THE BOOK OF WERE-WOLVES
by SABINE BARING-GOULD
Chapter IV - THE ORIGIN OF THE SCANDINAVIAN WERE-WOLF
Among the old Norse, it was the custom for certain warriors to dress in the skins of the beasts they had slain, and thus to give themselves an air of ferocity, calculated to strike terror into the hearts of their foes.
Such dresses are mentioned in some Sagas, without there being any supernatural qualities attached to them. For instance, in the Nj?la there is mention of a man i geithe?ni, in goatskin dress. Much in the same way do we hear of Harold Harfagr having in his company a band of berserkir, who were all dressed in wolf-skins, ulfhe?nir, and this expression, wolf-skin coated, is met with as a man's name. Thus in the Holmverja Saga, there is mention of a Bj?rn, "son of Ulfhe?in, wolfskin coat, son of Ulfhamr, wolf-shaped, son of Ulf, wolf, son of Ulfhamr, wolf-shaped, who could change forms."
But the most conclusive passage is in the Vatnsd?la Saga, and is as follows:--"Those berserkir who were called ulfhe?nir, had got wolf-skins over their mail coats" (c. xvi.) In like manner the word berserkr, used of a man possessed of superhuman powers, and subject. to accesses of diabolical fury, was originally applied to one of those doughty champions who went about in bear-sarks, or habits made of bear-skin over their armour. I am well aware that Bj?rn Halldorson's derivation of berserkr, bare of sark, or destitute of clothing, has been hitherto generally received, but Sveibj?rn Egilsson, an indisputable authority, rejects this derivation as untenable, and substitutes for it that which I have adopted.
It may be well imagined that a wolf or a bear-skin would make a warm and comfortable great-coat to a man, whose manner of living required him to defy all weathers, and that the dress would not only give him an appearance of grimness and ferocity, likely to produce an unpleasant emotion in the breast of a foe, but also that the thick fur might prove effectual in deadening the blows rained on him in conflict.
The berserkr was an object of aversion and terror to the peaceful inhabitants of the land, his avocation being to challenge quiet country farmers to single combat. As the law of the land stood in Norway, a man who declined to accept a challenge, forfeited all his possessions, even to the wife of his bosom, as a poltroon unworthy of the protection of the law, and every item of his property passed into the hands of his challenger. The berserkr accordingly had the unhappy man at his mercy. If he slew him, the farmer's possessions became his, and if the poor fellow declined to fight, he lost all legal right to his inheritance. A berserkr would invite himself to any feast, and contribute his quota to the hilarity of the entertainment, by snapping the backbone, or cleaving the skull, of some merrymaker who incurred his displeasure, or whom he might single out to murder, for no other reason than a desire to keep his hand in practice.
It may well be imagined that popular superstition went along with the popular dread of these wolf-and-bear-skinned rovers, and that they were believed to be endued with the force, as they certainly were with the ferocity, of the beasts whose skins they wore.
Nor would superstition stop there, but the imagination of the trembling peasants would speedily invest these unscrupulous disturbers of the public peace with the attributes hitherto appropriated to trolls and j?tuns.
The incident mentioned in the V?lsung Saga, of the sleeping men being found with their wolf-skins hanging to the wall above their heads, is divested of its improbability, if we regard these skins as worn over their armour, and the marvellous in the whole story is reduced to a minimum, when we suppose that Sigmund and Sinfj?tli stole these for the purpose of disguising themselves, whilst they lived a life of violence and robbery...
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