Berserkergang-art - 10/14/96
"Berserkergang" by Gunnora Hallakarva.
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Mark S. Harris AKA: THLord Stefan li Rous
Stefan at florilegium.org
From: gunnora at bga.com (Gunnora Hallakarva)
To: ansteorra at eden.com
Date: Wed, 11 Sep 1996 18:38:47 -0500
Portions of this paper previously appeared in Tournaments Illuminated. The
materials dealing with the berserker motif and how it illuminates the
character of Grendel in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf won the CAES Paper
Prize for 1988.
Part I: Description of the Berserk
The modern popular conception of the Viking warrior is one of a
murderous savage, clad in animal skins, howling into battle. This
conception probably owes more to literary tradition than to historical fact:
it reflects not the ordinary Scandinavian warriors, but rather a special
group of fighters known as *berserks* or *berserkers*.
The etymology of the term *berserk* is disputed. It may mean
"*bare*-sark," as in "bare of shirt" and refer to the berserker's habit of
going unarmored into battle. Ynglingasaga records this tradition, saying of
the warriors of Odhinn that "they went without coats of mail, and acted like
mad dogs and wolves" (Snorri Sturluson. Heimskringla: History of the Kings
of Norway. trans. Lee M. Holander. Austin: U of Texas P. 1964. p.10).
Others have contended that the term should be read "*bear*-sark," and
describes the animal-skin garb of ther berserker. Grettirs Saga calls King
Harald's berserkers "Wolf-Skins," and in King Harald's Saga they are called
*ulfhedinn* or "wolf-coats," a term which appears in Vatnsdoela Saga and
Hrafnsmal (Hilda R. Ellis-Davidson,"Shape-Changing in the Old Norse Sagas, "
in Animals in Folklore. eds. J.R. Porter and W.M.S. Russell. Totowa NJ:
Rowman and Littlefield. 1978. pp. 132-133), as well as in Grettirs Saga
(Denton Fox and Hermann Palsson, trans. Grettir's Saga." Toronto: U of
Toronto P. 1961. p. 3).
The berserker is closely associated in many respects with the god
Odhinn. Adam of Bremen in describing the Allfather says, "Wodan --- id est
furor" or "Wodan --- that means fury." The name Odhinn derives from the Old
Norse *odur*. This is related to the German *wut*, "rage, fury," and to the
Gothic *wods*, "possessed" (Georges Dumezil. The Destiny of the Warrior.
Chicago, U of Chicago P. 1969. p. 36). This certainly brings to mind the
madness associated with the berserker, and other Odhinnic qualities are seen
to be possessed by the berserk. Ynglingasaga recounts that Odhinn could
shape-shift into the form of a bird, fish, or wild animal (Snorri Sturluson,
p. 10). The berserker, too, was often said to change into bestial form, or
at least to assume the ferocious qualities of the wolf or bear. Kveldulfr
in Egils Saga Skallagrimsonar was spoken of as a shapechanger (Hermann
Palsson and Paul Edwards, trans. Egil's Saga. NY: Penguin. 1976. p. 21),
and Hrolf's Saga tells of the hero Bjarki, who takes on the shape of a bear
Men saw that agreat bear went before King Hrolf's men, keeping
always near the king. He slew more men with his forepaws than
any five of the king's champions. Blades and weapons glanced
off him, and he brought down both men and horses in King
Hjorvard's forces, and everything which came in his path he
crushed to death with his teeth, so that panic and terror swept
through King Hjorvard's army..." (Gwyn Jones. Eirik the Red and
Other Icelandic Sagas. NY: Oxford U.P. 1961. p. 313).
Dumezil refers to this phenomenon as the *hamingja* ("spirit" or "soul") or
*fylgja* ("spirit form") of the berserker, which may appear in animal form
in dreams or in visions, as well as in reality (Georges Dumezil. Gods of
the Ancient Northmen. Los Angeles: U of California P. 1973. p. 142).
Another Odhinnic quality possessed by the berserk is a magical
immunity to weapons. In Havamal, Odhinn speaks of spells used to induce
A third song I know, if sore need should come
of a spell to stay my foes;
When I sing that song, which shall blunt their swords,
nor their weapons nor staves can wound
An eleventh I know, if haply I lead
my old comrades out to war,
I sing 'neath the shields, and they fare forth mightily;
safe into battle,
safe out of battle,
and safe return from the strife.
(Lee M. Hollander, trans. Poetic Edda. Austin.
U of Texas P. 1962. pp. 44-45)
The berserk was sometimes inherently possessed of this immunity, or
performed spells to induce it, or even had special powers to blunt weapons
by his gaze. Many tales say of their berserkers, "no weapon could bite
them" or "iron could not bite into him." This immunity to weapons may also
have been connected with the animal-skin garments worn by the berserk. As
we saw above, while in animal form, "blades and weapons glanced off" Bodvar
Bjarki. Similarly, Vatnsdoela Saga says that "those ebrserks who were
called *ulfhednar* had wolf shirts for mail-coats" (Ellis-Davidson, "Shape
Changing," p. 133). This concept of immunity may have evolved from the
berserker's rage, during which the berserk might receive wounds, but due to
his state of frenzy take no note of them until the madness passed from him.
A warrior who continued fighting while bearing mortal wounds would surely
have been a terrifying opponent.
It is likely that the berserk was actually a member of the cult of
Odhinn. The practices of such a cult would have been a secret of the
group's initiates, although the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII refers in
his Book of Ceremonies to a "Gothic Dance" performed by members of his
Varangian guard, who took part wearing animal skins and masks: this may
have been connected with berserker rites Hilda R. Ellis-Davidson. Pagan
Scandinavia. NY: Frederick A. Praeger. 1967. p. 100). This type of
costumed dance is also seen in figures from Swedish helmet plates and
scabbard ornaments, which depict human figures with the heads of bears or
wolves, dressed in animal skins but having human hands and feet. These
figures often carry spears or swords, and are depicted as running or
dancing. One plate from Torslunda, Sweden, may show the figure of Odhinn
dancing with such a bear figure.
Other ritual practices attributed to berserks may represent the
initiation of the young warrior into a band of berserkers. Such bands are
mentioned in the sagas, oftentimes numbering twelve warriors. Another
commin feature of these bands is the name of the leaser, which is often
"Bjorn" or a variant, meaning 'bear." The form of this initiation is a
battle, either real or simulated, with a bear or other fearsome adversary.
Grettirs Saga tells of a situation of this sort, when a man named Bjorn
throws Grettir's cloak into the den of a bear. Grettir slays the bear,
recovers his claok, and returns with the bear's paw as a token of his
victory (Fox and Palsson, pp. 62-67). Bodvar Bjarki has a protege, Hjalti,
who undergoes a simulated encounter as his initiation in Hrolf's Saga.
Bodvar first slays a dragon-like beast, then sets its skin up on a frame.
Hjalti then "attacks" the beast and symbolically kills it before witnesses,
earning his place among the warriors (Jones, pp. 282-285). Bronze helmet
plates from locations in Sweden and designs upon the Sutton Hoo pyrse lid
seem to show examples of these initiatory encounters, where a human figure
is seen grappling with one, or often two, bear-like animals (Margaret A.
Arent. "The Heroic Pattern: Old German Helmets, Beowulf, and Grettis
Saga." in Old Norse Literature and Mythology. ed. Edgar C. Polome.
Austin, U of Texas P. 1969. pp. 133-139).
Modern scholars believe that certain examples of berserker rage to
have been induced coluntarily by the consumption of drugs such as the
hallucinogenic mushroom *Amanita muscaria* (Howard D. Fabing. "On Going
Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry." Scientific Monthly. 83 [Nov. 1956] p.
232), or massive quantities of alcohol (Robert Wernick. The Vikings.
Alexandria VA: Time-Life Books. 1979. p. 285). While such practices
would fit in with ritual usages, other explanations for the berserker's
madness have been put forward, including self-induced hysteria, epilepsy,
mental illness or genetic flaws (Peter G. Foote and David m. Wilson. the
Viking Achievement. London: Sidgewick & Jackson. 1970. p. 285).
The physical appearance of the berserk was one calculated to present
an image of terror. Dumezil draws parallels between the berserk and the
tribe of Harii mentioned in Tacitus's Germania who used not only "natural
ferocity" but also dyed their bodues to cause panic and terror in their
enemies, just as the berserk combined his fearsome reputation with animal
skin dress to suggest the terrifying metamorphosis of the shape changer
(Dumezil, Destiny of the Warriro, p. 141). Indeed, berserkers had much in
common with those thought to be werewolves. Ulf, a retired berserker, is
mentioned in this light in Egils saga Skallagrimsonar:
But every day, as it drew towards evening, he would grow so
ill-tempered that no-one could speak to him, and it wasn't long
before he would go to bed. There was talk about his being a
shape-changer, and people called him Kveld-Ulf ["Evening Wolf"]
(Palsson and Edwards, Egil's Saga, p.21).
In Volsunga Saga, Sigmund and his son Sinfjolti steal the wolf-skins
which belong to two "spell-cound skin-changers" to change into wolves
themselves so that they might go berserking in the woods (R. G. Finch,
trans. The Saga of the Volsungs. London: Thomas Nelson Ltd. 1965. pp.
In the sagas, berserks are often described as being fantastically
ugly, often being mistaken for trolls, as were Skallagrim and his kinsmen in
Egils saga Skallagrimsonar (Palsson and Edwards, Egil's Saga, p. 66). Egil
himself is described as being "black-haired and as ugly as his father"
(Ibid., p. 79), and at a feast in the court of the English king Athelstan,
Egil is said to have made such terrible faces that Athelstan was forced to
give him a gold ring to make him stop:
His eyes were black and his eyebrows joined in the middle.
He refused to touch a drink even though people were serving
him, and did nothing but pull his eyebrows up and down, now
this one, now the other.. (Ibid., pp. 128-129).
In Arrow-Odd's Saga, the berserk Ogmund Eythjof's-killer is similarly
described as having a horrible appearance:
He had black hair, a thick tuft of it hanging down over his face
where the forelock should have been, and nothing could be
seen of his face except the teeth and eyes.... for size and
ugliness they were more like monsters than like men (Paul
Edwards and Hermann Palsson, trans. Arrow-Odd: A Medieval
Novel. NY: New York U. P. 1970. p 37).
Part II: Going Berserk --- a Description of the Berserkergang
The actual fit or madness the berserk experienced was known as
*berserkergang*. This condition is described as follows:
This fury, which was called berserkergang, occurred not only
in the heat of battle, but also during laborious work. Men who
were thus seized performed things which otherwise seemed
impossible for human power. This condition is said to have
begun with shivering, chattering of the teeth, and chill in the
body, and then the face swelled and changed its color. With
this was connected a great hot-headedness, which at last
gave over into a great rage, under which they howled as wild
animals, bit the edge of their shields, and cut down everything
they met without dicriminating bewteen friend or foe. When
this condition ceased, a great dulling of the mind and feeble-
ness followed, which could last for one or several days
(Fabing, p. 234).
Hrolf's Saga speaks similarly of King Halfdan's berserks:
On these giants fell sometimes such a fury that they could not
control themselves, but killed men or cattle, whatever came in
their way and did not take care of itself. While this fury lasted
they were afraid of nothing, but when it left them they were so
powerless that they did not have half of their strength, and were
as feeble as if they had just come out of bed from a sickness.
This fury lasted about one day (Ibid.).
During the berserkergang, the berserk seemed to lose all human
reason, a condition in which he could not distinguish between friend and
enemy, and which was marked by animalistic screaming. In Arrow-Odd's Saga,
Odd remarks upon hearing a group of berserkers, "Sometimes I seem to hear a
bull bellowing or a dog howling, and sometimes it's like people screaming"
(Edwards and Palsson, Arrow-Odd, p. 40). This lack of awareness is clearly
seen in Egils saga Skallagrimsonar, when the berserkergang came upon Egil's
father, Skallagrim, as he played a ball game with his son and another young boy:
Skallagrim grew so powerful that he picked Thord up bodily
and dashed him down so hard that every bone in his body
was broken and he died on the spot. Then Skallagrim
Egil was saved by a servant woman, who was slain herself before Skallagrim
came out of his fit, but had she not intervened, Skallagrim would certainly
have killed his own son (Palsson and Edwards, Egil's Saga, pp. 94-95).
Another characteristic of berserkergang was the great strength
showed by the berserk. This strength was sometimes expressed in the sagas
by describing the berserker as a giant or as a troll. The berserker was
thought not only to have assumed the ferocity of an animal, but also to have
acquired the strength of the bear. In token of this, the berserk might
assume a "bear name," that is, a name containing the element *bjorn* or
*biorn*, such as Gerbiorn, Gunbiorn, Arinbiorn, Esbiorn or Thorbiorn (Saxo
Grammaticus. The History fo the Danes. trans. Peter Fisher. Totowa NJ:
Rowman and Littlefield. 1979. Vol II, p. 95). Bjarki, whose name means
"Little Bear," was said to actually take the shape of the bear in combat.
To gain this bear-like strength, the berserk might drink the blood
of a bear or wolf (Ibid., p. 45):
Straight away bring your throat to its steaming blood and devour
the feast of its body with ravenous jaws. Then new force will
enter your frame, an unlooked-for vigor will come to your muscles,
accumulation of solid strength soak through every sinew"
(Saxo, Vol. I, p. 25).
The aftermath of the berserkergang was characterized by complete
physical disability. Egils saga Skallagrimssonar says:
What peoplke say about shape-changers or those who go into
berserk fits is this: that as long as they're in the frenzy they're
so strong that nothing is too much for them, but as soon as
they're out of it they become much weaker than normal. That's
how it was with Kveldulf; as soon as the frenzy left him he felt
so worn out by the battle he'd been fighting, and grew so weak
as a result of it all that he had to take to his bed (Palsson and
Edwards, Egil's Saga, p. 72).
A common technique used by saga heroes to overcome berserks was to catch
them after their madness had left them, as Hjalmar and Arrow-Odd do in
Herverar Saga, and slay the berserkers while they lay in their enfeebled
state after their fury (Christopher Tolkein, trans. The Saga of King
Heidrek the Wise. NY: Thomas Nelson & Sons. 1960. pp. 5-7).
Part III: The Role of the Berserker in Viking Society
The berserker's place in society was limited by the terror and
violence that was associated with berserkergang. As superb warriors, they
were due admiration. However, their tendency to turn indicriminately upon
their friends while the madness was upon them went squarely against the
heroic ethic, which demanded loyalty and fidelity to one's friends. The
berserk skirted the classification of *ni(dh)ingr*, one who was the lowest
of men and the object of hate and scorn. An eleventh-century monument
raised in Soderby in Uppland, Sweden in memory of a brother reads: "And
Sassur killed him and did the deed of a *nidingr* --- he betrayed his
comrade" (Foote and Wilson, p. 426).
The primary role of the berserk was as a warrior attacked to a
king's army. Both King Harald and King Halfdan had berserker shock-troops.
Aside from their military value, the berserker's ties to Odhinn would have
been welcome in a royal army, since Odhinn also had a particular association
with rulership, being venerated in Anglo-Saxon England as the ancestor of
chieftains, and throughout the North as god of kings and protector of their
royal power (Dumezil, Gods of the Ancient Northmen, p. 26). Outside of this
role, however, the berserker became the stock villain of the sagas, typified
as murderous, stupid brutes, or as one modern critic has it, "a predatory
group of brawlers and killers who disrupted the peace of the Viking
community repeatedly" (Fabing, p. 232). Saxo Grammaticus speaks of such a
band in his Gesta Danorum:
The young warriors would harry and pillage the neighborhood,
and frequently spilt great quantities of blood. They considered
it manly and proper to devastate homes, cut down cattle, rifle
everything and take away vast hauls of booty, burn to the ground
houses they had sacked, and butcher men and women
indicriminately" (Saxo, Vol. I, p. 163).
In addition to their warlike activities within their communities,
berserkers are characterized by their sexual excesses, carrying off wves,
daughters and betrothed maids who then must be rescued by the heroes of the
sagas. Saxo was particularly upset by this behavior:
So outrageous and unrestrained were their ways that they
ravished other men's wives and daughters; they seemed to
have outlawed chastity and driven it to the brothel. Nor did
they stop at married women but also debauched the beds
of virgins. No man's bridal-chamber was safe; scarcely
any place in the land was free from the imprints of their lust"
(Saxo, Vol. I, p. 118).
It was no doubt due to these excesses of the berserker that resulted
in their demise. In 1015 King Erik outlawed berserks, along with
*holmganga* or duels (Fabing, p. 235): it had become a common practice for
a berserker to challenge men of property to holmgang, and upon slaying the
unfortunate victim, to take possession of his goods, wealth, and women.
This was a difficult tactic to counter, since a man so challenged had to
appear, have a champion fight for him, or else be named *ni(dh)ingr* and
coward. Egils saga Skallagrimsonar records one such encounter:
there's a man called Ljot, a berserker and duel-fighter, hated by
everyone. he came here and asked to marry my daughter, but we gave him a
short answer and said no to his offer. After that Ljot challenged my son
Fridgeir to single combat, so he has to go and fight the duel tomorrow on
the isle of Valdero" (Palsson and Edwards, Egil's Saga, p. 169).
In 1123, the Icelandic Christian Law stated, "If someone goes
berserk, he is punished with lesser outlawry and the men who are present are
also banished if they do not bind him." Lesser outlawry (*fjorbaugsgard*)
was a sentence of three years' banishment from the country. Berserkergang
was thus classed with other heathen and magical practices, all unacceptable
in a Christian society (Foote and Wilson, p. 285). Certainly where
berserkers were associated with the cult of Odhinn, and such spellcasting as
was associated with their immunity to weapons or shape-changing, this
activity would appropriately be classed as "heathen and magical." By the
twelfth century, the berserker with his Odhinnic religion, animalistic
appearance, his inhuman frenzy upon the battlefield, and terrorism within
the Scandinavian community disappeared. The berserk, like his patron deity
Odhinn, was forced to yield to the dissolution of pagan society and the
advent of the White Christ.
All Old English is from Frederick Klaeber's edition of Beowulf and the
Fight at Finnsburg. 3rd ed. Lexington MA; D.C. Heath & Co., 1950. All
translations to modern English and any mistakes therin are my own.
Special characters: the edth will be represented as (dh) while the thorn
will be represented as (th).
Part IV: Grendel and Berserkergang
A central assumption made about Beowulf is the monstrous nature of
Grendel. This conception is so deeply rooted that modern translators often
strain over words that in other contexts clearly describe men, glossing them
to fit their understanding of Grendel. An example of this is given by O'Keefe:
The word *aglaeca* is an instance of an unfortunate glossing which
seriously affects the interpretation of the text. Thw word is used
twenty times in Beowulf, chiefly, as Klaeber notes, for Grendel and
the dragon. Yet *aglaeca* is also used for Beowulf and Sigemund.
Klaeber's solution to the problem of one word's describing two sets
of characters is to gloss *aglaeca* as "wretch, monster, demon,
fiend" when it refers to Grendel and the dragon and as "warrior, hero"
when it refers to Beowulf and Sigemund. Building such a distinction
into the glossing of the word completely ignores the possibility that
the poet has deliberately chosen to use the same word to describe
two sets of characters; as Dobbie notes in his edition of Beowulf, in
the historical period of Old English the word need have been no more
specific that "formidable [one]. (Katherine O'Brien O'Keefe, "Beowulf,
Lines 702b-836: Transformations and the Limits of the Human," in
Texas Studies in Literature and Language. 23 : pp. 484-485.
O'Keefe goes on to deal with Grendel as a monster undergoing a
transformation to a likeness of a man. However, the Beowulf poet who had
such rich Scandinavian source materials available to him more than likely
intended to depict a man undergoing a transformation to a monstrous
likeness: such a motif was readily available in the *baresark*, the
berserker encountered so frequently in the Old Norse sagas. Upon examining
the character of Grendel, clear parallels to these fearsome warriors become
As has been discussed above, the rpimary characteristics of the
(1) association with animals, including shape-shifting abilities;
(2) terrifying appearance;
(3) immunity to weapons via spells or the wearing of (magically) protective
(4) berserker rage, including turning purple in the face, loss of human
reason, acquisition of enormous strength and animal behavior (killing
and howling), followed by profound bodily weakness and disability;
(5) rejection by the community due to excesses of violence.
It can be demonstrated that Grendel, rather than being an inhuman monster,
exhibits thecharacteristics of the human berserk.
Grendel's approaches to Heorot occur at night, in a misty, dark
landscape as suggestive of dreams as of night-time. In lines 702b-714,
Grendel undergoes a transformation (O'Keefe, p. 487). Initially, he is
described as *scri(dh)an sceadu-genga*, a gliding shadow-walker: he seems
almost to be an incorporeal spirit. As Grendel draws closer to the hall,
and to the impending battle with Beowulf, he "solidifies," becoming a
*mansca(dh)a*, an evil-doer (l. 712) who *gongan* (l. 711 and *wod* (l.
714), moving as a corporeal being. This progession brings to mind the
*hamingja* or *fylgja*, the symbolic animal shape or spirit which the
berserker possessed. Bodvar Bjarki fought for King Hrolf in bear-form,
sending forth his spirit while his body remained motionless in camp.
Landnamabok tells of two "shapestrong" men, Storolf and Dufthak, who have
quarreled over grazing rights:
One evening about sunset a man with the gift of second sight
saw a great bear go out from Hval and a bull from Dufthak's farm,
and they mey ay Storolfvellr and fought furiously, and the bear
had the best of it.
This was another instance when the spirit form is seen as a bear, and in
this case, the other as a bull. That these apparitions partake of an
incorporeal nature is clear, beause it requires a man with "second sight" to
perceive them. And yet, at some point they have taken on form and substance
In the morning a hollow could be seen in the place where they
had met, as though the earth had been turned over, and this is
now called Oldugrof (Hilda R. Ellis-Davidson, "Shape Changing
in the Old Norse Sagas" in Animals in Folklore. eds. J.R. Porter
and W.M.S. Russell. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield. 1978).
The terror associated with Grendel is also due to his horrifying
appearance. He is called *(th)yrse* (l. 426) and *eoten* (l. 761) for he is
a giant in size. From his eyes comes a horrible light, like a flame (*him
of eagumstod ligge gelicost leoht unfaegr*, ll. 726b-727). Grendel's hand
is like some animal's paw, having claws instead of finger-nails [*foran
aeghwyle waes steda naegla gehwylc style gelicost, hae(th)enes handsporu
hilderinces egl unheoru*, ll. 984b-987a]. Although Grendel's visage is
never described, when Beowulf returns from the mere with Grendel's svered head:
*(Th)a waes be feaxe on flet boren
Grendles heafod, (th)aer guman druncon,
egeslic for eorlum ond (th)aere idese mid,
wlite-seon wraetlice weras on sawon*.
(Then by the hair, over the floor, woas borne
Grendel's head; there men drank,
it was fearful for the earls and their queen with them,
a terrible sight the men looked upon.)
Grendel's head is a terrible sight, and frightening to the people of Heorot
even in death.
Another characteristic Grendel shares with the berserk is his
immunity to weapons. When Beowulf's men try to come to their leader's aid
as he grapples with Grendel, they find their swords to be useless:
*Hie (th)aet ne wiston (th)a hie gewin drugon
ond on healfa gehwone heawan (th)ohton,
sawle secan: (th)one syn-sca(dh)an
aenig ofer eor(th)an irenna cyst,
gu(dh)-billa nan gretan nolde,
ac he sige-waepnum forsworen hadfde,
ecga gehwylcre*. (ll. 798-805a)
(They did not know when they entered the fight;
hard-minded men, battle-warriors
on every side, they meant to hew him,
to seek his soul: by none of the best iron
in the world, by no war sword
could the evil-doer be touched,
the victory weapons he made useluess by a spell,
Even when Beowulf has torn Grendel's arm from its socket, the arm retains
Grendel's weapon immunity:
*... Aeghwylc gecwae(dh)
(th)aet him heardra nan hrinan wolde
iren are-god (th)aet (dh)aes ahlaecan
blodge beadu-folme onberan wolde*
(... Each one said
that no hard thing would touch it,
no good iron of old times would harm
the bloody battle-hand of the enemy.)
Grendel, in his atatcks, exhibits the characteristics of
berserkergang. He is swollen with rage [(dh)a he gebolgen waes*, l. 723b],
angry [*yrre-mod*, l. 726a], an angry spirit [*gaest yrre*, l. 2073b], like
the berserk whose face swelled and changed in color, and was taken in
hot-headedness and great rage. As he makes his final foray upon Heorot,
Grendel is represnted as a thinking being (O'Keefe, p. 487) [*mynte*, l.
712 and *gesohte*, l. 717], but as the rage comes upon him he seemingly
loses his human reason to purely animal behavior. Like a ravening wolf or
man-eating bear, Grendel feeds upon human flesh:
*Ne (th)aet se aglaeca yldan (th)ohte,
ac he gefeng hra(dh)e forman si(dh)e
slaepende rinc, slat unwearnum
bat banlocan, blod edrum dranc,
synsnaedum swealh; sona haefde
unlyfigendes eal gefeormod,
fet ond folma*. (ll. 739-745a)
(Nor did the combatant think to delay
but he quickly caught the first time
a sleeping man, greedily tore him,
bit the joint, drank the blood streams,
swallowed huge morsels; he immediately ate
the dead man all up
feet and hands.)
Once the fight with Beowulf has begun, Grendel continues his animal
behavior, howling in berserk fashion:
*... Sweg up astag
niwe geneahhe; Nor(dh)-Denum stod
atelic egesa, anra gehwylcum
(th)ara (th)e of wealle wop gehyrdon,
gryre-leo(dh) galan Godes andsacan
sige-leasne sang, sar wanigean
helle haefton*. (ll. 782b-788a)
(... The sound rose up
very strange; The North Danes endured
dreadful terror, each one
there on the wall heard the weeping,
the terrible song sung by God's adversary,
a victory-less song, bewailing the wounds
of hell's captive.)
During the battle, Grendel possesses great strength. While he is
not yet so stromg as Beowulf, who "has the strength of thirty men in his
hand grip," Grendel is yet powerful enough to carry fifteen men away at once:
*(Th)onne he Hro(dh)gares heor(dh)-geneatas
sloh on sweofote slaepende fraet
folces Denigea fyftyne men,
and o(dh)er swylc ut offerede
la(dh)licu lac. (ll. 1580-1584a)
(Then Hrothgar's hearth companions
he slew in their beds, ate them sleeping,
of the Danish people fifteen men,
another fifteen likewise he carried off-
a hateful gift.)
Beowulf himslef is aware of the enormous might of Grendel, which was nearly
as great as his own:
*Ic hine ne mihte (th)a Metod nolde,
ganges getwaeman, no ic him (th)aes georne aetfealh,
feorh-geni(dh)lan: waes to fore-mihtig
feond on fe(th)e*. (ll. 967-970a)
(I could not keep him, the Creator did not wish it,
from an early departure, not firmly enough
did I welcome him: too powerful was
the foe in his going.)
Grendel's strength is shown more dramatically as he enters Heorot. He
merely seems to touch the hall door, which bursts under the strength of his
* ... Duru sona onarn
fyrbendum faest, sythdthan he hire folmum aethran;
onbraed tha bealohydig dtha he gebolgen waes,
recedes muthan. (ll. 721b-724a)
(... The door immediately sprang open
tho fastened with forged bands when he touched it with his hands
driven by evil desire swollen with anger,
he tore open the hall's mouth.)
While it is supposedly physically impossible for Grendel to
experience the berserker's typical post-frenzy physical weakness since he
has received his mortal wound, the Beowulf poet ironically describes Grendel
as "war-weary" [*gu(dh)-werigne*, l. 1586a] and "lying at rest" [*on
raeste*, l. 1585b] as a berserk would normally do after a battle, even
though Grendel is said to be dead of the wounds he received at Beowulf's
hands. It is interesting to note in this context that Beowulf, having just
dispatched Grendel's mother, does not take his war-trophy from her body:
rather, it is Grendel's head that he severs. This is an odd action, for
Hrothgar and the Danes have celebrated Beowulf's victory over Grendel
already with feasting and gift-giving. There seems no call to bring back
further proof of the Geat's victory over Grendel. Furthermore, when Beowulf
cuts off Grendel's head, blood flows forth in great enough quantity to stain
the waters of the lake:
*Sona (th)aet gesawon snottre ceorlas
(th)a (dh)e mid Hro(dh)gare on holm wliton,
(th)aet waes y(dh)-geblond eal gemenged,
brim blode fah*. (ll. 1591-1594a)
(Immediately it was seen by the wise earls
who were with Hrothgar that the waves
were all tainted and roiled:
blood stained the water.)
More than a full day has passed since he has fled from Heorot, yet Grendel's
supposedly lifeless body pours forth blood when it is decapitated. One is
forced to wonder if Grendel was in fact dead, or merely in a death-like
slumber, experiencing the weakness that follows the berserkergang.
Another discrepancy here harks back to Grendel's weapon immunity.
While Grendel is fighting Beowulf, he is proof against steel (ll. 798-805),
and even the next morning his severed hand retains this resistance (ll.
987-990), yet Beowulf is easily able to lop Grendel's head off as he lies
*on raest*. This seems to suggest that Grendel's magical protection existed
before he became *gu(dh)-werigne*, and extended even top his hand after it
was severed from his body, but once he reached his lair and let his rage
fall from him, so too ended the weapons immunity. Beowulf would have had a
very good reason to cleave Grendel's head, if his enemy were yet alive and
merely experiencing the normal infirmity that follows berserkergang, and it
would not be unreasonable to expect this to result in a copiuos flow of
blood. Again, in the sagas, it is a standard practice to dispatch the
berserk while he lies helples after his fit, and this would seem to be
Beowulf's course of action as well.
Grendel is also easily identified with the berserk as "a predatory
brawler and kller who disrupts the peace of the community repeatedly;" as a
man separated from society by his excesses of violence. Certainly Grendel
does not fulfil the role of a loyal retainer to Hrothgar, and is in fact
actually at war with the king:
*... (th)aette Grendel wan
hwile wi(dh) Hro(th)gar hete-ni(dh)as waeg
fyrene ond faeh(dh)e fela missera
singale saece*. (ll. 151b-154a)
(... Grendel had fought
a long time with Hrothgar, driven by hate,
crimes and feud for many a season
he carried out.)
The laws of Ine and Alfred suggest that Grendel's trespasses against
Hrothgar were compounded by his murders in the hall. Not only does Grendel
decimate Hrothgar's retainers, but violence in the hall seems to have been
regarded as high treason, an offence against the king's peace, in
If anyone fights in the king's house, he shall forfeit all his property,
and it shall be for the king to decide whether he shall be put to death
or not (Law of Ine 6. from F. L. Attenborough, trans. The Laws of the
Earliest English Kings. Cambridge: University Press. 1922).
If anyone fights or draws his weapon in the king's hall, it shall be for
the king to decide whether he shall be put tod eath or permitted to live,
in case the king is willing to forgive him (Law of Alfred 7, Ibid.).
The violent nature of Grendel's nighttime raids is vividly described by the
poet (ll. 120b-125, 134b-137, 739-745a). Each time Grendel has found men in
the hall, he has murdered them, up to thirty men at a time (ll. 122b-123a,
1580-1584a). It is not enough that Grendel slays his victims: he
dismembers and devours them as well (ll. 739-745a), thus Grendel might well
be described as a far worse butcher than the bersarks disparaged by Saxo
Grammaticus. Like Saxo's berserks, Grendel pillages Heorot, byt Grendel's
booty is not in wealth or in goods, but rather iks a commodity specifically
forbideen by Hrothgar --- the lives of men (ll. 71b-73).
Thus it may be seen that the Beowulf poet's depiction of Grendel
coincides closely with the characteristics of the berserk: Grendel seems to
possess a spirit form; he undergoes transformation during his attacks on
Heorot; Grendel's appearance is horrifying; Grendel seems to have
shapeshifting abilities, being described with words commonly used for men in
one place, yet possessing an animal-like claw during his attacks; Grendel
possesses the berserker's famed weapons immunity; durning his attacks,
Grendel shows the signs of the berserker rage, including swelling and rage;
after battle, Grendel falls into an extreme exhaustion or war-weariness; and
finally, Grendel is set apart from the society of the Danes by his violence
against that society. Grendel is a complex character, one with many facets.
Seking to understand the Scandinavian motifs such as that of the berserker
which inform some of these facets is a necessary and invaluable quest, for
it sheds light on the character, and helps in deriving further meaning from
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