Sunday, February 22, 2009

Why You Should Never Laugh at a Berserker

Ever wonder why the Lewis Chessmen – specifically the rooks – look the way they do? The Comann Eachdraidh Uig tells the story:

There are twelve warders, or rooks, all of whom defend themselves with shields decorated in a similar fashion to the knights’. They are represented as foot soldiers and each carries a sword. All wear helmets, apart from one who, along with three others, bites the top of his shield in the most disturbing manner. It was [Sir Frederic] Madden’s expert knowledge of Norse sagas which solved for him the meaning of this puzzling gesture.  He published his finding in his 1832 article about the chessmen for Archaeologia, quoting the Heimskringla of Snorri Sturluson (c1179-1241):

The soldiers of Odin went forth to combat without armour, raging like dogs or wolves, biting their shields, and in strength equal to furious bulls or bears.  Their enemies lay prostrate at their feet: neither fire not weapons harmed them; this frenzy was known as Berserksgangr.

‘Berserker’, which gave us the modern word ‘berserk’ to describe a violent frenzy, may have originally meant ‘bare-shirt’ (ie, shirtless) or ‘bear-shirt’.  Both terms express wildness.  The Lewis berserkers are protected by armour, and, although one lacks a helmet, it is the specific act of biting the shield that communicates their frenzy. [...]

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