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Berserkergang-art - 10/14/96


"Berserkergang" by Gunnora Hallakarva.


NOTE: See also the files: Norse-msg, Walking-Dead-art, Norse-archery-msg, V-Arts-and-A-art, p-armor-msg, shields-msg, warfare-msg.





This file is a collection of various messages having a common theme that I have collected from my reading of the various computer networks. Some messages date back to 1989, some may be as recent as yesterday.


This file is part of a collection of files called Stefan's Florilegium. These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


I have done a limited amount of editing. Messages having to do with separate topics were sometimes split into different files and sometimes extraneous information was removed. For instance, the message IDs were removed to save space and remove clutter.


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Please respect the time and efforts of those who have written these messages. The copyright status of these messages is unclear at this time. If information is published from these messages, please give credit to the originator(s).


Thank you,

   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

Subject: Berserkergang





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

in battle:


       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

this immunity:


       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

       grabbed Egil.


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 [1981]: 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

berserk are:


(1) association with animals, including shape-shifting abilities;

(2) terrifying appearance;

(3) immunity to weapons via spells or the wearing of (magically) protective

         animal skins;

(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*.

       (ll. 1647-1650)


       (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

       heard-hicgende                              hilde-mecgas

       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,

       every sword-edge.")


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*

       (ll. 987b-990)


       (...                                                 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

Anglo-Saxon society:


   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

the poem.



If you wish to print any or all of this paper in a newsletter for the S.C.A.

or Asatru, please contact me for permission first.  In general, I will grant

permission so long as a copy of the publication that my work appears in is

mailed to me for my files.


Gunnora Hallakarva



<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org