BERSERKERGANG: Berserks; Mainads,
Boxers; Dacian Wolf-People; Isawiyya; Jansenist
Convulsionaires; Lakota Ghost
& Crow Sun Dancers; Perchtenlauf;
Running Amok; Tarantism; Vodoun; Wild
Men of the Woods;
of Africa; Therianthropy;
Fictional Berserks; Heroic Feats;
MADSPACE: Mad Scientists; The Pythia; Trollaukin; Whirling Dervishes; Kataragama; Pentecostals; Sadhus; Isawiyya; Jansenist Convulsionaires; Lakota Ghost Dancers & Crow Sun Dancers; Mainads; Vodoun
The berserkergang was the practice of a kind of elite viking warrior, called a 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 "ulfhedinn," 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. In this they differ from the other common kind of Odinic devotee, in that they were not usually noblemen and the gifts Odin favored them with were power and madness, rather than battle strategy and information. (And it says something important about Odinic nature that his two standard chosen types are those on top of society or those outside it entirely. Both are free of society's constraints, and so are free to follow their individual wyrds withersoever they will.)
There has been much speculation by historians and anthropologists, amateur and professional both, as to what exactly the berserkergang was. The most well-regarded theories are essentially of four types:
My research into berserkers and the berserkergang has lead me to the following conclusions regarding these four theories.
There is actually a fair amount of evidence (albeit largely circumstantial) on just how to go about invoking the berserkergang, if you research long enough. The basic techniques could be broken down as follows:
Let me expand upon this last one before continuing. The meaning of the name Odin is roughly "stirrer to fury". This is certainly consistent with the hypothesis that adrenaline is a major component of the berserkergang, as fury is a major result of excess adrenaline. But here is where we must be careful. This is an old word, od (or wod, depending upon place and time), and "fury" or "rage" are only translations. They have certain implications to us modern folk that the ancient heathens may not have shared. Od means not just fury in the sense that we use it, but it also seems to mean possession, as by a spirit or god. Thus the fury of the berserkergang is no mere display of bad temper, or uncontrollable rage, but it is something transcendant, something holy. It is an ecstatic state.
Possession is an unusual state of mind wherein unity is attained with a god or spirit, where the boundary of the ego that separates the self from the god or spirit is erased. In essence, the one possessed "becomes" the god or spirit in question. This practice is found in many different religions, from the obscure to the commonplace. The practitioners of Vodoun engage in it when they become "ridden" by the loa. It is also found in Catholicism, under the term Mysterious Union, where the practitioner (usually a monk or a nun) becomes one with the Christian god for a time.
So it would seem that the berserkergang began with fury as we modern people understand that term. The berserk would use various physical techniques to get himself into an adrenaline high, and would then apply further techniques of religious and/or sympathetic ritual and become possessed, entering into an ecstatic state, and becoming a wolf, or a bear, or even maybe Odin himself.
Mainads, most simply, were the female followers of the Greek god of wine, Dionysos. From there, it gets much more complicated. The main problem in researching the mainads is in the distinction between "real" mainads (historical bands of women who held rituals for Dionysos in ancient Greece) and mythological mainads (who accompany satyrs in the god's revels and have supernatural abilities). Many scholars dismiss the accounts of the mainads' less believable activities as merely stories, but I think they may well have represented actual practices, and that the line between mythical and historical mainadism is blurry at best.
In the common myth of Dionysos, the god calls formerly domestic women out of their homes, inspires within them a frenzy that causes them to abandon their homes, their children, and head for the mountains. There they dance and sing in honor of Dionysos, sending themselves further and further into an ecstasy. Then the more extraordinary, and sometimes horrifying, accounts begin. The mainads attack live animals and tear them apart, eating the flesh raw (this is called omophagia). Somewhat paradoxically, they take up baby animals such as young wolves and suckle them at their breasts, even though they might slaughter their own babies. They charm snakes and wear them in their hair. They strike their thyrsoi (ritual staffs) on the ground and produce streams of water, milk, honey and wine. They have supernatural strength, and are impervious to weapons and fire.
"Their wild cries, the wine they drank, the excitement of the music and the dancing, all brought them to a pitch of frenzy which was the very object of the rite. In their ecstasy (loss of self-consciousness, a going outside oneself) and enthusiasm (spiritual possession by the god), they saw visions, performed acts such as the tearing to pieces and eating of raw flesh, and became insensible to heat or cold or pain." - Greek and Roman Religion by Alain Hus
These accounts might seem unbelievable until one begins finding similar examples of such phenomena from cultures world-wide, often with more well-documented events in recent times. Rituals are often performed in India, for instance, where worshippers pierce themselves with large spikes, walk on fire, all without showing any pain. They do this partly by inducing an altered state of consciousness through dance, music, and worship of the gods. I believe this is exactly what was happening for the maenads.
Dancing appears to have been a significant element to the inducement of ecstasy in the mainads. For one thing, it might have helped build up the adrenaline necessary for the increased strength they displayed. Specifically, the action of throwing the head back violently is frequently mentioned, an action that can certainly contribute to an altered state, even for modern heavy-metal headbangers. In Euripides' The Bacchae, Cadmus asks, "where shall we tread the dance, tossing our white heads in the dances of the god?" This backward toss of the head may have been for the maenads not only an spiritual communion with their god, but a physiological one as well - especially as some research suggests a possible sexual effect of this action. Another physical trigger was intoxication - Dionysos is the god of wine, after all, and drinking wine was a large part of the mainadic revels. There also may have been other psychoactive substances taken, though specifically what is highly debatable.
One additional aspect of the mainads should be mentioned here - they were also warriors, when the need arose. In Nonnos' Dionysiaca, the mainads are the army of Dionysos, slaying hundreds or thousands of men in the god's campaign in India. They are depicted as fierce, vicious, bloodthirsty, and completely capable of battle against strong, trained men. Inspired with the god's power, they use their thyrsoi as spears, they hunt and kill like animals, these women that had previously been mere housewives.
Taken all together, mainadism is an extraordinary physical and spiritual transformation brought about by intense activity, religious communion, and intoxication - and seems to me a clear example of somafera, and possibly the only one practiced historically exclusively by women.
The Boxers were a religious/political/martial organization in China in the nineteenth century. They had their roots in two separate organizations; the Big Swords and the Shenquan, or Spirit Boxers. Both of these organizations had similar practices, namely rendering the body invulnerable to harm by swallowing drinks mixed with the ashes of burnt charms, which was called by the Big Swords "The Armor of the Golden Bell". But the Shenquan also practiced healing and spirit possession, where various spirits (anything from deceased ancestors to gods) were called upon to possess the bodies of the devout.
The religious persecution by the Christians in that country combined with the political oppressions of such Western nations as England (which was endeavoring to conquer the whole of China as well as forcibly addict the Chinese populace to opium, which it would then sell to them) were so severe that China was in danger of being destroyed as a country, and even as a culture. One of the most notable changes this brought about was the merging of the Big Swords with the Spirit Boxers to form the Boxers, a group that used its religious practices of spirit possession to amplify their martial abilities by making them resistant to pain and all forms of injury, and to give them greater strength and fighting prowess.
The swallowing of charms continued to be a practice for the Boxers, as well as the recitation of spoken charms. But the primary ritual to effect the possession was called the Koutou. This involved kneeling prostrate on the ground while banging the head against it. This was done as a sign of respect for the god or spirit being called. And of course such prostration would tend to have the effect of sublimating or eliminating the ego while the repeated blows to the head would be an adrenaline trigger through both pain and repetition. For all of these reasons it seems obvious the Boxers practiced a form of somafera.
It should be noted that the Boxers made heavy use not only of the traditional religion of China but also of elements of popular culture. Unusual Personal Gnoses formed a large part of Boxer spiritual practice.
The Boxers were perhaps the most notable example of somafera in history. They are the ones solely responsible for the Boxer Rebellion, a massive popular uprising against Western imperialists of both the political and religious stamps. Unlike most other somafera organizations throughout the world their membership was not heavily restricted, and they made no effort to keep their practices secret. They actively sought to recruit anyone who would study with them, and advertised their presence everywhere. At a time when China languished under the iron heel of outside oppression that ruthlessly eliminated any rumor of opposition, the Boxers - with their close ties to religion, theater, and the common man - were the only people capable of stirring their countrymen to effective resistance.
The Dacians, inhabitants of the areas that are now Transylvania and Romania, have had a long history of wolf-people, lycanthropes. The Hirpi Sorani were a small community that lived by rapine and theft, whose name means "the Wolves of Sora". They had yearly rituals involving walking barefoot over hot coals. The Daoi were the Dacian brotherhood of wolf-warriors. Their initiations included tattooing, wearing wolf-pelts, participation in rites designed to unleash aggression and diminish one's humanity, and give them heightened strength. The Dacians' ancestors were believed to have initiated some of the maenads' rituals, and to have been responsible for influence the development of the berserkers. And of course there have long been many rituals from Romania and Transylvania concerning transforming oneself into a wolf. The ritual becoming of the wolf, the heightened strength, the aggression, the resistance to fire, the connections to other such traditions, it seems quite likely the Dacians practiced various forms of somafera.
Isawiyya was a religious brotherhood founded by the fakir Sheikh Abu Abd Allah Sidi Muhammed ben Isa as-Sofiani al Mukhtari, before Islam was entirely dominant in Arab lands. He claimed the djinn served him, and that they were involved in his spiritual practice. And this is the first of the earmarks this practice has for candidacy as a form of somafera. The djinn are spirits of the land, like the Ancient Greek nymphs and satyrs, the Celtic fairies, and the Norse landwights.The djinn have a strong animal nature, many of them being either part animal or able to take an animal form. Many djinn that were attendant on certain nomadic tribes had the form of the power animal of that tribe. Further implying that this was a somafera practice is the existence of the word "majnun" in modern Arabic language. It is used to mean "crazy", and literally translates as "possessed by the djinn". This seems to parallel both the word "berserk" and the phrase "running amok", which have each come to mean "crazy".
There are many other earmarks as well. Members of this order (which admitted both men and women) were famous for their amorous appetites, something mentioned of somafera practitioners the world over. And another common trait ascribed to them is also often ascribed to somafera practitioners of different traditions: possession of an almost Orpheus-like influence over animals, such that dangerous feral beasts would not harm them. During rituals animals were torn apart with the practitioners' bare hands, and consumed raw, a ritual practice of the maenads as well. Initiates were given animal names that reflected their inner animal natures. During rituals animal-skin costumes were worn, as were animal masks. Members of the order were divided into packs, wherein each pack practiced rituals together but apart from other packs. The packs were based upon the animal-natures of the members. Lions, panthers, cats, boars, dogs, jackals, and camels were known. This seems to have been a practice of the berserks as well.
Furthermore, one of the rituals of this order was the consumption of poisonous animals, such as toads, scorpions, spiders, etc., with nothing more harmful than intoxication following, though many of the animals thus eaten were supposed to be quite dangerous. Resistance to poisons is another common feature of somafera.
Rituals consisted of rhythmic bending and swaying that grew more and more extreme and violent, until froth appeared at the lips, the eyes bulged out, and vertigo ensued. At this point they began acting entirely as animals, roaring and leaping about. This seems a clear descritption of somafera practice.
Jansenism was a Catholic heresy started by Jansenius, Bishop of Ypres (in France), based on a particular interpretation of St. Augustine's opinions. Widely popular, upon his death in 1727 his tomb became a place of pilgrimage, and eventually thousands were drawn to it on a daily basis. In 1731 something extraordinary started happening. People who touched the tomb started reporting being miraculously cured of various ailments and afflictions. And soon after this people who touched the tomb started being seized by uncontrollable convulsions. After the start of the convulsions many of them became capable of some extraordinary feats, such as becoming immune to being cut by blades, or being unable to be harmed by flames. Some were crucified and afterwards bore no trace of wounds. Some were strangled but unharmed by it. And also of note, once the seizures started they spread like wildfire through the whole crowd. This was an extremely widespread phenomenon. It lasted for years, and eventually drew people from around the world to watch the spectacular feats of the convulsionaires, as they came to be known. There are records that indicate that the number of convulsionaires was so large that it took 3,000 volunteers to keep them safe and keep the women from exposing themselves.
It seems quite likely that this is an example of somafera. The resistance to fire and being cut are two of the most common attributes of somaferan practice the world over. The miraculous cures are another indication, for many somafera traditions involve accelrated rates of healing. The fact that it occurred while in a spiritual state and probably one of religious awe (it occurred on pilgrimage to a martyr's tomb) is another indication, as this is a common method of inducing such states. It is recorded that the pilgrims often fasted, which is another common trigger. The fact that it spread rapidly through the crowd once it began is another clue, as many different traditions have noted that the transformation of somafera is made much easier by being with large groups of people, that the effect seems contagious.
It is unusual for such things to involve so many people at once. But France at the time was going through a period of violent political and social upheaval, so emotions ran strong. Jansenius was a widely popular religious and political figure, and his death deeply moved a great many. It is quite possible for even ordinary people to experience somafera states when under the influence of strong enough emotions.
Both the Lakota and Crow tribes of Native Americans seemed to have had forms of somafera. The Crow sort seems older, the Lakota sort seems to have arisen, like the Chinese Boxers, in direct response to the destruction of their people by political and religious imperialists. In both rituals the participants fasted for days: no food, no water. During the ritual the participants danced non-stop, for days at a time. In the Crow Sun Dance the point was to be outside in the merciless sun, as well. Both rituals involved purification elements as well, such as sweat lodges or bathing. The Crow ritual involved prayers to or meditations upon various animals, so that their spirits would give the participants greater strength and endurance. The Lakota ritual involved receiving visions of the dead, and often culminated in the participants falling down and "becoming dead" themselves. The Ghost Dance also involved donning ritual shirts that were supposed to make the warriors invulonerable in battle.
The fact that these were rituals that, through privation and hardship, were supposed to give power and invulnerability in battle and involved, in the case of the Crow, the aid of animal spirits and in the case of the Lakota the spirits of the dead (the main forms of somafera involve invocation of animals, the dead, and gods) indicates they were somaferans.
It should also be noted that the original form of the Ghost Dance, as created by the Paiute holy man Wakova, was pacifistic in nature. It took on the martial aspect only under the Lakota.
The berserkergang was not the only type of somafera practiced by the ancient Norse. There were also the Perchten, devotees of the birch goddess Perchta. They were a religious group that worshipped by means of the Perchtenlauf, a ritual procession in which the spirits of dead ancestors, or even of others amongst the dead, were invoked to a state of possession. This was accomplished by a combination of frenzied dance and a great cacophonous din which drove the worshippers wild. Masking was used, where masks representing the dead were worn. Sometimes the Perchten were divided into two types, the beautiful and the ugly. The beautiful ones would distribute gifts to those the procession came across, the ugly would play pranks or steal food and beer. On rare occassions the goddess herself was sometimes said to come amongst her revellers and then things could get out of hand, sometimes with fatal results. The Perchten were supposed to receive great energy and strength along with the wildness of their state. Some records suggest that, at least in some places, the Perchten were a predominantly female cult. The Perchtenlauf survived long after all other forms of heathen worship were extinct. It even retained its heathen nature for centuries. As recently as the nineteenth century, old men recalled that the Perchtenlauf used, in their youths, to be a serious matter where spirits possessed the revelers, and that this was supposed to be important, though by this time the larger framework seems to be lacking. The procession is carried out in some places in Europe still, though now it is regarded as a quaint folk custom. It has even spawned related rituals carried out on folk levels in the United States such as Halloween. And it is still practiced as a religious ritual in the Catholic Curch, with most of the same details, though for a long time now they've replaced the gods and interpretations involved with their own.
We have very little information on this practice, but what we do have seems to suggest a somafera type of frenzy. In Malaysian, amok signifies a violent outburst usually leading to homicidal attacks - hence, our borrowing of the term into English, similar to how we now use "going berserk".
Running amok may have originated in the warfare training of the Javanese and Malays, in which groups of warriors carrying the kris (a Malaysian sword) would scream "amok" before attacking, thereby terrifying their enemies. In the 14th century, amok was observed as an act of religious fanaticism in Malaysia. It was still a problem by the 18th century, when Captain Cook's officers had to capture Malaysians who were running amok. Only men seem to run amok, though there has been one record of a woman doing so. Often, the mass killings would bring fame and recognition, even if the killer died in the process. It may have been preceded by a period of brooding and then followed by exhaustion and amnesia.
Voudoun is a religion originating in the Carribean, a combination of a number of African religions and Catholicism that occurred as a direct result of the slave trade. One of the primary forms of Voudoun worship is a rite where the practitioners become possessed or "ridden" as they call it, by the loa. The loa are spirits and gods of varying natures and powers, and different loa are drawn to different people and/or vice versa. When in possessionary trance the devotees perform amazing acts. They firewalk and chew on broken glass. They perform feats of incredible strength and endurance. They inflict horrible wounds upon themselves which they then heal. They are impervious to pain. All in all Voudoun is probably the most popularly known form of somafera.
It seems quite possible, given a certain cycle of stories and folklore, that somafera practices were carried out even in Europe from the Middle Ages to recent times, though not as a part of any cohesive "tradition". This is not entirely surprising, as Europe of those times was predominantly Christian, a religion that does not naturally lend itself to expression in somafera, given its prohibition against direct contact with divine forces and against all matters oriented towards the self.
Myrddin the Wild, Lailoken, Suibhne, Tristan, Lancelot, and many others are characters in this set of tales. In each case the protagonist is driven mad by his emotions (usually either love or from experiences had in battle) and flees all civilization and goes into the woods to live as an animal. In this wild state strange powers often come over him, usually the gift of prophesy, sometimes a fury that gives heightened prowess in battle. And aside from these tale-cycles there were other popular stories and rumors of such men in the woods, and they were often confused with the animals they dwelt with. There were even essays written in medieval times questioning whether such wild men were actually human and whether they had souls that could be "saved".
There is much here to suggest that at least some of these tales were about real people, somafera practitioners who could not supress their own natures and perforce must flee the civilization that surrounds them and rejects them. The sudden susceptibility to visions is a common element of somafera, as are the fury in battle, and the adoption of animal nature.
Africa too has several candidates for somafera practices. Nigeria and Sierra Leone both have secret warrior societies called leopard-men societies. Leopard-men were (and possibly still are, for stories of them circulate even in modern times) warriors who dressed in leopard skins or painted spots on them and ritually behaved as leopards in order to transform into leopards. Ethiopia has stories of people who can change into hyenas, and central Africa has legends about men who transform into lions.
Therianthropy is a compound Greek word meaning "animal-man". It is also the name of a modern spiritual practice, or set of practices, related to animals. Some therianthropes worship animal totems. Some believe their minds can become the minds of certain animals, a practice called mental shifting. Some therianthropes believe their spirits can become possessed by animal spirits, a practice called spiritual shifting. Some believe they become animals in their dreams, a practice called dream shifting. And some very few therianthropes practice physiological shifting, wherein the combination of mental shifting and spiritual shifting produces a change in physiology, giving heightened senses, strength, and reflexes. This last type of therianthrope is a somafera practitioner, but the first few types are not (though the practices must be related, if only distantly).
Iliad, epic poem)
Venture Brothers, TV series)
series of books and movies)
Hulk, comic book series, TV series, movies)
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, book)
Elric Saga, books)
Leiber's Swords series, books)
Dothe Trancers (The
Left Hand of Darkness, book)
manga and anime)
Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, books, movies)
"Zombies" (28 Days Later, movie)
Champloo, TV series)
the Berserk (Eric
the Viking, movie)
of the Fall, movie)
13th Warrior/Eaters of the Dead, movie/book)
comic book series, movies)
Trek, TV series, movies, books)
Some Celtic (Scottish, Irish, Welsh, etc.) warrior societies had a particular form of martial training the elements of which were called "feats", or "heroic feats", or "cles". These feats demonstrate extraordinary capabilities in strength and dexterity. The method of training in them seems to simply be to repeatedly attempt them until one learns how to focus the strength enough to be able to. Examples of the feats include the Spurt of Speed, the Stroke of Precision (which involved cutting a button from a shirt with a broadsword without cutting the shirt or the man wearing it), the Apple-Feat (juggling nine with never more than one in the hand), the Breath-Feat (holding a metal apple in the air by blowing it aloft), the Heroic Salmon Leap, the Leap Over the Poisoned Stroke, the Feat of the Sword-Edge, and many, many more.
Only certain people, heroes, were able to learn these feats. Often to learn them involved facing such tests as being buried to the waist and fending off spears thrown at the testee by several other warriors, or being chased through the woods by a band of fighters and not disturbing even a single hair in an elaborate coiffure. In many cases the feats were spoken of as having been learned through supernatural means.
One particular warrior, arguably the most famous of the Celtic warriors, was named Cuchulain. He was trained in the feats, and his particular style of fighting was called the "warp-spasm", or riastradh. In the warp-spasm his strength was superhuman, as was his dexterity. Weapons could not harm him. His aspect changed and became monstrous. In this state he was said to generate enough heat to melt the snow around him. He was, in this state, in such a rage he was like an animal. There is another state attained by those who pursue the Heroic Feats and similar Celtic spiritual pursuits. This is called the Aawen, and is a form of spiritual might that seems analogous to the Helblindi state of the berserkergang (as the riastradh is analogous to the wod of the berserkergang).
This system of heroic feats sounds remarkably like the Viking practice of the berserkergang. The berserkergang is known for producing great rage, and animal-like behavior, and change in aspect. It was often taught by such "sink or swim" methods as having to fight dangerous animals alone. It was often said to be taught by supernatural means. It gave superhuman strength and dexterity, and resistance to damage by weapons. And berserks were said to put off great heat. For these reasons it seems likely that the practice of the heroic feats were a Celtic form of somafera.
There have been a number of famous indivuals who, it seems, more than likely discovered a form of somafera all alone, independently of any larger tradition.
Perhaps the most notable of these was Blackbeard the Pirate. Blackbeard was a huge (6'5", 220lbs) imposing individual whose very name was enough to inspire such terror that most merchants simply gave up their cargo without a struggle rather than face him in battle. One of the reasons for this was his savage ferocity in combat. He was said to twine ropes coated with gunpowder in his ample black beard and light them as a fight started, so that when he faced his enemies his face would be wrapped in fire, sparks, and smoke - a truly demonic visage. In his personal life too he was a hard man, even with himself. He is reputed to have invited some of his shipmates with him into his cabin, saying "Come, let us make a hell of our own and try and see how long we can bear it." Once there he lit several pots of sulphur, and there they sat together as the acrid poisonous fumes filled the small space. His men eventually begged for mercy but Blackbeard seemed in no way moved by the experience.
Eventually he became a victim of his own successes. The English Navy tracked him down and engaged him in battle. As he leaped to the attack he was shot in the head by the commander, but kept pressing forward. A Royal Marine who was in hiding leapt suddenly up and, surprising Blackbeard from below, layed the pirate's neck open with a terrible blow from his sword. But Blackbeard still fought on. He was shot several more times but proved indomitable, covered though he was in his own blood. He was eventually surrounded by enemies and suffered horrible wound after horrible wound. He was slashed, cut, run through over and over again and still stood his ground. But finally something seemed to give way inside, and he suddenly slumped over and fell, dead. He was decapitated and his body thrown overboard, though some witnesses swore his headless body still continued to move for some little while. Post-battle examination showed that he suffered over thirty wounds, any one of which should have proved fatal.
Blackbeard seems quite obviously a practitioner of somafera, in that he clearly showed the ability to fight even after receiving mortal wounds, a hallmark of the berserks. Additionally his fighting style, relying as it did on terror, is consistent with such somafera practices as the berserkergang and Running Amok. And his resistance to noxious fumes is a further piece of evidence, as is his indifference to suffering.
Another of these independent somafera discoverers was Rasputin, the Mad Monk of the Romanov family. He was a monk of the Skopsty, an offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church that believed that giving in to temptation in all things was the only way to achieve redemption. He lived up to this doctrine well, and his boundless sexual appetites were well known, as was his tolerance and love for strong drink. He was reputed to have mesmeric powers, and to have an eerie influence over the minds of others. He was also reputed to have prophetic abilities as well as the power to heal. It was his healing abilities that attracted the attention of Nicholas, the Czar of Russia and his wife Alexandra, whose son was a hemophiliac. After Rasputin proved to be capable of stopping the boy's uncontrollable bleeding where all physicians had failed, he became an intimate of the royal couple.
It was this that proved to be his eventual undoing. Rumours spread about the influence he had over the royal couple, and other members of the royal family grew jealous and afraid. They eventually arranged for his assassination, which was nowhere near as easy to carry out as they thought. First they fed him poisoned food and wine, but the poison seemed to have no effect on him. Then one of the assasins grew impatient and shot him at point blank range, whereupon he collapsed to the floor. But this was not the end of him. When the shooter returned with the other conspirators to show them the body Rasputin leapt off the floor to the attack, strangling the man who shot him. Seeing his apparent invulnerability terrified his killers and they fled, screaming. When they later gathered up their courage again they found Rasputin crawling along the ground to the gate, so they set upon him again, shooting and bludgeoning him. But even this was insufficient to do him in, for when the conspirators grew tired they found life still remained in his body. Not knowing what else to do they tied him up and threw him into a frozen river. When Rasputin's corpse was later found his bonds were broken, indicating that he had even survived the immersion in the freezing water for some little while while summoning enough strength to break the ropes.
For reasons similar to Blackbeard's it seems obvious Rasputin practiced a form of somafera. His resistance to poison, his ability to fight after being shot, the sheer number of terrible wounds he survived, the fact that even after receiving a number of wounds that should have killed any normal man and being immersed in water cold enough to sap all the strength from his limbs he still summoned up enough physical power to snap the ropes that tied him. Additionally his excessive sensual desires for sex and drink are attributes of many practitioners of somafera, and seems to be related to the extreme natures of all the emotions found in born somafera types. Additionally his mesmeric abilities, and the sway he was said to have over some peoples' minds are things mentioned in some other forms of somafera such as the celtic Heroic Feats.
Another notable example of an individual discoverer of somafera is Bruce Lee, the famous martial artist. As a young man Mr. Lee was known for a short fuse and furious bad temper. Partly for this reason, and the streetfights that ensued, and partly because of fear of a demon that family tradition asserted sought to kill the males of his family line, Bruce Lee's father sent him to America. Mr. Lee learned martial arts in China and once in America opened a chain of schools that taught them. For this he aroused the enmity of more traditionally minded Chinese martial artists, who felt he was violating rules against teaching such arts to foreigners. As a result of a fight which began for these reasons Mr. Lee was badly injured, suffering a broken spine. Completely immobilized for over six months he had an epiphany and saw into the heart of the martial arts he practiced. Turning this insight into a whole system of martial art he created Jeet Kun Do, which emphasized not forms, but control of the chi and attaining a broad awareness that encompassed everything in the fighter's environment and the fighter's inner nature.
Bruce Lee seems to be quite possibly a practitioner of somafera for several reasons. The first is the series of encounters he had with his family's demon in visions. Somafera often involves a visionary component, and terrifying visitations by a demonic entity are quite common to those who practice it. The next reason is the nature of Jeet Kun Do. Its emphasis sounds remarkably like a unitary state, and chi is the sort of internal energy utilized in several traditions of somafera martial art. Additionally there is the manner in which Jeet Kun Do was discovered. It was during recovery from a traumatic injury, which fits well with the common mold of somafera, wherein some great need or closeness to death brings out the ability to achieve the transformation of somafera. Furthermore it was suffered at the hands of a foe, and accounts say that as a young man Mr. Lee grew amazingly furious whenever defeated. This powerful emotional valence would certainly fuel a somafera-like transformation. It was visionary in the way in which he came to understand it. His fighting style was highly aggressive and energetic, and show signs of somafera in the internal gathering of energy he obviously performs as well as the subtle alteration in his physical body, including a sudden bulging of the muscles and reddening of the flesh, both of which are consistent with a somafera state. And his famous "60-second challenge" shows certain similarities to the War-Fetter, a martial technique of the berserks.
Black Elk Speaks is the autobiography of a Lakota medicine man and cousin of Crazy Horse. Based on what he had to say about his cousin, it seems Crazy Horse was likely a somaferan. He apparently was a very spiritual man, and prone to visions. He got his name, and his battle-abilities, in a vision in which the world disappeared from his sight and he found himself in spirit-world, atop a horse made of shadows that twisted and morphed like a shadow. Ever after that he was said to become invulnerable in battle by simply concentrating and putting himself back in spirit-world. He proved this on one occasion when his brother fell during a retreat from US soldiers. No one dared go back for him, as the enemy followed too close behind. But Crazy Horse charged the entire US army alone, picked up his brother, and got them both out of there. Though the gunfire of every soldier was aimed at him, he was uninjured. He did something similar at Little Big horn by riding up to the enemy line and having them fire at him. He was unharmed and it gave his warriors the courage to charge and massacre the enemy. Black Elk said that Crazy Horse was a very strange man, prone to moods no one could understand, and that he often fasted for days on end. And it is interesting to note that he proved so difficult to kill that the US army eventually resorted to a very base sort of trickery: granting him safe passage to tend to his dying wife, and then murdering him when he came close, having a soldier who was supposedly just talking to him knife him unaware, when he had no time to make himself invulnerable.
Mad scientists are more than just stock characters of popular fiction. Through the long history of science, many people have wandered off the well-marked highways of the scientific establishment and have walked instead the road less traveled. Listening to their own muses, following their own visions, seeing something that “the fools” of the orthodox scientific community were too blind to see for themselves, mad scientists pursue lines of research that are bizarre. Strange. Mad, if you will. And while any crackpot can believe that he sees things that others can’t, sometimes these mad scientists show that they did, after all, see better.
Consider the city of Syracuse in the time of the legendary Archimedes. In his day, 23 centuries ago, weapons were usually pointy bits of metal and wood. Large catapults were the ultimate in weapons technology. Well, almost the ultimate. They were the best that most armies had, but most armies didn’t have Archimedes of Syracuse, one of the earliest mad scientists in history.
Picture, if you will, the perspective of someone in a boat off the coast of Syracuse during a siege. Giant mechanical claws reached from the city and plucked whole ships up out of the water, smashing and sinking them. Death rays (yes, death rays) mounted on the city walls set ships on fire, a feat that terrified the enemy as much from the sheer mystery of it as from the burning of the ships themselves. The familiar catapults and other such siege engines were employed by the city’s defenses, but they were frighteningly accurate, as if the engineers did not have to find their ranges. And the ships of Syracuse were guided by navigational computers made entirely of clockworks.
Something seems to set Archimedes apart from not just most other people, but most other scientists as well. In an era where technology and science were unbelievably primitive, he invented computers and fantastical weapons. He did pioneering research into several areas of science and math as well. He revolutionized construction and farming equipment. Everything he did, he did well. He seemed to have a spark of genius so powerful and creative that he could see things that no one else could see, do things that no one else could do.
Of course, what is he known for in modern times? Having a stroke of genius in solving a difficult problem and then jumping out of his bath and running naked down the street shouting “Eureka!” (“I found it!”)
touch of madness seems to be related to his superior ability to see
possibilities and make them real. It has been seen in others who were
called mad scientists too. Such as Nikola Tesla, the nineteenth century
inventor who created not just the modern electrical system we all use
today but also radio, robots, death rays, and more. He was well known
to have sudden “fits” wherein he would see blinding flashes of light
and have waking dreams or hallucinations. But these were no mere
products of delirium. Instead he saw working machines, in realistic
detail, down to the smallest part. They were visions of solutions to
the problems he was working on. He relied upon these visions so much
that he rarely wrote plans or diagrams; he just copied the pictures in
This seems to be what makes them “mad” scientists. Not anger, but insanity. They are usually insane in a special way, a way that gives them insight beyond what others are capable of. In operating on their own, outside the scientific establishment, they make discoveries that are not so easy to find within establishment thinking, and so produce results that seem spectacular and unique.
As an engineer he invented many items of construction equipment, such as the blobk and tackle, and also the Archimedes Screw, which was a new kind of pump that revolutionized agriculture and city building. He also designed and built what was at the time the world's largest ship. He also invented the odometer and many other devices that are common to this day.
what stands out most about him, perhaps, is the weapons he created. He
not only improved the crossbows and catapults that were the best
weapons of his day, he also invented a death ray and The Claw of
Archimedes. The death ray was a type of solar collector that focused
sunlight until it was so intense that it could set fire to enemy ships.
The Claw was a type of giant crane that could pick enemy ships right up
out of the ocean and smash them. Both of these weapons have been built
in modern times using only technology available to him at the time, and
were shown to work.
more amazingly, he also invented a type of astronomical/navigational
computer out of clockworks. Remains of such a computer from his time
period have even been found by archaeologists.
“Rise above oneself and grasp the world.” -Archimedes
invented a diving suit that modern engineers said would have worked. He
invented a working hang glider and the concentrated solar power
generator. He made a robotic suit of armor out of clockwork which has
been rebuilt in modern times from his plans and been found to be
capable of movement. He invented the steam cannon, the tank, and many
other bizarre city defenses (one of which involved the speed-flooding
of the city to wash away enemy troops). He also invented the
helicopter. His designs for that wouldn't have worked, but he got many
of the fundamental principles correct. He also created the clockwork
calculator, hydraulic pumps, and many more things besides.
Gotz of the Iron Hand (Gotz von Berlichingen)
He is also known as the inventor of the phrase “Kiss my ass,” during a war.
around the turn of the twentieth century, he basically invented modern
electrical technology. He also invented the radio, the induction motor,
the bladeless turbine, spark plugs, and electronic logic gates, but he
was much more famous for his more extreme inventions.
also invented a kind of robot he called a telautomaton, which was a
kind of boat driven by a primitive artificial intelligence that
prevented it from being hacked. He built a lightning bolt generator and
a death ray that some claim was responsible for the Tunguska Blast.
During his studies of resonance he built an electro-mechanical
resonance machine that started an earthquake in the city around him.
When the police arrived to ask him to stop it he had to use a
sledgehammer, as it wouldn't stop.
most ambitious project, however, was to infuse the whole earth and
atmosphere with energy, to provide free power for everyone. However, he
could find no financial backers for such a project. He also claimed to
have discovered a Grand Unified Theory for physics, but died before he
could publish it.
see there the first of a race of robots, mechanical men which will do
the laborious work of the human race." (Quote upon demonstrating his
Dr. Ure and Professor Jeffray
There also seems evidence that the berserkergang itself survived long after formal practice was outlawed at the time of the Conversion. It too lost its larger religious framework but seemed to have retained its essential nature. It came to be known as trollaukin, which has two meanings. The later one means "possession by trolls", which are a sort of harmful spirit. But the older one means simply "possession by spirits". The practice of trollaukin was a galdric (magical) practice that used runes to effect a possession of the operator by some sort of spirit for purposes of gaining supernatural fighting abilities. The practice was common enough that wrestling sports associations generally had strong rules against the use of trollaukin in competition for centuries after the end of the berserkergang. And around the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries occult manuscripts and folklore collections such as Jon Arnason's record techniques for such practices. A simple prayer is said, such as "Stand by me, my ogre!" or "Stand by me fiend, now possessing me!"
These techniques of trolldom (a term for working with spirits) have much benefit to the modern berserk whether this particular interpretation of them is correct in every detail or not. At the very least it should arouse by association a strong connection to the ancient berserks, and hint at the way they went about such things.
The Mevlevi sect of Sufism (the mystical side of Islam) was founded by the famous poet Rumi in the 13th century in what is today Turkey. Its main ritual is called the sema, and is a type of prayer trance brought on by a spinning dance. The "whirling dervishes", as the dancers are called, believe that by performing the ritual they are released from earthly bounds and are free to commune with the divine. Their egos are obliterated and they become a vessel for God. Dervish literally means "doorway" - a doorway from the material world to the spiritual.
The dervishes wear clothing that represents death - their tombs, their shrouds, and their tombstones - probably to encourage them to let go of their attachment to their bodies. Each dancer turns both on his own axis and around the other dervishes, meant to represent the dance of the planets. They twirl at a rate of 20-30 times a minute, for about an hour. There are also specific hand, head and arm movements. Combined with music and chanting, the dance apparently brings on an intense ecstatic state, which the dervishes focus into prayer and oneness with God.
The dance ritual is performed only once a year, on the anniversary of Rumi's death. The dervishes, as well as all forms of Sufism, were outlawed in Turkey in 1928, but recently they have been allowed to return, and some even perform now in the West.
The whirling dervishes attain a unitary state with divinity through intense and repetitive physical activity, which seems to fit into our definition of somafera.
Kataragama is a place of holy pilgrimage in Sri Lanka, visited by Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. During the festivals for the god Murugan, the Hindu worshippers show their devotion by various acts of self-inflicted pain. First they enter a frenzied state through dancing, drumming, prayer, and other common means, then they are pierced or suspended by hooks as penances to the god. When pierced during the ritual, the worshippers become immune to pain and heal almost instantly. Participants also firewalk repeatedly on a course over 20 feet long, and remain unharmed. Some enter trances and receive cures for their illnesses.
The god of Kataragama bears quite a few similarities to Dionysos - they are both gods of fertility, sacred drama, chthonic forces, and moisture, and are both associated with the labyrinth and with some feminine characteristics. Not suprising, then, that they both inspire ecstatic states in their worshippers (see my article onmaenads).
Although this is not a single group devoted to somafera practices, the participants at Kataragama do seem to enter somafera-type states during the rituals, and as a result have the ability to resist pain and heal themselves.
Pentecostalism is a relatively modern branch of Christianity, having been formed in the nineteenth century by Charles Parham, and spread throughout much of the United States in the early twentieth century by W.J. Seymour. It preaches a return to what they feel are the earliest values of the Christian movement, inspiration and guidance by by an aspect of their god called the Holy Ghost.
Unlike the majority of Christian denominations, which preach that personal contact with their god is either impossible or sinful, Pentecostalism is a branch of Christianity that teaches that a constant, moment-by-moment, intimate, and personal relationship with their messiah, Christ, through the agency of the Holy Ghost is the true goal of religious practice. This is a lifelong process of learning that begins in an initiation ritual called "baptism by the Holy Ghost".
One of the central experiences of Pentecostal worship is called "being slain in the Spirit". Members of the congregation are put into an altered state of consciousness by frenetic dancing and the rapid rhythmic words of the preacher, who uses powerful, emotionally laden imagery derived from their holy scripture. At the moment the preacher deems right, he lays his hands on a particular member of his congregation, which induces the experience of, in the words of one Pentecostal, "being overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit". This experience displaces the consciousness and ego of the worshipper. Convulsions often accompany the experience, as does a phenomenon called "speaking in tongues", which seems to be a form of prophecy or revelation of their god's will, spoken either in foreign and theoretically unknown languages or in no language of this earth. But these messages are always understood by those that are spoken to, if they are in the same ecstatic communion with their god. Often it results in fainting, where the worshipper will lay insensate for anywhere from minutes to hours.
Some Pentecostals also take up such practices as snake handling, where poisonous serpents are handled without harm while in contact with the Holy Spirit, applying fire to the skin, where worshippers in that state are able to endure contact with flames for extended periods of time without burning, and drinking poisons without harm. For all these reasons it seems quite likely that Pentecostalism is a form of somafera. Their "slain by the Spirit" experience is a form of possession. The convulsions are a phenomenon found in Voudou, where their teaching says it inevitably happens when people with little experience and no special training try to become possessed and cannot properly handle the spirit energy. (Pentecostalism has no special training of this sort, so this is consistent.) The speaking of prophesies and revelations of their god's will also lend support to its classification as a possessionary state. Resistance to fire is a common element of almost every form of somafera, as is the practice of resisting the effects of poison. Snake handling is also found in other forms of somafera, as is the safe handling of other sorts of dangerous animals. And lastly, the intimate personal relationship Pentecostals cultivate with their god is found in many other forms of somafera, where working with personal spirits in one form or another is nearly universal.
The sadhus are a group of Hindu ascetics in India. They are mostly men and mostly Indian, although there are a few women and foreigners, especially in more recent times. Sadhus are holy men, and are revered as possessing special knowledge and power, but they are often feared as well for their strange practices. There are many sects devoted to different deities, but the most gruesome is the Aghori, whose members frequent crematory grounds, drink from skulls, and even eat human flesh - along with other taboo-breaking, they believe that these transgressions will speed up enlightenment. Another sect are ritual transvestites, who become "women" in order to fulfill a sexual relationship with a god.
Anyone may become a sadhu, they must however give up their former materialistic life, and undergo a ritual death and rebirth into their life as a sadhu - they must also align with a guru, who teaches them everything about the path and is revered as an almost-god. Sadhus commonly practice yoga, meditation and engage in self-mortification of various types in order to free their souls from the confines of earthly concerns. Examples of Sadhu asceticism include never sitting or lying down for years, abstinence, extreme fasting, keeping silent for long periods of time, never wearing clothes, etc. It is also common for them to smoke large amounts of hashish in honor of the god Shiva, whom they revere as always high.
Sadhus are credited with possessing supernatural abilities, both mentally and physically. Hindus make pilgrimages just to meet sadhus, give them offerings, and receive their blessings - hence sadhus do not have to work but rather live a strictly spiritual life. Sadhus (also called fakirs in this context) sometimes publicly perform magical acts such as being buried alive, or lying on a bed of nails, to demonstrate their yogic powers. Other abilities may include resistance to pain or fire, levitation, extra-sensory perception, etc.
Considering the physical extremes of their spiritual practice, and the supernatural results they can attain, sadhus appear to be practicing a form of somafera.
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.
All content © Wayland Skallagrimsson, 2013