By: Ralka Skjerseth |

To this day, there has been a myriad of Norse mythology adaptations in pop culture emerging around the world, ranging from comics to movies to music. The Norwegian black-’n’roll/heavy metal band Kvelertak is amongst one of the bands that feature elements relating to Norse mythology in their lyrics, therefore making them a part of the masses that propagate Norse mythology adaptations in pop culture. In this article, writer will specifically discuss about how the lyrics of one of Kvelertak’s songs entitled “Berserkr” depict the eponymous Norse warriors that symbolize fury and bloodlust, Berserkers. The analysis of the lyrics would be deciphered and examined using Stuart Hall’s perspective regarding representation and its correlation to culture, meaning, and language. In the process of analyzing the lyrics, writer will precisely revolve around Hall’s idea of system of representation where things are correlated with concepts –mental representations– that we construct in our own heads in order to interpret the said things.

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Berserkers are commonly depicted as savage Norse warriors in animal skin that constantly howl into battles unarmored and with rage; the rage of the berserkers itself is called berserkergang. As stated by Snorri Sturluson on Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway, His own men went to battle without coats of mail and acted like mad dogs or wolves. They bit their shields and were as strong as bears or bulls. They killed people, and neither fire nor iron affected them. This is called berserker rage.

Berserkers themselves are associated with the renowned Norse god Odin, in which Berserkers are depicted as a part of unruly warriors that worship the said god. Berserkers possess qualities associated to Odin such as the ability to shape-shift into bestial forms– it is stated on Ynglinga Saga 7 that Odin has the ability to shape-shift into a bird, an animal, a fish, or a serpent (Sturluson, p.11). Warfare is also one of the most crucial aspects linked to berserkers, as they were widely known as terrifying adversaries fighting in characteristics of both man and animal. Possessing a fierce fighting quality, they are often described as the privileged warriors of Harald Fairhair of Vesthold in Norway (Taunton, 2012).

The term “berserker” itself has a vague origin, having created disputes regarding the etymology. The literal rendition of the term “berserker” is “warriors in shirts (sekr) of bear.” (Taunton, 2012) which might be relevant to the common depiction of berserkers that they are coated in bear skin. While that happens to be the etymology of the term “berserker” from Old Norse origin, there is s also an idea that suggests that the term “berserker” is derived from the English word “baresark”. As stated by Ward (2010): “The etymology of the term berserkr is disputed. It may mean ‘bare-sark’ as in ‘bare of shirt’ and refer to the berserker’s habit of going unarmored into battle.

One of the most well-known qualities of the berserkers is that they possess the ability to shape-shift into the (rather ghastly versions of) forms of wolf and bear. “The berserker, too was often said to change into bestial form, or at least to assume the ferocious qualities of wolf and bear.” (Ward, 2010).

Kvelertak, the heavy metal band with rock and roll, black metal, and punk rock influences that hails from Stavanger, Norway, released a song entitled “Berserkr” in 2016 which is a part of their third studio album Nattesferd. As the lyrics depict the eponymous Norse warriors as “beastly berserkers in wolf and bear-skin” and “Odin’s messengers”, the said lyrics (in Norwegian– precisely using Stavanger dialect instead of the regular Bokmål) are quoted below;

“Brannfakler ildne opp natten

Styrtregn mellom mektige graner

Tida var kommen for den rituelle jakten

Einsam forlot han sitt følge

Oppfylling av den norrøne pakten

Med kroppen full av Valkyriens mjød

Skal han skjenka udyrets død

Eit blodig offer til vår allvitande gud

Dyriske berserkere i ulv og bjørnehud

Dei var Odins sendebud

I holtet sto han ansikt til ansikt

Med eit mørkt og frådandes dyr

Tennene spådde hans endelikt

Tross visste han tiden ikkje var omme

Dødsøksen hogga kvikt

Bjørneblod fløyt overalt

Han flådde pelsen og ruset seg på dens livskraft

Eit blodig offer til vår allvitande gud

Dyriske berserkere i ulv og bjørnehud

Dei var Odins sendebud

Krigerlauget sto ved stranden

Ein mordermåne er oppstanden

Dei lepjar i seg dyreblod

Slik at drapslyst skal få gro

Kroppen full av psilocybe

I svartsyns øyemed

Uten brynje, bar i bjørneskinn

Gjort til beist med ulvesinn

Dei satte hoggtenner i skjolda

Fiendar med henda folda

Hæren visste ikkje kva som traff dei

Då dei blei ekspedert til Helheim

Daude bada i eit hav av rødt

Det var til dette dei blei født

Takk den einaugdes gaver

For at enkar vitjar tomme graver.”

And the English translation is quoted below;

“Fire torches light up the night

Heavy rain between mighty spruces

The time had come for the ritualistic hunt

Alone he left his pack

To fullfill the Norse pact

With body full with The Valkyries’ mead

Shall he bestow death to the beast

A bloody sacrifice to our all-knowing God

Beastly Berserkers in wolf and bear-skin

They were Odin’s messengers

In the grove he stood face to face

With a dark and frothing beast

The teeth prophesied his demise

Despite he knew his time had not come

The death axe chops quickly

Bear blood flowed everywhere

He flayed the pelt and got high on its vigor

A bloody sacrifice to our all-knowing God

Beastly Berserkers in wolf and bearskin

They were Odin’s messengers

The warrior guild stood by the beach

A murder moon had resurrected

They slurped animal blood

So the urge to kill would grow

The bodies full of psilocybe

In blackened mind purposes

Turned to beasts with wolf minds

They put fangs in the shields

enemies with folded hands

The army did not know what struck them

When they were despatched to Helheim

The dead bathed in a sea of read

This was what they were born to do

Thank the one-eyed for the gifts

So that widows witnesses empty graves”

The lyrics mainly describe Berserkers as beastly creatures with vigorous rage– who happen to be the messengers of Odin. Regarding the line that says “they were Odin’s messengers”, it could be correlated with how it is likely that the berserk was actually a member of the cult of Odin (Ward, 2010). Human figures with heads of bears or wolves dressed in animal skins are depicted in several Swedish helmet plates, and one of the plates from Torslunda, Sweden, seems to envisage Odin dancing with the said bear figure.

Berserkers’ ability to inhabit two souls in one body –one being the spirit of a human and the other that of a wolf– is also a reflex of their association with Odin who is the patron deity of the Berserker (Taunton, 2012). Berserkers are never wholly human nor animal and they can never truly belong in neither the realm of men nor beasts, as they are depicted as liminal beings; those that cannot be classified into one single aspect of existence. As stated by Taunton (p. 216), “..they are shamanic creatures associated with the extremities of normal modes of behaviour, creating altered mind states”. That aspect of Berserkers are similar with the one of their patron deity, Odin, where he is associated with the more cerabral modes of shamanism where he possesses the art of metamorphosis.

The line “the time has come for the ritualistic hunt” might refer to some ritual practices that represent the initiation of young warriors into a band of Berserkers (Ward, p. 74). The band of Berserkers often consists of twelve warriors and usually the name of the leader is Björn, meaning”bear.” The initiation comes in a form of a battle with a bear or other adversaries that are fearsome.

How can Kvelertak depict Berserkers while they’ve never seen Berserkers in real life? It has a correlation with how humans apply representation in everyday life— connecting the concept that one deciphers about a certain thing with the language that one comprehends when reading about the said thing. Representation is the production of the meaning of the concepts in our minds through language. It is the link between concepts in our minds through language which enables us to refer to either the real worlds of objects, people, or events or indeed to imaginary words of fictional objects, people, and events (Hall, 1997). And as for the system of representation itself; there are two systems of representation. The first one is the ‘system’ by which all sorts of objects, people, and events are correlated with a set of concepts or mental representations (Hall, 1997). We don’t only form concepts of things we have seen before, but also of things that are abstract and things we’ve never seen, such as the concept of love and death, or, relating to this article, mythological creatures. How do we form concepts about things we have never seen? There is this thing called a “system” of representation; and it’s called a “system” because it consists, not of individual concepts, but of different ways of organizing, clustering, arranging and classifying concepts, and of establishing complex relations between them. (Hall, 1997). In order to establish relationships between concepts or to distinguish them from one another, some principles are used, such as the principles of similarity.

Concepts inside one’s head, or what we call mental representation, is not enough. We must also be able to exchange the meanings and concepts and to present it to the world. Constructing meaning and presenting it can only be done when we have access to a shared language, making language the second system of representation. When translated to a certain shared language, the concept we have then could be correlated with the concepts and ideas inside our minds.

It could be that, before Kvelertak wrote the lyrics of Berserkr, they constructed their own depiction of what Berserkers are like (concept) using distinctions of what could be the characteristics of Berserkers, and they then connected the concept and with other things (objects, people, events). The “other things” here might refer to things that are associated with Berserkers in the Norse mythology— Odin, berserkrgang, bear and wolf skin, and ritualistic hunt, to name a few. And then because they all have access to a shared language, which is Norwegian, they conveyed their representation of Berserkers into a form of words.

REFERENCES

Fabing, Howard D. (1956). On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry. Scientific Monthly 83:5.

Hall, Stuart (1997).  Representation: Cultural representations and signifying practices. London: Sage in association with the Open University.

Sturluson, Snorri (1964). Heimskringla: History of the kings of Norway. Austin: Published for the American-Scandinavian Foundation by the University of Texas Press.

Taunton, Gwendolyn (2012). Mimir: Journal of North European Traditions, Volume 2. Numen Books.

Ward, Christie L. (2010). Grendel and Berserkergang — Lambda Alpha Journal, v.40, p.71-89.

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