Blood, guts, and glory.
The Viking Age was a time of brutal conquest and even more brutal executions. Perhaps none are more shrouded in controversy and intrigue than the notorious blood eagle ritual.
Legend has it that the Vikings were ruthless to their enemies. If you found yourself at the hands of a murderous Viking, the blood eagle would be one of the worst ways to go.
It involved severing a victim’s ribs from their spine, pulling the ribs outward to form wings, and leaving them to die as their lungs slowly suffocated.
Now, did this gruesome ritual exist? And if so, what was its purpose? Who were its victims?
The history of the blood eagle is undoubtedly dark and bloody. It is a chilling reminder of the brutal and savage nature of the Viking Age, and the lengths to which these fierce warriors were willing to go to defeat their enemies and assert their power.
What is the Blood Eagle?
The blood eagle, also known as blóðǫrn in Old Norse, was a ritualistic method of execution described in multiple written Viking histories throughout the Middle Ages.
Viking society was known for showing little mercy. They killed their enemies and anyone who stood in their way. However, this particular manner of killing was a step above the rest.
First, it involved the victim being placed in a prone position, lying face down. Then their rib cage was severed from the spine with a sharp tool, like a long knife.
As described by the Scandinavian historians, writing about the Vikings, the victim’s lungs and all the ribs were then pulled through the chest cavity. This created a pair of ‘wings’, hence the ritual’s name.
The fluttering of the lungs also allegedly resembled the flapping of an eagle’s wings.
The execution was said to be a spectacle. Both for the executioner’s satisfaction and for the entertainment of the crowd who would often gather to watch.
Altogether, the blood eagle was a gruesome and terrifying form of execution. It was reserved only for the most hated enemies or those who had committed a particularly heinous crime.
Origins of the Gruesome Practice
As is often the case with Viking history, the exact origins of the blood eagle are unclear and mysterious. Little else has come down to us through the sagas and stories beyond accounts of the practice.
The sources we have were written many centuries after the events took place. Despite this, the accounts shed some light on its origins.
The ritual execution likely began sometime in the 9th century, when it made its first appearance in medieval sagas. If it originated earlier, no record of it exists.
Many more accounts of the torture method follow throughout the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. This suggests that the practice gained popularity amongst the Vikings.
Where and why the practice first originated, however, there is no way to know for certain.
The Blood Eagle in Viking History
Accounts of blood eagle torture appear in a range of medieval texts, including the Sagas and other Latin histories.
Nine medieval accounts record the torture and execution of multiple individuals by this ritual. It appears in seven prose and two poetic accounts in Old Norse and Latin from the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries.
In the Orkneyinga saga, Halfdan Long-leg, son of Harald Fairhair, is ritually executed by way of the blood eagle. Another Icelandic saga repeats the same tale.
Halfdan’s execution was carried out by a man by the name of Torf-Einar. But the sagas fail to adequately explain why he was killed. It’s possible it was punishment for a crime. But some scholars suggested that it was a form of human sacrifice, likely to the god Odin.
The most likely explanation is that Halfdan Long-leg was sentenced to the grisly blood eagle as punishment for murder. In particular, the murder of a father or male relative.
The most famous account of the blood eagle in Viking history lends further credence to this being the core motivation behind the use of such a grisly punishment.
In the Tale of Ragnar’s Sons, King Ælla of Northumbria is murdered by the infamous Ivar the Boneless by way of ritual torture.
Ivar set out from Scandinavia to kill Ælla. He sought to exact revenge for the murder of his father, Ragnar Lodbrok. With the Great Heathen Army at his side, along with his brothers, Bjorn Ironside and Ubba, Ivar defeated King Ælla and executed him. He opened his back and pulled his lungs through the bloody gap.
This account is repeated in both the Orkneyinga saga and Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum. This is the lone Latin source for the blood eagle. It describes how the ritual’s perpetrators “commanded that the likeness of an eagle should be put onto his back.”
Few others also underwent the blood eagle during the time of the Vikings. In the Story of Norna-Gest, Lyngvi Hundingsson is executed for the murder of Sigmund, with the carving of a “bloody eagle” into his back as punishment.
It is quite likely this is yet another reference to the notorious, yet horrific, method of execution.
Did the Vikings Really Perform the Blood Eagle?
There is considerable debate among historians and scholars about the authenticity of the blood eagle ritual. Some argue that it was a literary invention or mistranslation. Others maintain that it was a genuine historical practice.
Recent anatomical and cultural studies seek to answer this tantalizing question. By considering the human anatomy of the ritual, scientists found that the practice is physically possible.
The fullest form of the method outlined in medieval textual accounts may have been possible. However, it also would have quickly resulted in the victim’s death. This casts doubt on whether the latter half of the “torture” was torturous at all.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the mutilation of the human body, including violent, spectacular, and ritualized executions, was indeed practiced in the Viking Age.
Therefore, it is very possible that the historical blood eagle could have been an extreme, but not implausible, an outlier to such practices.
As with history, one can never be completely certain without more conclusive evidence. However, all signs seem to point towards it being a very real punishment performed by the Vikings.
From Ivar and King Ælla to Torf-Einar and Halfdan Long-leg, the blood eagle has become synonymous with the brutality of the Viking Age and will continue fascinating people for centuries.
Brown, Justin. “Ivar the Boneless: The Life of the Fearsome Viking King.” History Defined, March 8, 2023. https://www.historydefined.net/ivar-the-boneless/.
Murphy, Luke John, Heidi R. Fuller, Peter L. Willan, and Monte A. Gates. “An Anatomy of the Blood Eagle: The Practicalities of Viking Torture.” Speculum 97, no. 1 (January 2022): 1–39. https://doi.org/10.1086/717332.
Perry, David M, and Matthew Gabriele. “Did the Vikings Actually Torture Victims with the Brutal ‘Blood Eagle’?” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, December 6, 2021. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/did-the-vikings-actually-torture-victims-with-the-brutal-blood-eagle-180979148/.
Towrie, Sigurd. “Torf-Einar and the Blood Eagle.” Orkneyjar: The Heritage of the Orkney Islands, 2023. http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/vikingorkney/bloodeagle.html.