Berserks and Shape Shifters

Everyone has heard of berserks (or berserkers), those unstoppable Norse warriors. These men go into a state of rage and “fear neither fire nor steel” as the sagas have it. There is speculation that “berserk” means “bear shirt” and that these men were supposed to become animals. They are definitely called “wolf shirts” by some poets. The sagas also mention shape-shifters, werewolf-ish men, and there seems to be a connection.

Berserk biting his shield in rage. Lewis chessman.

Egil’s Saga is the story of Egil Skallagrimsson, warrior, viking, and poet. Being a saga, it begins with Egil’s ancestors, particularly his grandfather, Kveldulf. “Kveldulf” means “night-wolf” and the man is a shape-shifter. During the day, he is approachable and a good man to talk to, but as evening approaches, Kveldulf becomes moody and people avoid him. After dark, he takes on animal form. Kveldulf’s best friend is Kari, a berserk.

Berserks go into a rage, have superhuman strength, then are exhausted when the rage ends. So Kveldulf, in company with some other shape-shifting fighters takes on his arch enemies, a troublesome set of brothers. The shape-shifters seem to be giants as they approach. In the ensuing battle, Kveldulf splits a man’s skull and buries his axe so deeply that when he tries to pull his weapon free, he yanks the body right up off its feet and hurls it over his shoulder. But after the rage wears off, Kveldulf sinks in exhaustion and never really recovers. He dies not long after.

This exhaustion is the means which allows a pair of berserks to be killed in Saga of the People of Eyr. A man has come back from Norway with a pair of berserks given him by the king. One of the berserks decides that he wants to marry the man’s daughter. Now, it may be cool to have a couple of berserks following you, but it seems you don’t want one in the family. The girl’s father is desperate to prevent the marriage. A wise chieftain comes up with a plan to kill the berserks: they are told that, since they lack any wealth or property, they must complete a difficult task to win the bride, as heroes of old used to do. The task given them is to clear a path through a boulder-strewn lava field. So, the two men work up a rage, develop super-strength, and hurl great boulders from the path. At the end of the day, the two men are exhausted and enter a sauna set into a hillside. Now the plotters close the sauna door tight and barricade it. They pour water through the sauna smoke hole and try to steam the berserks alive! Even though they are exhausted, the naked berserks summon enough strength to break out of the sauna but are hacked to death by the prospective father-in-law and his companions.

The path through the lava field. The berserks are buried under the rectangular stone. (via http://sagasteads.blogspot.com/2011/05/eyrbyggja-saga-i-berserkers-and.html)

Kveldulf had two sons, both pretty fierce fighters. Though neither is specifically called a berserk or a shape-shifter, there does seem to be a genetic component that is passed on, much like the male pattern baldness that runs in this family. One of the brothers (the fiercest) is killed. The other brother has two sons, Egil and Thorolf. Thorolf is the fiercer of the two. They join the forces of the English King Athelstan at the battle of Brunanburh (or Vinheith, as the Norse called it) fought against an invading force of Scots and Vikings. The brothers are in the thick of the fight and:

Thorolf now grew so battle-mad that he swung his shield onto his back and seized his spear with both hands, then ran forward, cutting and thrusting both right and left. Men fell back on either hand, but there were many he killed, so clearing a path forward to Earl Hring’s standard. Nothing could now stop him; he killed the man carrying Hring’s standard and cut down the standard-pole, then thrust with his spear at the earl’s breast, through mailshirt and body, so that it came out between his shoulders, hoisted him up on the halberd over his  head, then jammed the spear-butt into the ground, and the earl perished there on the spear, and every one saw it, his own men and his foes, too. (trans. Gwyn Jones)

Thorolf is later killed when he gets ahead of his men and is ambushed. Egil survives the battle. In Norway, he runs into a friend with a dilemma. A Swedish berserk named Ljot wants to marry his daughter (you don’t want a berserk in the family, remember) and has challenged the man’s son to a duel. Egil says that the boy is not up to a duel with a berserk. “Okay,” says Ljot, “Then how about you, big guy?” Egil kills him. Ljot’s brother comes around and challenges Egil. The two fight. Ljot’s brother throws away his broken shield leaving his shoulder unprotected but Egil’s sword will not bite the man’s flesh (sometimes it is said that swords will not cut a berserk). So Egil throws down his sword, launches himself at the berserk, and bites his thoat out.

It seems to me that both Egil and Thorolf have a bit of the beast in them, whether shape-shifter or berserk. Maybe they aren’t identified as such because this is not something you want to be. And that raises the question, if being a berserk is not a matter of choice, if you’re just born that way, what about the poor berserk guy who just wants to lead a normal life? Thorir in the Saga of the People of Vatnsdal is such a man. He complains to his brother, Thorstein, that “a berserk fury always comes over me when I would least wish it to”. Thorstein is a Christian and has a solution for his brother. An unwanted baby has been exposed and left to die, Thorir is told to rescue the infant and adopt it. He raises the boy and “a berserk fit never again came over Thorir”. Perhaps this is a Christian parable invented by a priest but, even so, it is a compelling story. The moral seems to be, in order to lose the terrible creature within, you must discover your own humanity.

Egil’s Saga and Saga of the People of Vatnsdal are both in Sagas Of Icelanders.

Saga of the People of Eyr is available in a volume along with Gisli’s Saga: Gisli Sursson’s Saga and The Saga of the People of Eyri 

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One comment on “Berserks and Shape Shifters

  1. Ruarigh says:

    Hi, Really sorry to be so slow in responding to your comment. I have neglected my blog horrendously for far too long and really need to get moving with it again. Anyway, on with your request for comments.

    Your summary is pretty much spot on based on the saga evidence, although my own research has identified alternative conclusions that can be drawn from the full body of evidence. Hopefully I can get it all written up and published in the next few years. Feels like I have been working on this forever!

    I like your conclusions about the moral. That is something that we can take away from the story in our time. I suspect there was more than a bit of proselytising in the medieval mind behind that episode, but that does not detract from the way the sagas show people like us dealing with their own situations as best they can.

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