By Jackson Crawford, University Of Colorado, Boulder
Snorri’s description of the berserkers rings very true with respect to their Norse saga appearances. A berserker is typically either a lone man or one in a group of twelve. In a typical saga, like Egil’s Saga, where we find the figure of the lone berserker, he is a traveling, marauding outlaw at large.
In Norse mythology, Odin’s men would carry the Old Norse name of berserkr, which has come down to English as a word for a wild, crazed fighter.
Snorri describes the state of being a berserker and, of ‘going berserk’, saying: “Odin could make it so that, in battle, his enemies became blind or deaf or terror-stricken, and their blades would cut no more than sticks would. But his own men would go forth without armor, crazy as dogs or wolves, biting their shields. And they were as strong as bears or bulls. They would kill men, while neither iron nor fire had any effect on them. This was called ‘going berserk’.”
According to Egil’s Saga, a brutal berserker from Sweden was rampaging through Norway, taking advantage of the Norse code of honor and law that made the victor of a duel, the owner of whatever the duel was being fought over. This same code made it nearly impossible for a man to keep his honor and his rights as a citizen if he did not accept another man’s challenge to a duel.
Hence, berserkers often simply wandered the countryside, challenging men to duels for whatever they wanted or needed.
The berserker was making a habit of challenging men to duels for their daughters or sisters and defeating them with his superior combat abilities before having his way with the woman he’d issued the challenge for.
While Egil was traveling in Norway, he stayed at the farm of a friend’s sister. He noticed that the woman’s young daughter spent the entire time crying, and he wondered why. After a few nights, he asked her why she was never cheerful.
The girl’s brother told him that the berserker had come around and challenged him to a duel for the right to his sister—and the duel was just about to come up. The boy was feeble and inexperienced in combat, so Egil doubted he could defeat the berserkr.
Having stayed with them, Egil felt obligated to the family and went with the boy to the dueling site at the appointed time.
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Egil’s Challenge for a Duel
The berserker was waiting at the appointed place for the duel. In the usual berserkr style, he was biting his own shield and howling like an animal while his opponent approached. As a typical saga poet hero, Egil has a poem for the occasion, concluding with a challenge:
Let us two fighters go
to the island and duel—
his doomed eyes gaze at me.
Hearing this, the berserker challenges Egil asking him fight with him in the duel instead. Thus, Egil spares his generous hostess’s family both the loss of their son in this duel, and the boy’s loss of his honor from begging out—because Egil was sly enough to know that provoking the berserker would make him want to fight Egil instead as the bigger challenge to boast about.
The berserker will not really have anything to brag about if he makes a weak and unintimidating boy fall to the ground. He admits this, ranting at Egil for a minute before the fight.
Odin, an Unpredictable and Violent Lord
The duel that follows is a sharp and constant back and forth of sword blows and parries with shields. At length, Egil chops off the berserker’s leg, and his enemy bleeds out on the ground then and there.
We’re told that few mourned the berserkr’s loss, and that’s typical of this character type. They might be closer to Odin than other men, but that meant closer to an unpredictable and violent lord. Besides, Odin would need their sword arms in Valhalla before they get too old to swing them. To be closer to that war-mad god is not necessarily to be endeared to one’s fellow man.
Interestingly, in some sagas, where a hero fights a berserkr, the connection of the berserker to Odin is foregrounded even more clearly.
The Saga of Ketil Trout
In The Saga of Ketil Trout, a Viking named, Franmar, makes a sacrifice to Odin and is granted the powers of a berserker, including immunity to weapons of iron.
In the course of the saga, the berserker asks for the hand of the hero, Ketil’s, daughter. But Ketil is unwilling to force his daughter to marry the berserker.
The berserker, furious at the rejection, challenges Ketil to a duel for his daughter on the first day of Yule. This is roughly what we’d call Christmas today, but the pagan holiday was a fine occasion for dueling, as it was a time when the gods were apparently regarded as residing nearer humankind than at other times of the year.
Yule: An Auspicious Day
Since the result of the duel was the verdict of the gods, fighting a duel at Yule or swearing an oath on that day was auspicious.
And then, just before the duel, the Odin-favored berserkr, Franmar, is attacked by an eagle, one of Odin’s birds. Later, as he dies from his wounds, Franmar says: “Odin changed his mind; it’s futile to have faith in him.”
It is notable not only how explicitly the condition of being a berserker is linked with Odin’s favor here, but also the revocation of that favor (and the man’s life) by the agency of the same god, acting through a predatory bird.
Common Questions about Berserkrs in Norse Myths and ‘Egil’s Saga’
The berserkers often wandered the countryside, challenging men to duels for whatever they wanted or needed.
In The Saga of Ketil Trout, a Viking named, Franmar, makes a sacrifice to Odin.
Since the result of the duel was the verdict of the gods, fighting a duel at Yule or swearing an oath on that day was considered auspicious.