Viking sagas depict the ceremonial execution of blood eagle, where victims were held alive as their backs were hacked open so that their ribs, lungs and intestines could be drawn out of the form of bleeding wings.
The Vikings did not enter towns floating on rainbows and sparkles. The Vikings cruelly tortured their rivals in the name of their god Odin, when they invaded lands if their sagas are to be believed. If the idea of a blood eagle was even let-out, one would leave town and never look back.
Viking sagas describe blood eagle as one of the most debilitating and horrifying tortures ever imagined.
The History of Executions of Blood Eagle
It is believed that one of the oldest records of blood eagle usage happened in 867. It started a few years ago, when Aella, king of Northumbria (now North Yorkshire, England), fell victim to a Viking attack. Aella killed Ragnar Lothbrok, chief of the Vikings, by tossing him into a snake pit.
Depiction of Ragnar Lothbrok in snake pit
In 865 the sons of Lothbrok invaded England in retaliation. When York, one of Lothbrok ‘s sons Ivar the Boneless, was kidnapped by the Danes, he saw that Aella would be killed.
Of course, it wasn’t good enough to kill him. Ivar’s father, Ragnar, had – reportedly – experienced a horrific fate from a snack pit.
Ivar the Boneless decided to set a precedent out of Aella, and scare his enemies’ souls.
Thus he pledged the wretched king to the blood eagle.
How It Worked
Modern scholars are arguing how Vikings executed this ritual torture and whether they did the grotesque practice at all. The blood eagle procedure is so barbaric and grisly, that it would be impossible to imagine it might ever be achieved. Regardless of if it is simply a piece about literary fiction, the fact that the practice was stomach-churning is undeniable.
The hands and legs of the suspect were bound to avoid any sudden movements or escape. The person wanting revenge then stabbed the victim to the rib cage by his tailbone right up to it. — rib was then carefully removed with an axe from the backbone, leaving a complete view of the victim’s internal organs.
The survivor is said to have stayed alive during the whole process. What’s more, in the shape of a saline stimulant, the Vikings will then practically inject salt into the bleeding wound.
As if that wasn’t enough, after all the person’s ribs were cut off and stretched like giant claws, the torturer then ripped out the victim’s lungs to make it look as though the guy had a pair of wings stretched out over his body.
Therefore the blood eagle presented itself with all its majesty. The perpetrator had grown into a slimy, bleeding creature.
The Ritual Behind The Blood Eagle
King Aella wasn’t the only royal to face the blood eagle.
One scholar suggests that at least four other notable figures were enduring the same fate in Northern European history. England’s King Edmund also fell prey to Ivar the Boneless. Halfdan, son of King Haraldr of Norway, King Maelgualai of Munster, and Archbishop Aelheah were all thought to have been victims of blood eagle torment as they had been victims of Ivar the Boneless.
There were two main purposes Vikings used the blood eagle on their victims. First, they thought it was a sacrifice for Odin, father of the gods’ Norse pantheon and god of war.
Second, even more plausibly, was that the eagle of the blood was performed as a penalty for honorless people. Halfdan was defeated in battle at the hands of Earl Einar, who then threatened him with a blood eagle while he invaded the Realm of Halfdan, according to the Vikings’ Orkneyinga saga. Likewise, Aella was tortured in revenge.
Indeed, even the blood eagle’s tales — accurate or not — would have cleared every village only by word of mouth before even the Vikings could make land there. At least the stories of such brutality would have made the Vikings a divinely frightening pack — and not to be trifled with it.
Fact Or Fiction?
Victims of the practice died in the 800s and 900s, possibly in the 1000s. Written reports, often decorated and told up to the north for fun during long winter nights, did not come about until the 1100s and 1200s.
Viking sagas authors listened to tales and wrote them down. Maybe they decked the Vikings ferocity to make them seem more admirable.
But the blood eagle tale may have meaning.
The poets that wrote them down were very specific to the method employed. Certainly, somebody tried this method of torture because of the gory details somebody described. One Danish historian, Saxo Grammaticus, relays the ritual as merely the means of carving an eagle into the back of a victim and other details were later added and, “blended in imaginative series intended for maximum horror.”
Either the blood eagle was a real thing, or it was propaganda. But it was scary, either way.
Other Torture Methods of Vikings
Aside from the blood eagle, the Vikings used other means of torture.
One was known as Hung meat, which sounded almost as bad. Vikings pierced the victim’s heels, threaded the ropes into the holes, and then hung them upside down. Not only was the heels piercing painful, but the blood flowed down to their hearts.
A more gruesome testimony to torture was the fatal walk. The belly of a man was cut open, and a bit of intestine was pulled out. The torturer then retained the intestines of the victim while the victim walked around a tree. Ultimately the entire digestive tract of the perpetrator will wind around the tree.
The Vikings learned how to make examples from their rivals, whether it was a blood eagle, hung meat, or a fatal walk.