The Blood Eagle

The Blood Eagle refers to a method of torture and execution mentioned in Skaldic poetry. It has gained notoriety for its incredibly graphic nature, but the lack of verifiable sources means that historians remain largely in the dark in terms of whether it was ever really used, and what the specific method looked like.

Typically, the blood eagle is described as a method of ritual execution where the condemned would be staked out, face down, and would then have the flesh of their back opened up with a blade. Their exposed ribs would then be cut away from the spine, springing open to form the ‘wings’ of the blood eagle. Other descriptions add that the wings are in fact the victim’s lungs, which would be pulled out from the cavities exposed by the severed ribs.

While passing mentions may be interpreted as referring to the blood eagle, there are only two confirmed references to the ritual in Norse literature. In both cases, the victims were royalty, and the blood eagle was used as a revenge killing following the murder of a father.

Einarr Rognvaldarson, often known as Torf-Einarr, was a Norse earl of Orkney. His father, Rognvald Eysteinsson, was a close ally of Harald Fairhair, the first recorded king of Norway. The sagas record that Rognvald was murdered by Harald’s son, Halfdan Halegg, who trapped him in the longhouse where he was staying with 60 of his men before burning it to the ground.

Halfdan was exiled by his father, but was hunted down by Einarr on the island of North Ronaldsay and captured. He was then subjected to execution by blood eagle, as a sacrifice to Odin. Einarr is described as carving Halfdan’s back open in the shape of an eagle with his sword, cutting away the ribs from the spine, and drawing his lungs out. 

The second, better known, incident is referred to in the saga of Ragnar’s sons. Ragnar Lodbrok, a possibly legendary Viking hero and king in either Denmark or Sweden, is described as eventually meeting his death when he was captured by King Aella of Northumbria and thrown into a pit of venomous snakes.

An 1830 etching depicting the death of Ragnar Lodbrok. Image: Hugo Hamilton

In retaliation, Ragnar’s sons gathered the Great Heathen Army and launched an invasion of Britain, eventually capturing King Aella. Norse saga states that Aella was then killing using the blood eagle under the orders of Ragnar’s son Ivar the Boneless. A carving of a bloody eagle was cut into his back, before chopping away the ribs and ripping out the lungs. However, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that King Aella was killed in the Battle of York in 867 against forces commanded by Ivar. The Viking victory in this battle paved the way for the Danish domain of Jorvik to be established across much of Northumbria.

In both cases, evidence of the blood eagle having taken place is scant, limited to only references in the sagas that are often contradicted by other historical sources. The sagas themselves, particularly the ones that mention the blood eagle, are thought to have been formally recorded long after the supposed events, after the Christianization of Scandinavia.

Historian Alfred Smyth believes that the ritual existed, and was used as a sacrifice to Odin following a victory in battle. Roberta Frank, however, believes that the blood eagle bears a notable resemblance to other tales of supposed Christian martyrdom, and is either an accidental or deliberate mistranslation of older Skaldic stories. 

A 2022 study established that descriptions of the ritual were consistent with human physiology, but that the victim would die almost immediately following the severing of the ribs due to either blood loss or asphyxiation.

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