Irish Mythology | Riastradh, the Warrior’s Battle Frenzy

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The Norsemen were famous for it, the Romans accused the Celts of it, but  it seems our Irish ancestors were capable of it too; the strange phenomenon known as the ‘battle frenzy‘.

Here is how Cuchullain, 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.

Medieval knight in the field with an axe

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.

war

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 Denann 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.


Please join me on Wednesday for my post on Irish martial arts, and a very special guest post from blogger-friend, photographer and RuinHunter, Ed Mooney on Friday!

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37 thoughts on “Irish Mythology | Riastradh, the Warrior’s Battle Frenzy

  1. I’m going to read this more later, however I wanted to note that I do believe that the “Battle Frenzy” aka the “Riastrad” is a real thing. I am descended from the kingship blood lines of Munster Ireland (as well as American Indian bloodlines), have a traditional Irish-Gaeiliege surname, was raised in an warrior ethos from early childhood and have experienced the Riastrad many times. Indeed, I have witnessed many of my male relations experience it as well. There is no way to describe it sufficiently, but it is real. We also have a bean-sidhe (Banshee) that still follows our family here in the America’s and when our Irish ancestors came here, they heavily intermarried with Plains Indian tribes who also have strong spiritual traditions/beliefs not too dissimilar from the old Irish. I grew up among and in Plains Indian culture/communities. I think maybe that this intermarriage with peoples of similar traditions who only recently were in touch with Western Civilization enabled the continuation of the old Irish traditions/beliefs in my family from ancestors who had just immigrated from Ireland prior to settling in the Plains. In a way I am proud of this history, but also find the riastrad disabling in many ways. because its very hard to keep in check. Men in my family have generationally struggled with this for as long as we can recount. Thanks for listening.

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    1. Thank you for your comment, Generous One, you have me intrigued! What a fascinating background you have. I can imagine the riastradh would be quite disabling if it was something that couldn’t be controlled. I imagine though that it might be the only way to cope with going into a battle situation, and committing, or witnessing such terrible atrocities upon fellow human beings. A question, though; is it only the men who fight and experience the riastradh? In the old stories of Ireland, it seems there were women warriors, although I have never come across a specific reference to women being gripped by the riastradh.

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  2. I’ve experienced the frenzy once for sure but possibly twice. First time was standing up to a bully in school, who never bothered me again lol. the possible second time i’m unsure of because i was experimenting with trying to function normally while in a deep meditation. The slow down happened but before i could try taking it further an outside influence broke my concentration. Look up somafera it’s a very interesting practice revolving around the study of different cultures and their battle frenzy states. The person who is behind somafera was able to take the concept to a whole new level that i’m confident many people here will enjoy looking up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jeff, that sounds fascinating, I certainly will look it up, I haven’t heard of it before. I’m sure meditation and alternate states of mind can enable us to achieve amazing things, if we only knew how… and I feel sure the ancient people DID know how.

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  3. Enjoyed this post a lot 🙂

    I’e been fascinated with berserkr since the first time I read about them in a fantasy book, before I discovered they really existed.
    To me, it sounds realistic that the sheer exitment of the battle affected some of the warriors. We tend to forget how shocking and sometimes ’empowering’ physical combat feels, because we experience it so rarely in today’s life. I think probably physical exitment (like adrenaline) as well as psychic and emotional excitment played a part in it. I don’t necessarily think they used any kind of drugs. I mean, Idon’t think they need it 😉

    Thanks for sharing.

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    1. You’re right! We’re so far removed from that kind of thing these days. But if crowds today can experience mass hysteria, and also think of mobs and crowds of football hooligans, its like some collective power takes hold. In battle the stakes were so much higher, literally fighting for their lives,,so yes, I can imagine exactly what you’re saying… thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. 😊

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  4. this post is made all the more interesting to me as I am currently watching “The Vikings” on the history channel which is all filmed at Guinness Lake in Wicklow ( I was there this last summer!)I have visited that lovely county before. I still remember a character from an earlier movie ( a Monty python thing) called “Sven the Beserker” which makes me smile . I love your description of cuchullain in a battle frenzy. I think it was a Greek named Strabo who wrote that the “they(celts) were madly fond of war” I would imagine that applied to the Gaels as well then. Great post again Ali!

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  5. What an interesting post Ali. From the (very) little I know of pagan Ireland it almost appears as if tribal war was a drug in itself and conflict was more or less continuous. In more recent times this manifested as faction fights and gang warfare before being somewhat channeled into GAA. Possibly an innate (male) desire for violence and combat. But certainly any fighting frenzy the likes of me would have would be generated by survival instinct only.

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    1. It’s not just the men, Roy! Have you seen Irish girls playing rugby or camogie??? Definitely sports have become the channel for our aggression.

      I think you’re right; the fighting was all bound up with one’s honour and geisa. I think the feebleness and the come down described as taking place after battle was probably realisation of the horrors they had witnessed and committed, and had to come to terms with, rather like post traumatic stress syndrome that modern soldiers suffer with today.

      Thing is, I don’t believe the very early peoples were aggressive at all. I think that came with the new wave of civilisation, the farming of neolithic times, when people put down roots, (pardon the pun!) and suddenly had land and livestock and possessions to protect. up until then, I think people were fairly gentle and peaceful… but I’m no expert, it’s just a hunch.

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  6. Hi Ali – a very interesting post. I used to fight competitively (martial arts) and on a couple of occasions experienced an interesting phenomenon. During the fight, it would be as though everything slowed down – I could see every movement that needed to be made and could do so effortlessly. I don’t know what put me into this sort of trance state, but while it lasted it was amazing. My movements weren’t frenzied, they were focused and spot on. It wasn’t something I could control, though it would usually happen on days when I had more than one fight – a heightened state of awareness is the best way I can describe it. Perhaps a similar thing to the fighters of old? I know when it happened I felt as though I could fight forever, though the result was usually that the fight was over quickly!

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    1. That is amazing Helen! That sounds very like what I imagine the warriors might have experienced. I wonder if it was brought on by extreme focussing and concentration? And whilst it seemed to be in slow motion to you, perhaps it all happened so quickly to the observer, it might have been interpreted as ‘frenzied’… Fascinating, and quite magical! Thank you for sharing that with me!

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      1. You’re very welcome 🙂 Yes, maybe focus and concentration caused it, or maybe fear of being hit! It was quite something – I remember fighting quite a well-known fighter at a big tournament and she had to completely change her fighting stance as, every time she came towards me, I would hit her. I didn’t realise this until afterwards when one of my teammates told me, so I suppose it did happen very quickly, even though it felt quite slow to me – I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t blocking me!

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      2. Helen just described a ‘frenzy’ perfectly. Having studied many Martial Arts from south east asia where the student not only mimics the movements of animals but with the right teachers learns to take on the spirit of the animal aswell. Ive seen it from both sides, to watch a person in one of these trance or drug induced states as many warriors were known for consuming fly ariac, it appears that they have indeed gone beserk, yet whilst it is happening to you everything remains calm, its like your opponent has slowed down and you can see them move before they actually do!
        I wonder how much of this is responsable for the many tales of shapeshifting in our mythology?

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            1. The last time I climbed Sugarloaf I was 7 months pregnant with my son Malachy… he’s nearly 12 now! Wow how time flies! I’ve never tried ‘magic mushrooms’… but I’m guessing you have? Purely in the name of research, I’m sure…

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  7. Wow I had not heard that particular description of Cúchulainn before! Thought provoking and vivid post, Ali. I have to say this comment became several quickly. 🙂 Hope it’s easy enough to follow.

    Exaggerated for sure, but, not without the seed of truth behind it. Just practically speaking, what good are two eyes when one is bulging out of your head and the other has fallen so much back into your head that you’re probably only seeing bone with it? That just seems like a terrible use of good vision and, you know, lacking in sustainable foresight.

    I think cúchulainn, but I doubt he’s the only one in fact didn’t know when to stop and it is much wiser given that kind of power to learn to direct and control it rather than let it control you: unchecked violence is irresponsible. But… that’s much easier said than done…an ideal you try to follow as often as possible so you don’t forget others’ humanity… and I think lots and lots of people experienced a kind of trance in which they couldn’t be reasoned with. No one needed to be thrown into several vats of ice water to cool down :-), but like you said with drums and horns blasting and the whole chaos of people the world changes in focus.

    That makes a lot of sense to me personally–I’ve been in rituals that have put me in trance before and battles from what I’ve heard seem to have the same components to them. You can take that kind of intense passionate energy and calm it into something healing or cause suffering with it. It’s all about intention. Anyway thought provoking post Ali, and I love your explanations of how you could get into such a frenzied state. Sounds very plausible to me, particularly invoking the Morrigan who I, personally, try to avoid as much as possible!

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