Research Driving You Berserk?

What’s the line between real life and fictional life and how do you realistically incorporate the two? This is a great post by Heather Gilbert who discusses her research into some well known Viking behavior and whether or not mushrooms were responsible for it.

Welcome, Heather!

When I started writing my Viking historical novel, I knew there would be battle scenes. After all, they’re Vikings, right?
And I knew I had a salty old sailor who was left behind to guard the camp, for mysterious reasons. He had a hidden talent, but what?
I decided this guy was the perfect berserker. If you’ve read anything about Vikings, you know these guys freaked out all their enemies because they were completely unpredictable (even to their fellow warriors!)
I read a little more on Wikipedia (it’s a great source of info on Vikings, but I try to double-check before plugging it into my novels). Wikipedia quoted Howard D. Fabing (“On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry.” Scientific Monthly. 83 [Nov. 1956]), describing the fury called berserkergang:
This condition is said to have begun with shivering, chattering of the teeth, and chill in the body, and then the face swelled and changed its colour. With this was connected a great hot-headedness, which at last gave over into a great rage, under which they howled as wild animals, bit the edge of their shields, and cut down everything they met without discriminating between friend or foe. When this condition ceased, a great dulling of the mind and feebleness followed, which could last for one or several days.”
Amanita Muscaria
Yes, I knew my guy was a berserker. But should I buy into the theory that berserkers were “doing ‘shrooms,” or eating poisonous mushrooms, precipitating their inexplicable behavior?
Wikipedia paraphrased Peter G. Foote and David M. Wilson (The Viking Achievement. London: Sidgewick & Jackson. 1970), saying that:
Modern scholars believe certain examples of berserker rage… have been induced voluntarily by the consumption of drugs such as the hallucinogenic mushroom Amanita Muscaria, commonly known as the fly agaric or fly Amanita, or massive amounts of alcohol. While such practices would fit in with ritual usages, other explanations for the berserker’s madness have been put forward, including self-induced hysteria, epilepsy, mental illness or genetic flaws.”
Being a writer, I decided to choose the most illustrious reason for my guy’s strength—he ate some mushrooms that gave him super-powered strength (for a little while).
Then I had to read up on Amanita Muscaria—where does it grow? Would he have access to it, both in Greenland and at his camp, in upper North America?
Wikipedia states that the mushrooms have been located in Sweden and Germany. Finnish Sami have reportedly used it. That was close enough to Greenland for me. Trade was vigorous at this time, so even if it wasn’t native to Greenland, it could be obtained.
Further, a type of this mushroom grows in Newfoundland, the setting of the camp. Since the mushrooms vary in color (red with white spots, yellowish with white spots), I knew the mushrooms might look different on different continents. But they could be found.
Even though Wikipedia states that the mushroom berserker theory might be “urban legend, or at best speculation that cannot be proven,” I decided to go with it. It worked for my story, and many things haven’t yet been proven about the Vikings (but time works wonders that way).
Could the Viking berserkers have been possessed? Sure. But given the documented hallucinogenic effects of the shrooms, compounded with the fact that Lithuanians, Sami and various other cultures used them, I figured Amanita Muscaria would add that special touch to my story.

I discussed all my mushroom theories with my dad, a family practice physician, before locking them into my novel. It was important not to let my imagination outweigh reality. Luckily, he thought it was a believable explanation.

So sometimes Wikipedia can answer those pressing historical fiction questions in a hurry. Just be sure the sources back up the information you glean.
What about you? What do you think was going on with those berserkers? Do you use Wikipedia often?

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Heather Day Gilbert enjoys writing stories about authentic, believable marriages. Fifteen years of marriage to her sweet Yankee husband have given her some perspective, as well as eight years spent homeschooling her three children. Her historical fiction novel, God’s Daughter, is rooted in the Icelandic sagas. It tells the story of Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir, the first European woman to have a baby on North American soil. You can find out more at Heather’s blogspot: http://www.heatherdaygilbert.blogspot.com, or at her FB page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Heather-Day-Gilbert/255797467834948. She’d also love to chat on twitter @vikingwritergal.

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