Mircea Eliade "From Primitives to Zen": INITIATION OF A WARRIOR


(Volsunga Saga, chapters 7-8)

In a passage that has become famous, the Ynglingasaga sets the comrades of Odin before us: 'They went without shields, and were mad as dogs or wolves, and bit on their shields, and were as strong as bears or bulls; men they slew, and neither fire nor steel would deal with them; and this is what is called the fury of the berserker.' This mythological picture has been rightly identified as a description of real men's societies-the famous Mannerbunde of the ancient Germanic civilization. The berserkers were, literally, the 'warriors in shirts (serkr) of bear.' This is as much as to say that they were magically identified with the bear. In addition they could sometimes change themselves into wolves and bears. A man became a berserker as the result of an initiation that included specifically martial ordeals. So, for example, Tacitus tells us that among the Chatti the candidate cut neither his hair nor his beard until he had killed an enemy. Among the Taifali, the youth had to bring down a boar or a wolf, among the Heruli, he had to fight unarmed. Through these ordeals, the candidate took to himself a wild-animal mode of being; he became a dreaded warrior in the measure in which he behaved like a beast of prey. He metamorphosed himself into a superman because he succeeded in assimilating the magico-religious force proper to the carnivore.

The Volsunga Saga has preserved the memory of certain ordeals typical of the initiations of berserkers. By treachery, King Siggeir obtains possession of his nine brothers-in-law, the Volsungs. Chained to a beam, they are all eaten by a she-wolf, except Sigmund, Who is saved by a ruse of his sister Signy. Hidden in a hut in the depths of the forest, where Signy brings him food, he awaits the hour of revenge. When her first two sons have reached the age of ten, Signy sends them to Sigmund to be tested. Sigmund finds that they are cowards, and by his advice Signy kills them. As the result of her incestuous relations with her brother, Signy has a third son, Sinfjotli. When he is nearly ten, his mother submits him to a first ordeal: she sews his shirt to his arms through the skin. Siggeir's sons, submitted to the same ordeal, had howled with pain, but Sinfjotli remains imperturbable. His mother then pulls off his shirt, tearing away the skin, and asks him if he feels anything. The boy answers that a Volsung is not troubled by such a trifle. His mother then sends him to Sigmund, who submits him to the same ordeal that Siggeir's two sons had failed to sustain: he orders him to make bread from a sack of flour in which there is a snake. When Sigmund comes home that night, he finds the bread baked and asks Sinfjotli if be did not find anything in the flour. The boy answers that he remembers having seen something, but he paid no attention to it and kneaded everything up together. After this proof of courage Sigmund takes the boy into the forest with him. One day they find two wolfskins hanging from the wall of a hut. The two sons of a king had been transformed into wolves and could only come out of the skins every tenth day. Sigmund and Sinfjotli put on the skins, but cannot get them off. They howl like wolves and understand the wolves' language. They then separate, agreeing that they will not call on each other for help unless they have to deal with more than seven men. One day Sinfjotli is summoned to help and kills all the men who bad attacked Sigmund. Another time, Sinfjotli himself is attacked by eleven men, and kills them without summoning Sigmund to help him. Then Sigmund rushes at him and bites him in the throat, but not long afterward finds a way to cure the wound. Finally they return to their cabin to await the moment when they can put off their wolfskins. When the time comes, they throw the skins into the fire. With this episode, Sinfjotli's initiation is completed, and he can avenge the slaying of the Volsungs.

The initiatory themes here are obvious: the test of courage, resistance to physical suffering, followed by magical transformation into a wolf. But the compiler of the Volsunga Saga was no longer aware of the original meaning of the transformation. Sigmund and Sinfjotli find the skins by chance and do not know how to take them off. Now transformation into a wolf-that is, the ritual donning of a wolfskin constituted the essential moment of initiation into a men's secret society. By putting on the skin, the initiand assimilated the behaviour of a wolf, in other words, he became a wild-beast warrior, irresistible and invulnerable. 'Wolf' was the appellation of the members of the Indo-European military societies.

Summarized in M. EIiade, Birth and Rebirth (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), 1)p. 81-3; summarizing and commenting on Volsunga Saga, chaps. 7-8

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