Á Þá Bitu Engi Járn: a brief note on the concept of invulnerability in the Old Norse Sagas
By D. J. Beard
Occasional Papers in Linguistics and Language Teaching, No.8 (1981)
Introduction: During his description of the battle of Hafrsfjord, the author of Grettis saga writes:
Harald made for Thorir’s ship because he was the greatest berserk, and very brave. There was the fiercest fighting on both sides. Then the king ordered his berserks forward. They were called wolfskins; but iron could not bite on them and when they charged nothing could withstand them (Grettis saga ch. 2).
The use of a very similar phrase to describe the invulnerability of King Harald’s berserks in the description of the battle of Hafrsfjord contained in Egils saga may possibly be due to both descriptions being taken from a common source, but the fact remains that the idea that ‘iron could not bite’ on a berserk is very common in the Sagas. This type of invulnerability is also associated with ‘semi-troll’ men and certain heroes.
The idea of a warrior such äs a berserk, who fought in a state of frenzy, being accredited with invulnerability is hardly surprising. During a frenzied fighting fit (berserksgang) such a warrior would likely be unaware of pain; and it is a short step from the idea of a warrior who cannot feel pain inflicted by weapons to the idea of a warrior who cannot be harmed by weapons. One of the powers attributed to the Norse war-god Othin was the power to ‘bind men’s minds. This power could either be used against his enemies in the form of the ‘herfjöturr‘ (war-fetter) in which his victims were deprived of all power of movement, and lost all ability to use their weapons; or it could be used on Othin’ s followers so that they would no longer feel pain. What is more difficult to explain is the reason why this invulnerability should only be effective against iron; the berserk being capable of being killed by another ineans, such as being beaten to death with a wooden club. It is unlikely that this type of limited invulnerability is simply due to a literal interpretation of a stock descriptive phrase, and the evidence would seem to indicate that the origin of this idea is to be found in a period earlier than the Saga Age; earlier even, than the Viking Age itself.