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Berserkers in Viking Society
Berserkers were fearsome Viking warriors who fought friend and foe whilst in a heightened state of uncontrollable fury – a form of madness known as bärsärkar-gång (going berserk).
They are first heard of in the 9th century poem Raven Song which tells of 'men wearing wolf skins' (Ulfheðnar) who were soldiers in the service of king Harald Fairhair. 1
There are two disputed origins for the name:
- They wore a bear skin coat – Old Norse ber (bear) and serkr (coat)
- They fought bare chested - berr (bare) and serkr (shirt)
There has been speculation that the mad fury of the berserker was induced by mind-altering magic mushrooms - such as the fly agaric 2. Perhaps more plausibly it was brought on by binge-drinking 3.
Supposedly no weapons could harm them. An understandable exagerration - no doubt a berserker in a heightened state of fury would be oblivious of any wounds until the battle was over.
Berserkers worshipped the Scandinavian war-god Odin and like him were reputed to be shape-shifters. Ulfr, a former berserker, was known as Kveld-Ulfr (Evening Wolf) – by day he would grow ever more bad-tempered and at night become a werewolf 4.
Berserkers in the throes of their berserkergang could attain the ferocity and strength of a bear, hence the name element ‘Bjorn’ attributed to so many of them.
Once the effects of berserkergang had worn off the berserker would lose all his strength and be vulnerable to capture or assassination.
Though some Viking kings had berserkers in their army they were generally regarded as brutish, stupid and dangerous to know. They had a tendency to wreak havoc upon their own folk: gang-rape and pillage being their favourite recreation.
It was their unfair exploitation of the practice of hólmganga that led to their downfall.
The upper classes of the day were not amused that a fit, young, fearless berserker could challenge them to a duel to which they must respond in person, or with a champion and, after an inevitable defeat, watch said young berserker legally carry away one’s wealth, wife, daughters and nubile maidservants.
In 1015 King Erik of Norway outlawed the berserkers.
Beorn is the Old English word for bear and is related to the Swedish Björn and Norwegian Bjørn. These words evolved into meaning ‘man’, ‘freeman’, ‘nobleman’ and finally ‘baron’.
In JRR Tolkien’s Hobbit Beorn was a “skin-shifter” who could take on the appearance of a black bear.
The extinct Cretaceous tardigrade Beorn leggi was named after Tolkien’s Beorn and its discoverer William Legg. Tardigrades are minute aquatic creatures known as ‘water-bears’.
Styr Bjorn Starke
Styrbjörn the Strong (Old Norse Styrbjörn Sterki) was the son of Olof, King of Norway. He was killed at the Battle of Fyrisvellir fighting Olof’s brother and co-ruler Eric the Victorious.
Styrbjörn’s life is told in ‘The Tale of Styrbjörn the Swedish Champion’ (Styrbjarnar þáttr Svíakappa saga).
As a child Styrbjörn was strong and badly behaved. He also had a temper. One day a courtier accidentally hit the little boy on the nose with a drinking horn. Styrbjörn killed him.
After Styrbjörn’s father died his uncle, Eric, became sole ruler. When he was twelve Styrbjörn asked for his birth right but Eric would not allow him to be co-ruler with him. Four years later the freemen of the Ting declared him unfit to be king.
Eric gave him sixty ships and Styrbjörn set sail with his sister Gyrid. He acted out his frustrations along the Baltic coast until he conquered and settled in Jomsburg as leader of the Jomsvikings.
Styrbjörn waged war upon the Danes. He concluded a treaty with the Danish king, Harald Bluetooth, in which he received Harald’s daughter and a hundred ships.
Styrbjörn, a greedy man, forced the king to renegotiate and cede him 200 ships and surrender himself as a hostage.
Styrbjörn, now an ambitious man, returned to Sweden to usurp the throne from his uncle Eric. Though Styrbjörn sacrificed to Thor, his uncle, a devious man, sacrificed to Odin by pledging his own death for the god in ten years time if granted victory.
Battle commenced. Torgny Lagman, the Lawspeaker, had tied horses and cows together with spears and spikes to create a war machine that held back the king’s enemies. After three days of war Odin rained down arrows upon the Jomsvikings. Styrbjorn and and his men were slain.
Harald Bluetooth had married Styrbjörn’s sister Gyrid and his daughter Tyra had married Styrbjörn. Styrbjörn and Tyra’s son was Torkel Styrbjörnsson father of Gytha Thorkelsdóttir who married Godwin, Earl of Wessex the father of Harold, England’s last Saxon king.
The Styring Family
Styrbjörn was the ancestor of the Styring family of England and the Styron family of America.
Styrbjörn was born around 956 in Upsaala, Sweden and died in 985. His 12th century descendant William Styr of York had a grandson also called William. To avoid confusion the grandson called himself William Styring. Styring means Styr the Younger from the Danish Styr + ung (younger).
William Styring’s son Ralph married into the Greystoke family. They eventually became the Barons of Greystoke. A cadet branch of the family eventually revived the Styring surname. The Styrings held lands in Misson, Nottinghamshire but by the 19th century most of them were living in the Sheffield area 5.
No claim can be made as to the historical authenticity of much of the above as it relies upon sagas and other material rarely contemporaneous with the alleged events.
1 Hrafnsmál (Raven Song) by Thórbiörn Hornklofi
2 "On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry." Howard D Fabing. Scientific Monthly 83 9Nov 1956
3 The Vikings Robert Wernick, Time-Life Books 1979
4 Egils saga Skallagrímsonar
5 Earls Without Coronets Harold Styring