Blood eagle

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Detail from Stora Hammars I, Sweden shows a man lying on his belly with another man using a weapon on his back. Note the triangular Valknut symbol above, symbolizing a slain warrior.

The blood eagle is a ritual method of execution, detailed in late skaldic poetry. According to the two instances mentioned in the Sagas, the victims (in both cases members of royal families) were placed in a prone position, their ribs severed from the spine with a sharp tool, and their lungs pulled through the opening to create a pair of "wings". There is continuing debate about whether the rite was a literary invention, a mistranslation of the original texts, or an authentic historic practice.[1][2][3]


The blood-eagle ritual-killing rite appears in just two instances in Norse literature, plus oblique references some have interpreted as referring to the same practice. The primary versions share certain commonalities: the victims are both noblemen (Halfdan Haaleg or "Long-leg" was a prince; Ælla of Northumbria a king), and both of the executions were in retaliation for the murder of a father.

Einarr and Halfdan[edit]

In the Orkneyinga saga, the blood eagle is described as a sacrifice to Odin. Torf-Einarr has Harald Fairhair's son, Halfdan Long-Leg, ritually executed:

Þar fundu þeir Hálfdan hálegg, ok lèt Einarr rísta örn á baki honum með sverði, ok skera rifin öll frá hrygginum ok draga þar út lúngun, ok gaf hann Óðni til sigrs sèr.[4] Einarr 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.[5]

Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla contains an account of the same event described in Orkneyinga saga, with Einarr actually performing the deed himself:

Þá gékk Einarr jarl til Hálfdanar; hann reist örn á baki honum með þeima hætti, at hann lagði sverði á hol við hrygginn ok reist rifin öll ofan alt á lendar, dró þar út lungun; var þat bani Hálfdanar.[6] Afterwards, Earl Einarr went up to Halfdan and cut the "blood eagle" on his back, in this fashion that he thrust his sword into his chest by the backbone and severed all the ribs down to the loins, and then pulled out the lungs; and that was Halfdan's death.[7]

Ragnar Lodbrok's sons and King Ælla of Northumbria[edit]

In Þáttr af Ragnars sonum (the "Tale of Ragnar's sons"), Ivar the Boneless has captured king Ælla of Northumbria, who had killed Ivar's father Ragnar Loðbrók. The killing of Ælla, after a battle for control of York, is described 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.

The blood eagle is referred to by the 11th-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 Ælla and subsequently cutting his back.

Sighvatr's skaldic verse in Old Norse:

Original Literal translation Suggested reordering

Ok Ellu bak,
At lét hinn's sat,
Ívarr, ara,
Iorví, skorit.[8]

And Ella's back,
at had the one who dwelt
Ívarr, with eagle,
York, cut.

And Ívarr, the one
who dwelt at York,
had Ella's back
cut with [an] eagle.[1]

Skaldic verse, a common medium of Norse poets, was meant to be cryptic and allusive, and the idiomatic nature of Sighvatr's poem as a description of what has become known as the blood eagle is a matter of historical contention, particularly since in Norse imagery the eagle was strongly associated with blood and death.

Saxo Grammaticus in Gesta Danorum book 9, chapter 5,5 tells the following about Bjørn and Sigvard, sons of Ragnar Lodbrok and king Ælla:

Idque statuto tempore exsecuti, comprehensi ipsius dorsum plaga aquilam figurante affici iubent, saevissimum hostem atrocissimi alitis signo profligare gaudentes. Nec vulnus impressisse contenti, laceratam salivere carnem.[9] This they did at the appointed time; and when they had captured him, they ordered the figure of an eagle to be cut in his back, rejoicing to crush their most ruthless foe by marking him with the cruellest of birds. Not satisfied with imprinting a wound on him, they salted the mangled flesh.[10]

Other accounts[edit]

Another possible oblique reference to the rite appears in Norna-Gests þáttr. There are two stanzas of verse near the end of its section 6, "Sigurd Felled the Sons of Hunding", where a character describing previous events says:

Nú er blóðugr örn
breiðum hjörvi
bana Sigmundar
á baki ristinn.
Fár var fremri,
sá er fold rýðr,
hilmis nefi,
ok hugin gladdi.[11]

Now the blood eagle
With a broad sword
The killer of Sigmund
Carved on the back.
Fewer were more valiant
As the troops dispersed
A chief of people
Who made the raven glad.[12]

The word translated "raven" is not hrafn but hugin, one of Odin's ravens.


There is debate about whether the blood eagle was historically practiced, or whether it was a literary device invented by the authors who transcribed the sagas. No contemporary accounts of the rite exist, and the scant references in the sagas are several hundred years after the Christianization of Scandinavia.

Alfred Smyth supported the historicity of the rite, stating that it is clearly human sacrifice to the Norse god Odin. He characterized St. Dunstan's description of the Ælla's killing as an "accurate account of a body subjected to the ritual of the blood eagle".[13]

Roberta Frank reviewed the historical evidence for the rite in her "Viking Atrocity and Skaldic Verse: The Rite of the Blood-Eagle", where she writes: "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."[14] She concludes that the authors of the sagas misunderstood alliterative kennings that alluded to leaving one's foes face down on the battlefield, their backs torn as carrion by scavenging birds. She compared the lurid details of the blood eagle to Christian martyrdom tracts, such as that relating the tortures of Saint Sebastian, shot so full of arrows that his ribs and internal organs were exposed. She suggests that these tales of martyrdom inspired further exaggeration of the misunderstood skaldic verses into a grandiose torture and death rite with no actual historic basis. David Horspool in his book King Alfred: Burnt Cakes and Other Legends, while not committing to the historical veracity of the rite, also saw parallels to martyrdom tracts.[15] Frank's paper sparked a "lively debate".[16]

Ronald Hutton's The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy states 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."[17]


  1. ^ a b Frank, Roberta (1984). "Viking atrocity and Skaldic verse: The Rite of the Blood-Eagle". English Historical Review. Oxford Journals. XCIX (CCCXCI): 332–343. doi:10.1093/ehr/XCIX.CCCXCI.332. Retrieved 30 March 2015.
  2. ^ Tracy, Larissa (2012). Torture and Brutality in Medieval Literature: Negotiations of National Identity. DS Brewer. pp. 109–111. ISBN 9781843842880. Archived from the original on 2015-09-23. Retrieved 2015-03-30.
  3. ^ Dash, Mike (18 March 2013). "The Vengeance of Ivarr the Boneless". Smithsonian. Retrieved 30 March 2015.
  4. ^ Guðbrandur Vigfússon, Sir George Webbe Dasent. Orkneyinga saga and Magnus saga, with appendices, Volume 1. Oxford University. H.M.S.O., 1887.
  5. ^ Dasent, G.W. (1894). "Icelandic Sagas and Other Historical Documents Relating to the Settlements and Dsecents of the Northmen on the British Isles Vol III - The Orkneyinger's Saga". Rerum Britannicarum Medii Ævi Scriptores, Or, Chronicles and Memorials of Great Britain and Ireland During the Middle Ages. London: Great Britain. Public Record Office. 88 (3): xxvi, 8–9. Retrieved 30 March 2015.
  6. ^ Sturluson, Snorri. "Heimskringla in Old Norse".
  7. ^ Hollander, Lee (1964). Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway (7th, 2009 ed.). Univ of Texas Press. p. 84. ISBN 9780292786967.
  8. ^ Knútsrápra by Sigvatr Þórðarson Archived 2012-04-06 at the Wayback Machine, Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages
  9. ^ Saxo Grammaticus: Gesta Danorum
  10. ^ Wikisource The Danish History/Book IX
  11. ^ Norna-Gests þáttr
  12. ^ Hardman's translation of Norna-Gests þáttr
  13. ^ Alfred P. Smyth, Scandinavian Kings in the British Isles, 850–880 (1977), Oxford, pp. 212–213
  14. ^ Frank 1984, p. 334
  15. ^ Horspool, David (2006). King Alfred: Burnt Cakes and Other Legends. London: Profile Books. pp. 44–45. ISBN 067402320X.
  16. ^ Baraz, David (2003). Medieval Cruelty: Changing Perceptions, Late Antiquity to the Early Modern Period. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. p. 67. ISBN 978-0801438172., citing: Bjarni Einarsson, "De Normanorum Atrocitate, or on the Execution of Royalty by the Aqueline Method", The Saga Book, 22 (1988): 79–82; Roberta Frank, "The Blood-Eagle Again", The Saga Book, 22 (1988): 287–289 ; Bjarni Einarsson and Roberta Frank, "The Blood-Eagle Once More: Two Notes", The Saga Book, 23 (1990): 80–83.
  17. ^ Hutton, Ronald (1991). The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy states. Oxford: Blackwell. p. 282. ISBN 978-0631172888.