Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Beserker Warrior Tradition

From previous posts, we have aggression and violence categorised as affective/emotional and instrumental aggression and violence (hereafter referred to as 'AaV'). Affective/emotional AaV are motivated by emotions, and instrumental AaV uses AaV instrumentally for non AaV goals which are not motivated by emotions.

'Fight' is the evolved action tendency of our evolved survival anger emotion. Some suggest that fear can motivate the fight behaviour when its action tendency of 'flight' is frustrated. I'm looking into that, but a biologically based evolutionary argument would suggest that fear turns to anger when we need our body mobilised to fight when we need it most.

The martial arts, law enforcement, and the military tend to strive to instill in their practitioners the capacity for instrumental, emotionless violence. Women's self defence (WSD) often teaches female instructees to change fear into anger if attacked in order to decrease the inhibition to be violent, to elicit the behavioural response of fight, and, unbeknown to them, to avoid the evolved fear-based survival behaviours of tonic immobility and fainting.

Using anger to get people to fight is not restricted to WSD. The American politicians and media encourage anger with respect to whoever they are fighting at the time. The Yugoslavian breakup and its 'ethnic cleansing', the Hutu radio and television broadcasts that preceded the Tutsi genocide, the anger that characterises both sides of the seemingly never-ending Palestinian-Israeli conflict, are all examples of anger being used to get people to fight.

Anger is used to inspire regular troops, but not elite troops. Elite troops are trained for instrumental violence. So, in this way, the fast solution to get people to fight is to use Mother Nature and generate anger. With more time, and training, instrumental violence is the preferred mode of violence for 'warriors'.

However, there is an elite warrior tradition that used, not anger, but 'rage', to devastating effect. They would deliberately inflame their emotions to become 'mad warriors':
Berserks — blustering, mad warriors scorning wounds and death — embody the spirit of reckless attack. ... the berserk warrior tradition spans some three thousand years. (1)
Spediel (1) describes 'berserk warriordom' as a long-lived, cross-cultural phenomenon:
By 1500 B.C., Indo-European speakers held sway from Northern India to Western Europe: east, north, and west of Assyria. Before their dispersal, their ancestors had shared a language, a religion, a heroic poetry, and, what is less well known, some striking warrior styles. Their wolf-warriors, for example, fought with wolf hoods over their head and howled like wolves, while their horse-slashers dove beneath attacking horsemen to stab the steeds. Berserk was one of their characteristic fighting styles, hence one may indeed ask whether Tukulti-Ninurta's mad warriors were not Indo-European berserks.(1)
Spediel refers to the beserker warrior tradition existing from 1300 B.C. to 1300 A.D. He refers to Celtic and Germanic beserks who, 'in the grip of fury ... contorted their faces and bodies in frightening ways.' He refers to the Aztec quachi warriors: 'They were called quaquachictin, which is the name for deranged albeit valiant men in war.' (1) He refers to the 'no-retreat societies of North American Plains Indians' and the Malabar amoks. He also refers to the beserkers of Scandinavia:
Icelandic sagas often tell of berserks as wild, howling fighters, sometimes as high-born champions of kings, sometimes as lowly drifters. One of the last-known berserks, however, was a woman in North America. One day in the eleventh century, the Greenlanders who under Karlsefni had come to settle in Vinland saw a huge host of Skraelings (Indians) bearing down on them. As the Skraelings flung rocks at them from slings, the Greenlanders retreated between boulders to make their stand. The woman Freydis had first stayed indoors, but then went outside to follow the men. When the Skraelings made for her, she snatched the sword of a dead Greenlander, 'pulled out her breasts from under her clothes and slapped the naked sword on them, at which the Skraelings took fright, ran off to their boats and rowed away. Karlsefni's men came up to her, praising her courage.' Insofar as Freydis fought bare-breasted and frightened her foes with unwonted courage, she was a berserk.(1)
WSD - turn fear into anger. Freydis beserker WSD - turn fear into rage, by acting in the Freydis beserker tradition vis-a-vis exposing body parts and the beating thereof. Now that would be a different WSD class.

The beserk tradition is alive and well in modern combat. Shay, in Achilles in Vietnam, writes:
A soldier who routes the enemy single-handedly is often in the grip of a special state of mind, body, and social disconnection at the time of his memorable deeds. Such men, often regarded by their commander's as 'the best', have been honoured as heroes. ... I believe the word beserk is the most precise term available to describe the behaviour that I call to the reader's mind' (3)
Going 'beserk' involves eliciting, inflaming, fury or rage:
To do deeds of berserk daring, one had to be raging mad. Homeric warriors fought best in a powerful rage, and Gaulish warriors could not help falling into the grip of battle madness. Shouting and singing were ways to rouse such rage. Early Greek and Roman warriors screeched like flocks of raucous birds—a mark of manhood. With a song of thunder and wind, the young Marut warriors of the Rig Veda awakened Indra's prowess. Husky Thracian, Celtic, and Germanic war songs, like crashing waves, heartened warriors.(1)
Beserkers would dance: 'Dance would enbolden more' (1). They would snort like animals, beat their chest, bite their shields, discard their armour, contort their faces, shout and sing, brandish their weapons. The Maori haka has been described as initiating a beserker state of mind and body.

Recall from previous posts, emotion is more than just subjective feeling. It involves cognition via appraisal, and a physiological reaction as well, all designed to increase our chances of survival. Spediel describes the physiological effects of fighting with fury:
The psychological and physiological state of fighting frenzy with its rise of adrenaline levels could foster such a belief, for adrenaline 'dilates the airways to improve breathing and narrows blood vessels in the skin and intestine so that an increased flow of blood reaches the muscles, allowing them to cope with the demands of the exercise. ... During surgery, it is injected into tissues to reduce bleeding.' Buoyed by this 'adrenaline rush,' frenzied fighters may well have thought themselves stronger and less vulnerable than others.(1)
Beck sums up the emotion associated with the beserk warrior tradition:
When the murderous rage is brought on, one becomes immune to pain or fear and strength and speed become greatly enhanced. Once this transformation occurs, the beserker lusts only for combat and will fight until either the beserker or his enemy is dead. (2)

1. Speidel, M.P. 2002. Beserks: A history of Indo-European 'Mad Warriors'. Journal of World History, 13:2, 253-290.

2. Beck, A.A. 2008. Blood or mead. Xlibris.

3. Shay, J. 1994. Achilles in Vietnam: Combat trauma and the undoing of character. New York: Scribner.


  1. Seems harder to train safely than fudoshin.

  2. Wow! I found your article really interesting and well-written.
    Such a popular topic is often mis-represented for dramatization purposes by media, and a lot of confusion surrounds it.

    Kudos for such a well-researched post!
    Mario Majoni

  3. Challenge vs. threat state, interesting way to explain anger, i.e. anger used beneficially, etc. vs. succumbing to its disadvantages .....


Your comments make my work all the more relevant as I use them to direct my research and theorising. Thank you.