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Researchers in Europe say that the Viking’s most fearless warriors may have been tripping on a hallucinogenic herb during their violent raids on neighboring communities. Karsten Fatur, an ethnobotanist at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, says that the Vikings’ elite fighters known as berserkers may have used the herb “stinking henbane” before going into battle. The effects of the drug would have made the warriors “unpredictable and highly aggressive” and cause them to “lose touch with reality” as they engaged in combat.
Stinking henbane, or Hyoscyamus niger, is a plant in the nightshade family that can be poisonous. At lower doses, the herb can cause visual hallucinations, manic episodes, a loss of inhibitions, and reduced sensitivity to pain.
During the Middle Ages, Viking war parties terrorized Scandinavia and surrounding European locations as they raided and pillaged coastal villages. The Vikings’ most elite fighters, the berserkers, were known to go into battle naked, fighting in a frenzied rampage without the protection of armor. Their fearless rages may have been induced by stinking henbane, which could be taken as a drug in several ways.
“They could have made tea from it, they could have infused it into alcohol, they could have made an ointment of the plant in animal fat and rubbed it on their skin,” Fatur explained. “It would have reduced their sensation of pain and made them wild, unpredictable and highly aggressive.”
Using stinking henbane may have made it possible for berserkers to continue fighting even if injured and could have also helped them cope with the horrors of combat, according to Fatur.
“There may also have been dissociative effects, such as losing touch with reality,” he said. “This might have allowed them to kill indiscriminately without moral qualms.”
Previously, scientists have theorized that the berserkers’ fits of violent rage could have been fueled by drinking copious amounts of alcohol or perhaps by the hallucinogenic mushroom Amanita muscaria. But Fatur doesn’t believe that the psychedelic shroom is responsible for their rampages.
“Though aggressiveness and hyperactivity may occur, these symptoms are rare and not seen as common markers of A. muscaria poisoning,” he said.
If the Vikings did partake of stinking henbane before going into battle, it wouldn’t be the first time warriors went into action under the influence of mind-altering substances. Greek armies often fought wars drunk on alcohol, as did the Romans, who also encouraged their enemies to imbibe. Since then, amphetamines were given to German soldiers in World War II and in Vietnam, US servicemen — many of whom were high on pot or opioids — were rewarded for battle kills with extra rations of alcohol.