Wednesday, June 08, 2022

Berserkers, and The Dogs of War

The berserkir were not what we think they were, according to Viking and Old Norse scholar Roderick Dale.  Snorri Sturluson's translation "bare-shirt/armor," suggesting a nakedness and recklessness is now not favored.  It is more likely to be "bear shirt/armor."  They were unlikely to be the out-of-control warriors of fantasy, and  more likely became the protectors of order, the bodyguard of the king, and then the protector of the helpless.  The champions, in the old sense. There was a ceremonial aspect in preparing for combat that may have functioned rather like Maori Haka.  Even when knowing it's a performance, the disquieting thought "some of those dudes look actually crazy" does creep in.

There is reference to Christian berserkers, something of a precursor to the idea of the Christian Knight, turning his prowess to the service of women, children, and the poor. The references to this being an out-of-control group, as dangerous  tend to be later.

Yet wolves were mentioned far more frequently. The relation of wolf-ness to warriors is actually much stronger, and bears were subsidiary. There is an idea that there must have been wild-boar warriors as well - we like such things in triplet - but the evidence for this is meager.

Wolves, then. That is fascinating in terms of David Anthony's book in progress The Dogs of War  which I keep hearing excitement about but is only a single paper at the moment.  Still the archaeological incident the paper is about is quite something, of dogs - likely old pet dogs - cut into pieces and then eaten by boys in a coming-of-age ceremony, and it is David Anthony, author of The Horse, The Wheel, and Language. I have heard Anthony discussing the overall idea of the centrality of dogs and wolves to warfare in the many Indo-European and even specifically Yamnayan cultures. The association of dogs, wolves, and war is still strong in many of the descended cultures.

Razib's series on wolves and humans on the Eurasian Steppe The Wolf at History's Door and Casting Out the Wolf in our Midst are recommended. I don't know how much non-subscribers have access to, but his usual practice is to give you at least a few paragraphs.

Those behind the Hajnal Line may have gradually become less violent within their own societies* and their descendants less murderous now, but this is on top of a part of one of the most violent groups in history.  We can tell by the genetics that ten women reproduced for every man through those times, meaning that ten was the average number of women impregnated by the successful males, who likely enslaved or simply killed the male opponents they encountered. Whether that was abduction or rape and abandonment is unclear. If you are looking for ancestors to hate, it might be best to skip the colonialists and move straight to the coming-of-age cohorts of the Yamnaya who subdued and overran Europe and half of Asia in the Bronze Age. Their societies tolerated and even encouraged it because the violence was directed ever-outwards, and thus more land and treasure for us all! Later descendants channeling that violence in milder form still carried the ceremonies.

*However, because of their related ability for broader cooperation than other societies, they have been quite good at violence directed at enemies.


Jonathan said...

The eyes have it.

Grim said...

I wanted to read through this before responding to it, but my initial impression was that you have to look pretty hard to look past all the evidence of berserkers being dangerous duelists who were often rather feared than honored by the community. The best example I can think of is from Hrolf's saga kraka, where Bodvarr Bjarki appears in the final battle in the form of a great bear who wages war on the undead army and the evil queen. He does this from a trance state, projecting his spirit in bear form, until one of his friends misunderstands what is going on and wakes him up to come out and fight.

I expected him to discuss that in his section on Shamanism, p. 91, but he not only doesn't mention it he denies the existence of trance type practices 'aside' from that of berserkers. That is inaccurate, I would say: there are numerous examples of things like Egil raising curses that create trance-like otherworldly experiences for those subject to them, to shamanistic practices among the seers and the Sami people.

The twin discussions from approx. 100-114 are good, though.

I won't have time to read the whole thing quickly, but that's what I thought of the first parts.

Grim said...

Regarding wolves, quite right; and not only there. I think of Homer (trans. Fitzgerald):

Like wolves,
carnivorous and fierce and tireless,
who rend a great stag on a mountainside
and feed on him, their jaws reddened with blood,
loping in a pack to drink springwater,
lapping the dark rim up slender tongues, their chops a-drip with fresh blood, their hearts
unshaken ever, and their bellies glutted:
such were the Myrmidons and their officers,
running to form up around Akhilleus’ brave companion-in-arms.

Texan99 said...

I've been proofing an old book about the origins of Indo-European names. An amazing number include either "wolf" (-ulf, -olf) or "bear" (-bjorn, -biorn, -beorn). "Horse" creeps in mostly in the form of "horse lover" (Philip, etc.). Boar and pig, not really.

Other popular roots are bright, light, protection, rule, war, spear, sword, farmer (George and its many variants), God, and people. John/Sean/Ian, etc., trace back to "grace of God." James/Jacob/Iago/Seamus, etc., trace back to "supplanter."