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I have some pretty violent ancestors—but then again, we probably all do. I’m not proud of them, except for one who famously departed from his family tradition.
My Norwegian family descended from Eric the Red, the Viking warrior who settled in Greenland, and his son Leif Ericson, the first European to land in North America sometime around 1000 AD—about five hundred years before the catastrophic arrival of the genocidal Spaniard Cristobol Colombo.
As a child, probably because my middle name is Eric, I heard many stories from my Norwegian grandfather Olaf about my ancestors. I grew up learning about these fierce, intrepid explorers, and wondering if I had a little bit of them in me. The father, Eric the Red, stuck to his ancestral, warlike beliefs. The son, Leif Ericson, became a Christian and gave up much of the violence that characterized his forefathers. For me, Leif exemplified the Baha’i belief in the independent investigation of the truth:
Another new principle revealed by Baha’u’llah is the injunction to investigate truth—that is to say, no man should blindly follow his ancestors and forefathers. Nay, each must see with his own eyes, hear with his own ears and investigate the truth himself in order that he may follow the truth instead of blind acquiescence and imitation of ancestral beliefs. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 454.
Here’s some background: Eric Thorvaldsson, known as Eric the Red, established the first European colony in Greenland in 982 A.D. A fierce Viking warrior, he built a colony of 5000 Vikings near the southern tip of Greenland, and became the “paramount chieftain” of the settlement.
Later, after a famine in Greenland, Eric’s son Leif—one of the first Viking chieftains to convert to Christianity—sailed to a place he called Vinland (now Newfoundland, in modern Canada), and stayed there for some time in peaceful coexistence with the natives. He became the first European to visit North America.
As a child, I could relate to Leif, but I had major problems with his dad Eric, who by all accounts was a pretty brutal guy. Eric the Red followed the indigenous Viking beliefs, which worshipped Odin and taught that the only acceptable death came during battle. The modern word berserk comes from that brutal, bloody belief system, responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people and the colonization and subjugation of many more. Those violent Viking raids and their predation and slave-taking only stopped when Christianity spread its peaceful new laws across Scandinavia.
In Viking parlance, a berserker fought in war with wild rage and abandon, perhaps after ingesting hallucinogenic plants or great quantities of alcohol. Berserkers often led the conquering Viking shock troops, looting, plundering and killing indiscriminately all over Europe and the Americas, and maybe even into Africa. Called “heathen devils” by the Europeans they encountered, the Viking berserkers struck fear into the hearts of their foes as they colonized and conquered much of Europe.
But going berserk isn’t just an antiquated Viking practice. When I was drafted as a Baha’i and a conscientious objector and went to war in Vietnam, I saw this kind of wild, uncontrolled savagery take hold of many combatants on both sides. Their humanity subdued, masked, or completely absent, they became wildly enraged homicidal maniacs, in the most literal sense of the term. That murderous and uncontrolled anger, the psychiatrist and author Jonathan Shay wrote, ultimately comes back to haunt the soldier:
If a soldier survives the berserk state, it imparts emotional deadness and vulnerability to explosive rage to his psychology and permanent hyperarousal to his physiology—hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder in combat veterans. My clinical experience with Vietnam combat veterans prompts me to place the berserk state at the heart of their most severe psychological and psychophysiological injuries. – Achilles in Vietnam, p. 98.
I find it so strange that today this kind of homicidal character—one who goes berserk, loses all semblance of humanity and mercy, and transforms into a vengeful, inhumane monster—has become a staple of films, television shows and video games. Maybe the popularity and ubiquity of the berserker indicates that some people relate to that rampant, unchecked anger, and get a vicarious, cathartic thrill from it.
The Baha’i teachings have a unique view of these inherent and bloodthirsty drives in human beings:
The body of man is a prisoner of nature and will act in accordance with whatsoever nature dictates. It follows that sins—such as wrathfulness, envy, contentiousness, greed, avarice, ignorance, rancour, corruption, pride, and cruelty—must exist in the material world. All these bestial attributes exist in the nature of man.
… All sin is prompted by the dictates of nature. These dictates of nature, which are among the hallmarks of corporeal existence, are not sins with respect to the animal but are sins with regard to man. The animal is the source of imperfections such as anger, lust, envy, greed, cruelty and pride. All these blameworthy qualities are found in the nature of the animal, and do not constitute sins with regard to the animal, whereas they are sins with regard to man. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, pp. 132-134.
For Baha’is, spiritual growth and progress mean moving away from our lower nature and aspiring to a higher state of being and consciousness. That means understanding our emotions, dealing with our inner anger and rage, and finding ways to transform them into constructive and positive forces for good.
The Baha’i teachings, then, ask us to understand, confront and try to overcome our lower nature by transcending the physical and aspiring to the spiritual.
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