Word of the month club: berserk


The word berserk came into the English language in the early 19th century to describe an ancient Norse warrior who fought with uncontrolled ferocity (also known as a berserker).

The English word derives from the Old Norse berserkr (noun), itself probably from combining bjorn (bear) and serkr (coat).  It could also possibly from berr ‘bare’ (i.e. without armour) and serkr.


For some reason, I always thought this was a word of Afrikaans origin, until I came across this story in Collingwood and Stefansson’s A Pilgrimage to the Saga-Steads of Iceland:

Two Swedes came out to Iceland in the train of a chief, and they were Berserks. From time to time they went mad like dogs…and feared neither fire nor steel. They were good at need but ill to do with between whiles, and nobody liked to have them on his hands. At last a certain Arngrim [Styr] gave them a home….

Of course one of them fell in love with Styr’s pretty daughter Asdis, but no damsel of high degree would marry a Berserk: and yet even Styr dared not say so. So he went to Helgafell for advice from Snorri the Priest, and coming back, bargained with them that they should do certain works for him and then he would think about their request.

So they reluctantly set about making him a road through the lava, and a boundary wall across it, and a ‘borg’…to protect cattle. On the day when the last stone was laid Asdis met them dressed in her gayest and sweetly listened to their songs of triumph. No wonder they were in high spirits – but when the Berserker fit went off it left them all fordone and weaker than common men. Then Styr asked the into his new bath-house to bathe after their toil. It was in the manner of Roman bath, with a furnace fed from without, a hot room, more or less underground,and a little ante-room, to which steps went down through a trap door – the bath commonly used by the vikings and no doubt imitated from the Irish. When they were safely in the bath, Styr fed the fire till it roared again and closed the trap door with a raw hide and great stone – and waited for the Berserks to be stifled. In spite of it all they burst the hatchway but one was knocked on the head and the other thrust back into the death-trap. Then they took the bodies out and buried them ‘in a dale so deep that one can see nothing from it but the sky above’ (78-9)


The Gerts are going to be very very careful not to go even a little bit berserk on their forthcoming trip to Iceland, especially when wallowing in hot baths.



18 thoughts on “Word of the month club: berserk

  1. I didn’t know you were going to Iceland. Bon voyage! (I’m envious.)

    Do you think a Berserker can be stopped before he – is it always a he? – goes completely mad? I’m thinking, for example, of the Bourke Street massacre.

    1. Yes, in June. More of that later. The thing about the Berserkers (always male, I assume) seems to be that they were possessed by some sort of demonic spirit in quite a random way, and until the fit wore off there was nothing you could do.

    1. And real news. Actually, your description of the Berserkers as beings who were “possessed by some sort of demonic spirit in quite a random way, and until the fit wore off there was nothing you could do” seems apt. We wish there was some way to be sure that the fit might wear off.

  2. Of course, it’s often suggested that Beowulf is a good example of a literary berserk, fighting against nicors in a swimming contest, dis-arming (literally) Grendel after bear-hugging him, beheading Grendel’s ma and meeting the dragon head on — with fatal results. And his name translates as ‘bee-enemy’, the perfect kenning for a bear.

    1. Although Beowulf did set out with a mission, and the feeling from this extract anyway is that the Berserkers were more like a force of nature gone, well, berserk.

      1. I wonder though if he didn’t set out for Denmark looking, as they say, for a fight; which is what berserkrs are about? But, yes, he also has the gift of diplomacy, and, OK, he rules Sweden right royally for fifty years (or whatever it is) after defeating Ma Grendel, and — I’ve just argued against myself, duh!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s