Ber-serkr

Old Norse Dictionary - ber-serkr

Meaning of Old Norse word "ber-serkr" in English.

As defined by the Cleasby & Vigfusson Old Norse to English dictionary:

ber-serkr
s, m., pl. ir: [the etymology of this word has been much contested; some—upon the authority of Snorri, hans menn fóru ‘brynjulausir,’ Hkr. i. 11—derive it from ‘berr’ (bare) and ‘serkr’ [cp. sark, Scot. for shirt]; but this etymology is inadmissible, because ‘serkr’ is a subst. not an adj.: others derive it from ‘berr’ (Germ. bär = ursus), which is greatly to be preferred, for in olden ages athletes and champions used to wear hides of bears, wolves, and reindeer (as skins of lions in the south), hence the names Bjálfi, Bjarnhéðinn, Úlfhéðinn, (héðinn, pellis,)—‘pellibus aut parvis rhenonum tegimentis utuntur,’ CaeS. Bell. Gall. vi. 22: even the old poets understood the name so, as may be seen in the poem of Hornklofi (beginning of 10th century), a dialogue between a Valkyrja and a raven, where the Valkyrja says, at berserkja reiðu vil ek þik spyrja, to which the raven replies, Úlfhéðnar heita, they are called Wolfcoats, cp. the Vd. ch. 9; þeir berserkir er Úlfhéðnar vóru kallaðir, þeir höfðu vargstakka (coats of wild beasts) fyrir brynjur, FS. 17]:—a ‘bear-sark,’ ‘bear-coat,’ i. e. a wild warrior or champion of the heathen age; twelve berserkers are mentioned as the chief followers of several kings of antiquity, e. g. of the Dan. king Rolf Krake, Edda 82; a Swed. king, Gautr. S. FaS. iii. 36; king Adils, Hrólf. Kr. S. ch. 16 sqq.; Harald Hárfagri, Eg. ch. 9, Grett. ch. 2, Vd. l. c. (Hornklofi, v. above); the twelve sons of Arngrim, Hervar. S. ch. 3–5, Hdl. 22, 23; the two berserkers sent as a present by king Eric at Upsala to earl Hakon of Norway, and by him presented to an Icel. nobleman, Eb. ch. 25. In battle the berserkers were subject to fits of frenzy, called berserks-gangr (furor bersercicus, cp. the phrase, ganga berserksgang), when they howled like wild beasts, foamed at the mouth and gnawed the iron rim of their shields; during these fits they were, according to popular belief, proof against steel and fire, and made great havoc in the ranks of the enemy; but when the fever abated they were weak and tame. A graphical description of the ‘furor bersercicus’ is found in the Sagas, Yngl. S. ch. 6, Hervar. S. l. c., Eg. ch. 27, 67, Grett. ch. 42, Eb. ch. 25, Nj. ch. 104, Kristni S. ch. 2, 8 (Vd. ch. 46); cp. also a passage in the poem of Hornklofi | grenjuðu berserkir, | guðr var þeim á sinnum, | emjaðu Úlfhéðnar | ok ísarn gniiðu—which lines recall to the mind Roman descriptions of the Cimbric war-cry. In the Icel. Jus EccleS. the berserksgangr, as connected with the heathen age, is liable to the lesser outlawry, K. Þ. K. 78; it is mentioned as a sort of possession in Vd. ch. 37, and as healed by a vow to God. In the Dropl. S. Major (in MS.) it is medically described as a disease (v. the whole extract in the essay ‘De furore Bersercico,’ Kristni S. old Ed. in cake); but this Saga is modern, probably of the first part of the 17th century. The description of these champions has a rather mythical character. A somewhat different sort of berserker is also recorded in Norway as existing in gangs of professional bullies, roaming about from house to house, challenging husbandmen to ‘holmgang’ (duel), extorting ransom (leysa sik af hólmi), and, in case of victory, carrying off wives, sisters, or daughters; but in most cases the damsel is happily rescued by some travelling Icelander, who fights and kills the berserker. The most curious passages are Glúm, ch. 4, 6, Gísl. ch. 1 (cp. Sir Edm. Head’s and Mr. Dasent’s remarks in the prefaces), Grett. ch. 21, 42, Eg. ch. 67, Flóam. S. ch. 15, 17; according to Grett. ch. 21, these banditti were made outlaws by earl Eric, A. D. 1012. It is worth noticing that no berserker is described as a native of Icel.; the historians are anxious to state that those who appeared in Icel. (Nj., Eb., Kr. S. l. c.) were born Norse (or Swedes), and they were looked upon with fear and execration. That men of the heathen age were taken with fits of the ‘furor athleticus’ is recorded in the case of Thorir in the Vd., the old Kveldulf in Eg., and proved by the fact that the law set a penalty upon it. Berserkr now and then occurs as a nickname, Glúm. 378. The author of the Yngl. S. attributes the berserksgangr to Odin and his followers, but this is a sheer misinterpretation, or perhaps the whole passage is a rude paraphrase of Hm. 149 sqq. In the old Hbl. 37 berserkr and giant are used synonymously. The berserkers are the representatives of mere brute force, and it therefore sounds almost blasphemous, when the Norse Barl. S. speaks of Guðs berserkr (a ‘bear-coat’ or champion of God), (Jesus Kristr gleymdi eigi hólmgöngu sins berserks), 54, 197. With the introduction of Christianity this championship disappeared altogether.

Possible runic inscription in Younger Futhark:ᛒᛁᚱ-ᛋᛁᚱᚴᚱ
Younger Futhark runes were used from 8th to 12th centuries in Scandinavia and their overseas settlements

Abbreviations used:

A. D.
Anno Domini.
adj.
adjective.
ch.
chapter.
cp.
compare.
Dan.
Danish.
e. g.
exempli gratia.
f.
feminine.
Germ.
German.
gl.
glossary.
Icel.
Iceland, Icelander, Icelanders, Icelandic.
i. e.
id est.
l.
line.
l. c.
loco citato.
m.
masculine.
n.
neuter.
pl.
plural.
S.
Saga.
Scot.
Scottish.
subst.
substantive.
Swed.
Swedish.
v.
vide.

Works & Authors cited:

Barl.
Barlaams Saga. (F. III.)
Dropl.
Droplaugar-sona Saga. (D. II.)
Eb.
Eyrbyggja Saga. (D. II.)
Edda
Edda. (C. I.)
Eg.
Egils Saga. (D. II.)
Fas.
Fornaldar Sögur. (C. II.)
Flóam. S.
Flóamanna Saga. (E. I.)
Fs.
Forn-sögur. (D. II.)
Gautr.
Gautreks Saga. (C. II.)
Gísl.
Gísla Saga. (D. II.)
Glúm.
Víga-Glúms Saga. (D. II.)
Grett.
Grettis Saga. (D. II.)
Hbl.
Harbarðs-ljóð. (A. I.)
Hdl.
Hyndlu-ljóð. (A. II.)
Hervar. S.
Hervarar Saga. (C. II.)
Hkr.
Heimskringla. (E. I.)
Hm.
Hává-mál. (A. I.)
Kristni S.
Kristni Saga. (D. I. III.)
Kr. S.
Kristni Saga. (D. I. III.)
K. Þ. K.
Kristinn-réttr Þorláks ok Ketils = Kristinna-laga-þáttr. (B. I.)
Nj.
Njála. (D. II.)
Vd.
Vatnsdæla Saga. (D. II.)
Yngl. S.
Ynglinga Saga. (C. II.)
➞ See all works cited in the dictionary

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