During the 9th and 10th centuries, a mysterious adventurer named Gunnstein Berserks’-Killer gained fame for impressive exploits spanning the lands and seas between Scandinavia, the British Isles and Iceland. Unfortunately, specific details of about his expeditions are unknown, but it is safe to say that many of his journeys frequently resulted in violence. In these violent adventures, Gunnstein (as his nickname divulges) reportedly encountered peculiar fighters known as berserkers—a mysterious type of Norse warrior that was connected to the Norse god, Odin. Usually described as wearing trademark bear or wolf pelts, berserkers were renowned for being able to frenzy themselves into a battle trance, in which they allegedly felt no pain and possessed what seemed like superhuman strength. Most famously, when these warriors went “berserk,” their battle-frenzy apparently led the super-soldiers to gnaw at the edges of their shields, and it is this action (as well as their pelt garments) that are used in many visual depictions of berserkers. Despite the legendary fighting abilities of these berserkers, they were apparently no match for Gunnstein, who obtained his “Berserks’-Killer” name after reportedly slaying at least two berserkers in battle.
Although Gunnstein was evidently a great warrior, he could not defend himself forever, especially from threats unseen. As the stories go, Gunnstein’s adventuring days ended when he was hit by an arrow shot by an unknown assailant in a forest, presumably located in Scandinavia. Iceland’s medieval Book of Settlements commented on this sudden turn of events, as well as on Gunnstein’s earlier life, stating, “Gunnstein Berserks’-Killer, son of Bolverk Blind-Snout, killed two berserks…Afterwards, on board his ship at Hefnir, Gunnstein was hit by a Lappish arrow from the forest” (Landnámabók, Sturlubók manuscript, chapter 93). No further information or clarification was relayed concerning whether Gunnstein lived, retired, or died because of the arrow wound. Whatever the case, he left behind family, including a son named Thorgeir, who lived in Southern Iceland.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Image titled “Olav og Rane i viking”, made by Halfdan Egedius around 1899, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Museum of Norway).
- The Book of Settlements (Sturlubók version) translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1972, 2006.