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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Note to stanza

1. 3. Þorbjǫrn hornklofi, 2. Haraldskvæði (Hrafnsmál), 8 [Vol. 1, 102]

[5, 7] berserkir; ulfheðnar ‘berserks; wolf-skins [berserks]’: Berserkir are normally characterized as warriors given to animal-like fighting frenzy (e.g. Blaney 1993, 37), and etymologised as ‘bear-tunics’ (AEW: berserkr), cf. ulfheðnar ‘wolf-skins’, in which heðinn is an animal fur or skin, or a hooded jacket or cloak made of skin. Von See (1961a) argues that berserkr was not a fixed term designating an actual C10th warrior type but a descriptive cpd that was misinterpreted and adopted by later skalds (including the one he believes added sts 12-23 to this poem). Moreover, the berserkir here are not, he says, Haraldr’s elite troop but his enemies. Liberman (2003) argues that ber- in the sense ‘bear’ occurs only as a borrowing from Ger. in berfjall ‘bear-skin’, and revives an earlier theory that in berserkir it is more likely to have meant, originally, ‘bare’ (adj. berr).


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