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Bear Sarks: The Famed Berserkers from Old Norse Sagas

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The Bear Sarks in The Brave and the Dead are based on a unique class of warriors from ancient Norse literature. 


King Harald Fairhair, son of Halfdan the Black, is generally considered the first king of Norway. In 866 he began a series of conquests that united the scattered kingdoms of what is now Norway. What we know of King Harald’s life was not written until the 12th or 13th century in various epic poems and Norse sagas.


Skaldic poems describe a special group of warriors employed by King Harald. These men wore shirts (in some languages ‘sarks’) made of bear pelts and were known by some as the “bear sarks”. In Old Norse, bear is ber- and shirt or coat is translated as -serkr, therefore the warriors came to be known as berserkers. The bear was a sacred animal that represented Odin, the All Father of Norse mythology, and warriors wore the shirts to gain the favor of Odin in battle. 

 viking berserker by kjimmy-d37037e

In the Ynglinga Saga (1225), the Icelandic historian and poet, Snorri Sturluson, described the berserkers:


“His men rushed forwards without armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild oxen, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron harmed them.”


These men went into a state called berserkergang, a condition of wild fury. They fought like crazed men, with no consideration of their own safety. Now we refer to it as going berserk. The berserkers were so aggressive, so feared that some enemies even said they became bears during battle. A fighter who could enter the berserker state was sometimes called “hamrammr” which translated to “shapestrong”, a shapeshifter who could become a ferocious animal.


There are a lot of theories about how these warriors entered their “state of wild fury”. Some say the men participated in elaborate rituals and took herbal substances that helped put them into that state. It’s possible that hallucinogenic or psychoactive drugs were responsible. Others have suggested that a rare combination of psychological or medical conditions could cause these men to kill without remorse and even disregard their own safety. Recent war movies, such as Oliver Stone’s Platoon have showed modern warriors going into a dissociative state during battle due to a combination of adrenailine, amphetamines, and PTSD. Nobody knows what made the berserkers tick, but no army wanted to face them


The berserkers and King Harald took over all of modern day Norway. These fearsome fighters were the basis for the Bear Sarks in my story.



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