Riastradh, the Warrior’s Battle Frenzy
Updated: May 10, 2020
The Norsemen were famous for it, the Romans accused the Celts of it, and it seems our Irish ancestors were capable of it too: the strange phenomenon known as the ‘battle frenzy‘.
Here is how Cuchulainn, one of Ireland’s best-loved warrior heroes, is described when the battle frenzy took hold:
‘Within his skin he put forth an unnatural effort of his body: his feet, his shins, and his knees shifted themselves and were behind him; his heels and calves and hams were displaced to the front of his leg-bones, in condition such that their knotted muscles stood up in lumps large as the clenched fist of fighting man.
The frontal sinews of his head were dragged to the back of his neck, where they showed in lumps bigger than the head of a man-child aged one month. Then his face underwent extraordinary transformation: one eye became engulfed in his head so far that ’tis a question whether a wild heron could have got at it where it lay against his occiput, to drag it out upon the surface of his cheek; the other eye on the contrary protruded suddenly, and of itself so rested upon the cheek.
His mouth was twisted awry till it met his ears. His lion’s gnashings caused flakes of fire, each one larger than fleece of three-year-old wether, to stream from his throat into his mouth and so outwards. The sounding blows of the heart that panted within him were as the howl of a ban-dog doing his office, or of a lion in the act of charging bears.
Among the clouds over his head were visible the virulent pouring showers and sparks of ruddy fire which the seething of his savage wrath caused to mount up above him. His hair became tangled about his head, as it had been branches of a red thorn-bush stuffed into a strongly fenced gap to block it; over the which though a prime apple-tree had been shaken, yet may we surmise that never an apple of them would have reached the ground, but rather that all would have been held impaled each on an individual hair as it bristled on him for fury.
His hero’s paroxysm projected itself out of his forehead, and showed longer than the whet-stone of a first-rate man-at-arms. Taller, thicker, more rigid, longer than mast of a great ship was the perpendicular jet of dusky blood which out of his scalp’s very central point shot upwards and then was scattered to the four cardinal points.’
(Quote from Shee-Eire)
Scary stuff! But perhaps a tad over-exaggerated… However, the battle frenzy phenomenon is undoubted.
The Norsemen called their warriors Berserkers; they worked themselves into a trance-like fury before battle, during which they mercilessly killed all in their path, seemingly unaffected by injury to themselves. Afterwards, they would be weak and dull-witted for days while they ‘came down’ from their altered state.
The term berserker comes from the Old Norse serkr, meaning ‘shirt/ coat’ and ber, meaning ‘bear’. It is said they were thus named because they often wore the skin of a bear into battle; the bear was a manifestation of their god, Odin, and in their trance they assumed the fierce strength and courage of the bear as they fought, in an attempt to please him.
However, some dispute that; they claim the prefix ber simply means ‘bare’, as in they went into battle naked ie without armour.
Some time around the first century BC, Roman poet Lucan coined the Latin phrase Furor Teutonicus to describe the mad, terrifying, berserk rage of the Teuton (a Celtic Germanic tribe) warriors in battle. When the Romans then invaded the British Isles in AD43, they found the native tribes so ferocious in combat, they named them Furor Celticus.
The Celts even had a warrior God who was patron of the battle frenzy. His name was Rudianus, which meant ‘he of the red [battle] frenzy’. In Irish mythology, he was said to be associated with a trio of brothers, possibly Sidhe and possibly also a triple aspect deity, known as ‘the three Ruadchoin of the Cuala’, who murdered legendary king Conaire Mór in ‘the Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’, a story from the Ulster Cycle.
Cuchullain’s battle frenzy, as described above, was known in Irish as the riastradh, (pronounced ree-uss-trah), which is now translated as ‘contortion/ convulsion’, but is thought to have originally referred to the red rage of battle in ancient times.
So how did the warrior achieve riastradh? There are all kinds of theories. It’s possible that the fly agaric, or amanita-muscaria mushroom, known to have been used in Ireland for medicinal and ritual purposes, could have been consumed by warriors in food or drink before battle. The mushroom’s psychoactive and hallucinogenic properties could certainly explain the sudden violent mindless rage and following torpor.
It has been suggested that the warrior believed himself to be ‘taken over’ by the Goddess known as the Morrigan, who was the triple aspect deity of war to the ancient Irish. As Nemain, she represented battle frenzy, and as Badb, the battle crow. This transformation may have been brought about by meditation.
However, it’s also possible that they simply worked themselves into a trance-like fury by more simple means. For example, as the two sides faced each other before battle commenced, it was typical for the warriors to hurl abuse at each other, and ridicule each other. Individuals would step forward and demonstrate their battle skills to the enemy, cheered on by their comrades.
They would even issue challenges of single combat, the resulting skirmish only serving to raise tensions and ignite the war-bands fury further, particularly when one of the combatants was killed.
The Tuatha de Danann were said to have even played hurling matches with their enemies prior to battle; in some versions of the stories, they used their enemies heads as the sliotar (the ball).
The rhythmic clashing of swords or spears on shields, hypnotic stamping of feet, joining of many voices in war chants, the braying call of the carnyx or Dord wailing through the air and the primal beat of drums would all have contributed to stirring expectations of heroism and reckless feats of bravery. And finally, the uplifting words of their leader exhorting them to victory.
The battle frenzy may well have been the tool which helped them conquer their most basic instinct under such pressure, that of fear.