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Of Wolves and Men: The Berserker and the Vrātya


Primordial Traditions Volume One

Primordial Traditions Volume One

Of Wolves And Men: The Berserker And The Vrātya

By Gwendolyn Taunton


Lupine symbolism is said to be one of the defining points of the Indo-European Traditions, and it is hard to cite an Indo-European civilization in which the wolf did not occupy a role of prominence. From the birth of Romulus and Remus and the foundation of Rome through to modern times, the wolf has always occupied an eminent position of privilege in the mind of the Indo-European. This is still evident today – even Hollywood cannot bypass the lonely figure of the wolf at night, for the werewolf has survived on in popular myth to this day. A number of important deities, ranging from Óðin to the Greek Apollo, can be found with a wolf by their side. That the wolf, and occasionally its canine cousin the dog, were important ritual animals cannot be doubted. At times though the important role of these animals crossed over from the natural world of the wilderness into the civilized world of man, where the boundaries between human and animal became blurred. One such occupant of this transitional space is the werewolf, another figure is that of the Nordic or Teutonic Berserker. Even older still, there is the tale of the Vrātya, dating back to the most archaic elements of Vedic society, almost completely buried by the past. The Berserker and the Vrātya together constitute what is perhaps one of the oldest Traditions, for both share a number of significant features in common, which can be found dispersed amongst other Indo-European peoples also; martial brotherhoods existed among the (Indo-European) Greeks, Scythians, Persians, Dacians, Celts, and Germans in which initiates magically assumed lupine features. [i] Known partly for their fury in combat, partly for the use of magical means to subdue the enemy, these myths persist today in the popular myth of the werewolf. Whilst the literal rendition of the berserker is ‘warriors in shirts (sekr) of bear’, the berserkers were thought to be also able to shift their form into that of a wolf. [ii] For the purpose of this writing we will concentrate only on the symbolism of the wolf.

The fact that the Berserker was strongly connected to wolves as well as possessing the afore-mentioned association with bears is illustrated by the use of their alternative title ‘wolf-coat’. [iii] It is probable that this name was used in connection with the wearing of some symbol of the wolf such as a wolfskin belt, for popular tradition in Norway records that ‘shape-changers’, were men who turned into beasts at night, and would don a belt of wolfskin before they left the house. [iv] The traditional garb of the wolf-skin coat is also attested to by the Hrafnsmál, a poem composed about c. 900 CE, in which the Berserkers are described as the privileged warriors of Harald Fairhair of Vesthold in Norway; they are described as receiving rich gifts from the king because of their fierce fighting qualities, and also referred to as ‘wolf-coats’: [v]

Wolf-coats are they called, those who bear swords
Stained with blood in the battle.
They redden spears when they come to the slaughter,
Acting together like one. [vi]

The connection between the Berserker and lupine/canine symbolism can also be seen in the Icelandic Eddas which name Hundingr as the king of Hundland, “Dog-land”. [vii] Similarly, the pre-tenth-century Anglo-Saxon Widsith mentions the Hundingar as a dog-headed people; while the “werewolf” (ulfhednar) military brotherhoods of the Germanic tribes elsewhere fought alongside “half-dogs” (halfhundingas). [viii]

One of the prime roles of the Berserker was obviously predominantly connected to warfare, in which they were recorded as terrifying opponents in battle, fighting as neither man nor animal, but a creature that shared characteristics of both. The Ynglingasaga describes the Berserker as follows: “They went without shields, and were mad as dogs or wolves, and bit on their shields, and were as strong as bears or bulls; men they slew, and neither fire nor steel would deal them; and this called the fury of the berserker.” [ix] This is also referred to as “to run berserk” (berserkgangr).x There is no doubt as to the fact that the Berserker was a fierce and frightening adversary – the questions remain in the significance of the wolf and the nature of the transformation itself – was it purely a tactical device to shock the enemy or was there a deeper reasoning behind this transformation that bordered on being one of spiritual essence? Georges Dumézil sees the process as blend of the two, both tactical and spiritual.

The Ynglingasaga text above says much, but not enough: the connection the Óðin’s berserker had with wolves, bears, etc., was not only a resemblance in matters of force and ferocity; in a certain sense they were these animals themselves. Their furor exteriorized a second being which lived within themselves. The artifices of costume (cf. the tincta corpora of the Harii), the disguises to which the name berserker and its parallel ulf hednar (“men with wolf’s skin”) seem to allude, serve only to aid, to affirm this metamorphosis, to impress it upon friends and frightened enemies (again, cf. Tacitus, Germania, 38.4, in connection with the efforts of the Suebi to inspire terror). [xi]

Another aspect of the Berserker, here named as Harji and described by Tacitus, provides a further citation in support of the use tactics to terrify the enemy.

They black their shields and dye their bodies black, and choose pitch nights for their battles. The terrifying shadow of such a fiendish army inspires a mortal panic, for no enemy can stand so strange and devilish sight. [xii]

Not only does this paint a horrifying visage, it also attests to the vision of a demonic or magical attack, which takes place at night. The night, of course, is a time of sorcery and magic, which is also part of the imagery of the Berserker. The uses of animal motifs are a common feature of shamanic Traditions, with which the Nordic Tradition shares a number of features. In such a society, it was considered problematic to ascribe more than one ‘soul’ to a person. The “exterior form” however, was considered the most distinctive feature of the personality. [xiii] Dumézil elaborates on this by examining the linguistics of the root ‘hamr’ and examining its contextual usage in the imagery of the Berserker.

One Nordic word – with equivalents in Old English and Old German – immediately introduces the essential in these representations: hamr designates (1) a garment; (2) the “exterior form”; (3) (more often the derivative hamingja) “a spirit attached to an individual” (actually one of his souls; cf. hamingja, “chance”). There are some men, with little going for them, who are declared to be einhamr: they have only a single hamr; then some, aside from their heim-hamr (“own, fundamental exterior”), can take on other hamr through an action designated by the reflexive verb hama-sk; they are able to go about transformed (ham-hleypa). Now, the berserkr is the exemplary eigi einhamr, “the man who is not of a single hamr.” [xiv]

The meaning here is clear – two souls inhabit the one body. One is the spirit of a human, the other that of a wolf. The Berserker is thus not wholly man nor wholly animal – like his descendent the werewolf he is a liminal creature that exists in a twilight world where the boundaries between man and beast are ill defined – yet both paths are closed to him, for the Berserker can never truly belong in either realm. Like the patron deity of the Berserker, Óðin, they are shamanic creatures associated with the extremities of normal modes of behaviour, creating altered mind states. This aspect of the God Óðin is portrayed by the origins of his name itself, for the Germanic Wōðanaz comes from the Indo-European root ‘wat’. [xv] Not only is Óðin associated with the more cerebral modes of shamanism, the God is described in the Ynglingasaga as possessing the art of metamorphosis. [xvi] Óðin is there described as possessing the power to change appearance and form at will. [xvii] Though this skill is found in a lesser degree in the portrayal of the Berserker, it seems they have gained the ability to possess two souls within one body, and consequentially the ability to fluctuate between them, as a reflex of their association with Óðin who is the patron deity of the Berserker. The Old Norse Berserker stands clearly in an ancient tradition of warriors who were shape changers, capable of transforming themselves into raging wolves in battle. [xviii]

It has previously been surmised by authors that the Berserker is unique to the Germanic and Nordic Traditions. This is, however, an incorrect assumption for an analogous cognate to the figure of the Berserker can found in an extremely archaic component of the Vedic religion. This obscure entity, of whom many facets of their rituals and existence remains unknown, is the called by the title of Vrātya. Until recent times so little has been known about the history of the Vrātya that they were assumed to be little more than a collection of outcastes from Vedic culture, dwelling in the forests and on the other fringes of acceptable society, and that they were both revered and reviled. It was even once assumed that the Vrātya were non-Indo-European in origin. Whilst this statement can now be presumed false, it is certainly true that both elements of Tantrism and Yoga can be found in the practices of the Vrātya, who may well have represented a shamanic or proto-yogic contingency of the Kṣatriya caste. Evidence of a connection between the practices of the Vrātya and those found in Tantrism and Yoga can be seen in the fact that an entire book of the Atharva Veda (XV) is devoted to them, and within it statements can be found saying that the Vrātya were practitioners of asceticism, were familiar with a discipline of breaths and used to homologise their bodies with the macrocosm. [xix]

Eliade even goes so far as to state that is permissible to suppose that the Vrātyas represented a mysterious brotherhood belonging to the advance guard of the Āryans. [xx] In 1962 new evidence was also brought to light by Jan Heesterman describing the Vrātya as an extremely archaic component of Vedic sacrificial society whose role was gradually phased out with the rise of the Brahmin varṇa as sacrificial specialists. [xxi] In this article Heesterman submits the hypothesis that the Vrātyas were then degraded in the later literature and cast in an antinomian, anti-brahmanic mold, with their sattra rites surviving in Vedic initiation rites and in the vrata, or vow of the brahmacārin, the Vedic student. [xxii] Likewise in the Indra Śunaḥsakha there is a reference to the Vrātyas, which claims that their socio-religious status was once as lofty as that of the Brahmins. [xxiii] With the rise of the Brahmin caste, the Vrātyas role in ritual was lessened, eventually to such a point that term itself became degraded and the Vrātya themselves were judged to be ritually impure. This decline is attested to by the fact that there is a ritual that is specifically performed to restore the members of the Vrātya back to Brahmanic society, removing the impurity from their former actions.

Like the Berserkers, the Vrātyas are sometimes referred to as dogs in a number of passages. The most striking of these is a passage in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad. The passage is entitled the “[Samavedic] Chant of the Dogs.” [xxiv] The Vrātya are not only strongly associated with canine imagery (the texts repeatedly refer to them as ‘Dogs’) they are also strongly connected with the Vedic god Rudra, who acts not only as the God of the forest, but also as the deity connected with shamanism and storm – much like the gods Nordic equivalent Óðin. Falk goes one step further in the comparison of the two deities, stating that the twelve-day sacrifices of the Vedic Vrātyas were the ritual cognate of other Indo-European phenomena, including the Roman Lupercalia and the twelve nights of Christmas, in which the wild hunter Wode-Wodin roared through the forests of northern Europe. [xxv] Furthermore, when the Vrātyas slay a cow on Rudra’s behalf, they are said to be his “dogs” or “wolves”, and lupine or canine symbolism is nearly as abundant in the Vedic Rudra’s case as it is in that of Indra. [xxvi] Parallels between the cults of Rudra, the wild hunter of the forest, and those of the Germanic Óðin/Wodin, as well as the Iranian Aešma and a number of other Indo-European gods associated with the twelve nights of midwinter, are also significant here. [xxvii]

There is a common element in the symbolism of what we have examined thus far – the Berserker, the Vrātya are both a type of people who do not fit into the roles of normal civilians. Both the Berserker and the Vrātya were simultaneously feared and revered by the community. As strong figures skilled in magic and warfare, the public admired them; but there was also a sentiment of fear aroused by these figures. Firstly they feared their power, which was not always completely under the control of the Berserker. There was always danger associating with them, for their animal nature, like that of the wolf is unpredictable, and unlike its canine cousin, the wolf has not been domesticated. It is therefore dangerous. This attitude of ambiguity towards the Berserker and the Vrātya also extended into other areas – it seems that both figures existed in a boundary line between clearly defined caste roles. They are a synthesis between members of the warrior caste and the priest caste, in both the Hindu and Nordic caste systems. Given that the Vrātya is a particularly archaic figure, this suggests that the original legacy of both the Vrātya and the Berserker may have its roots in a time prior to the separation (and consequential antagonism) of the two primary castes. They seemed to operate under a dual role of being a warrior that is also a magician – this is especially clear in the Nordic mythos in which the Berserker are depicted as the comrades of Óðin, and in the case of the Vrāyta it is also clearly stated by Heesterman that they were early figure of the Vedic priesthood that came to be replaced by the rise of the Brāhmaṇa caste. Also, in the symbol of the hamr or outer garment, we see a dual symbolism taking place – two souls inhabit one body, one wolf, one human. The Vrātya and the Berserker are rightly classified as never being one or the other, but a dangerous synthesis of the two. All three of these issues can be expressed by a simple concept – the symbolism of the Vrātya and the Berserker is always liminal. The word liminal signifies a ‘between state’ and was coined by Arnold van Gennep to explain states which are ‘in-between’ or ambiguous.

The attributes of liminality or of liminal personae (“threshold people”) are necessarily ambiguous, since this condition and these persons elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space. Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial. [xxviii]

Such states, furthermore, are not only broadly characteristic of the character of individuals; liminality can be seen in terms of times and events. Anything transitory can be a liminal moment – examples of this can be the transition periods of day to night (dawn and/or dusk) or specifically in the case of the Vrātya and the Berserker during the times when it is indistinguishable as to whether they are human or lupine in nature. One such example of the transition between day and night being connected with the metamorphosis of the Berserker can be seen in Egil’s Saga which records the life of a “retired” Berserker named Úlfr:

After many glorious campaigns he married, enhanced his welfare, kept himself busy with his fields, his animals, his workshops, and won wide esteem for the good counsel that he distributed so liberally. “But sometimes when evening fell, he became umbrageous (styggr) and few men could converse with him then; he dozed through the evening (var hann kveldsvaefr); the rumor spread that he was hamrammr (that is, that he was metamorphosed and going about in the night); he received the name Kveldúlfr, Wolf of the Evening.” [xxix]

In this extract it is amply illustrated that the Berserker was dangerous even when he no longer occupied the role of being a Berserker; even in ‘retirement’ the Berserker remains in a liminal role, separated from the normal modes of civilization. The transformation itself, being of the period from day to night may have also have echoes with the Vrātya whose secret rituals in the forest were replicas of the solar year, performed in winter to restore the power of the sun. In the above extract however, a clear difference between the Berserker and the Vrātya can be seen – the Berserker, though “retired” has not completely returned to normal society, whereas a former member of the Vrātya is ceremonially restored and purified before reentering Brahmanic society. It is the liminal nature of their being that makes them dangerous; paradoxically it is also the liminal nature of their being that empowers them. Another illustration of a liminal period can be seen in psychological states – for example, an initiate prior to the performance of an initiation ritual is thought to be a normal person, after the ritual a change of some kind is presumed to have taken place in the psyche of the initiate.

Although little is known of the initiatory practices of the Vrātya, the Volsunga Saga describes what Eliade beliefs to be an initiation process for the Berserker.

The initiatory themes here are obvious: the test of courage, resistance to physical suffering, followed by magical transformation into a wolf. But the complier of the Volsunga Saga was no longer aware of the original meaning of the transformation. Sigmund and Sinfjotli find the skins by chance and do not know how to take them off. Now transformation into a wolf- that is, the ritual donning of a wolfskin – constituted the essential moment on initiation into a secret men’s society. By putting on the skin, the initiate assimilated the behaviour of a wolf; in other words, he became a wild beast warrior, irresistible and invulnerable. ‘Wolf’ was the appellation of the members of the Indo-European military societies.xxx

The event here that Eliade is relating to, and consequentially perceiving as an initiatory rite occurs early in the Saga, and can be found in the tale in which Sigmund and Sinfjotli dress themselves in wolf-skins.

One time, they went again to the forest to get themselves some riches, and they found a house. Inside it were two sleeping men, with thick gold rings. A spell had been cast upon them: wolfskins hung over them in the house and only every tenth day could they shed the skins. They were the sons of kings. Sigmund and Sinfjotli put the skins on and could not get them off. And the weird power was there as before: they howled like wolves, both understanding the sounds. [xxxi]

The fact that the transformation is not purely physical is alluded to by the fact that once they wore the wolfskins, they no longer communicated as men, but instead “howled like wolves”. Furthermore, they understood the meaning behind the sounds, which means that it was not simply mimicry of the wolves howling; it was being used as form of communication. This indicates that during the process Sigmund and Sinfjotli were not just imitating the form of the wolf – a psychological change had also taken place, allowing them to think like a wolf. The fact that the two men described sleeping here have thick gold rings may also be of significance –however the translation of the Volsunga Saga cited does not describe the location of the two rings. In another description of the Berserker, we find a clear mention of rings, not gold but iron, and they are also connected with the initiatory rites of the Berserker. In a passage on the Chatti, a Germanic tribe described by Tacitus in the first century, the following quote can be found.

They wore iron rings around their necks, and could only discard these after they had killed an enemy. Some indeed chose to wear them all their life, as long as they could go on fighting, and ‘to such old warriors it always rests to begin battle’. [xxxii]

Thus the rings around the necks of the sleeping may not be purely ornamental, but rather an indication of status. As the translation consulted did not mention the location of the rings nothing definite can be concluded however. It is not specified in the text as to whether these rings in the Volsunga Saga where worn around the neck or upon the hand. It seems likely however, that in the context of the Saga, these would have been neck rings, which are worn by the Berserker to show their bondage to the God Óðin. Without a description of the location of the rings, however, nothing definite can be concluded in this regard.

The danger of the wolfskins and their ambiguous role in society is also related in the tale of Sinfjotli and Sigmund. The animal nature of the wolf is not always fully under control, and this can been seen in the extract from the Volsunga Saga in which Sigmund attacks Sinfjotli.

You accepted help to kill seven men. I am a child in age next to you, but I did not ask for helping in killing eleven men.” Sigmund leapt at him so fiercely the Sinfjotli staggered and fell. Sigmund bit him in the windpipe. That day they were not able to come out of the wolfskins. Sigmund laid Sinfjotli over his shoulder, carried him home to the hut, and sat over him. He cursed the wolfskins, bidding the trolls to take them. [xxxiii]

The nature of the man is at times, in contrast with the nature of the wolf. The wolf nature in combat is extremely valuable, it is a great power. If it is not fully controlled however, it can become a great curse, as was seen from the tale of Úlfr, the retired Berserker. Here we also see the wolf skins being cursed, and indeed, once Sinfjotli and Sigmund succeed in removing the wolfskins, they burn them in the fire.

Then they went to the underground dwelling and stayed there until they were to take off the wolfskins. They took the skins and burned them in the fire, hoping that these objects would cause no further harm. [xxxiv]

To conclude, there seems to be little room for doubt that there is a justified case for a comparison between the Berserker and the figure of the Vrātya – both occupy a similar dual role, as warrior and priest or shaman. Both were not only respected by the populace at large, but were also feared by them. They also share the canine and/or lupine symbolism, and both are associated with similar deities, for Rudra and Óðin also share a number of common features. Perhaps the main difference between the two figures lies in the contrast between their roles over an extended period of time (bearing in mind the Vrātya existed at the most basic level of the Vedic substratum, making them extremely archaic). The Berserker did not suffer from the same social stigma as the figure of the Vrātya. A retired Berserker was feared, lest he continue to transform against his will, but he was not regarded as an object of ‘impurity’ as the Vrātya came to be regarded. The Vrātya, perhaps due to the nature of some of their rituals, probably clashed directly with the rise of the Brahmin caste, for some early textual references afford the Vrātya an extremely high social status – in subsequent texts from the later Vedic period, the Vrātya is regarded to be almost totally impure and not much better regarded than the average outcaste from society.

The Berserker seems to have been spared this degradation in regards to his social position. In terms of direct comparison between the two, the most important factor, other than the obvious link to the wolf, is the liminal nature of their role. As previously stated, they predate the Vedic separation of the primary castes and thus occupy a position which is neither priest nor warrior. Similarly the Berserker contains two souls; one wolf and one human – again his nature is liminal, for he cannot be said to be neither fully beast nor fully man. Though it cannot be stated at this point whether or not the Vrātya also used a form of shape shifting in battle, they are also recorded as wolves or dogs, and utilized the wilderness of the forest for ritual performance. Although this form of liminality cannot be verified for certain, what is certain is that they also occupied a dualistic role, being both pure an impure. Thus they can also be said to occupy a liminal role, of dangerous unpredictable ambiguity.

This article is featured in Primordial Traditions Vol. I (ed. Gwendolyn Taunton) and is available here

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i White, D. G., Myths of the Dog-Man (US:University of Chicago Press, 1999), 27.
ii Eliade, M., Essential Sacred Writings From Around the World (US:HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 294.
iii Ellis Davidson, H. R., Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1988),79.
iv Ibid., 79.
v Ibid., 79.
vi Ibid., 79.
vii White, D. G., Myths of the Dog-Man (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1991), 61.
viii Ibid., 61.
ix Eliade, M., Essential Sacred Writings From Around the World, 294.
x Ellis Davidson, H. R, Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions, 80.
xi Dumézil, G., The Destiny of the Warrior (US:University of Chicago Press, 1970), 141.
xii Ellis Davidson, H. R., Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (UK: Penguin Books, 1964), 67.
xiii Dumézil, G., The Destiny of the Warrior, 141.
xiv Ibid., 141-142.
xv Gerstein, M. R., in ed. Larson, G.J., Myth in Indo-European Antiquity (UK: University of California Press, 1974), 143.
xvi Dumézil, G., The Destiny of the Warrior, 142.
xvii Ibid., 143.
xviii Gerstein, M. R., The Germanic Warg: The Outlaw as Werewolf in Myth in Indo-European Antiquity, 156.
xix Eliade, M, trans. Trask, W. R., Yoga: Immortality and Freedom (US: Princeton University Press, 1990), 103.
xx Ibid., 105.
xxi White, D. G., Myths of the Dog-Man (US:University of Chicago Press, 1991), 96.
xxii Ibid., 96.
xxiii Ibid., 100.
xxiv Ibid., 96.
xxv Ibid., 98.
xxvi Ibid., 101.
xxvii Ibid., 101.
xxviii Turner, V. W., The Ritual Process (US: Aldine Publishing Company, 1995), 95.
xxix Dumézil, G., The Destiny of the Warrior (US:University of Chicago Press, 1970), 142.
xxx Eliade, M., Essential Sacred Writings From Around the World (US: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 296.
xxxi Byock, L. J., trans., The Saga of the Volsungs (UK: Penguin Books, 1990), 44.
xxxii Ellis Davidson, H. R, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (UK: Penguin Books, 1964), 66.
xxxiii Byock, L. J., trans., The Saga of the Volsungs (UK: Penguin Books, 1990), 45.
xxxiv Ibid., 45.