Humanosity says…Have you ever wondered where the term berserk comes from or whether Asterix’s magic potion was real? This excellent article looks at a new candidate plant that may have caused the legendary berserker rage…
The Vikings were generally regarded as some of the most fierce warriors of their times. Their sagas speak of incredible feats of strength and epic tales of discovery. However, these sagas also speak of legendary warriors called berserkers.
These warriors were renowned for their ferocity in battle, purportedly fighting in a trance-like state of blind rage (berserkergang), howling like wild animals, biting their shields, and often unable to distinguish between friend and foe in the heat of battle.
Beserkers in History
However, historians have very little information on these fearsome warriors apart from the fact that they did exist. For instance, at the Battle of Stamford in 1066, which marked the end of the Viking Age, King Harold’s army had to cross the River Derwent and was faced with a single axe-wielding Viking who cut the English soldiers down one by one.
Accounts of the berserkers date back to a late ninth-century poem to honour King Harald Fairhair. The 13th-century Icelandic historian/poet Snorri Sturluson described Odin’s berserkers as being “mad as dogs or wolves” and “strong as bears or wild oxen,” killing people with a single blow. Specific attributes can vary widely among the accounts, often veering into magic or mysticism.
Reports from the period state that the ‘beserkergang’ kicked off with body chills, teeth chattering, shivering which is followed a reddening and swelling of the face. After that came the rage.
Some historians have assumed that the berserkers ‘ trance-like state was the result of ingesting a psychoactive mushroom. However, that view is being challenged by new research that claims that henbane may be a more likely candidate.
A muscaria is very distinctive with its red cap and white spots. Toxic to humans in its raw state, it contains two chemicals with psychoactive properties.
However, Karsten Fatur, an ethnobotanist at the University of Ljubljana believes that henbane provides a better explanation and fit for the berserker behaviour.
Henbane has been written about since the time of the ancient Greeks. Various societies have used it as an anaesthetic, painkiller and narcotic.
Fatur believes that mushrooms are not usually associated with rage incidents whereas there are a number of reports of angry behaviour linked to plants that contain the same alkaloids as henbane.
“This anger effect can range from agitation to full-blown rage and combativeness depending on the dosage and the individual’s mental set,” he wrote.”
The painkilling effect of henbane could also explain the accounts that say the berserkers were invulnerable to pain. Other similarities are that henbane can cause an inability to recognise faces, take clothes off and lower blood pressure – berserkers were said to bleed very little.
Fatur agrees that his hypothesis needs further testing and is hoping that the history and archaeology community will keep an open mind.