Gnosis Diary: Life as a Heathen

My personal experiences, including religious and spiritual experiences, community interaction, general heathenry, and modern life on my heathen path, which is Asatru.

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The Berserker Trance

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

Continuing my story of my personal journey on my heathen path, when I was studying at the University of Kalinin (now Tver), USSR, I experienced the berserker trance during a street fight, although I had not yet begun studying the martial art of Bersarkrgangr. This was one of the events in my life that qualified me to study it. 

Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault

It was broad daylight, and I and another American were walking to the post office. Tale of the tape: I was 5'3" and weighed about 117 lbs. My opponent, whom I only saw briefly before going into a berserker trance but whom I will never forget, was about 5'10" and about 170 lbs. 

A quote from my memoir, Greater Than the Sum of My Parts:

     “The crowd pressed in on all sides, so I had no warning alarms go off in my mind when a man came very close.  He grabbed me by the left breast.

     Light.

     A flash of light, and nothing else.  No sound, no sensation.  Bright white light.

     I was inside the post office.  I was standing in the lobby, busy people flowing all around me.  I stood staring at a police officer sitting on his stool.”   

I still have a total blank where any memory of what I did would be, but I guessed that I had run away. I may or may not have punched or kicked him or did any other martial arts moves, but I had to have run off because I was out of breath and a block away when I came to awareness again, with a wave of berserker fury crashing over me. It bothered me that I had run. I had this self image as this badass kung fu fighter, and the berserker in me ran away.

I only considered reporting the incident to the policeman for about a second. This was a Soviet militiaman, there to guard the post office in the midst of the anarchy of what was obvious even then was about to be the fall of the Soviet Union.  This was a city where the black market traded openly in the daytime and street gangs ruled the night, zipping along on their motorcycles with AK-47s they had bought from corrupt soldiers who were trading them for food because the army’s pay was worthless in the middle of a currency collapse. I had already witnessed numerous assaults on the street and knew that street crime might as well be the weather for all the attention it was going to receive. Plus, I was an American, and was not someone they would automatically protect. So I just went about my business.

Later, this was one of the life experiences that the teacher of the martial art of the berserkers considered one of my qualifications to learn Bersarkrgangr. Bersarkrgangr was a traditional martial art of the heathen culture, and still is, although it has undoubtedly changed over time. Learning it was one of the major experiences of my life, and this street incident was one of the things that led to my learning it, so although I started having flashbacks to the childhood sexual abuse after that incident, on the whole I actually have to say it was a positive turning point, although it certainly didn’t feel like it at the time. From the perspective of 25 years later, I look back and think, four things happened after my dedication to Freya that felt very dark when I was going through them, but which I see now shaped me into the person she wanted me to be.

The first person I ever really talked about this incident with was the Bersarkrgangr teacher, several years later. I expressed my embarrassment at having run away, but he relieved my guilt about that. He said, "Erin, you won that fight. When I was in Vietnam, I sometimes went on scouting missions. We weren't supposed to engage the enemy, just go out, look, and report back. If they came too close, I hid. (He told a story about climbing a tree and pretending to be a bird while the enemy passed beneath him.) It's not cowardice. It's completing the mission. You weren't there to fight anybody. Your mission was to go mail a package at the post office. You used only the amount of force necessary to disengage, escaped unscathed, retreated, and accomplished your mission. That's what warriors do." 

I've written a paper about Bersarkrgangr, which is available free here: https://www.academia.edu/8013139/Bersarkrgangr_The_Viking_Martial_Art

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Erin Lale is the author of Asatru For Beginners. An updated, longer version of her book, Asatru: A Beginner's Guide to the Heathen Path, is coming in 2020 from Red Wheel / Weiser. Erin was sworn to Freya as Priestess in 1989, given to Sigyn, and is a Bride of Odin and his brothers (Honir, Lodhur, Loki.). She has been a freelance writer for about 30 years, was the editor and publisher of Berserkrgangr Magazine, is gythia of American Celebration Kindred, and admin/ owner of the Asatru Facebook Forum. In 2010 and 2013, she ran for public office. She is a dyer and fiber artist, was acquisitions editor at a small press for 5 years, created the Heathen Calendar 2017 and 2018, and founded the Heathen Visibility Project.

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