Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Shape Shifting 3... Vikings

In Scandinavian countries, there was a special group of fierce Viking warriors - berserkers. They went into battle "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). The berserker was often said to change into a bestial form, or at least to assume the ferocious qualities of the wolf or bear.
tells of the hero Bjarki, who takes on the shape of a bear in battle:

"Men saw that a great 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).
Another quality possessed by berserkers is immunity to weapons. The berserker sometimes inherently possessed this immunity, while other times performed spells (that's hypnosis) to induce it. Some berserkers also 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 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. On the other hand, if you're familiar with "iron shirt" and "iron body" practices from kung fu, you may want to compare the development of such immunity. You can also compare the development of such immunity with the practices from other traditions (e.g. yogis, dervishes, etc.)

So is this why we use the descriptive term these days?

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