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The Berserkergang

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Somafera as a Martial Art

Introduction

 

This is the web site of Rillway Combatives Academy. (Named for the place where we first met in person, and first fought each other.) We are a school for teaching the martial art called "berserkergang". We are not a traditional school, for the original tradition of this martial art died out centuries ago. Those of us who practice it now have reconstructed it through a combination of research and experimentation. We have no teachers and no students (except by special and private arrangement between two individuals). This is partly because we are all new enough at this that we cannot any of us really set ourselves up above the others as being teachers. And it is partly because of our philosophy. We tend to think that most traditional martial arts place far too much emphasis on teachers, and far too little on learning. It is too easy for fools and charlatans to set themselves up as teachers just to make money, and then because they are teachers, and because of traditions surrounding rank in the MA world, they never actually have to prove themselves or their techniques. We tend to think that schools that discourage full sparring and encourage memorizing forms by rote encourage bad habits and allow useless techniques to be passed on as valuable lore. We have no ranks or titles. We are a collection of individuals who only act together as we each choose to. We think this is healthier in the long run than the traditional model. Respect is paid most to those who earn respect by their feats, especially in the ring, and by the quality of advice they give. Worth proves itself in time, and this arrangement does not allow fools and charlatans to easily hide behind big words and ranks. We have no belts or degrees. You either fight well or you don't. Why add decorations to that? We learn together, as a collective experiment, and we each pass along whatever we discover. What we learn we put to the test in the ring. Or in real life, as many of us have been or are in the military, in active service.

We have been doing this for a long time over the Internet, and been learning so much from each other, that we have started to formalize our practices. We have purchased some land in Montana, where it's cheap, and have begun building a gymnasium specially designed around the needs of the berserker training style. A place where the more experienced berserks can teach the younger ones, and where the residents and guests will have the opportunity to be put to the test by a variety of different styles and skills, as they will have a chance to fight guests as they come.

The berserkergang is a martial art type of somafera. Somafera is a term we have coined to describe a large number of related practices in different cultures around the world. It is a combination of Greek and Latin translating as "the body wild". It is the art and science of altering the body's physiological state to enhance its functioning in certain ways. The physiological state is simply the state in which the body is functioning: the particular arrangement of hormones, muscle activity, mental focus, neurotransmitters, and so forth. Most people are familiar with the two most common states of physiology: waking and sleeping. Some few are familiar with more unusual physiological states, in which some danger or need brings out unaccustomed strength or dexterity, such as when a car in the other lane suddenly swerves into one's own, or when a mother suddenly becomes able to move a burning car off of her child. But even so, most people assume this particular state of physiology arises purely by accident and/or external forces, and cannot be controlled.

However, there is a long history the world over of practices developed to trigger this sort of change in physiology, and control it. And because these practices mostly developed before the scientific revolution, they are largely described from a personal, subjective (rather than impersonal, objective) point of view. They are described in terms of spirituality, and of effecting a physical change via changing the state of one's spirit. (And this pre-scientific point of view is why the practices are largely ignored in today's world.) Some of these practices are mostly religious in their focus, such as the maenadism of ancient Greece and the isawiyya of the ancient Middle East. Others (the more common varieties) are combat oriented, and are a form of internal martial art, such as the berserkergang of the Norse, the heroic feats of the Celts, and the boxers of the Chinese Boxer Rebellion.

The goal of this site is to explore this phenomenon from the angle of its use as a martial art, which is arguably the most common form it has taken historically. History however is not the context in which the site is presented. It is instead presented as a viable style of martial art, one presently being practiced.

Disclaimer:                                                              

The information and practices described in this site are the result of years of study and dedication to the understanding of the risks involved. These descriptions are provided for purposes of information only. Actually trying to practice anything described in this site would almost certainly lead to injury, perhaps even serious injury or death. We strongly advise against it.

 

The berserkergang was the practice of a kind of elite viking warrior, called a berserker, or berserk. The meaning of the word berserk seems to have varied from place to place. It sometimes seems to mean "bare of sark," referring to the practice of the berserks of fighting without armor. It also sometimes was used as "bear-shirt," referring possibly to another practice of fighting in an actual bearskin or to the belief that the berserk somehow changed into a bear. Some kinds of berserks (in the first sense of the word) were referred to as "ulfhednar", meaning wolf-coats in the same sense as the second meaning of berserk. There may also have been boar-berserks and cat- (of the large predatory variety) berserks.

Kveldulfr, who was described as a berserk in Egil's Saga, was said to change shape into a wolf. What Egil's Saga has to say about the berserkergang, the frenzied state the berserk fought in, is:

"What people say about shape-changers or those who go into berserk fits is this: that as long as they're in the frenzy they're so strong that nothing is too much for them, but as soon as they're out of it they become much weaker than normal."

The Ynglinga Saga records:

"... his men went without mailcoats, and were as frantic as dogs or wolves; they bit their shields and were as strong as bears or boars; they slew men but neither fire nor iron could hurt them. This is known as 'running berserk'."

The berserkers were described as "Odin's men." They were often described as fighting together in bands of twelve or thirteen, and mention is sometimes made of brotherhoods of berserkers. It seems that the berserkers were practitioners of a mystery (in the old sense of the word) of Odin, an ecstatic religious state that granted them their formidability in battle.

The practice was outlawed about one thousand years ago, when Christian conquerors of that age took the last of the old heathen lands. It seems at that point that it went underground. Just about at the time of its outlawing there appeared a tradition in sport fighting called "trollaukin", meaning "possession by spirits", where the fighter uses prayer and focusing techniques to become possessed by a fearsome spirit (often a troll or devil) to become stronger and more fearsome in combat. The practice survived as a part of sport fighting (though an illegal part) for centuries, as history tells us, before simply dwindling away into nonexistence.

It has been underground or gone for so long now that stories of it are generally taken as folk tales, so there is no easy way to determine just exactly what the practice of the berserkergang actually was. There have been a number of theories advanced over the years by academics, specializing in history, mythology, and even neuroscience. The most popular theories were that it was induced by excessive drinking, by eating the amanita muscaria mushroom, or as a reaction to the pain of Piaget's Disease, but all of these theories have been disproven by modern scientific research. (A documentary on British television has some humorous clips of what those who've had excessive amounts of alcohol and amanita actually look like fighting.) The most well regarded theory currently is that berserkers worked themselves up into an hysterical frenzy through religious or spiritual ritual, thus allowing them to access hysterical strength. The sort of strength that sometimes comes to people when their lives are in danger, or the lives of their loved ones. The strength that brings with it increases in reaction speed and coordination. The sort of strength that is also brought out in some types of insanity and dementia, and in people on PCP.

This makes the berserkergang an internal martial art. An internal martial art is a fairly rare sort of martial art. To understand what it is try understanding first what an external martial art is. An external martial art is the most common type. Examples are karate, taekwondo, regimental broadsword, and shoot fighting. These types of martial arts tend to teach through use of kata, or forms. These are learned patterns of behavior, that are drilled into the student's memory through great repetition over a course of many years. Once enough experience has been had in practicing these patterns of movement they begin to become instinctual. Then in a fight the martial artist will tend to see the opponant's stance and actions in terms of how similar they are to the ones he or she learned responses to from the forms. When they are similar enough the martial artist then can instinctively use a move that has a better than average chance of being effective.

An internal martial art tends to utilize a completely different approach. Examples of internal martial arts are the berserkergang, bagua, tai chi, and some forms of kung fu. These forms tend to concentrate on manipulating the mind and body in certain ways in order to enhance their functioning. Techniques include using meditation to clear the mind, allowing it to react faster, using hyperventilation to raise adrenaline, and using hypnotic techniques to dull the sensation of pain.

To generalize, external martial arts tend to teach by concentrating on taking the right actions for every circumstance, the internal arts tend to teach by concentrating on attributes core to any victory or martial style, like strength and speed. It should be noted that this "internal/external" concept of different styles of martial art is somewhat artificial and not entirely accurate. Many martial arts blend the two of them to some extent or other. Many external styles have internal techniques that are only taught to students after years of practice. It seems Eastern MA styles distinguish between them less than Western styles do.

In recent decades the ancient practice of the berserkergang has been taken up again as a formal practice. In truth this is mostly a reconstruction. It cannot be said to be a direct continuation of the old lines. It is at best a new tradition that is the heir of the old. In recent years especially this has grown, thanks in most part to the Internet. Because of it many people have had access to obscure scientific and historical information right at their fingertips. And more importantly, those of us with an interest have been able to find each other, and compare notes.

There seems to have sprung up several groups over the world more or less simultaneously, starting back in the 80's. We occasionally find signs of each other's presence online (for some reason it is common for those berserks who do make websites to leave no contact information and then to remove the website in a year or two). From those I have spoken to it seems that the stories of other groups are much like the story of the one I belong to, so I shall relate it in brief. It seems that there are people born with a knack for entering the berserker trance, just like there are people born with natural skills in every endeavor from painting to driving race cars. Many of us had wondered over the years just what was going on with us and turned to research online, and discovered tales of people like ourselves in references to the berserkers. Others of us were heathens, meaning we practiced the indigenous religion of Northern Europe, the religion of the viking gods, and so we had a cultural context to put our experiences in, that of the berserkergang. My father explained to me when I was a child about the old legends, and explained that the berserkergang was a matter of a genetic trait that made some people prone to spontaneously accessing the hysterical strength of the insane, and that it ran in our family. We berserks found traces of each other online, and started corresponding. We eventually formed a forum online and compared what we all knew from experience. Each of us brought something different to the table, such as majoring in neuroscience or exercise physiology, practicing the gangr for years, being an experienced meditator, and more. We started developing ideas about just what was going on in both scientific and spiritual terms. (Internal martial arts of every type tend to have a heavy spiritual component, and are often seen in terms of raising and controlling a sort of spiritual energy, such as chi.) I came to talk to almost 200 different berserks from all over the world, over the years. We eventually started meeting every year.

These gatherings are a blast! They form one of the highest points of the year for me. We climb cliffsides without gear, hold spiritual and religious rituals such as the ancient berserks likely practiced, drink into the wee hours of the morning, play sports, hold poetry competitions (there is an ancient viking game that makes poetry into both a competition and a drinking game), shoot bows and guns, give and receive lectures and lessons in everything from the finer points of handling a rifle to meditations designed to call out especially high concentrations of adrenaline. In general we have a nonstop blast. But the central feature is the Shieldbiter's Cup tournament. We stake out a wide section of the field we use, sometimes enclosing trees. Two of the boundaries are ringout lines. Combatants wear mouthpieces and MA half-gloves because it's mandatory, many also wear headgear and a cup. Essentially the only rules are that no attack be deliberately killing or crippling. We have a number of specific examples (fishhooking, eye-gouging, breaking the short ribs, etc). Other than this it is no holds barred, full strength punches and kicks. Forcing an opponent over the ringout line while not crossing yourself makes for an automatic win. This is to force fighters to remain aware of their environments at all times. The trees are for the same reason. It is also to even the odds a bit when it comes to size, for we do not separate weight classes. (Although that might sound unfair the 2007 champion was a middleweight who won the championship bout from a superheavyweight in a half hour match of incredible intensity.) We do not divide the match into rounds. A referee and two bouncers stand by to stop the fight if need be, in case of TKO or one of the fighters getting carried away. We have had an incredible mix of styles and skills. We've had a former Navy SEAL, a current special ops soldier, a kickboxer who was a champion of his dojo (meaning he was picked to defend its honor in challenge matches from other dojos), a former HS wrestler with intensive MMA training, and many others. Myself, I have little classical training but have some streetfighting experience and a lot of advanced meditative techniques.

So it has been decided recently that we had enough good core information on the martial practices that it was worth getting it all down into one place, for easy reference. And as I seem to be the one with enough free time to write all these web sites I was elected to write a site on the use of the berserkergang as a martial art. And therefore I should give my references as a fighter and a scholar of the berserkergang. I am an ulfhedinn style berserker. I am the 2006 and 2008 winner of Shieldbiter's Cup. I have defeated or fought to a draw every opponent in several sword tournaments in the Broadsword League. I have defeated the masters of two sword academies in duels. I have won my streetfights more often than I have lost them. I have studied the berserkergang for years in a scholarly sense and written extensively on it from religious, spiritual, and scientific points of view.

A word or two must be said about learning the art of the berserkergang. Most of its practitioners seem at least nowadays (though ancient stories hint that it was the same then) to be people who were born prone to entering the berserk trance spontaneously. We've known a few people who have not been born with such predispositions try to learn the techniques. They either failed or succeeded in such a way that they stopped wanting to try, describing the experience as terrifying, hellish, and utterly alien. (People born prone to spontaneously experiencing it tend to find it incredibly fun, a real blast.) Perhaps other people who are not naturals could learn. But we so far don't know of any that have. Though other sorts of internal martial arts do things similar to what we do and manage to teach most people who want to learn, the reliance upon internal techniques is not usually so pronounced in those arts as in the berserkergang. The berserkergang is essentially shamanism as a martial art.

It should be noted that though we use the term "berserkergang" for this sort of martial practice, in truth that word was traditionally only used for this style of fighter in Northern Europe. But this style of martial art is actually found all over the world. Certain Celtic heroes and warriors fought in a frenzy called the warp spasm or riastradh. The Dacians, ancestors of the Slavs, had Wolf Warriors who fought in this style. The practice is found amongst the Leopard Men and possibly the Zulus in Africa. It was used in China during the Boxer Rebellion, when the Spirit Boxers led a revolution. This sort of practice also had variants that weren't for fighting at all and were instead for religious or spiritual purposes, or healing, or something else. Collectively these types of practice are called "somafera". But we usually call the martial sort of somafera "the berserkergang", no matter what the actual culture involved is. (We needed some term everyone recognized.)

The berserker style relies heavily on entering a meditative or hypnotic trance, and causing the adrenal glands to dump something like their full contents into the blood stream. (And a lot of other things besides, but that's getting rather technical.) This combination of things makes the perception of the berserk alter heavily, until it is in some regards more like a dream state than a waking one. The berserker trance makes the forebrain, the most "human" part of the brain, shut off. It increases the dominance of the hindbrain, the animal brain. The effect all this has on us is almost universally to have the experience of becoming something other than human, usually a predatory animal like a wolf. This effect of the trance is so universal that it is found in almost every culture that has these practices. Most of the ancient traditions believed that the berserker changed, spiritually, into an animal, or became possessed by an animal spirit. Myself, I see no real contradiction between spiritual and scientific explanations. In my view they each address different aspects of the experience. It matters little to me what is "really" going on, whether there is a "real" spiritual component to the experience or not. I have the experience of becoming a wolf in the berserker trance, and that is all that matters to me. (Reality is perception, and it is the experiences and relationships we have that matter most.) I know others who define themselves in purely spiritual terms, and still others who practice this from a purely scientific and materialistic viewpoint.

 

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