The Blood Eagle: A Gruesome but Possible Execution?

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blood eagle

In a new study published in the journal Early Science, researchers theorized that the “blood eagle” may have been an actual execution method used by Vikings. The gruesome act involves cutting open the victim’s back, pulling out their lungs, and then stretching them across their wings like a bloodied eagle. The article says that there is evidence that Vikings were feasibly capable of performing the act. So what does saga literature say about the blood eagle? Furthermore, was it put into practice?

What was the Blood Eagle, and Where is it Mentioned in Medieval Writings?

The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok first mentions the Blood Eagle, mentioning that Viking king Aslak Hane was executed in this way. The saga also mentions that Vikings would sometimes cut off their enemies’ heads and hang them on poles to warn others. Interestingly, there is no mention of the blood eagle as an execution method until after the death of Aslak Hane. Some scholars have theorized that this may be because the act was so gruesome that it was only used as a last resort.

The blood eagle was later used to torture and eventually kill four powerful male figures—Halfdan Haleggr, King Ælla of Northumbria, Lyngvi Hundingsson, and Brúsi of Sauðey. The accounts in Old Norse literature span from the 11th to the 13th centuries. The eight Old Norse texts contain the phrase “to carve/cut/mark an [blood] eagle,” which also appears in the Gesta Danorum, a Latin source, which describes how the perpetrators “commanded that the image of an eagle should be etched onto his back.”

Despite their comparable appearance, the sources have no agreement on what exactly constituted the blood eagle. The victim is taken captive following armed conflict and subsequently has an eagle carved or cut into his back in all nine of the recorded instances.

A New Study Argues in Favor of the Anatomical Possibility of the Act

The notorious blood eagle ritual has long been a source of debate: did Viking Age Nordic people torture one another to death by cutting away their ribs and lungs from their spine, or is it all a misunderstanding of some perplexing verse? Previous research focused on the accuracy and completeness of ancient texts describing the blood eagle, with advocates for or against its historicity. The study of the anatomical and socio-cultural restrictions within which any Viking Age blood eagle would have had to be carried out has thus far not been addressed. The new study evaluates medieval descriptions of the ritual with a contemporary anatomical understanding. It contextualizes specific reports with recent archaeological and historical scholarship on elite culture and the ritualized mutilation of the human body in the Viking Age. The study argues that even the most complete form of the blood eagle described in textual sources was feasible but difficult. They concede that the practice would have resulted in the victim’s death early on in the procedure.

The study can be found at:

-Journal of the University of Chicago Press: “The Blood Eagle Revisited” by Alexander J.C. Thomas, et al. (DOI: /doi/full/10808621)

-Early Science: Volume 21, Issue 01, 2018 – “On the Wings of Eagles? A Reconsideration of the ‘Blood Eagle'” by Søren Sindbæk and Alexander J.C. Thomas

C.J. Adrien’s Take

As I tend to do with new studies that make bold claims, I will address this one with caution. The tendency in academia today is to create clickable headlines for articles because attention and reach equal funding. Of course, the study authors are established scholars, and I have no reason to doubt they did their due diligence in researching the topic. However, this study does have the look and feel of attention-grabbing. Hence, while I agree with their conclusions based on the thorough evidence they proposed in their study, I find the conclusions lacking in impact. While the new study provides a convincing argument for the Blood Eagle’s feasibility, there is still no solid evidence that it was put into practice. We may never know whether or not the Vikings carried it out.

With that said, I do still think the Blood Eagle may have been a literary device. Where the sources are concerned, we must remember these were written decades and centuries after the events they chronicle by authors who were neither present nor involved. Yes, archeological finds have confirmed a few elements from the sagas, but that does not mean they are entirely reliable sources. Their historicity remains dubious at best.

As an author of historical fiction (and not just a historian), I would also like to add that the Blood Eagle is an attractive element that would spice up any story. While it may not be particularly good history, it certainly makes for good fiction. For me, that idea alone is telling. Writers have an audience in mind, and we know from many medieval sources that inserting fantastical elements for the benefit of readers was commonplace. Anatomical feasibility is a far cry from hard evidence of the practice. In my opinion, I do not think the Blood Eagle ever took place, but rather it showed up in later sources as a literary device.

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