Odin’s men [berserkers and úlfheðnar] went armor-less into battle and were as crazed as dogs or wolves and as strong as bears or bulls. They bit their shields and slew men, while they themselves were harmed by neither fire nor iron. This is called “going berserk.”–The Ynglinga Saga
The Vikings were considered some of the most ferocious fighters in the ancient world, and there were two groups, amongst their ranks, that were the most fierce and terrifying. They were the Berserkir and the Ulfhednar.
The Berserkir, better known as berserkers, were a group of shamanistic warriors who wore bearskins. The bear shirts, as the name translates, wore bear pelts to invoke the spirit of the bear to increase their battle prowess–believing that they became bears in battle. Just imagine the terror of any opposing group fighting a tribe of bears.
So these could be instances of werebears and actually, in many ancient cultures, there were instances of were-animals depending on the region. Japan, for instance, has werecats, where big cats were the dominant predator and so some would become werecats. So Vikings had the Berserkir who took on the strength and likeness of the bear in battle, but they also had the Ulfhednar.
The Ulfhednar were Norse warriors who assumed the form of a wolf in battle with the use of a wolf pelt. Just like the wolf pelt of Peter Stubbe, Vikings who donned the wolf skin became one with the wolf spirit and ripped through their enemies with such ferocity that they were generally more feared than the Berserkir.
Now both these warrior groups were shamans–that’s how they took on the aspects of the bear or wolf. These warriors would take an initiation in order to be accepted into either order.
As sited from Norse Mythology:
…they spent a period in the wilderness, living like their totem animal and learning its ways, obtaining their sustenance through hunting, gathering, and raiding the nearest towns. …to live in the manner of wolves, is the beginning of this initiation. The bond with the savage world is indicated not only on the geographic plane – life beyond the limits of the civilized life of the towns… but also on what we would consider a moral plane: their existence is assured by the law of the jungle.” The candidate ceased to be an ordinary human being and became instead a wolf-man or a bear-man, more a part of the forest than of civilization.
Thenceforth, he had the ability to induce a state of possession by his kindred beast, acquiring its strength, fearlessness, and fury. We have only the haziest idea of the techniques used to reach this ecstatic trance state, but we know that fasting, exposure to extreme heat, and ceremonial “weapons dances” were among the shamanic toolkit of the ancient Germanic peoples. It’s extremely likely that warrior-shamans used these techniques, alongside numerous others that have been lost in the centuries of malign neglect that have passed since these were living traditions.
Were the Ulfhednar and Berserkir real were beasts of their times? Just as there is no evidence of werewolves today, it can’t be proven. But it is fascinating that Peter Stubbe admitted to having a belt, under excruciating torture. Which tells me that the superstition did not die with the vikings. That being said Vikings seem to be making a comeback. Norskk can train you to become Ulfhednar, which I’ve always found intriguing.
Thus ends this post but not the series. I believe I have at least 3 more posts on this. I hope you are all enjoying it. Let me know in the comments below!