The Blood Eagle was a method of torture and execution that is sometimes mentioned in Nordic saga legends. It was performed by cutting the ribs of the victim by the spine, breaking the ribs so they resembled blood-stained wings, and pulling the lungs out through the wounds in the victim's back. Salt was sprinkled in the wounds. Victims of the method of execution, as mentioned in skaldic poetry and the Norse sagas, are believed to have included King Ælla of Northumbria, Halfdan son of King Haraldr Hárfagri of Norway, King Maelgualai of Munster, and possibly Archbishop Ælfheah of Canterbury.
The historicity of the practice is disputed. Some take it as historical evidence of atrocities fueled by pagan hatred of Christianity. Others take it as fiction: heroic Icelandic sagas, skaldic poetry and inaccurate translations.
There are a number of accounts of the practice in Norse sources.
The Orkneyinga saga: "Next morning when it was light they went to look for runagate men among the isles if any had got away; and each was slain on the spot as he stood. Then earl Torf-Einarr took to saying these words: 'I know not what I see in Rinansey, sometimes it lifts itself up, but sometimes it lays itself down, that is either a bird or a man, and we will go to it.' There they found Halfdan Long-leg, and Einar made them carve an eagle on his back with a sword, and cut the ribs all from the backbone, and draw the lungs there out, and gave him to Odin for the victory he had won then Einar sung this:"
Some say that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes the killing of king Ælla of Northumbria after a battle for control of York, thus: "They caused the bloody eagle to be carved on the back of Ælla, and they cut away all of the ribs from the spine, and then they ripped out his lungs." (Ivar the Boneless had captured Ælla, who had killed Ivar's father Ragnar Lodbrok.) The relevant year (867) of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says merely:
- Her for se here of East Englum ofer Humbre muþan to Eoforwicceastre on Norþhymbre, ⁚ þær wæs micel ungeþuærnes þære þeode betweox him selfum, ⁚ hie hæfdun hiera cyning aworpenne Osbryht, ⁚ ungecyndne cyning underfengon Ællan; ⁚ hie late on geare to þam gecirdon þæt hie wiþ þone here winnende wærun, ⁚ hie þeah micle fierd gegadrodon, ⁚ þone here sohton æt Eoforwicceastre, ⁚ on þa ceastre bræcon, ⁚ hie sume inne wurdon, ⁚ þær was ungemetlic wæl geslægen Norþanhymbra, sume binnan, sume butan; ⁚ þa cyningas begen ofslægene, ⁚ sio laf wiþ þone here friþ nam; ⁚ þy ilcan geare gefor Ealchstan biscep, ⁚ he hæfde þæt bisceprice .l. wintra æt Scireburnan, ⁚ his lic liþ þær on tune.
- Here the Viking enemy army went forth from East Anglia over the mouth of the Humber to York town in Northumbria, and there was there great discord of the people among themselves, and they had their king Osberht overthrown, and accepted a strange king Ælla; and they late in the year turned to fighting against the enemy army, and they gathered a great army, and they sought the enemy army at York, and broke into the town, and some of them got in, and there was an unmeasurable slaughter of Northumbrians, some inside, some outside; and both kings were slain, and the survivors made peace with the enemy army; and in the same year bishop Ealhstān died, who had the bishopric 50 winters at Sherborne, and his body lies in the town.
Finally, some believe the blood eagle is referred to by the eleventh-century poet Sigvatr Þórðarson, who, some time between 1020 and 1038, wrote a skaldic verse named Knútsdrápa that recounts and establishes Ivar the Boneless as having killed Ella and subsequently cutting his back. Depending on the interpretation an eagle is either what was cut, or what was doing the cutting.
Sighvatr's skaldic verse in Old Norse:
Skaldic poetry, a common medium of Norse poets, was intentionally meant to be cryptic and allusive, therefore the idiomatic nature of Sighvatr's skaldic verse, describing what has become known as the blood eagle, is a matter of historical contention. This is all the truer in this case, since, in Norse imagery, the eagle was strongly associated with blood and death.
There has been debate as to the authenticity of such accounts. Some credit the Gotland picture stones as archaeological evidence attesting to the authenticity of the blood eagle as presented in Norse literary traditions. Some have suggested that the blood eagle was never actually practiced, arguing that such accounts are based upon unsupported folklore or upon inaccurate translations. Ronald Hutton's The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy reports (p. 282) that "the hitherto notorious rite of the 'Blood Eagle,' the killing of a defeated warrior by pulling up his ribs and lungs through his back, has been shown to be almost certainly a Christian myth resulting from the misunderstanding of some older verse." However, it has also been suggested that an Old Norse word for "blood eagle", blóthorn or blóðörn, indicates some type of ritual existed. Alfred Smyth (1977) is a particularly enthusiastic supporter, taking the blood-eagle rite as a historical practice of human sacrifice to the Norse god Odin.
Roberta Frank writes in her article "Viking Atrocity and Skaldic Verse: The Rite of the Blood-Eagle": "By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the various saga motifs—eagle sketch, rib division, lung surgery, and 'saline stimulant'—were combined in inventive sequences designed for maximum horror." She concludes that, reveling in the misdeeds of their pagan predecessors, the saga authors took skaldic poetry originally intended to make elliptical reference to defeat in battle (causing one's back to be scored by eagles, i.e. killing them and thus turning them into carrion) along with separate martyrdom tracts expressing the final tortures of worthy victims in terms reflective of the intended execution of Saint Sebastian (shot so full of arrows that their ribs and internal organs were exposed) and combined and elaborated them into a grandiose torture and death ritual that never was.
If the procedure were performed, the condemned would die of suffocation very soon after the lungs were pulled out (since breathing occurs via the diaphragm and chest muscles) and would probably lose consciousness due to blood loss and shock before that.
Use in popular culture
In games and print
- In The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay, the Viking analogues, the Erlings, performed the blood eagle on fallen royalty.
- A torture almost exactly similar to the Blood Eagle is utilized by the Norse-inspired Warriors of Chaos in the Warhammer games and novels. It is described in the novel Wulfrik by C.L. Werner as being done by the title character to an enemy, and in Blood Raven by Sarah Cawkwell where the Chaos Champion Valkia the Bloody teaches it to the Norscans. It is even referred to as the Blood Eagle.
- In the game Tribes: Ascend, Blood Eagle is the name of one of the playable factions that is known for its brutality.
- In Seamus Heaney's "Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces" at Part V, Stanza 3, reference is made to the Blood Eagle's historic use in Celtic Ireland:
"With a butcher's aplomb/ they spread out your lungs/ and made you warm wings/ for your shoulders."
- The song "Blood Eagle", by Italian doom metal band Doomsword, describes a "heathen king" inflicting this torture on 9th century King Aella.
- British black metal band Anaal Nathrakh's song "Blood Eagles Carved on the Backs of Innocents" on their 2009 album In the Constellation of the Black Widow mentions the method of execution.
- The song "Blood Eagle" on the 2013 album Deceiver of the Gods by death metal band Amon Amarth, describes the practice being used on a victim.
- In the Bones episode "Mayhem on a Cross" (4.21), Camille Saroyan explains the victim was found at a concert of the fictional Nordic band Skallen. Upon review of the skeleton, Temperance "Bones" Brennan explains the victim had the ribs broken at the spine and flailed outward.
- In the Hannibal episode "Coquilles" (1.5), the blood eagle execution is presented as a theory for the form of murder/torture of the victims.
- In the TV series 1000 Ways To Die, it was featured.
- In the TV series Highlander: The Series it was mentioned in the episode entitled Homeland, the first episode in the fourth season.
- Roberta Frank. "Viking Atrocity and Skaldic Verse: The Rite of the Blood-Eagle". The English Historical Review. Vol. 99, No. 391, April 1984.
- Torf-Einar — a man of great power, Orkneyjar.com
- Norna-Gests þáttr
- Hardman's translation of Norna-Gests þáttr
- Knútsrápra by Sigvatr Þórðarson, Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages
- Roberta Frank. "Viking Atrocity and Skaldic Verse: The Rite of the Blood-Eagle". The English Historical Review. Vol. 99, No. 391, April 1984
- Horspool, David (2006). King Alfred: Burnt Cakes and Other Legends. London: Profile Books. pp. 44–45. ISBN 0-674-02320-X.
- Patrick J. Smith, "Violence, Society and Communication: The Vikings and Pattern of Violence in England and Ireland 793–860", p. 17; Alfred P. Smyth, Scandinavian Kings in the British Isles, 850–880 (1977), Oxford.
- Frank, Roberta. "Viking Atrocity and Skaldic Verse: The Rite of the Blood-Eagle". p. 334.