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                             The Berserkir 
This letter appeared in Web of Wyrd number 7:

With reference to the ongoing discussion of the berserkir or "bear
shirts" Viking warrior clan. P G Foote and D M Wilson state in their
book, "The Viking Achievement" (Sidgwick & Jackson UK 1970) that the
berserkers worked themselves up into a frenzy which gave them super-
normal strength and made them indifferent to blows. It was generally
believed that they had magical powers, although they were regarded as
inferior to the great heroes of the Viking sagas. The berserkir howled
savagely as they went into battle, and Foote and Wilson speculate that
these battle frenzies were the result of excessive alcoholic intake.
According to Icelandic Law (Christian version) anyone who fell into a
berserk frenzy was considered highly dangerous and could be classed as
an outlaw from society. The following verse from the epic poem "Atlamal"
circa 11th century CE is believed to contain a reference to the
berserkir and their method of fighting, as well as to another warrior
clan who wore wolf skins, and may be connected with lycanthropy!

               Full they were of fighters
               and flashing bucklers,
               western war lances
               and wound-blades Frankish;
               cried then the bear-pelted,
               carnage they had thoughts of,
               wailed then the wolf-coated
               and weapons brandished.

It would seem the berserkir wore tunics of bearskin because the animal
was their totem and they believed they could magically attain its
strength. Their unorthodox fighting methods - akin to the "battle spasm"
of Celtic warriors possessed by the god/desses of war - and the modern
meaning of the term "to go berserk" suggest they were less than
self-controlled but in fact fought, quite literally, like men possessed.

Mike Howard

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