Norse power: A brief look at Berserker rage

Ever since I was a young kid, I have used the word ‘beserk’ (to describe someone going into a mad, wild, uncontrolled and violent rage) in my day-to-day language. However, it wasn’t until I was in my teens when I bought the Gary Numan albums The Fury and Beserker that I came to realize the origin of the word.

Beserker rage is a culture-bound condition historically affecting Norsemen. The condition manifested itself among males only as an intense fury and rage (berserkergang, i.e., “going beserk”) and mostly occurred in battle situations (but could also occur when they were engaged in labour-intensive work). Dating back as far as the ninth century, the berserker Norse Warriors were alleged to be able to perform almost seemingly impossible super-human feats of strength. Nowadays, the word ‘berserker’ refers to anyone that fearlessly fights with a disregard to their own lives. Similar conditions have been noted in other cultures. For instance, the Irishman Cúchulainn (“Culann’s Hound”) was recorded as displaying ‘battle frenzy’ and ‘foaming at the mouth’ akin to berserkers in texts such as The Tain. The Malay phenomenon of ‘running amok’ (i.e., running mad with rage) also appears to bear a close resemblance to berserkers.

Those displaying beserker behaviour were also said to experience a specific set of symptoms prior to the rage (i.e., beginning with shivering and chattering of their teeth, followed by a swelling and changing of colour in the face as they literally became ‘hot-headed’. The final stage was full-blown rage and fury accompanied by noisy grunts and howls. They would then just indiscriminately injure, maim and kill anything in their path. This would be followed by one or two days of feebleness, along with a dulling of the mind. The condition of berserkergang was described in the thirteenth century by Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson:

“[Odin’s] 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 told upon them. This was called Berserkergang”.

The ravenous self-induced rage before battle commenced enabled the Norsemen to indiscriminately ‘loot, plunder and kill’. 
A recent book about the Vikings claimed that some battle chiefs held their berserkers “in reserve” during a battle. The berserkers were only sent into fight if one section began to weaken. An article on berserkers in the Journal of World History by Dr. M. Speidel noted that Norse berserkers were very effective killers, but could not stop killing at will. Apparently, their berserker state was only turned off once all members of the opposition were dead. László Kürti, in a 2004 encyclopedia entry on shamanism claimed that berserker is a regional form of present-day shamanism that utilizes archaic Nordic techniques – particularly the ability to go into a trance-like state.

Various theories about the causes of the condition have been speculated. Some have alleged that psychoactive drugs (such as hallucinogenic agaric mushrooms or copious alcohol drinking) were used. Some botanists claim that berserker behavior can be caused by the ingestion of the plant bog myrtle, one of the main spices in Scandinavian alcoholic beverages. Other theories speculate either pre-existing genetic and/or medical conditions or pre-existing psychological disorders (e.g., mental illness, manic depression [i.e., bipolar disorder], epilepsy). Some have even speculated that the fury may just be a consequence of post-traumatic stress. For instance, clinical psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Shay wrote in his 1994 book Achilles in Vietnam:

“If a soldier survives the berserk state, it imparts emotional deadness and vulnerability to explosive rage to his psychology and permanent hyperarousal to his physiology –  hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder in combat veterans. My clinical experience with Vietnam combat veterans prompts me to place the berserk state at the heart of their most severe psychological and psychophysiological injuries”

Professor Jesse L. Byock claimed in a 1995 issue of Scientific American, that berserker rage could perhaps have been a symptom of Paget’s Disease (i.e., uncontrolled skull bone growth that often causes painful pressure in the head). However, there doesn’t seem to be any conclusive evidence of this.

Other more esoteric theories surround spiritual and/or supernatural beliefs. For instance, some scholars have claimed that the Vikings believed in spirit possession and that berserkers were possessed by the animal spirits of wolves and/or bears. According to some theorists, berserkers learned to cultivate the ability to allow animal spirits to take over their body during a fight (an example of animal totemism) that also involved drinking the blood of the animal that they wished to be possessed by.

Back in 1987, Dr. Armando Simon published a paper in the journal Psychological Reports and argued that berserker rage (or as he termed it ‘Blind Rage Syndrome’) should be incorporated into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Dr. Simon characterized the condition as (i) violent overreaction to physical, verbal, or visual insult, (ii) amnesia during the actual period of violence, (iii) abnormally great strength, and (iv) specifically target oriented violence. Some case studies are presented and a parallel is made with the Viking Berserkers of the Middle Ages. Dr. Simon also claimed that the condition had typically been diagnosed as part of other violent disorders (such as intermittent explosive disorder). However, it looks unlikely that berserkers will be making a separate entry into the DSM anytime soon.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Armando, S. (1987) the berserker/blind rage syndrome as a potentially new diagnostic category for the DSM-III. Psychological Reports, 60, 131-135.

Kürti, L. (2004). Shamanism – Neo (Eastern Europe). Located at:

Nationmaster (2012). Berserker. Located at:

Shay, J. (1994). Achilles in Vietnam. New York: Scribner.

Simon, A. (1987). The berserker/blind rage syndrome as a potentially new diagnostic category for the DSM-III. Psychological Reports, 60, 131-135.

Speidel, M. (2002). Berserks: A history of Indo-European ‘mad warriors’. Journal of World History 13, 253-290.

Wikipedia (2012). Berserker. Located at:

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on September 10, 2012, in Culture Bound Syndromes, Drug use, Mania, Psychological disorders, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. see, my case is more of a genetic thing than an actual disorder, while it is hard to cause it in us, my line has been full of people capable of berserking.
    we don’t need drugs to do it, we just think of something that gets us all fired mad and the lose ourselves in the sweet addictive sensation of rage. next thing that happens is the part we don’t like remembering, we attack indiscriminately, not because we are mindless, but because we’re trying to feed the rage, to stay in the trance-like state.
    the rage for us is severely addictive, almost pure pleasure, our minds, unable to handle anything outside of this state, focus solely on feeding the anger by attacking anything that dares to move.
    i’ve never encountered memory loss during a berserker rage, on the contrary, i recall every blow keenly, and the horror of losing my own will so quickly.
    perhaps it is that horror, the fear of being an indiscriminate juggernaut that attacks everything that moves, just because it moved that makes us forget, makes us want to forget.
    perhaps there is brain damage involved that causes amnesia. but for the most part we can recall everything and are more than fully aware of our actions, we simply lose our judgement in the face of rage lust.
    my father claimed to have lost himself and beat a man near to death with his bare hands, he said it was so bad it caused a blackout, when he awoke, he was just coming off the rage, and his hands were coated in blood and facial muscle some of the blood was his from wearing the flesh around his knuckles down.. the man never died thankfully, and my old man felt terrible afterwards. but the man had been violently disfigured, his facial bones crushed and crack, his facial tissue turned into a pulverized paste.
    that man was terrified of my father from that point on, even claimed to have had nightmares.
    my old man similarly suffered, having traumatic nightmares of his own for the next few weeks. mostly about a werewolf chasing him and overpowering him. which i take as a symbol of his own dilemma at being helpless against his own fury that day.
    as for me, i’ve only entered the trance state once or twice, and never for too long, i am fortunate that those two times ended only in serious property damage.
    the first being when i was eight, i hurled a desk at a teacher and broke her arm with a compound fracture. the second, i lost something and similarly lost my temper. grabbed a guy by the throat, on the edge of pure rage, hurled him aside and went for an inanimate object in the last instance , threw his television into a wall, the proceeded to slam it into the floor again, and again. threw it around multiple times, smashed it up, by the time i was done, not one piece of that tv was a recognizable part of everything. managed to channel the fury before it went beyond my ability to control.
    the danger of losing oneself to it is very real, and indeed there is teeth chattering involved.
    mostly from the body itself quivering, tense from the building anger, the extremities are always the most noticeable. the cold, i cannot attest to, for we feel neither cold or heat until the flood that washes over our heads, which i can attest to. but we barely feel that as well. indeed it doesn’t feel hot, just…pleasantly warm. the exhaustion for two days, i never felt it, but i can say it does exist. there is exhaustion that lasts for hours while the body reconstructs cellular tissue damaged by overclocking the body to that degree.
    the two day cooldown is most likely abuse of the trance state, like something from a battle.
    domestic rages tend not to have too much fuel to them, even as we try to create more fuel for the rage.
    i can’t say for certain, but i berserker rage is hard to induce, it takes specific triggers, something that would cause unresolvable outrage. something the mind simply couldn’t reason patience into. because berserkers are somewhat hard to trigger, i’d say that using drugs to cause it can definitely work. but i’ve never seen it.
    a berserker seems to simply have the capacity for an intense rage of that caliber, and it replaces a normal rage. so a drug that could cause a regualr rage could also cause a berserker rage in those who have that disorder.
    for the most part, berserkers in my family are timid, anti-social creatures that prefer to be alone. we can get along with others, but a good portion of our time is devoted to distraction, perhaps an instinctive form of emotional training to prevent a rage from welling up.
    and that’s all i have on it, just a disorder as far as i can tell. a powerful rage to be sure, and a useless threat to society, it wouldn’t even be good for battle nowadays.

  2. yes, definitely a genetic disorder.

  3. Christopher Tomlinson

    I had a incident when I was in kindergarten, a kid reached around and grabbed my throat from behind and tried to choke me, when it happened everything went black and when I came to I was breathing like very heavily and my hands were covered in blood. All the other kids were huddled in the corner behind the teacher and they all just stared at me, I could see the fear in their eyes. The next thing I know I was sat in a chair in the middle of the 2nd grade classroom and the whole class were just sitting there in their seats wondering why my teacher told me to stay there and why my hands were covered in blood. It wasn’t until my mom and sister came and I was called into the principal’s office where they told me what happened. Apparently I gritted my teeth and started breathing like some animal, then I grabbed the kid by his arm and threw him over my shoulder, while he was on the ground I sat on his chest and started beating his face in until he stopped moving, apparently when he stopped moving It appeared like I just lost interest and calmed down. The boy lived but him and his family moved away, after that everyone would just stare at me in fear, it made me feel sad but angrier, the only people I talked to and hung out with was my family and my neighbors kids until they moved and we moved. In the 3rd grade people tried to talk to me at my new school and I attempted to make friends but eventually I just started to push people away, I talked to my family and kept them close, at times I would start to slip away like when I played videogames I would just get so angry I would black out but when I heard my mom or sisters voice I would snap out of it. I then realized my mom and sister were the only ones who could snap me out of it, I started basically training my mind, I would suppress my anger as much as I could until I lost control then my mom or sister would snap me out of it and I would do it again. When I started 6th grade I didn’t get anger I just ignored it, it wasn’t until the beginning of high school when it happened again, my brother threw a metal coaster at my head I was fine so I stood up and punched him in the back of the head for it, he tackled me to the floor and just before I hit I blacked out, when I came to my sister was telling me to calm down, then my brother punched me in the face and I lost control again. When I came to again my sister was holding me back and my brother was on the floor gasping, she told me what had happened apparently when I hit the floor I grabbed my brother by the neck, started smiling, rolled over on top of him and started squeezing his throat, each time he punched me in the stomach or chest I would just grin harder and squeeze tighter eventually I started drooling and my sister started trying to calm me down. When I loosened my grip my brother reached up and punched me in the face, I started grinning again and started strangling him again; it took three people and my sister to pry me off but after I was off I snapped out of it. That was the last time that happened, I have made a lot of friends now but during this past year I have started noticing strange things like hearing someone calling to the . . . well, other me but I don’t remember the name that was used but when I heard it my hand wouldn’t stop twitching, when I sleep all I can see is that darkness. I can feel it coming but I’m trying everything to keep it in, I fear I won’t be able to hold it back any longer. And to those of you thinking that I am possessed I’m not, but I think that would be better than this. What do you think, is this like berserker rage?

  4. I agree with the previous comments saying that it is a genetic disorder. It all started with my grandfather. He had an extreme rage and was imprisoned because he nearly killed a man with his bare hands because he had called him some names. My dad also has this rage although he never uses it on anybody but he does destroy a lot of his property. Now me and my brothers both have this same rage. My brothers are in the marine corps and they channel their anger through combat although when they are back In the states they still get angry at very petty stuff. I am the youngest of my brothers and I want to also join the marine corps after high school because my rage is so uncontrollable sometimes I lose it and destroy my room. I broke my door and my closet doors and my Windows and I punched through my walls several times and broke my tv. It was so bad I had to move downstairs to another room. I’ve been suspended multiple times from school because I have gotten into fights and I was almost arrested twice. The problem is, like the other person mentioned, it’s kind of addictive. The only time I have ever felt euphoria is in my rages. The point is, it’s most likely genetic.

  5. That was very interesting. I believe I am fortunate to have amnesia following physical confrontation. I have no memory of the confrontation itself only the lead up. I return to a neutral state a few seconds after leaving the sscene. It only happened twice and both incidents where in self defense so I’m quite happy with my condition.

  6. I have become enraged too many times to count, most often they are more minor and I simply punch brick walls until I can reconnect my emotions back into a balanced state. Sometimes I start screaming louder then I ever though I could, and even break things that I shouldn’t have the ability to damage (such as trees, smaller trees). I can’t say that I don’t remember these rages, but I I can’t say I remember them very well, and often my memories I have during these rages are hard to recall and seem like something that never actually happened. What I especially do know is that when I am hurt in anyway it almost instantly sparks, and sometimes my rage sparks for no apparent reason at all, like I just get mad for no reason. Can’t say if my teeth chatter or if I foam at the mouth, but I do know I sometimes get so hot that my heart feels like a hot coal and I end ripping my shirt off (literally rip). An interesting thing to note is that when I played football in high school, I would feel the rage start to boil just by acting upon any violent action, although I can only recall one full rage on the football field. Anyway, I have started to rabble, but It might be genetic, although my brothers don’t seem to have any rage like I have.

  7. It sure seems to me some of this can be related to even a bipolar rage. The difference is in general most people who are bipolar try to focus on calming down instead of increasing the rage. Someone with a genetic predisposition like that who focuses on becoming more enraged would be one pissed off person and I’d want to get out of their path. I’m half Danish and I’m also bipolar from the Scandinavian side of my family and I will tell you one of the first signs I’m starting to get really pissed off is I feel pressure in the front of my head and forehead starts to feel really hot.

  8. I cant care less of becoming a berserker that’s for the RPG games if I ever wanted to become one. I am 23 years old, male. all I know its a problem. I do have nightmares about animals, with the exception of werewolves those are the worst ones. It starts with a haze like getting high, my visions turns… this is hard to explain image yourself under a water fall. It starts like a steady steam of water poured on your head covering your eyes that’s the warning sign, well the water is like a rage pool. At this point this is a warning sign quickly end it or its going to consume you. O the water covering you eyes part is like your vision its weird, kind of disoriented. If it continues all mental thinking is gone more of an attack mode but its almost never at objects walls, punching bags etc. Its always at the weak spots at humans or animals, throats, eyes, temples, noses, back of the legs. Pretty much I foam at the mouth (yes I know its lame) at this part I kind of black out, its weird like a trance but I notice one thing my brain is like on lock down so I haven’t got a clue what’s going on. At the black out stage there is also a tunnel vision with blood lust and rage lust and pure stupid acts of beating the hell out of anything that moves. I do during this time of rage yell kind of like an animal, foam at the mouth, lose control, and enjoy the drug feeling rage.
    The problems am having is getting worst growing up I could fight even though I never wanted too school just kicked me out but as a grown man it means jail or prison I control it very well I rarely get angry anymore and I forgot I had this problem for a while but not to long ago a coworker reminded me that this is a problem you cant out grow. Now I notice every time I cut the rage after for two days am in a depression. Not eating, not sleeping, just laying there it adds fuel for the next go around of conflict. I know the warning signs so I can control it but the point of my story is its like a !!DRUG!! mite be a chemical imbalance. I don’t know if Norsemen needed drugs. I guess they could use it as a trigger, but I doubt it seeing the comments maybe its are instinct and human nature we did have to kill for 1000s of years to eat right? maybe some people just still hang on to there nature born FLIGHT OR FIGHT urges.

    • I have it as well from fighting like a wild animal to having super humuan strength it runs in my family from my mothers fathers side and as well as my fathers side. I am thr nicest guy you’ll ever meet I always look to avoid it because of the damage I can create by possessing this power. I was once so angry I was able to hammer fist and crush a full can of campbells chunky soup. Fist fought a few people and always came out the victorious one. Martial arts has taught me how to use this power efficiently to benifit problems and obstacles in my life. I was once pounded somone in the face so bad the police insisted I had used a weapon which was not true it kicks in like a wild part of me where I can relate to a wolve or a bear. Now I am a parent of a boy and have to tell him and tea h how to use this effectively to manage a healthy life and not make a mistake with this power everyone who has wrote in this blog I can totaly relate its not like I was ever looking for problems with other people they were at the wrong place at the wrong time and picked the wrong person and I always came out on top but everyone who described how they get I know how it is your not alone I truly belive I have some ancestral blood of a warrior in my past or its the crazy Italian blood or I was a berserker warrior in my past life if we didnt we would not be here today

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