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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: http://publikacio.uni-miskolc.hu/data/ME-PUB-31198/Kurti_Neo_shamanism_2004.pdf.

Nationmaster (2012). Berserker. Located at: http://www.statemaster.com/encyclopedia/Berserker

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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berserker

Region airs disease: A brief overview of culture bound syndromes

In a previous blog on coprophagia, I made a brief reference to Pibloktoq. Also known as Piblokto and Arctic Hysteria, the condition only manifests itself in winter among Inuhuit societies living (unsurprisingly) within the Arctic Circle. The condition is characterized by “an abrupt dissociative episode of intense hysteria, frequently followed by convulsive seizures and coma lasting up to 12 hours. Symptoms can include intense screaming, uncontrolled wild behaviour, depression, coprophagia, and insensitivity to extreme cold”.

Culture bound syndromes comprise a combination of psychiatric and/or somatic symptoms viewed as a recognizable disease within specific cultures or societies. They are often unknown outside of their own local regions. Even though the concept of culture-bound syndrome is highly controversial, the term was included in the American Psychiatric Association’s 1994 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Culture-specific syndromes are characterized by:

  • Categorization as a disease in the culture (i.e., not a voluntary behaviour or false claim);
  • Widespread familiarity in the culture;
  • Complete lack of familiarity of the condition to people in other cultures;
  • No objectively demonstrable biochemical or tissue abnormalities (symptoms);
  • The condition is usually recognized and treated by the folk medicine of the culture.

Today’s blog is a brief look at some of the different culture bound syndromes that exist around the world. In later blogs I am going to look at some of these in much greater detail, but for this article, I am just going to take a brief look at a few of the ones that I find psychologically interesting.

  • Beserkers is a culture-bound condition historically affecting Norsemen. The condition manifested itself among males only as an intense fury and rage (“berserkergang”) and mostly occurred in battle situations (but could also occur when they were engaged in labour-intensive work). When suffering the condition, it was alleged that the men affected were able to perform almost seemingly impossible super-human feats of strength. Those with beserkers 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.
  • Koro is found primarily in Asian regions (e.g., China, Singapore, Thailand, India) and has been documented for thousands of years in those particular cultures. In essence, Koro refers to a kind of “genital hysteria” with “terror stricken” males believing that that their genitals are shriveling, shrinking up, retracting into the abdomen and/or disappearing, and that this ultimately leads to death (a so-called ‘genital retraction syndrome). The word ‘Koro’ is of Malayan-Indonesian origin and means ‘tortoise’ (presumably used to highlight the similarity between the retracting head and wrinkled neck of a tortoise and the belief that the male penis is retracting inside the body). Some psychologists have also speculated that Koro may be psychologically related to body dysmorphic disorder.
  • Wendigo is a psychotic mental disorder found primarily among Algonquian Native cultures in North America, but the frequency of Wendigo cases has declined rapidly in recent times because of Native American urbanization. It is also known by many variant names (including Windigo, Weendigo, Windago, Waindigo, Windiga, Witiko, and Wihtikow) and is part of a traditional belief system among the Oiibwe and Salteaux, the Cree, the Naskapi, and the Innu tribes. In essence, Individuals with Windigo believe that they are turning into cannibals and as a consequence have intense cravings for human flesh. Those with Wedigo were often executed as they typically threatened those they came into contact with. Although many have disputed whether the disorder exists, there are a significant number of substantiated eyewitness accounts (including Western anthrolopologists and ethnographers that demonstrate Wendigo is a factual phenomenon.
  • Gururumba is a culture-bound disorder found only in New Guinea and sometimes referred to as ‘Wild Pig Syndrome’. Affected individuals are typically married men who become “wild men” (i.e., engage in involuntary anti-social behaviour) and engage in stealing items from houses in their neighbourhood. The items stolen are usually of little value but those with Gururumba believe the objects stolen have value. Once stolen, the person decamps to local forests, lives there for a number of days and then returns empty handed, slurring their speech, and suffering from amnesia, hyperactivity, and clumsiness. Those from Gururumba believe that the illness is transmitted through being bitten by ghosts of recently deceased tribe members. There are also a number of reports from Papua New Guinea that eating various parts of plants and/or fungi can initiate the syndrome.
  • Saora Disorder is found only among the Saora tribe of Orissa State in India and is sometimes termed a ‘Shamanic initiatory illness’. Affected individuals can be male or female (and are typically teenagers or young adults) who display abnormal behaviour that Western health practitioners may define as a mental disorder. Those suffering often experience social stress from friends and relatives pressuring them to take on the life of a farmer against their wishes. Symptoms of Saora Disorder include inappropriate laughing and crying, amnesic episodes, fainting and passing out, and the experience of being constantly bitten by ants. Interestingly, the Saoran people blame the disorder on supernatural spirits who they claim want to marry the affected individual.
  • Shenkui (sometimes translated as ‘kidney weakness’) is a Chinese culture-bound syndrome in which male men suffer acute anxiety and/or panic symptoms accompanied by a range of physical symptoms but have no discernible underlying physical complaint. Shenkui symptoms can include intense tiredness, bouts of dizziness, intense aching and body weakness  (e.g., backache), insomnia, and sexual dysfunction (e.g., impotence, premature ejaculation). Chinese men attribute the effects of Shenkui to excessive loss of semen (via too much masturbation, frequent sexual intercourse, and wet dreams). Chinese men believe the condition to be life threatening because excessive semen loss is thought to represent the loss of life’s vital essence (a result from a deficiency in yang). A similar condition exists in India and other South Asian cultures, where it is known as dhat.
  • Ghost Sickness is a culture-bound psychotic disorder found among Navajo Native Americans. Members of these tribes think the disorder is highly associated with death. For instance, those afflicted are often mildly obsessed with a deceased person whom they believe to be the source of their problem. One of the major symptoms of the condition is an intense feeling of suffocation and terror because the affected person feels as though they are being buried alive with a friend or loved one. Other reported symptoms include general weakness and apathy, a loss of appetite, and recurring nightmares. The Navajo primarly attribute the condition to ‘chindi’ (ghosts), although sometimes it is attributed to witchcraft. Dr. Robert Putsch writing in a 2007 issue of the journal Drumlummon Views says that: “spirits or ‘ghosts’ may be viewed as being directly or indirectly linked to the cause of an event, accident, or illness”.
  • Grisi Siknis (which roughly translates as “crazy sickness” and is also known as ‘grisi munaia’, ‘Chipil siknis’ and ‘Nil siknis’) is a culture-bound disorder that is primarily found among the Miskito People of eastern Central America. Most affected individuals are young women (typically 15 to 18 years of age) and the disorder is considered contagious. According to Dr. Phil Dennis in a 1981 issue of Medical Anthropology, grisi siknis is typically characterized by long periods of anxiety, nausea, dizziness, irrational anger and fear, interlaced with short periods of rapid frenzy. When a Gris Siknis sufferer has an attack they completely lose consciousness. They then fall to the floor and after regaining consciousness they become (like berserkers above) almost super-human. They feel no pain, feel invincible, may speak in tongues, and will attack anyone near them believing that they are ‘devils’. Alleged eyewitness accounts have claimed that some affected individuals will vomit up strange things (coins, hair, and even spiders). Once the attack is over, they have no memory of anything that has happened. According to Dr. Dennis, the Meskito people believe grisi siknis is caused by possession by evil spirits

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

Further reading

Bartholomew, R. (2008). Penis panics. In R. Heiner (Ed.), Deviance across cultures (pp. 79–85). New York: Oxford University Press.

Dennis, P.A. (1981). Part three: Grisi Siknis Among the Miskito. Medical Anthropology, 5, 445–505.

Garlipp, P. (2008). Koro – A culture-bound phenomenon intercultural psychiatric implications. German Journal of Psychiatry, 11, 21-28.

Newman, P. (1964). ‘Wild Man’ behavior in a New Guinea Highlands community. American Anthropologist, 66, 1-19.

Newman, Philip L. (1981). Sexual politics and witchcraft in two New Guinea societies. In G.D. Berremen (Ed.), Social Inequality: Comparative and Developmental Approaches, (pp.103-121). New York: Academic Press.

Phillips, K. (2004). Body dysmorphic disorder: recognizing and treating imagined ugliness. World Psychiatry, 3, 12-17.

Putsch, R.W. (2007). Ghost illness: A cross-cultural experience with the expression of a non-Western tradition in clinical practice. Drumlummon Views, Winter, 126-145.

Sumathipala, A., Siribaddana, S.H. & Bhugra, D. (2004). Culture-bound syndromes: The story of dhat syndrome. British Journal of Psychiatry, 184, 200-209.

Wikipedia (2012). Culture-bound syndrome. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture-bound_syndrome

Wikipedia (2012). Ghost sickness. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_sickness