As for the clothing of symbolic animal skins, it obeys a shamanic, totemic and pagan tradition to the core, and we pay attention to this because it expresses a very important idea.
The wolf and the bear are signs of free masculinity—pure, wild, fertile and unrestrained. The skin of the bear or the wolf was achieved by fighting the animal in body-to-body combat and killing it. An initiatory test of the berserkers as well as among some Celts was killing a boar.
The berserkers were thus suggested that they seized the totemic qualities inherent in the animal in question—bear or wolf—acquiring their strength and ferocity, possessing their qualities as if they had conquered for themselves, and adopting the skin of the vanquished beast as symbol of this transformation. As a sign of prestige, many berserkers added the word björn (bear) to their names, resulting in names such as Arinbjörn, Esbjörn, Gerbjörn, Gunbjörn or Thorbjörn. The wolf (proto-Germanic ulf) resulted in names like Adolf, Rudolf, Hrolf or Ingolf.
Mircea Eliade said regarding the appropriation of animal skins that the man became a berserkr after an initiation that specifically involved warrior tests. Thus, for example, among the Chatti, Tacitus tells us, the applicant did not cut his hair or his beard before killing an enemy. Among the Taifali, the young man had to shoot down a boar or a bear and among the Heruli it was necessary to fight without weapons. Through these tests, the applicant appropriated the form of being of the beast: he became a fearsome warrior insofar as he behaved like a beast of prey. He transformed himself into a overman because he managed to assimilate the magical-religious force shared by the butchers.
Once again, this will be seen as primitive and barbaric, but the Romans did it as well, as we can see in the standard bearers of the legions, which were covered with skins of wolves, bears or wild cats (as a Barbarian Indo-European people, the ancient peoples of the Italian peninsula, ancestors of Latins, should have had their own version of the ‘possessed warrior’).
Also the Greek hero Heracles, after fighting a monstrous lion and killing him with his bare hands, put on his skin. The Irish Cú Chulainn killed a monstrous mastiff and took his place as guardian of Ulster. Siegfried, the hero of Germanism, bathed in the blood of the dragon Fafnir, killed by him, and with it he became almost invincible.
In the mysteries of Mithras, a restricted military cult only for men and practiced by the legions of Rome, the initiates were covered in the blood of the sacrificed bull in a ceremony of high suggestive power.
In the same line of related examples, we have other cases that refer to ‘second skins’ and hardening baths: Achilles was bathed by his mother in the waters of the dark Styx River, which made him invulnerable.
The Celtic goddess Ceridwen possessed a magical cauldron that gave health, strength and wisdom to all who bathed in it. Spartan mothers bathed their newborns in wine, because they thought that it hardened the hard and finished off the soft.
The waters of the Ganges, even today, are considered healthy for the Hindus. The idea behind all these myths was that exposing oneself to destructive, telluric and dark forces would help to harden the ‘envelope’ of the initiate and protect him in the future against similar experiences in the field of death and suffering.
All this symbolised, in addition, the struggle of the spirit to take control of the telluric beast, after which it was covered with the conquered; it entered the empty shell, possessed it, transformed it in its image and likeness and, at the same time, changed his personality for a different one, entering a new phase and also symbolising the transition to a new way of perceiving the environment and seeing things—a new skin, a new shell, a new shield—; the perception of the world through the senses of the beast; to take possession of matter and, from within, transform it into the image and likeness of the spirit.
This philosophy of possession is a characteristic feature of all initiatory warrior societies. In certain elite units of the Nazi SS, one of the tests was to fight, unarmed and bare-chested, against a wolfhound or a raging mastiff. As reminiscent of all these issues in the middle of the 19th century, the Imperial Hussars of the II Reich, heirs of the elite warrior units of Germanism, sang: ‘We dressed in black / blood we bathed / with the Totenkopf in the helmet / Heil! / We are invincible!’
Those Berserkers who fought naked were related to the behaviour of the early Celts, who also did it (in fact, the figure of the ‘possessed warrior’ was also recurrent among the Celts). Their bodies, tanned from childhood, did not feel cold even if they were naked on the snow. As we have said, some of them also painted themselves in black, vindicating the dark and fiery side, typical of the ages in which light is harassed.
We have already seen how the Roman Tacitus described the Harii who, painted and with black shields, launched themselves into combat with superhuman ferocity. For the ancient Indo-Iranians, the god Vishnu in the dark ages was dressed in dark armour to fight the demons, hiding to the world his luminous appearance. But at the dawn of the new golden age, he would strip off his black breastplate and the world would know his luminous inner aspect.
In Iran, the männerbund of the Mairya wore black armour and carried black flags. Symbolically, it was said that they killed the dragon, and usually they acted at night. The Cathars were dressed in long black robes, and their religious banners were black (some with a white Celtic cross inside). Also the SS dressed in black and wore black flags, in addition to the macabre Totenkopf which symbolised the domain of the darkness; of what belongs to the left hand, to the sinister side, fear, death and horror.
To dominate and to know the enemy is to dominate and know the bear, the wolf, the dragon, the bull or the totemic animal that the fighting man discovers in himself. To cover oneself with black is to cover oneself with the skin of the enemy beast, because darkness is the enemy—until it is dominated.