Who were the berserks?

Posted on 14. Jan, 2016 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history


Viking1 by Katherine at Flickr.

Few parts of the Nordic past are as well known as the vikings and among them a very specific group: the berserks, warriors that worked themselves into a battle rage that blinded them to anything but the fight. Today they bear a much romanticized look and are often considered as the ultimate soldier, the unstoppable one who won’t be hindered by anything, not pain, not injuries, not even broken bones and definitely not fear. Were they really all that?

Not quite, at least not if Icelandic sagas are to be believed. They paint us a very different picture of these “elite warriors”, one that’s more on par with a street thug than any kind of a hero. The only berserks that have left at least somewhat positive a note in sagas are Kveld-Úlfur, his son Skalla-Grímur and his son Egill, though they’re not referred to as berserks, just that their appearance radically changed before they entered a fight. Worst one of the three was no doubt Skalla-Grímur: Kveld-Úlfur and Egill appear to have kept some amount of wits about them, especially Egill who was hired by a royal army to fight alongside non-berserk warriors. For a real, full-blown berserk to stand in the ranks would have been disastrous, since they attacked anyone close enough and made no difference between friend, foe or even family member.


Vikings are at it again by Hans Splinter at Flickr.

The name berserk has been much discussed and typical explanations are that the word means either “dressed in a bear shirt” or “dressed in a bare shirt”. The first one might refer to a specific thing I’ve rarely come across outside of Icelandic sagas: that people believed the berserks were actually shape-changers. Comparing their battle form to their normal one might indeed have made them seem like two different creatures altogether, a full change from man to beast. Other explanation is simply that they wore bear skin. For the latter expression some suggest berserks ran into battle naked, but this would be highly impractical in the far north where winters are cold and summers aren’t much better, just going to battle without armour would sound much more likely. For a Norse man going to battle without protection would have been considered suicidal anyway.

The berserks of Icelandic sagas are rarely undressed by any means, though. More typically they’re wearing whatever they happen to be wearing when anger takes them over the limit. The aforementioned Skalla-Grímur once flew into berserk rage because he was losing a game of ice hockey against then 12-years old Egill and Egill’s friend (I’m not kidding), killed the other boy on the spot and began to strangle Egill. The onlookers were so afraid that only one dared to step forward, Þorgerður Brák, a large servant woman with knowledge in magic who was also Egill’s nurse and a mother figure to him. She pointed out Skalla-Grímur was killing his own son and at that Skalla-Grímur let him go and instead ran at Þorgerður. She tried to escape by swimming away but Skalla-Grímur threw a large rock on her back and killed her; her death site is known even today as Brákarsund.


Iceland6 by Jean van der Sluijs at Flickr. This is Brákarsund and the stones are her memorial, the plate bearing the text “Here Skalla-Grímur drowned Brák”.

The reality of living with a berserker was this. Not the awesome, battle-crazy warrior but the unpredictable disaster that could and likely would harm anyone near them, including 12-year old children. There’s a reason why sagas list killing berserkers as heroic deeds and why killing one was not only legal, the killer would then gain everything the berserk had owned as an additional plus; to have a berserk around meant living constantly in fear. A berserk did not necessarily go a-viking, some saga accounts tell of ones that simply took what they wanted until the point when the hero came along and got rid of them with much flair and – occasionally – ridicule. Snorri Goði of Eyrbyggja saga orchestrated the deaths of two bothersome berserks by suggesting that the man who employed them built a sauna where these two could bathe. Once they were bathing it was no problem to kill them both, naked and weaponless as they were.

Another, funny account comes from Grettir’s saga. Berserks were often said to bite their shields to show off and to attempt to scare their opponent. Grettir was a rather ambitious man and liked to find occasions to prove his unusual strength so naturally he sought to battle berserks. One that he wanted to fight tried the shield-biting stunt but alas, Grettir was not easily scared… he simply kicked the bottom of the berserk’s shield as hard as he could, decapitating him.

So here we have the saga portrait and it lists a berserk as a dangerous but not very bright man, strong but gullible, frightening for their enemies but worse even for their own wives and children. They’re rarely shown on battle fields reaping glory, rather we see them going from house to house when the men are away, raping and killing women and servants and stealing everything they can carry away. Viking era people might have been afraid of them but they didn’t hold much respect otherwise, and even their names are for most part forgotten, whereas the men who killed them are remembered instead.


Dead viking by mararie at Flickr.


Víkingur= a sailor that also went a-viking in foreign countries, a viking

Berserkur = berserk

Hammramur = shape-changer, sometimes used as a synonym to a berserk

Berserksgangur = Berserk-anger, a berserk ready to go

Að ganga berserksgang = rampage, cause lots of trouble, go berserk; often used for news for someone who’s been acting in a violent manner towards more than one person or has broken things.

Berserkjasveppur = lit. transl. berserks’ mushroom, a fly agaric. No saga reference backs up the theory that berserks would have used it to go into rage though, if anything they rarely would have had enough time to wait for the effects of the mushroom to take hold. A typical berserk puffed themselves ready in a matter of moments.

Prepare for ash.

Posted on 07. Jan, 2016 by in Uncategorized


Eyjafjallajökull by Sigurdur Jonsson at Flickr.

Don’t panic now but Iceland is loading up a new volcanic eruption at Bárðarbunga, the same site where the most recent volcanic eruption also had its start. This time, if the eruption site is the same as the earthquake site it would be sub-glacial, so there’d be plenty of ash. What kind of ash remains to be seen though. When Grímsfjall erupted in 2011 the ash type was different from that of Eyjafjallajökull’s in 2010, the former had heavy type of ash but the latter had the light kind. Heavy ash rains down fast without much disturbance to air traffic, but light ash floats for a long time and gets carried by the wind all the way to Europe just like happened in 2010. There’s no way of telling which type a volcano has, but since Bárðarbunga is near Grímsvötn we could guess that if all goes well it would have little effect on the rest of the world.

For Icelanders however an erupting volcano always means lots of things you simply cannot ignore. Taping the windows shut so the ash doesn’t get indoors to name one example, or washing the car and the house repeatedly throughout the ash fall, staying indoors as much as one can, asthmatic people keeping an eye on air quality daily, for the farmers the most pressing issue would be getting all livestock indoors from the mountain pastures asap (the ash is poisonous to eat) and of course there’s always possible trouble caused by roads being closed in the area. While the rest of the world likes to hold its breath waiting for the next eruption, Icelanders tend to find them at best interesting and at worst massively, massively annoying.


Eldgos séd úr Mödrudal (= eruption seen from Möðrudal) by Sparkle Motion at Flickr.

Wait, what exactly is going on?

At the end of November the volcano began to show signs of magma flowing into the magma chamber: there have been strong-ish earthquakes in the area and the volcano is bulging upwards. No immediate signs of eruption such as glacier floods or the ice layer above falling lower, creating huge dents, have yet been seen though. As it is there’s no telling when the volcano is going to go, the only thing we can say with certainty is that it’s giving us every possible sign that it’s definitely planning to do so.

There are a few possible outcomes, as always. A lot depends on where, exactly, the eruption begins: under ice is always worse than on bare land, not only because water mixing with magma causes the ash clouds but also because sub-glacial eruptions come with the danger of glacier floods. The current location of the earthquake activity won’t necessarily mean the eruption happens at the same place either, like happened the last time. Then, too, the shaking started at Bárðarbunga caldera but moved northwards and eventually out of the glacier area, erupting in Holuhraun.

Another factor is the time it takes before the eruption happens. If the volcano decides to go this year the eruption will in all likelihood be a small one, but the longer it sits, brews and gathers magma the bigger the eruption will be. The current theory is that it’ll take the volcano some time to work up enough pressure and that within the next ten years – or two, according to Ármann Höskuldsson – we’ll see something big and long-lasting. Don’t start canceling your flight tickets just yet though, as always, volcanoes are unpredictable in every possible way and no one can currently tell what exactly is going to happen, when, where and what effect if any it will have on the rest of the world. Besides it’s not like this is the only volcano that’s under watch at the moment, Katla is, after all, long overdue her usual schedule…


Eldgos í Holuhrauni (= eruption at Holuhraun) by Sparkle Motions at Flickr.

Volcano vocabulary

Eldfjall (= volcano, lit. transl. “fire mountain”)

Eldgos (= volcanic eruption, lit. transl. “fire eruption”)

Gígur (= crater)

Hraun (= lava)

Bergkvika/kvika (= magma)

Kvikuhólf (= magma chamber)

Brennisteinn (= sulfur, lit. transl. “burn rock”)

Jarðskjálfti (= earth quake)

Jökullhlaup (= glacier flood)


hulda078Hulda recommends

Naturally in times like this it’s important to select a suitable background theme! Here are two very different volcanic pieces of music for you, one inspired by Helka and the other one by Eyjafjallajökull.

Hekla Op.52 here by Jón Leifs is reputedly the loudest piece of classical music in the world if played like the composer intended, cannons included.

Eldgos here is about Eyjafjallajökull and was in the Icelandic Eurovision semifinals in 2011. 😀

How to spend New Year in Iceland

Posted on 31. Dec, 2015 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs


Photo by MongFish at Flickr.

New Year is almost here! Stuck in Reykjavík and lacking ideas what to do? Worry no more, this post will be one big Hulda Recommends -post about things that are going on today. New Year’s Eve, called Gamlaárskvöld (= old year’s evening) in Icelandic, is serious business.

Stores will be open even on the 31st

…but do your shopping on the morning half of the day as most of even the bigger ones will close early. Small stores are likely closed all day though as the only thing people generally need to buy today is food and alcohol. Oh, and fireworks! Talk about those –

Björgunarsveitinn sells the best

The voluntary rescue units are a huge factor in the fireworks sold this time of the year. Those of you who have spent the days after Christmas here will likely have already seen some firework shows that the Björgunarsveitinn hosts to advertise their wares, and usually every larger shopping centre either has a Björgunarsveitinn fireworks selling place or one is nearby. Look for the word flugeldar (= fireworks, lit. transl. flying fire)!

The money from their sales will fund the rescue units whose help, by the way, is entirely voluntary, self-funded and free should you need it. Icelanders love them for a good reason and Hulda, too, plans to get her fireworks from them.


Happy new year! by óskar elías sigurðsson at Flickr.

Only fireworks? No – have some REAL fire!

Áramótabrennur (= New Year Bonfires, lit. transl. years meeting burnings) will be available on ten places within the Capital City area: big ones near Ægisíða, Geirsnef, Rauðavatn and Gufunes. More locations can be found here for the smaller bonfires. Almost all of them are lit at 20.30 o’clock with exception of two, Skerjafjörður bonfire at 21.00 and Úlfarsfell at 15.00. There’ll be people singing álfasöngur, elf songs, burning sparklers and enjoying the bonfire, but note that lighting large fireworks near the bonfires is banned.

Elf songs?

Yup. Elves that wish to move house do so on New Year’s eve so be prepared for huldufólk (= hidden people) going around. Your best bet is to not talk to large groups of gray-clad people lugging around big, heavy things, as communicating with them might come at the cost of your sanity or life. The aforementioned elf songs usually tell stories of elves being horrible towards humans or, in some cases, giving them gifts.


Fireworks by Vala Run at Flickr.

Icelanders love their fireworks

You’ll not have a second of peace and quiet anywhere, I guarantee you that! Icelanders send up so many fireworks that at the end of the night the whole city of Reykjavík sits in a thick cloud of gunpowder smoke. Not a second? Wait, that was not true – there’s in fact a whole hour when the noise comes to an abrupt halt and everywhere is quiet. What’s going on?


There’s an extremely popular show on tv once a year: Áramótaskaupið. It portrays the high points of the past year in satirical, humorous light, and especially the local politicians get what’s coming to them. If you see anyone outside it’s probably just some politician who’s really earned their place in this year’s show…

There’s of course supposed to be a lot of eating and drinking all night long and parties everywhere, so keep your eyes open on FB (that’s where ALL Icelanders are) and find out whether there’s something going on nearby.


New Year’s Eve 4 by Atli Harðarson at Flickr.

On behalf of Transparent Language’s Icelandic blog Hulda wishes all the readers a magical and wonderful New Year 2016!

~Farsælt komandi ár!~