The Vikings have for a long time been painted as violent and merciless brutes. They are believed to have been highly aggressive and enjoyed battling. This is not the case, since, for the most part, the Vikings were actually a peace-loving people. It is a fact, however, that they were ruthless when it came to reigning terror down on their enemies be it in or out of the battlefield. They would use gruesome and horrific methods to torture and kill their enemies.
The most gruesome or horrific method they employed was perhaps, the Blood Eagle. If you are a fan of the Vikings series, then you must be familiar with the term or concept of this execution ritual. So, what is the Blood Eagle? How did it work? Why was it done if at all it was truly performed? This post will cover all of these questions that you may have concerning the blood eagle.
What Is Blood Eagle?
The Blood Eagle is a gruesome execution ritual, believed to have been practiced by the Vikings as a slow and painful way to kill their enemies. The name was derived from the fact that the victim’s internal organs would be pulled out from the back and made to seem like the fluttering wings of an eagle. The pain experienced during this process was indescribable since it was performed while the victim was still alive until their ultimate death.
The first account of this horrific act was said to have happened in 867 when Ivar the Boneless took vengeance for his father, Ragnar Lothbrok’s death. Years before, Ragnar, a Viking leader was killed by King Aella of Northumbria, who threw him in a pit of live snakes. Seeking revenge, Ragnar’s sons including Ivar, invaded England during the Danish invasion of York. Seeing that his father had died a slow and painful death, Ivar wanted Aella to suffer the same fate if not more. That is why he sentenced him to death by the blood eagle.
King Aella wasn’t the only noble to face this gruesome death. At least four other nobles in Northern European history were believed to have suffered the same fate. They include Archbishop Aelheah, King Edmund of England, King Maelgualai of Munster, and Prince Halfdan of Norway. All four of them were Ivar’s enemies. Ivar performed this form of execution to send a message and strike fear to his enemies.
Did The Vikings Really Do The Blood Eagle?
To date, there is still speculation as to whether or not the blood eagle was ever performed, especially given its gory details. There are many reasons behind this doubt, the main one being that the accounts of the blood eagle start from the 12th and 13th centuries, which is way past the Viking age. What’s more, the first people to talk about it were Monks in Europe who were the main victims of Viking invasions. It could be possible that the appalling details of the ordeal may have been exaggerated to demonize the Vikings. Some scholars believe that the ritual may have only involved the drawing of an eagle on the back of the victim before execution. Considering that the victims of the Blood Eagle died between the 800-1000s, it is difficult to verify the truth.
Still, there are many passages in Scandinavian literature that mention the blood eagle, including the saga of King Aella, not to mention the accounts of the other nobles. Although it is possible that there could have been a mistranslation of certain texts that indicated the death of the enemy, the poets who wrote them down used a specific method. It is possible that someone performed this gruesome ritual given the gory details it is described. Such a horrific act could not possibly just be a figment of someone’s imagination. Whether the Blood Eagle actually happened or is simply a propaganda tool, may not be clear. What is clear, however, is that either way it is a terrifying act.
How Worked Of The Blood Eagle?
So how was the Blood Eagle performed? Bear in mind that this was a grisly and cruel method and the details are graphic are more than disturbing. That is why many people have a hard time believing that such a thing happened. There are many accounts of this act detailing how it was performed, one of them being the History of Anglo-Saxons by Sharon Turner.
Based on the different accounts, the ritual was performed in stages, ensuring as much pain as possible was inflicted on the victim. First, the victim’s arms and legs were restrained to prevent them from escaping. They would be placed faced down although some depictions show them hanging from a pole or tree, or tied upright in between two poles or trees. From there, some accounts mention the executioner plunging a sharp knife deep into the tailbone of the victim and moving the knife upwards towards the rib cage, tearing open the flesh. Other accounts, however, mention the executioner first cutting out the shape of an eagle with outstretched wings on the victim’s back.
From there, an ax was used to meticulously separate each rib from the spine. The ribs were, however, not severed but pulled outward with the skin to form a pair of wings that seemed to be protruding from the victim’s back. At this point, the internal organs were clearly visible and the victim was still alive and experiencing immense levels of pain one can barely imagine. To make it worse, salt would be rubbed severed flesh and open wounds and ribs, to increase the amount of agony the victim felt.
Finally, the victim’s lungs were pulled out from the back and spread over the open ribs. As the victim slowly died, the lungs would flutter like an eagle’s wings until their last breath. This entire act was performed among many witnesses, and the image of the blood eagle was manifested in all the gory glory. That’s because, in the end, the victim appeared to be a bloody bird with outstretched wings coming from their back.
Blood Eagle Ritual Killing
As we have mentioned before, the blood eagle was not only an execution method but also a ritual. Although the meaning behind it is obscure, there are two main reasons why it was performed. First and foremost, the ritual was seen as a sacrificial practice to Odin, the All-Father of the Norse Pantheon, and Viking god of war. This is in addition to the ritual of hanging and spearing the enemy, which was also seen as a human sacrificial offering to Odin.
The second reason for this gruesome practice was because of vengeance and as a punishment for individuals with no honor. The Vikings, as we mentioned before, were ruthless when it came to punishing their enemies. The blood eagle was the best way for them to inflict the most pain on their enemies. What is more, most of the accounts of this horrendous act were as a result of seeking vengeance like in the case of King Aella. It was also as a form of punishment like in the case of Prince Halfdan, in the Orkneyinga saga, where he was defeated by Earl Einar. Another reason could also be to strike fear in the hearts of their enemies, like in Ivar’s case. By doing so, the Viking’s enemies would think twice before facing them in battle.
Facts Of Blood Eagle
The following is a summary of facts that are known about the Blood Eagle and its practice.
- It is among the most gruesome and painful methods of execution employed by the Vikings.
- It was an execution ritual performed as a way of offering human sacrifice to Odin, the Viking god, and father of the Norse Pantheon.
- It was also performed as a way of punishment or seeking revenge, especially on royals and noblemen.
- It was also meant to strike fear and send a warning message to the Viking’s enemies.
- It involved various stages that ensure the utmost levels of pain by cutting open the victim’s back, separating their ribs, and pulling out their lungs.
- The name is as a result of the victim resembling a bloody eagle with outstretched wings at the end of the act.
- The act was first accounted for in 867 when Ivar the Boneless used it to execute King Aella of Northumbria.
- Aside from King Aella, several other nobles were also victims of the Blood eagle at the hands of Ivar the Boneless, having been his enemies.
- It is not clear whether or not the blood eagle was ever actually performed or if it is simply a figment of someone’s imagination or a propaganda tool aimed at painting a negative picture of the Vikings.
Although it is not clear whether the Blood Eagle was practiced, rumors of it would have been enough to strike fear in the hearts of anyone who came across a Viking. It gave them a reputation of a fearsome lot that was not meant to be trifled with. It is also possible that the aim of memorializing the Blood Eagle was nothing more than a way of demonizing the Vikings for not following the Christian religion. After all, monks were the first to speak of the ordeal. Whether fact or fiction, what is clear is that the Blood Eagle is a terrifying act that adds to the Viking’s assumed savagery.