A berserker is one who fights in a state of transcendent rage, usually characterised by extreme aggression and heedlessness of pain, fear or other handicaps. The name originates from a dark age mystic warrior society, apparently dedicated to the worship of Odin, and refers to the bear-skin cloaks that were their only armour (sometimes their only clothing). Their battle frenzy (which may have been drug assisted) was said to be so fierce that it granted them supernatural powers and drove them to bite on the rims of their shields when there were no enemy to fight.
This, and their general reputation, would seem to make them prone to causing fear amongst their enemies.
Obviously a legend that involves gaining supernatural powers by wearing a bearskin immediately calls up associations with lycanthropy - whether in actual transformation or merely by possession by a spirit1 dwelling in the skin (which would therefore serve as a fetish). The ulfhednar seem to have been a similar organisation wit a wolf theme rather than a bear one.
Thus, dependent on setting, berserkers could be anything from religious fanatics to all-out werebears. Of course, this spectrum could apply within the cult - initiates remain frenzy prone humans, either yet to be awarded a totem or newly introduced and still bonding with the spirit whilst the truly accomplished have merged with their totem spirit so well that it can transform them into a terrible bear-man hybrid. Perhaps the Odin-cult uses theurgy (or merely seidr) to bind the bear spirit to the initiate … possibly using the spirit of a bear he was obliged to hunt and kill as a test prior to initiation.
In sci-fi, the term is also used to describe autonomous space probes designed to roam the galaxy exterminating intelligent life. (See berserker hunters for a treatment of this).
Game and Story Use
- Bears come in many flavours, someone ridden by the spirit of a god-bear will probably be a much trickier opponent than someone who ended up with a Peruvian sun-bear or Indian sloth-bear.
- Bears are, generally, much less sociable than wolves but are likely more dangerous as individuals to make up for it.
- Eventually the bear may stare back into you, transforming veteran warriors into grumpy hermits with a passion for beekeeping and possibly fishing. Still, like the Ulfhednar, this sort of thing may be inheritable.