the bearserks gave back, but when they turned about on them, then the house-carles slunk away up to the houses. Six vikings fell there, and of all of them was Grettir the bane. Then the six others got off and came down to the boat-stand, and so into it, and thence they defended themselves with oars. Grettir now got great blows from them, so that at all times he ran the risk of much hurt; but the house-carles went home, and had much to say of their stout onset; the mistress bade them espy what became of Grettir, but that was not to be got out of them. Two more of the bearserks Grettir slew in the boatstand, but four slipped out by him; and by this, dark night had come on; two of them ran into a corn-barn, at the farm of Windham, which is aforenamed: here they fought for a long time, but at last Grettir killed them both; then was he beyond measure weary and stiff, the night was far gone, and the weather got very cold with the drift of the snow. He was fain to leave the search of the two vikings who were left now, so he walked home to the farm. The mistress had lights lighted in the highest lofts at the windows that they might guide him on his way; and so it was that he found his road home whereas he saw the light.
The tale tells that Sigmund thought Sinfjotli over young to help him to his revenge, and will first of all harden him with manly deeds; so in summer-tide they fare wide through the woods and slay men for their wealth; Sigmund deems him to take much after the kin of the Volsungs, though he thinks that he is Siggeir's son, and deems him to have the evil heart of his father, with the might and daring of the Volsungs; withal he must needs think him in no wise a kinsome man, for full oft would he bring Sigmund's wrongs to his memory, and prick him on to slay King Siggeir.
Now on a time as they fare abroad in the wood for the getting of wealth, they find a certain house, and two men with great gold rings asleep therein: now these twain were spell-bound skin-changers, and wolf-skins were hanging up over them in the house; and every tenth day might they come out of those skins; and they were kings' sons: so Sigmund and Sinfjofli do the wolf-skins on them, and then might they nowise come out of them, though forsooth the same nature went with them as heretofore; they howled as wolves howl but both knew the meaning of that howling; they lay out in the wild-wood, and each went his way; and a word they made betwixt them, that they should risk the onset of seven men, but no more, and that he who was first to be set on should howl in wolfish wise: "Let us not depart from this," says Sigmund, "for thou art young and over-bold, and men will deem the quarry good, when they take thee."
Now each goes his way, and when they were parted, Sigmund meets certain men, and gives forth a wolf's howl; and when Sinfjotli heard it, he went straightway thereto, and slew them all, and once more they parted. But ere Sinfjotli has fared long through the woods, eleven men meet him, and he wrought in such wise that he slew them all, and was awearied therewith, and crawls under an oak, and there takes his rest. Then came Sigmund thither, and said--
"Why didst thou not call on me?"
Sinfjotli said, "I was loth to call for thy help for the slaying of eleven men."
Then Sigmund rushed at him so hard that he staggered and fell, and Sigmund bit him in the throat. Now that day they might not come out of their wolf-skins: but Sigmund lays the other on his back, and bears him home to the house, and cursed the wolf-gears and gave them to the trolls. Now on a day he saw where two weasels went and how that one bit the other in the throat, and then ran straightway into the thicket, and took up a leaf and laid in on the wound, and thereon his fellow sprang up quite and clean whole; so Sigmund went out and saw a raven flying with a blade of that same herb to him; so he took it and drew it over Sinfjotli's hurt, and he straightway sprang up as whole as though he had never been hurt. There after they went home to their earth-house, and abode there till the time came for them to put off the wolf-shapes; then they burnt them up with fire, and prayed that no more hurt might come to any one from them; but in that uncouth guise they wrought many famous deeds in the kingdom and lordship of King Siggeir.
Translated by William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson (1888)
The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki is undoubtedly the most comprehensive account of berserkers in medieval norse literature. Tales of berserkers are woven throughout the epic. Significant attestations include accounts of ceremonial boasting rites, battles between the hero Svipag and the twelve berserkers under King Adils, and Svipdag's alliance with King Hrolf and his twelve berserkers.
The story of the hero Bodvar Bjarki, along with his three brothers, is exceptional. The names of Bodvar’s mother and father are both words for bear. His, father, Bjorn (Bear), was vindictively cursed by a Lapp sorceress and transformed into a bear (by day); he and his lover, Bera (She-Bear), gave birth to three sons, all of whom exhibited anthropomorphic characteristics. Bodvar is strongly associated with the bear in mystifying ways; he possesses bear-like strength and is associated with a bear that mysteriously appears in battle. Bodvar’s two older brothers, Elk-Frodi (sometimes translated as Moose-Frodi), is a type of anthropomorphic ‘wild-bull’ (elk or moose) who is described as “...a man above the navel, but an elk below that…,” and Thorir Hound’s-Foot, who, “had dog’s feet from his insteps down” (Bylock, 1998; pp. 40).
In the ancient text, none of the three brothers are explicitly identified as berserkers and are distinct from the other berserkers under King Hrolf and King Adils. Nevertheless, the brothers exhibit berserker-like attributes. Fascinatingly, the anthropomorphic qualities of the three brothers correspond to the three animals referenced in the Ynglinga Saga (Chapter 6) - a hound, a bear and a ‘wild bull.’
Due to their unusual power, the brothers experienced a period of alienation from normal society:
The boys shot up like weeds. When they were at games with other men, they were fierce and unyielding at everything. Men received rough treatment at their hands. Frodi maimed many of the king’s men, and killed some of them. So matters continued till the boys were twelve years old. By then, because they were so strong that none of the kings men could stand up to them, they were no longer permitted to take part in the games” (Bylock, 1998: pp. 40).
Physical descriptions of the berserkers are limited, but they are described as being large. Neither Hrolf's nor Adil's twelve berserkers are directly associated with animals, neither wolf, nor bear, except perhaps vaguely and remotely through their title as berserker, but this is debatable. Though lacking in physical description, numerous attestations throughout the epic add detail to their behaviors and virtues.
The structure of the narrative connects the qualities of the berserkers to their kings. King Adils is described as being untrustworthy and greedy. After three of his twelve Berserkers were defeated, Adils described them as "powerful boasters." He outlawed them and banished them. Afterward, Svipdag defeated the remaining berserkers in a series of two battles, the last of which resulted in Svipdag receiving many wounds, including the loss of an eye. By contrast, King Hrolf is described as generous, hospitable, trustworthy and fair. When challenged, Svipdag struck one of Hrolf's berserkers directly on the head, but his sword did no damage. Hrolf intervened in the fighting and declared that they shall all be called equals and friends. From then on, Svipdag and the berserkers fought side by side and won victories in battle together.
They were laden with franklins and linden shields gleaming
with Westland spearshafts and with Welsh boradswords.
The beserkers bellowed as the battle opened,
the wolf-coats shrieked loud and shook their weapons.
“Their strength would they try, but he taught them to flee,
the lord of the Eastmen who at Utstein dwelleth.
The steeds-of-Nokkvi he steered out when started the battle...
“Of the berserkers` lot would I ask thee, thou who batten`st on corpses:
how fare the fighters who rush forth to battle,
and stout hearted stand `gainst the foe?”
“Wolf-coats are they called, the warriors unfleeing,
who bear bloody shields in battle;
the darts redden where they dash into battle
and shoulder to shoulder stand.
`Tis tried and true men only, who can targes shatter,
whom the wise war-lord wants in battle.”
Gram, chancing to hear that Groa, daughter of Sigtryg, King of the Swedes, was plighted to a certain giant, and holding accursed an union so unworthy of the blood royal, entered on a Swedish war; being destined to emulate the prowess of Hercules in resisting the attempts of monsters. He went into Gothland, and, in order to frighten people out of his path, strode on clad in goats' skins, swathed in the motley hides of beasts, and grasping in his right hand a dreadful weapon, thus feigning the attire of a giant; when he met Groa herself riding with a very small escort of women on foot, and making her way, as it chanced, to the forest-pools to bathe, she thought it was her betrothed who had hastened to meet her, and was scared with feminine alarm at so strange a garb: so, flinging up the reins, and shaking terribly all over, she began in the song of her country, thus:
"I see that a giant, hated of the king, has come, and darkens the highways with his stride. Or my eyes play me false; for it has oft befallen bold warriors to skulk behind the skin of a beast."
Then began Bess: "Maiden, seated on the shoulders of the steed, tell me, pouring forth in thy turn words of answer, what is thy name, and of what line art thou born?"
[Note Parallel between Grettir and Svidgag (Hrolf's Saga); both heroes slay twelve berserkers]
By Saxo Grammaticus
Tacitus's Germania is included in this index because it is often cited as an historical source attesting to Berserkers, however, it is debatable if Tacitus's description of the unusual fighters can be interpreted as a description of berserkers.
“For Suevia is divided and cut in half by a continuous mountain-range, beyond which live a multitude of tribes. The name of Ligii, spread as it is among many states, is the most widely extended. It will be enough to mention the most powerful, which are the Harii, the Helvecones, the Manimi, the Helisii and the Nahanarvali. Among these last is shown a grove of immemorial sanctity. A priest in female attire has the charge of it. But the deities are described in Roman language as Castor and Pollux. Such, indeed, are the attributes of the divinity, the name being Alcis. They have no images, or, indeed, any vestige of foreign superstition, but it is as brothers and as youths that the deities are worshipped. The Harii, besides being superior in strength to the tribes just enumerated, savage as they are, make the most of their natural ferocity by the help of art and opportunity. Their shields are black, their bodies dyed. They choose dark nights for battle, and, by the dread and gloomy aspect of their death-like host, strike terror into the foe, who can never confront their strange and almost infernal appearance. For in all battles it is the eye which is first vanquished.”
Tolley, Clive. (2007). Hrolfs Saga Kraka and Sami Bear Rites https://www.academia.edu/3265345/Hrolfs_Saga_Kraka_and_Sami_Bear_Rites
Speidel, Michael P. 2002. Berserks: A History of Indo-European "Mad Warriors.”Journal of World History Vol. 13, No. 2 (Fall, 2002), pp. 253-290. University of Hawai'i Press
Berserks, mad warriors scorning wounds and death, constituted an Indo-European warrior style on the same order as wolf-warriors. This study traces their history as far as we can know it, from Mesopotamia to Iceland, from 1300 B.C. to A.D. 1300. Making use of new archaeological and literary sources, the study shows berserks to be a long-lived, cross-cultural phenomenon that lends color and coherence to the early millennia of recorded history.