Collage of Viking Illustration with Mushrooms

Did Viking Berserkers Take Magic Mushrooms?

A scientific look into the tale that Viking berserkers used magic mushrooms to achieve feats of near-godlike strength.

DoubleBlind Mag

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DoubleBlind // Culture // Science

Using drugs to fight wars isn’t new. Headlines today focus on soldiers healing from PTSD with compounds like MDMA, but mixing substances and combat is something of a tradition: Between Arabs with hashish, Nazis on methamphetamines, and the United States military’s Go pills (Modafinil), the history of psychoactive drugs is entwined in much more than mind-expanding recreation.

For several hundred years, scholars have looked to psychoactive substances to describe the extreme behavior of another group: the Vikings. In particular, the “berserkers,” Viking warriors that have taken on a nearly mythical reputation. The Vikings are certainly associated with substance use in other ways (during great feasts, for example, mead was drunk to the point of unconsciousness) so the theory that berserkers may have used psychoactive substances isn’t entirely without merit. But as with all legends, the truth is complicated. 

How the Berserker Legend Began

Berserkers in pop culture are often depicted as being consumed entirely by rage, able to perform superhuman feats of Hulk-like strength. We have thirteenth-century poet Snorri Sturlusin, in part, to thank for that: He got the ball rolling when he penned an interpretation of the sagas that painted berserkers as ferocious and wild, effectively birthing the modern understanding of “going berserk.”

READ: The Definitive History of Psilocybin and Magic Mushrooms

“[Odin’s] men rushed forwards without armor, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild oxen, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon them,” he wrote. “This was called Berserkergang.” Berserkers entered a bloodlust in which they became a danger to even their comrades, unable to reign in destructive impulses until they reached exhaustion, crashing and “becoming like infants.” That’s the way the story went, anyway.

The passage has defined berserkers for several hundred years, with scholars building on Sturlusen’s ideas while struggling with explanations of how a human could become immune to fire and iron. A scholastic game of speculation has stretched centuries and now includes explanations like animal spirit possession, lycanthropy (thinking one is an animal), PTSD, alcohol—and yes, psychoactive substances. The two primary suspects are a nightshade known as henbane, and the psychoactive mushroom Amanita muscaria.

Did Viking Berserkers Use Amanita muscaria?

Image of Amanita muscaria
Amanita muscaria. Image by Ivan Sumlikin via Unsplash.

Amanita muscaria, the iconic red and white spotted toadstool found everywhere from Super Mario to Alice in Wonderland, is fairly common in the Northern Hemisphere wherever pine trees grow, and is also psychoactive. Therefore, the idea that the berserkers may have used Amanita muscaria isn’t entirely unreasonable.

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“The first person to suggest that [berserkers] used Amanita muscaria was a Swedish theologian called Samuel Ödmann in 1784,” Roderick Dale, berserker expert and author of The Myths and Realities of the Viking Berserkr, said. 

READ: The Trippy Truth About Amanita muscaria, The World’s Most Famous Mushroom

Dale thinks Ödmann’s Amanita theory could have drawn influence from shamanic practices in Siberia, or perhaps even the memoir of Philipp Johann von Strahlenberg, a prisoner of war in Kamchatka in the early 1700s. Von Strahlenberg detailed a Christmas party where nobles drank an Amanita-infused liquor while the poor begged outside for bowls of the rich’s urine, which still contained Amanita‘s psychoactive compounds. 

Wherever Ödmann’s ideas came from, they have proved captivating, enduring over 300 years and inspiring generations of scholars and content creators. Figures like Gordon Wasson, who penned the first popular article on magic mushrooms, have repeated Ödmann’s theory. Wasson even referenced a lost report given to the Royal Scientific Society by a professor Hildebrandsson detailing Swedish soldiers “seized by a raging madness, foaming at the mouth” after consuming Amanita muscaria. Wasson also speculated Amanita pantherina (a mushroom related to Amanita muscaria) could have been used, but while the concept of Vikings on mushrooms has stuck, not everyone is convinced.

“As far as I know, no Amanita residue has been found in Viking Age contexts,” Dale said.

“I love the concept [that berserkers used Amanita muscaria], but I haven’t seen any evidence that would demonstrate there’s any validity to it,” Thomas Hatsis, a historian of psychedelia, said. Hatsis is the author of several books on psychedelic use in Europe and his research is informed by extensive personal experience with the plants and fungi he covers.

“I eat Amanita probably more than I eat any other medicine, and the thing is that it is unpredictable,” Hatsis said. “I make a tea to go to sleep because you get a great sleep with Amanita tea, though sometimes I drink the tea and it gets me stimulated.”

Molecular structure of Miscimol
Structure of Muscimol.

Amanita muscaria contains several psychoactive substances. Many conversations focus on muscimol, a compound that interacts with GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter of the brain. Activating GABA is associated with calming effects, and in the lab, muscimol has been studied as an antianxiety medication; Amanita extracts of muscimol are also growing in popularity as sleep aids. Amanita contains more than just muscimol, though, with compounds like ibotenic acid or muscarine potentially contributing stimulating effects; this makes predicting Amanita’s experiences much trickier. 

“I Love Amanita muscaria,” Hatsis said. “But I would not eat it before going into battle.”

Maybe It Was Henbane, Not Magic Mushrooms

OK, so the evidence for Vikings taking Amanita muscaria is far from foolproof, but could the stories of the berserkers be attributed to another substance? That’s a gray area, too.

“We have no evidence for drug use by berserkers [specifically], so all the research on drugs is speculative,” Dale said, but he clarified that “henbane and cannabis seeds have been found in Viking Age graves in Scandinavia, so we know some drugs were used [by the Vikings].”

“The person found with the cannabis seeds had a painful illness, so it could just have been a painkiller,” Dale said. “However, they have only been found in female-gendered graves, suggesting that they were used by völur (seeresses) and not by berserkers.”

Karsten Fatur, an ethnobotanist and author of multiple papers on Solanaceae, the family of nightshades henbane belongs to, has made a detailed argument that berserkers did take henbane. However, he cautioned that his own work is speculative, and because we lack solid archaeological or textual evidence, he encouraged skepticism.

“That being said, we know that black henbane and its relatives can be used in a number of ways and were used in these ways around Europe at various points in time,” says Fatur. 

What is Henbane?

Photo of Henbane in nature

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) is a flowering plant officially regarded as a poisonous nightshade and weed. With spiky leaves and yellowish-white flowers with dark purple centers emanating purple veins, the plant immediately conjures up witchy vibes. Indeed, henbane has a reputation for being part of witch’s brews and ointments, with its psychoactive properties known across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia for thousands of years.

“The plant can be made into tea or mixed with another beverage such as wine or beer,” Fatur said. “It can be smoked, it can be made into an unguent and applied topically to the skin, or it could be something as simple as swallowing some of the seeds.”

Despite its use throughout history, Fatur cautioned against taking black henbane recreationally. “Depending on the time of year, where the plant is growing, which part of the plant you use, and other factors, the strength will vary,” he said. “It makes using these plants very risky and I highly recommend not using them.”

Did Viking Berserkers Take Henbane?

According to one of Fatur’s papers, berserkers were not intimidated by henbane. Furthermore, the tropane alkaloids within (atropine and scopolamine) might explain berserker behavior better than Amanita. For example, Fatur said rage isn’t a common symptom of Amanita, but reports of aggression exist with henbane. Berserkers were also known for attacking their comrades, and Fatur explained that henbane may have made it difficult to recognize familiar faces.

“The experiences of people who take these plants are almost universally quite awful,” Fatur said. Indeed, one academic response to Fatur’s paper suggested henbane might be too strong to be useful in battle. However, Fatur explained that “a warrior would have trained and had experience with this plant and would know what to expect, especially if they had used the plant before.”

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Of course, the opinions around the henbane theory vary, too.

“The thing is, henbane doesn’t make you aggressive,” Hatsis said. “I mean, I use henbane. I do it for dream divination purposes. So the point of it is to knock me out, which it does.”

Hatsis inhales henbane fumes from a brazier filled with coals, like many traditions before him, with the intention of getting clarity on a question or to gain understanding on a particular event in his life. He compares its duration to cannabis, with the peak lasting around an hour or longer. Hatsis said the dreams often show him the he “kind of catastrophized this thing that wasn’t a big deal at all.” He added that he felt these experiences “lead to less anxiety and contentment when [he’s] awake.”

While these benefits may sound worthwhile, Hatsis (and everyone else DoubleBlind talked to) doesn’t recommend you try it.

“The first time I inhaled henbane was in 2005,” Hatsis said. “I took it and I almost killed myself. My roommate found me in my room in our house. I was in the corner, naked, covered in sweat scratching my face.” Despite that undeniably alarming experience, Hatsis said he has “been working with henbane since then.”

Over a period of nearly 20 years, Hatsis has developed a relationship with henbane, allowing him to take doses that would be very dangerous, if not fatal, for a first-timer. Henbane can cause dilated pupils, dry mouth, excessive heat, loss of motor control, vivid hallucinations, changes to heart rate, vomiting, urinary problems, and convulsions, while higher doses risk serious cardiac complications, liver damage, respiratory depression, or even coma and death. Hatsis said that if he were to do it again, he would start extremely small and very, very slowly introduce the plant to the body over time. 

“Don’t be an idiot like me and do a full-on psychedelic dose the first time because you can very likely kill yourself,” he said. “That would be my harm reduction advice on henbane: Just stay away from it.”

So, Did the Vikings Really Get High?

Ultimately, the idea that Vikings used psychedelic drugs to transform themselves into superhuman berserkers is certainly an appealing one, and there may even be a grain of truth to it, but it seems more likely to be an exaggerated tale. 

“I come down heavily on the side of berserksgangr being a ritual and not frenzy, and thus that it did not necessarily involve or require drugs,” Dale said, who said that the sagas and the meaning of the word “berserker” are still open to interpretation. Dale’s work suggests the concept of berserker as a wild, uncontrolled fury could be hyperbole and that berserksgangr (the act of going berserk) might have been a ritual performed before battle to call in Odin, the Norse god of war and death. 

“They are different cultures and we can’t throw our modern ideas onto them,” Hatsis said. “It’s totally possible that before battle, a berserker [may have] had a henbane-laced beer.” But at the end of the day, Hatsis said there just isn’t evidence and that we don’t need drugs to explain berserker behavior. From Hatsis’s view, the original Amanita theory put forward is based on Ödmann being unable to fathom how berserkers could be so enraged without a drug. 

“It was the 1700s,” Hatsis said. “So Ödmann didn’t know anything about road rage. And anybody who has ever seen someone who experienced road rage, well, chances are that person did not eat Amanita muscaria before they got in their car that day.”

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