Paul Karlsson Johnstone
Have you ever “gone berserk”? I have, just a few times, and enjoyed it immensely. All other human feelings, good or bad, including many more worthwhile, seem tiny, feeble things compared to berserksgang.
To begin, you get angry. Angry? What a puny word that seems for what you feel! You are mad, and the enormous strength of madness comes pouring in. You are suddenly feeling fourteen feet tall and made of stainless steel. You can move so fast that other people seem paralyzed. Instead of being an ordinary, fallible human being, as you usually are, subject to various weaknesses, you are, for a moment, the Wrath of God made actual. In that mood you may pick up objects far beyond your normal strength, or murder your best friend, or easily overpower a champion athlete. You feel invulnerable and, for a little while, you may be. Beyond that, you feel different. And you are. You feel like an aerial torpedo in mid-flight. For life or death or whatever, you don’t care. You don’t care. And you are fiercely, exultantly, joyously happy. This mood is fickle and desperately treacherous. It may desert you at any second, leaving you weak and spent. Worse still, it may lead you to deeds you will regret as long as you can remember. Yet it is possible, just barely possible, to keep it under control, as it is possible to ride a wild horse. Possible, yes. Safe or easy, no! But if you can, you can do wonders. For a little while. Berserksgang is ages old. Our ancestors of the Wurm Ice Age, who with weapons of wood and stone, without even bows and arrows, hunted and killed mammoths by hundreds, building their homes of mammoth hides and tusks, must have known it well, for the wrath of a wounded elephant is no small thing to face. Yet they faced it, day after day.
Hans Schutte, the great Danish archaeologist, in his great work: Our Ancestors; The Gothonic Nations, pointed out that the oldest surviving Gothonic (Teutonic, Germanic) language, the Gothic of Ulfilas, about A.D. 330, contains a word, ulbandws, which seems not to derive from Greek and Latin elphas “elephant” but to be a rule-right Gothonic cognate of it. Ulfilas, in his translation of the Old Testament, applied the word to camels. Since European mammoths died out before 10,000 B.C., the ulbandws could have only survived in folklore, as a huge, misshapen, hairy, ferocious animal dimly remembered. And after the mammoth was gone, the men who lived around the Baltic hunted the aurochs, a nearly as large and even more dangerous ancestor of the Spanish fighting bull. Before all recorded history, our almost-naked (in warm weather) forefathers dared to hunt these beasts and others—the cave lion and the cave bear, the dire wolf — successfully, or we would not be here today. Berserksgang must have been a tool at their disposal, just as it has been used in “modern” times by Norwegian farmers, clearing a new field of glacial boulders that they could not stir normally.
A trait going back that far cannot be exclusively Gothonic. We know that in the battle of Telamon in 225 B.C. the Romans found themselves faced by naked (save for a leather belt) Celtic spearmen, Gaesati, fetched from beyond the Alps, who were considered invincible. Fighting under the ardent Italian sun, against rank after rank of disciplined legionaries, they tired and went down. But not before they had impressed themselves on the Roman imagination. Why did they go into battle stark naked? These were wealthy men. They could afford shields, helmets, coats of mail, but they did not wear them. Mere bravado then? I think not.
Under some little-understood circumstances, the human body can grow suddenly larger. Daniel Dunglas Home could suddenly increase his height by at least nine inches. Body diameters can also increase. So the berserk warrior could find a coat of mail suddenly become a crushing, stifling burden. They would throw it off, and their clothing, keeping only a weapon.
In the days when Christianity and writing on vellum came to the North, the tradition of berserksgang came with the cult of Woden (Wotan, Odin), by incomers from what is now South Russia, the Dnieper valley. According to Heimskringla and the Ossetian scholar, Dzambulat Daulanty, it fits well within the traditions of the Alans, preserved in the fastnesses of the Caucasus. According to “Odin l’Ossete” by Daulanty, in Oss-Alanes, Vol. II (1953) pp. 11-12, there is an Ossentian (Alanic) tale of a boy called either Uyd-daen or Ud-daen (“I am the soul”) who discovered the secret of smelting bronze (actually millenia older) and making weapons. He kills a wicked giant, assembles a host of Alan warriors, and goes north in search of women with long golden hair. Eventually he and his army arrived in the far north of Europe, which Daulanty plausibly identifies with Scandinavia, and is there accepted as a god. Uyd-daen married the king’s daughter. Just as in Sturlason’s Heimskringla, Odin is not presented as a conqueror, but simply as an accomplished and wealthy foreigner who penetrates an existing people and culture, introducing new ideas.
In his old age, Uyd-daen returned to the Caucasus, leaving behind his son Votan. The Alans were the strongest of the Sarmatian tribes which then dominated much of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. They rode horseback and used stirrups, wore coats of mail. When did this occur? Certainly not in the Bronze Age, nor even in the Early Iron Age (Hallstatt) period.
The Alans only reached a position from which such an expedition would be practical about 150 B.C. But the most likely point is somewhere around 63 B.C., when Pompey the Roman general was pursuing Mithradates to his death in the Crimea. Now Mithradates, as his name shows, was an Iranian, a white man, speaking a Wiro (Aryan) tongue, closely related to Persian and Hindustani. These Alans, as we know from contemporary descriptions, were essentially Nordics, though less blond than Scandinavians. They were, then, men likely to appreciate blonde beauty of Scandinavian girls. The Romans never occupied the Dnieper basin at any time. But they did hold the Crimea for centuries, and that was too close for the comfort of any intelligent Alanic dynast. So it is about 60 B.C. that we can suppose that Uyd-daen (the name may well be mythical, but the man behind it is not) made his way northward, through the territories of primitive Slavic and Baltic tribes. Some of them possessed a well-developed Iron Age culture, as Marija Gimbutas has shown, but none able to resist the well-armed and generally friendly Alan host, who asked only free passage. It is Votan, Uyd-daen’s son, whose name seems to have passed over into Gothonic as Wodan.
It’s notable that Eddaic poetry, in its present form far later, presents Odin not as a great conquering hero, but as a cunning magician, adept in unmanly arts of seid- craft. In a later age such a man would have been given the despised name of scrat and burnt in his house as one unworthy of life. This means that the new religious cults brought in by the Alanic magicians was not acceptable to all.
I say “cults”, for there were two waves of Alanic religion reaching the North: the Aesir cult dominated by Wodan-Odin and the Vanic cult of Nerthuz and Njord, Frey, and cat-Freyja. The distribution pattern of their place-names strongly suggests that the Vanic gods preceded the Aesir. Down to historical times, the nobility of Uppland, (the heart of later Sweden, see Det Svenska rikets oppkomst by Birger Nerman) claimed descent from Frey. The great temple at Old Uppsala held an idol of Odin, but was dominated by the Priapic Frey, with his cult of the horses’ phallus. The Swedish royal family of that day, which did not claim descent from either Odin or Frey, became Christian in the time of Olof Skottkonung in 1025. However, they did not dare to interfere with the great shrine of Frey until 1118, when King Philip, having been driven from Uppland by a heathen usurper, reformed his forces in Varmland and then led a small mounted force on a midwinter raid through the snow and burnt the heathen and his temple.
Odin place-names are thickest in Denmark, Skane and Oster- and Vestergotland. They are almost unknown in Norway, where the cult of Thor (Old English Thunor, “thunder”) is dominant.
Thor and Tyr (Old English Tiw) are older Gothonic gods whose cults managed to survive the coming of the Vanir and Aesir. So, probably, is Heimdall, whose alternative name of Rig (Keltic for “King”) hints at a period of Keltic dominance in the North. This period ended with the floods which forced the migration of the Cimbri and Teutones, whose plebeians may have spoken Gothonic but whose leaders certainly spoke Keltic. It may have been from Denmark that the proto-Picts reached Eastern Scotland about 700 B.C. If so, the Cimbri and Teutones were P-Kelts. They certainly were practitioners of a horrible cult of human sacrifice and the collection of blood in great bowls, which is also attested in Skane about 1000 B.C. Was it only toward the end of the Viking Age that the Scandinavians began to forsake Odin? That is the impression that most histories give.
But it is mistaken. We know that while the great Ostrogothic King Theodoric, the Western Roman Emperor in everything but name, ruled in Italy (493-526), a young Gothonic king from the far north came to his court and stayed long enough to be remembered. Now Theodoric was very definitely a Christian. It is not likely that a client prince could stay very long at his court without being baptized, or at least “prime-signed.”
The name of this young king is given as Rodvulfus, King of the Rani. There is a small district in Scandinavia, Ranrike. But at just this time there was a great Danish king who ruled at Lejre in Sjaelland. He figures in Beowulf as Hrothwulf, and in Saxo Grammaticus as Rolvo Krake (usually given as meaning “the Crow”—but perhaps really the Creaca (Greek)—that is, a man who had “fared southward to Greekland” (the Mediterranean). And it takes only a shift from “r” to “d” to change Rani to Dani, and there is the adjoining Rodvulf to explain it. All of which would not be worth mentioning save for the well-remembered fact that Hrolf Krake and his men were remembered in Denmark for their consistent refusal to ever offer any sacrifice to Odin or any other god. The old, old song of the Bjarkamal, the “egging on of the housecarles” which was sung before the doomed host of St. Olaf on the day of his martyrdom, has the dying Berserk, Bothvarr- Bjarki, ask his wife, Hrut (King Hrolf’s sister) if she can see “Frigg’s husband” (Odin) anywhere, so that Bjarki might, in his last breath, destroy the King of the Gods. All this fits in neatly with the idea of a Christian mission to Denmark about A.D. 510. It perished in the ashes of Lajre, but folk remembered that one could be a hero and not serve any of the old gods.