Kurtzhau and the Berserkers

There’s still an amazing Viking exhibition on at the museum, and parents talk about how much Vikings can teach children about life and death and craft and survival. Three years ago, I learned that children can also teach parents about Vikings…

“What’s he?”

Kurtzhau – 6 – points at an illustration of a half-naked Viking warrior with a wolf’s head for a helmet.

Bronsplåt_pressbleck_öland_vendeltidIt’s bedtime and I’ve just read him his first Harold Lamb tale – “Longsword” from Swords from the Sea, the only one I could find that was remotely age-appropriate and now we’re looking at  maps of the Viking world, and browsing an old Wargames Research Group Dark Age handbook.

“He’s a Berserker,” I say, with an echo of the enthusiasm of my youth.

I know all about Berserkers.

They were my adolescent wish-fulfillment alter ego; rage incarnate transcending into red-raw power… an end-run around responsibility, training and discipline to arrive at a significant place in the adult world. Mary Sue, if you like, but with less clothing and more steel.

“They go crazy in combat,” I say. “Gnaw their shields… tear off their clothes, throw away their weapons, sometimes. Everybody was scared of them because they didn’t care if they got wounded.”

Kurtzhau’s eyes widen. “WHAT? Even With a Spear?”

“Yep. You stick him with your spear, and he runs right up the thing and rips off your head with his bare–”

Kurtzhau interrupts. “What about in the throat?”

“Um.. yes…”

His eyes narrow. “Or the heart?”

And then I remember an episode from the saga of Gretir the Strong… and when the cool-headed Gretir takes out the berserkers one-by-one, Kurtzhau’s eyes narrow and he nods approval.

Next week he’ll be presented with yet another Judo belt…

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Posted in Geek Parenting, History, Vikings
2 comments on “Kurtzhau and the Berserkers
  1. Neil MacCormack says:

    So why use berserkers if they are so readily killed? I think it would be a tactical ploy. Faced with an opposing shieldwall, the canny Viking chieftain selects those men whose youth, lack of armour, personal death wish and/or fury at the foe renders them most suitable for charging suicidally ahead of the main body, in the hope that they will disorder the enemy line just before the main clash, or even panic them into flight. This ties in to our discussion last week about Vikings and archery. An arrow storm might have the same softening-up effect as a berserker charge without losing men, but take longer to have a noticeable effect. That Norsemen are famous for berserkers rather than massed archery, I think, argues against them carrying bows in their longships or resorting to artillery tactics in their coastal raids.

    • mharoldpage says:

      I suspect they are like cavalry – readily killed if you have presence of mind in the face of atavistic terror. Their precise use in battle; I would need to read up on that. I know a Danish king had a kind of Berserker camp, so presumably he had some kind of doctrine. Or perhaps by that time Berserkers were like Hussars – thoroughly domesticated and colonized by the upper class youths who enjoyed the racy reputation and cool uniform.

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