Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Go Berserk in 5 Easy Lessons

1. Take off your shirt.
"Berserk" comes from an Old Norse word meaning "bare-shirt" or, maybe, "bear-shirt." Snorri Sturluson, the 13th-century Icelander who is our main source of Viking lore, isn't clear. (Maybe on purpose; for more on Snorri, read my biography of him, Song of the Vikings).

In his Edda, Snorri defines berserks as warriors dedicated to the Norse god Odin. Immune to fire and iron, berserks "wore no armor." They were mad as dogs and strong as bears, he says, but cites a 9th-century poem that dresses them in wolf skins:

The berserks howled,
battle was on their minds,
the wolf-skins growled
and shook their spears.

Whatever it really means, berserk is the name that has stuck.

2. Brew your own beer.
Berserks could work themselves into a battle frenzy. Ancient texts say they did so by drinking bear's blood or by means of ritual dancing. Modern scholars used to favor magic mushrooms--especially the poisonous fly agaric. But the latest theory is beer.

Don't be misled by the various modern brews called Berserk Beer, like this one.

According to the brewery, it's "A real India pale ale based on 150 year old recipes. Light in colour but strong in flavour. Malty with an intense hop to match..." Not a real berserk beer.

Gruit, or beer made without hops, was current in the Viking Age. To keep it fresh, brewers added various herbs. Some were psychotropic. Beer made with sweet gale or bog myrtle, for example, has been described as a "stupefying narcotic." It speeds up the effect of alcohol on the brain, but also makes the heart function more efficiently and the blood to flow faster.

Unfortunately, it leaves a "whopping headache," says Stephen Law, a professor at the University of Central Oklahoma.  That's real berserk beer.

Find recipes at

3. Bite your shield, not your tongue.
That 9th-century poem is the earliest reference to berserks, though classical sources describe warrior cults in early Germanic societies. In the poem, the berserks "bear bloody shields" and hack through the shields of their enemies, but the act that has come to define "going berserk" is not bearing or hacking, but biting the shield.

Take a look at the shield-biting rooks from the famous Lewis chess sets in the British Museum. That's the expression to practice in front of your mirror.

Keep in mind that shield-biting is an activity not without some danger. The Saga of Grettir the Strong, written in Iceland in the 1300s, is almost an anti-saga, in which the values of the Viking Age are indicted. Grettir takes no guff from berserks. This one was on horseback: "He began to howl loudly and bit the rim of his shield and pushed the shield all the way into his mouth and snapped at the corner of the shield and carried on furiously." Grettir ran at him and kicked the shield. It "shot up into the berserk's mouth and ripped apart his jaws and his jawbone flopped down on his chest." End of berserk.

4. Laugh in the face of death.
Your fate is already set, the Vikings believed. (For a simple explanation of the Viking belief system, see Karl Siegfried's Norse Mythology blog, especially here.) The norns know when and how you will die—you can't change the cloth they weave.

Plus, the only way to reach Valhalla and a glorious afterlife is to die fighting. Die of old age and you'll never feast in Odin's hall. No beautiful Valkyries will serve you mead. Instead you'll spend eternity in damp, dark, dreary Hel, where the plates are named "hunger" and the beds "sickness." Why not laugh in battle?

And they did. A monk who witnessed the Viking siege of Paris in 885 described it as "a frenzy beyond compare." (Yes, this is the battle reenacted in the History Channel's Vikings TV series. How accurate is the show? See here, or here for a historian's view.) According to the monk's Latin hexameter verse, the Vikings "ransacked and despoiled, massacred, and burned and ravaged," he wrote. "All bare-armed and bare-backed … with mocking laughter they banged their shields loud with open hands; their throats swelled and strained as they shouted out odious cries." They had gone berserk.

5. Give up chess.
One early Icelandic saga, the Saga of the Heath-Killings, includes a chess-playing berserk who woos a girl over the game while her father pretends it is just not happening. (Berserks were not good sons-in-law.) Chess and romance were well linked by the time this saga was written, in about 1200. But whether or not chess was known in the north in the Viking Age is still up for debate.

In any case, its tactics are all wrong. Chess is a symmetrical game, with the two sides even and facing each other. Battle in the Viking Age usually wasn't symmetrical. To learn battle strategy, the better game for a berserk to play is hnefatafl. (For the rules, look here).

In this asymmetrical game a single hnefi (the word means "fist") and his band of berserks fight against a leaderless horde of enemies that outnumbers them two to one. It's a very Viking scenario. The hnefi wins, not by strength, but by strategy, sacrificing some of his berserks so that he can reach the rim of the board—and victory.

"Go Berserk in 5 Easy Lessons" first appeared on The History Reader Blog. The information is drawn from my book, Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them. Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or check out these reviews:

The New Yorker (November 2): (scroll down)

The Economist (August 29):

Minneapolis Star Tribune (August 29):

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

What Drew the Vikings to Iceland and Greenland? Was it Walrus?

In the first chapter of Ivory Vikings, "The Berserks," I argue that walrus tusks--or "fish teeth," as the Vikings called them--made the perfect cargo for a Viking ship: They were light, long-lasting, and highly prized.

Viking raids were bankrolled with fish teeth. Viking trade routes were built on them. Viking explorers sailed west out of sight of land in search of shiny, white walrus tusks. From the 8th to the 14th century--well after the end of the Viking Age--walrus ivory was the most sought after commodity of the North. It was Arctic gold.

You can read part of that chapter, an excerpt on the Vikings in Greenland and North America, on the website, here.

Before coming to my conclusions, I had tried to find every book or paper written about the medieval ivory trade, many of them by Thomas McGovern of CUNY and his colleagues. I had interviewed Jette Arneborg at the University of Copenhagen and Orri Vesteinsson at the Archaeological Institute of Iceland (whom I knew from my research for a previous book, The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman), as well as historian Helgi Thorlaksson of the University of Iceland; all three are experts on archaeological finds of walrus bones and teeth in Greenland and Iceland and on the Icelandic place names that refer to walrus.  

If I'd waited a year, someone else would have done all that research for me. Because someone else was on the trail of the Viking walrus hunters at the same time as I was. And they've reached some of the same conclusions.

Illustration by Jón Baldur Hliðberg
A few weeks ago a longtime reader of this blog sent me a paper published in April in World Archaeology titled, "Was It Walrus?" Two of the authors were Arneborg and McGovern.

The paper contains a beautiful review of all the available data on walrus hunting in Iceland and Greenland, from archaeology, place names, and the Icelandic sagas, and outlines the arguments for and against the idea that walrus triggered the Vikings' westward expansion.

The authors conclude, as I did, that "The new excavations and zooarchaeological work appear to support the notion of an initial settlement of at least parts of Iceland driven and 'financed' by walrus hunting and connections to Viking Age exchange networks." Soon, however, the Icelandic walrus herds were hunted to extinction. "In contrast, in Greenland current evidence suggests that walrus hunting may have always played a central role in economy and society."

See Karin M. Frei, Ashley N. Coutu, Konrad Smiarowski, Ramona Harrison, Christian K. Madsen, Jette Arneborg, Robert Frei, Gardar Guðmundsson, Søren M. Sindbæk (corresponding author at, James Woollett, Steven Hartman, Megan Hicks, and Thomas H. McGovern. “Was it for walrus? Viking Age settlement and medieval walrus ivory trade in Iceland and Greenland.” World Archaeology, published online 20 April 2015 at

Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or check out these reviews:

"Bones of Contention," The Economist (August 29).

"Review: Ivory Vikings," Minneapolis Star Tribune (August 29).

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Lewis Chessmen and the Icelandic Horse

The Knight is the last piece I place on the imaginary chessboard in Ivory Vikings, my biography of the Lewis chessmen--though it could have been the first.

When the Lewis chessmen came to the Cloisters Museum in New York for the "Game of Kings" exhibition in 2011, curator Barbara Drake Boehm wrote a blog post comparing the knights' horses to Icelandic horses. (Read it here.)

That blog post was one of the things that initially caught my interest and made me want to learn about the Lewis chessmen. I own Icelandic horses and have written a book about them, A Good Horse Has No Color. I'm also active in the U.S. Icelandic Horse Congress (, through which I know the people Barbara spoke to and who took the photos of Icelandic horses that she used on her blog.

"Long forelocks falling over the eyes, groomed manes, tails that reach to the ground, and a short, stocky frame distinguish the horses ridden by the Knights of the Lewis Chessmen," Barbara wrote. "They seem to resemble today's Icelandic horses. I spoke to Heleen Heyning, a breeder of Icelandic horses at West Winds Farm in upstate New York. She immediately saw the resemblance between the Lewis horses and her own. She noted that Icelandic horses were known across Scandinavia in the Viking era and are thought to have been introduced to Iceland about the year [870]. For the last thousand years--that is, since before the Lewis Chessmen were carved--there has been no crossbreeding of Icelandic horses. Therefore, the resemblance we see is not accidental."

Barbara and Heleen are right. The chessmen's horses do resemble Icelandics. Here is a photo of my husband on one of our own Icelandic horses, looking very much like a Lewis knight.

But the similarity to Icelandic horses is not proof that the chessmen were carved in Iceland. Most horses in Northern Europe at that time were just as small--as we can see by comparing a Lewis knight with other 11th and 12th century images of people on horseback. In each case, the rider's feet dangle down, way down, below the horse's belly.

This horse from the Hunterian Psalter, an English manuscript dated before 1170 and now in the collection of Glasgow University, seems to me to be a perfect match for a Lewis knight's horse. (For more images from this beautiful manuscript, see

But horses of similar size can be found in art from Norway (the Baldisholl Tapestry), France (the Bayeux Tapestry), Iceland (the Valthjolfsstadur Door), and many other places.

That the chessmen's mounts look like "stocky, docile ponies," according to other experts, is proof that their carver had a sense of humor. But this, too, is a misunderstanding, I think. "Stocky" and "docile" are not genetically linked--as anyone knows who's ridden an Icelandic horse. These are strong, powerful animals, capable of carrying a large man all day over difficult terrain. (If you would like to try it, join me next summer on a tour in Iceland: See for the riding tours and riding-optional tours I lead.)

Plus, the chessmen's stockiness is functional. A chess knight must be easy to grasp, well-weighted and stable, with few protruberances to snap off when the piece is dropped, thrown, or the board overturned in a pique (which happens with some frequency in medieval narratives). Artistic license also applies: If the horses' bodies are disproportionately small compared to their heads, so too are the tiny feet of the knights. A chess-carver working in walrus ivory, as well, must make a rectangular form (the horse) from an oval-shaped material (the section of tusk) to fit a square space (on the chessboard).

The carver's sense of humor does peek through, however, in the horses' expressions. There's a touch of whimsy to them, as they peer from beneath their long, shaggy forelocks. Some even seem to be looking askance, as if to say, What are we in for now? Their manes, on the other hand, are neatly roached or braided. Their tack is quite exact. The arch in their necks and lack of tension on their reins show they are well trained; the prick of their ears show they are alert. This artist was well-acquainted with horses and their moods.

Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or hear me speak at these events:

October 13, 2015: Fletcher Memorial Library, Ludlow, VT at 7:00 p.m. Sponsored by The Book Nook. See

October 15, 2015: The Fiske Icelandic Collection at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY at 4:30 p.m. See

October 17, 2015: The Sixth Annual Iceland Affair, Winchester Center, CT at noon. See