Get the look: Viking berserker

Get the look: Viking berserker

The term "berserker" originates from the Old Norse word "berserkr," which translates to "bear-shirt" or "bear-warrior." This designation possibly reflects the untamable strength and fierce courage that characterized these warriors.

Trigger warning: Contains fake blood.

War gangs

The berserker can be associated with warrior bands that existed in many Indo-European cultures. In these cultures, young men often joined a warrior band (known as a "kóryos") during their teenage and adolescent years. This group or cult was dedicated to a god or animal such as the wolf, boar, or bear. Examples include the Germanic Berserkers, Celtic Fianna, Roman Velites, and Spartan Krypteia. These animals symbolized qualities like cunning, strength, and aggression.


After enduring severe trials, the young men lived as landless warriors in the wilderness for several years. Within groups ranging from two to twelve members, lawless activities such as nocturnal raids and cattle theft were common. Their possessions consisted solely of weapons, and they lived on the fringes of society, relying on what nature provided. They focused on fighting, hunting, and plundering, as well as recounting heroic tales of the past and legends of semi-mythological heroes..


The initiation period within the kóryos marked the transition to the status of an adult warrior and typically culminated in integration into the tribe or city-state. Symbolically, the kóryos were associated with death and liminality, but also with fertility and sexual promiscuity.


Images of Berserkers

The relief on Trajan's Column possibly depicts a Germanic berserker during the Roman conquests of Dacia in 101–106 AD. The scenes portray Roman soldiers along with auxiliary troops and allies from Rome's borderlands, including tribal warriors from both sides of the Rhine. There are warriors depicted barefoot, bare-chested, armed, and wearing helmets associated with the Germani. In scene 36 on the column, some of these warriors are gathered, some wearing bear-cloaks, and others wearing wolf-cloaks. Nowhere else in history are Germanic bear-warriors and wolf-warriors depicted together until 872 AD, with Thórbiörn Hornklofi's description of the Battle of Hafrsfjord when they fought together for King Harald Fairhair of Norway.


In the spring of 1870, in Sweden, four 6th-7th century bronze casts were discovered, possibly depicting the Berserker ritual. On one of the Torslunda plates, two warriors armed with a sword and spear are depicted. Both wear helmets adorned with a boar or bear motif. This depiction might refer to the cult of the boar.


The second plate shows the image of a bare-chested man holding an axe. Opposite him stands a bear, which he holds on a leash.

This image possibly represents the initiation ritual wherein the initiate had to battle a bear and defeat it to become a bear warrior.

On another image, a warrior dressed in bearskin and armed with a sword and dagger is surrounded by bears. This might symbolize the berserker living among his counterparts, the bears.

The last plate depicts a warrior with a sword and two spears wearing a horned helmet. Next to him stands a man dressed as a wolf or bear, his head entirely enveloped in an animal's headgear, armed with a spear and sword. This might symbolize the transformation that the wolf or bear warrior undergoes before engaging in acts of warfare.


A fresco from the 11th century in the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev depicts a berserker ritual that might have been performed by the Varangian Guard. On one side, a man is depicted wearing pants and a short tunic. He carries a large Danish axe, known to be associated with the Varangian Guard. In his other hand, he holds a shield. Opposite him stands a man with a bare upper body. He might have been armed with a spear, but it's no longer visible in the fresco. His head has transformed into the head of an animal, possibly a bear or a wolf.



A more nuanced portrayal possibly depicting a berserker can be found in various chess pieces within the Lewis chess set. This chess set was discovered on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland but is believed to have been made in Norway and dates back to the 12th century. One chess piece depicts a warrior equipped with a shield, sword, and helmet, biting onto his shield. This action is attributed to berserkers when they go berserk.


During battles, the berserkers experienced fits of rage. They howled like wild animals, had foam at their mouths, and bit at the edges of their shields. According to belief, during these frenzies, they were immune to steel and fire, causing significant harm to enemy troops. Once this fury subsided, they became weak and docile. Accounts of these occurrences can be found in the sagas.


"Going berserk" was considered as "hamask," which in this context means "to change shape," with the implication of "entering a state of wild fury." Some scholars have interpreted those who could transform themselves as a berserker to be 'hamrammr' or "shape-strong" – literally capable of changing shape into the form of a bear. For instance, in the saga of Egil, a group of men who accompany Skallagrim to see King Harald about the murder of his brother Thorolf is described as "the toughest men, with a touch of uncanniness about some of them... they [were] more built and shaped like trolls than human beings." This is sometimes interpreted as the group of men being 'hamrammr,' although there is no broad consensus.


In another tale, men witnessed a large bear leading the way in front of King Hrolf, always staying close to the king. This bear killed more men with its forepaws than any five champions of the king. Hrólfr Kraki, a berserker who could transform into a bear, utilized this ability to fight for King Bödvar Bjarki. An example of "hamrammr" also appears in the story of the Saga of Hrólf Kraki.


Ulfheðnar – wolf warriors

Wolf warriors appear in the legends of Indo-Europeans, Turks, Mongols, and Native American cultures. The Germanic warriors who symbolized wolves left their presence through shields and standards captured by the Romans and displayed in the armilustrium in Rome.


An example of these wolf warriors comes from Migration Period Germany, which was part of the same tradition. In various legends, berserk warriors wearing wolf skins are referred to as Ulfheðnar ("Wolf-Coats"; singular Ulfheðinn). They are mentioned in the Vatnsdæla Saga, the Haraldskvæði, and are often depicted with a sword as a distinguishing feature. It is suspected that they were berserkers wearing wolf hides. For instance, a warrior wearing a wolf hide is described as 'a warrior with a wolf-hide and seemingly one-eyed dancer in the helmet with bird horns, generally interpreted as a sign of a scene implying a relationship between berserkgang and the god Odin'. A helmet plate from Torslunda also depicts a scene of a one-eyed warrior with a helmet adorned with bird horns, likely Odin, alongside a warrior with a wolf's head armed with a sword. These warriors were described as raging, biting their shields, and being immune to fire and iron. This phenomenon is known as 'going berserk'.


Sometimes, Ulfheðnar are described as special warriors of Odin, men who would transform into wolves at night. An example of this is Kveldulf in Egil's Saga, a berserker who wore the pelt of a wolf over his mail shirt. Unlike berserkers, there are few direct references to Ulfheðnar, but they are often mentioned in sagas as an elite following, such as in the Grettis Saga and the saga of King Harald Fairhair.


Jöfurr, boar warriors


Pigs played a significant role in Germanic paganism and were present in both mythology and religious practices, particularly associated with the Vanir, Freyr, and Freyja. It's suggested that warriors, akin to berserkers, could ritually transform into boars to gain strength, courage, and protection during battles. There's speculation that this process might have been related to wearing boar helmets as part of a ritual costume.


Berserkers in sagas and tales


Berserkers play a prominent role in numerous sagas and poems. In earlier tales, berserkers were often depicted as bodyguards, elite soldiers, and champions of kings. However, this perception would evolve over time, with later sagas portraying berserkers as braggarts rather than heroes. This aligns with the increasing influence of Christianity distancing itself from the ritual of warbands. They were depicted as predatory men who plundered indiscriminately, conducted raids, and wreaked havoc and destruction.


In 1015, Jarl Eiríkr Hákonarson of Norway outlawed berserkers. Grágás, the medieval Icelandic law code, condemned berserker warriors to outlawry. By the 12th century, organized berserker warbands had disappeared.


Within these stories, berserkers can be categorized into four different types: the King's Berserkr, the Hall-challenging Berserkr, the Hólmgangumaðr, and the Viking Berserkr. In later times, berserkers were even perceived by Christian interpreters as a 'heathen devil'.


The oldest known reference to the term "berserker" can be found in Haraldskvæði, a skaldic poem composed by Thórbiörn Hornklofi at the end of the 9th century in honor of King Harald Fairhair. In this poem, they were described as ulfheðnar, which translates to "men dressed in wolf hides". The Haraldskvæði saga describes Harald's berserkers in this manner:


I shall ask the berserkers, you blood testers,

Those dauntless heroes, how are they treated,

The ones who enter the fray?

Wolf-skinned are they called. In battle

They carry bloody shields.

Red from blood are their spears when they come to fight.

They form a closed group.

The prince, in his wisdom, trusts such men

Who hack through enemy shields.


The Icelandic historian and poet Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241) wrote the following description of berserkers in his Ynglinga Saga:


His (Odin's) men rushed forward without armor, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were as strong as bears or wild oxen, killing people with a single blow, yet fire or iron did not affect them. This was called Berserker-gang.



This rage, known as berserker-gang, occurred not only in the heat of battle but also during difficult labor. Men thus seized performed deeds that otherwise seemed impossible for human power. It is said that this condition began with shivering, teeth chattering, and a chill in the body, followed by swelling and changing color in the face. This was accompanied by a great heat, which eventually turned into a great fury, during which they howled like wild animals, bit the edges of their shields, and cut down everything they encountered indiscriminately. When this state ceased, a great mental fatigue and weakness followed, which could last for one or more days.


When Viking villages went to battle collectively, berserkers often wore distinctive attire, such as the fur of a wolf or bear, to signify that they were berserkers and would be unable to differentiate between friend and foe in the "berserker state." This way, other allies would know to keep their distance.


When Viking villages went to battle collectively, berserkers often opted for special attire, like the fur of a wolf or bear, to indicate that they were berserkers. This signaled that during the "berserker state," they couldn't distinguish friend from foe, and other allies knew to keep their distance.


Berserkers & drugs


According to some researchers, certain outbursts of rage may have been intentionally induced by the use of drugs, such as hallucinogenic mushrooms or excessive alcohol consumption. Although this theory is subject to much debate, it finds support in the discovery of seeds from the plant henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) in a Viking grave unearthed in 1977 at Fyrkat, Denmark. An analysis of the symptoms caused by Hyoscyamus niger aligns with the symptoms attributed to the berserker state, suggesting that it might have been used to generate their warlike mood. Other explanations for the berserker's madness include self-induced hysteria, epilepsy, mental disorders, and other causes.



We've based this Berserker on various images and descriptions of the Berserker. Additionally, we've made practical adjustments because it would be a bit odd to experiment with the fur of a real bear. The berserker we've assembled is named Harald and lived in the 9th century in Norway. If you want to create an earlier, Germanic berserker, you just need to swap the trousers and leg wraps for a Thorsberg trousers like this.


Berserkers like Harald are found throughout the Viking world. The depiction from Kiev and descriptions from the Byzantine Empire indicate that Berserkers existed from Constantinople to Iceland.


Viking trousers


Harald is wearing Viking trousers that were commonly used everywhere. They are depicted, for instance, on the tapestry of the Oseberg ship.


Viking leg wraps

Harald wears leg wraps over his trousers. These leg wraps are woven in a herringbone pattern. However, other patterns are also possible.


Viking shoes

The Viking shoes that Harald is wearing are the well-known style from Jorvik (York). York was part of the Danelaw. Optionally, a berserker can also be portrayed without leg wraps and footwear.


Viking belt

The belt that Harald is wearing is relatively simple and dates back to the 9th century. It is not entirely clear how wealthy Berserkers were. As special forces and bodyguards of the king, they could naturally be wealthy. However, little is known about this.


Bear skin

Now, the tricky part, how do we depict a bear skin without having to shoot a bear. For this, we have developed two approaches, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.


Fur coat


The advantage of this fur coat is that it keeps you warm, especially if, as a berserker, you attend colder events; it's pleasant to have something warmer to wear. You can easily wrap this coat around yourself. Another benefit is that this coat comes with a hood. Berserkers may have worn a bear's head above their heads. With this hood with fur edges, you can simulate this.

A downside is that other Vikings also wore fur coats. The berserker made himself identifiable by wearing bear fur, allowing clear differentiation from other Vikings.


Fur collar

The bear skin can be simulated by using a black or brown fur collar. With this collar, you differentiate yourself more from other Vikings, especially if you have a bare chest under the fur collar. An additional advantage is that you can fight much easier with this fur collar compared to a fur coat.


An alternative fur collar could be this one:


Fur hat

You can simulate the bear's head that the berserker possibly wore on his head with a fur hat.


Berserker weapons

Historical depictions show the berserker with spears and swords. Assuming that berserkers were likely professional warriors, a sword, despite being costly, could be justified. Like this one, for example:


In this ensemble, Harald is armed with two Viking axes. Axes were more affordable and commonly available. It's often observed that Viking warriors were buried with multiple axes, hence why we've equipped the berserker with two axes. It's unknown whether Vikings used multiple axes simultaneously in battle.


Viking shield

Berserkers used shields. They are known to bite the edges of their shields before battle. We've equipped Harald with a standard Viking round shield.


Fake blood

The berserker undoubtedly would have become smeared with the blood of his enemies in battle. Using two different types of fake blood, you can create various textures of blood.

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  • author: Patrick
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