Hallucinogens: Researcher decodes natural drug that turned Vikings into savage berserkers

The Vikings were feared warriors, but the berserkers were particularly notorious among them.

Hallucinogens: Researcher decodes natural drug that turned Vikings into savage berserkers

The Vikings were feared warriors, but the berserkers were particularly notorious among them. These were special warriors who went into battle naked, painted and covered in skins. Before that, they would escalate into an animal frenzy and rage. Their will to fight was immense and almost impossible to control. Other Vikings were well advised to avoid the madmen. In their anger, they would uncontrollably attack anyone who stood in their way. In battle they were almost impossible to control and would fight to the death, even serious injuries would not cause them to give up the fight.

The dangerous madmen would hardly be of any use for intelligent warfare with complicated maneuvers by individual soldiers, as they were known to the Romans. But in the early Middle Ages, they were a weapon that could decide battles. In the battles of that time, it was crucial that the fighters formed a long line on the battlefield, covering each other with their shields. The side whose shield wall was torn open usually suffered heavy losses and lost the battle.

The berserkers should use their anger to panic the enemy and force a breakthrough at any cost. They turned into wild animals. They howled like wolves and bit their shields in anger. Their bodies were gripped by chills, but they were considered impervious to iron - swords - and fire. The terrible warriors were oddballs and loners even in peacetime, because they also started unplanned killing sprees when they got into the wrong mood.

Now a scientist has unraveled the secret of their frenzy. It has long been assumed that the warriors put themselves in this state with rituals and drugs. Previous theories have suggested that toadstools steeped in alcohol were responsible for the condition. Karsten Fatur, an ethnobotanist at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, however, is convinced that the fungus is not responsible for the condition.

According to Fatur, while the berserkers may have used toadstools, the mushrooms are not the cause of the berserkers' special condition. Because strong aggressiveness and hyperactivity occur only very occasionally in poisoning with fly agaric and are by no means a typical effect. In his opinion, black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) drove the berserkers into their frenzy.

"They could make a tea from the herb, you could soak it in alcohol, or you could make an ointment in animal fat that you rub on the skin." It wasn't without danger, since the herb was quite poisonous if you got the dose wrong. The application led to a sharp decrease in pain perception. The warriors would have become "unpredictable and highly aggressive" and would have lost all inhibitions and "lost contact with reality," says the researcher. The herb has a whole host of other side effects like blurred vision and manic episodes.

The henbane originally comes from the Mediterranean region and spread north to Scandinavia. The psychoactive effect was known throughout the Middle Ages. The herb was even added to medieval beers in small doses until the authorities banned the practice in 1507. Typical of the effects of the herb is the inability to recognize faces. And the berserkers were known for being unable to distinguish between friend and foe in battle.

Many armies have given drugs to their soldiers. The US gave mind-altering drugs to soldiers in Vietnam. Hitler's Wehrmacht used methamphetamine. The drug called "Panzerschokolade" or "Göring Pillen" was Pervitin. However, it should not lead to a high, but rather suppress tiredness and hunger and trigger a slight euphoria. When taken regularly, however, the drug led to delusions and aggressiveness - but these were undesirable side effects, because of which the drug was then no longer administered. There was no place in modern warfare for a drug as uncontrollable as the berserker drug.

Quelle: Journal of Ethnopharmacology.

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