Grundy Stephan Scott - Shapeshifting and Berserkergang

Author : Grundy Stephan Scott
Title : Shapeshifting and Berserkergang
Year : 2005

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Shapeshifting and Berserkergang. Shapeshifting, in its various forms, is one of the more common minor literary motifs in Old Icelandic literature. The identification of a human with an animal provided a rich symbological vocabulary for the poets and saga-writers: knowledge out of the ordinary, most usually prophetic knowledge, could be quickly and artistically expressed by, for instance, the representation of hostile persons as wolves, bears, or eagles. This identification, however, was clearly, in its origins, more than a literary device. The common Germanic usage of animal-elements in personal names1 indicates that the association between a human and a specific animal was deeply grounded in the Norse culture, a grounding which is reflected both in heroic-mythological tales of shapeshifting and in the more prosaic context of the family sagas in which elements of this association may survive. Likewise, iconographic evidence such as that provided by the Torslunda helm-plate matrices and certain of the figures on the Oseburg burial tapestries, among other examples, gives clear evidence of the deliberate identification between the human warrior and the animal whose characteristics he was thought to embody, expressed by masking and the wearing of the appropriate animal’s skin.This identification is made clearest in the problematical figure of the berserkr, who at times, particularly in the earlier sources, was said to use the physical animal-hide in order to induce his fits, but could also “change his hide” (hamask) in fury, or even involuntarily, without the use of a physical skin, leading to the fascinating question of the relationship between the different forms of shapeshifting known to the saga-authors, the psychological transformation of the berserk, and the specific importance of an animal’s skin in the process of shape-changing. ...

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Balder Ex-Libris