Right at home in Lewis Caroll’s famous poem Jabberwocky from Through the Looking-Glass. What if we told you that not only does the word ‘berserk’ come from a class of Viking warriors centuries ago — it also has a psychedelic origin too?

The Viking Age

viking battle ship
Viking ships carried berserkers from one battle to the next. (via Creative Commons)

Most people see Viking males as terrifying bearded lunatics who wore helmets with wings (or horns) who liked to charge headfirst into battle, seemingly without fear. But were they really?

Well, the Norsemen from Scandinavia did raid, colonise, and pillage across Europe. There’s a reason why the years 793-1066 AD are called the Viking Age; Vikings were feared due to their sheer rage and brute power. 

What most people don’t realise, however, is that the Viking warriors’ fury had a trance-like quality to it. One might even call their stubborn strength as inhuman — and it’s all thanks to psychedelics. Meet the berserkers:  a class of ancient Viking warriors who owed their frenzied courage on the battlefield to magic mushrooms! 

Berserkers: Ancient Viking Warriors

Experts on Old Norse culture describe the berserkers as a group of Viking warriors who were known across Europe for their brutality and trance-like rage. As for their name? The word berserk means “out of control with anger or excitement” or “wild or frenzied” in Modern English. But in Old Norse, berserkr was the word for bear-shirt, since the Viking warriors wore hollowed-out bear head pelts (or those of other predators). This is why they were also called bear warriors, boar warriors, or wolf warriors. Some believe that legends of werewolves may have sprung from villagers who spotted berserkers howling at night. 

Oseberg Dragon Head
Oseberg Dragon Head

Berserkers were not only monsters in combat; they were also masters of making their enemies think that Vikings were literal beasts. Before battle they would enter into a screaming frenzy, bite their shields, and howl. English scholar Hilda Ellis Davidson once wrote of the phenomenon:

“[The berserkers] went without their mailcoats and were mad as hounds or wolves, bit their shields…they slew men, but neither fire nor iron had effect upon them. This is called ‘going berserk’.”

What is Berserkergang?

The rage the Vikings showed their enemies was called berserkerang or berserk frenzy. Berserkers were seen to have superhuman strength, a dramatic change in their skin color, face swelling, teeth grinding, drooling, muscle twitching, and of course — uncontrollable madness and rage. As the 12th century historian and poet Snorri Sturluson once wrote about the berserkers:

“[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 [were not burned or bruised]. This was called Berserkergang.”

Berserkers would charge into battle and slice through everyone in their way, mostly their foes, with the occasional ally thrown in. After the rage calmed down, the Viking warriors would become very frail and sick, and sleep for days like babies. Sounds like a serious ‘come down’, doesn’t it? 

Viking Use of Psychoactive Mushrooms

fly agaric mushroom
Amanita muscaria or fly agaric; Amanita pantherina or panther cap (via Wikimedia Commons)

Historians have said that the berserkers would intentionally cause this berserkergang frenzy by taking various drugs, such as psychedelic mushrooms. Drinking tons of alcohol could also explain the Vikings’ rage and numbness to pain, scholars say. But is it enough to sustain rage for hours on end? 

According to researchers, Vikings took psychedelic mushrooms, indeed, but not of the Psilocybe variety. It was more likely Amanita muscaria or fly agaric mushroom and Amanita pantherina or panther cap mushroom. Fly agaric is called that way because it can kill flies, small bugs, and other insects, with hemolysin — a chemical that breaks down red blood cells. Until modern times, fly agaric was used as a household bug spray. 

Both fly agaric and panther cap can trigger temporary psychosis and delirium that last for hours. But they can also be toxic. You can only suppose the poor Vikings who accidentally poisoned themselves were scratched from the history ledgers . It’s a less impressive story after all… However, human deaths from fly agaric are rare.

Wild Delirium

In a 1913 paper, Dr. M. Roch of Geneva reported on the wild delirium of four Italian laborers after they had eaten a ‘mess of fly amanitas’. Of the event, R. Gordon Wasson wrote:

“The delirium was followed by sleep, and sleep by a return to normal sobriety. Such episodes must have occurred from earliest times, and must have aroused the awe that…would naturally inspire among people whose lives were shaped by beliefs in supernatural forces.”

Here’s a fun fact: Do you know why in Super Mario Bros., Mario powers up and gets bigger after absorbing a red mushroom? That’s because it’s a fly agaric!

How Fly Agaric Helped Vikings in Battle

Unlike “true” magic mushrooms with psilocybin, the main psychoactive compound in fly agaric is muscimol. Muscimol is a GABA receptor agonist, which means it can cause sleepy-hypnotic and hallucinogenic effects. Because the brain has GABA receptors everywhere, muscimol will affect the neurons in many regions. Such as the hippocampus, cerebellum, and cerebral cortex, which all control our emotions and decision-making

Say you were a rookie Viking soldier on your first battle ever. Nervous? Don’t be! After munching on dried Amanita muscaria or fly agaric, you can expect the rage to start within 30 to 120 minutes and last for five to ten hours. There’s some serious side effects, though, including: nausea, drooling, muscle twitching, upset stomach, tremors, and delirium — all classic signs of berserkergang.

The other psychoactive chemical in fly agaric is ibotenic acid. Also known as ibotenate, ibotenic acid matches with a brain “wire” called glutamate. Glutamate acts like a stimulant (or a jolt of lightning to the brain). Like muscimol, both glutamate and ibotenic acid *are* toxic in large quantities. But for those who can bear them (get it? bear them?), symptoms include confusion, trippy visuals, extreme joy, and memory loss after the high. Should a berserker get injured, the pre-chewed fly agaric will dull the pain…

Definitely not for the faint of heart, eh?

Merry-Mad Mushrooms

viking drawing
via Creative Commons

Bear warriors. Shield-chewers. Werewolves.

‘Tis been centuries since the Viking Age, but the berserkers’ fearsome grip on war still holds to this day. Funny to think their frenzy on the battlefield owed a lot to the chewing of dried fly agaric mushrooms? There is a general belief that anyone who eats Amanita muscaria dies — a reasonable one due to its toxic chemicals. Quite the opposite for Viking warriors of old, it seems like, who laughed in the sheer face of “no-f’s-given” battle. 

Thankfully, fly agaric and panther cap are not the only merry-mad mushrooms that can power you up-a like Mario. Psilocybe in both its forms — magic mushrooms and magic truffles — is well-known for the trippy ability to raise your consciousness via ego death. Shrooms and magic truffles can guide you towards self-discovery and transform you in a way that’s completely safe. No berserkergang required!