The blood eagle | The punishment of the Viking gods
The Vikings are known as a civilization of ruthless barbarians. Commonly described as ruthless beings with inhuman practices, their reputation is however largely exaggerated by medieval historians.
However, in every story there is some truth! Viking barbarity is reflected in certain rituals and bloody practices used at that time: the blood eagle is a perfect example.
The blood eagle is an ancestral Nordic execution rite of incredible cruelty and atrocity. Considered the ultimate punishment one can suffer, it is reserved only for the most sacrilegious. This explains why only a few historical figures, barely counting on one hand, were victims of this tragedy.
Do you want to know why this method of execution is so much in the news? Was it really used to avenge Ragnar’s death? To untangle the true from the false, we make you discover the history, the origin and the meaning of the famous blood eagle!
The origin of the blood eagle: divine punishment!
The blood eagle is not an insignificant execution ritual. Indeed, in all Scandinavian literature, it has claimed only four victims, but not the least.
Sometimes described as a rite of execution, sometimes depicted as a sacrificial ceremony, the theatrical and brutal nature of the ritual makes it a singular punishment that is not found in any other culture. Even today, it remains a real mystery, both for the public and for historians.
The cruelty of this practice is highlighted in various cinematographic works, in particular the series Vikings, and raises many questions among viewers:
- Why does such a practice exist?
- What sacrilege had to be committed to deserve it?
- Which historical figures were subjected to this punishment?
- What is the origin and meaning of this rite?
Even today, we do not have all the elements in our possession to answer all these questions. Nevertheless, in the course of this article, we will try to demystify this Viking phenomenon that is as brutal as it is intriguing.
The blood eagle: myth or reality?
The historical Viking sagas describe in detail the course of this ritual, an act of unparalleled cruelty. During the blood eagle, the victims are kept alive throughout the ordeal, while the ribs on the side of their back are broken. One by one, they are sliced and detached from the spine, then spread apart to expose the lungs of the sacrificed.
In some cases, the punishment goes further: the ribs, lungs, and sometimes even the intestines of the condemned are pulled out to form bloody wings. It is from this horrific image that the famous name derives.
In spite of all these appalling details, the historical veracity of this Scandinavian torture is still debated. There is no historical evidence to prove that it was actually practiced during the Viking era or that it was a purely literary invention.
Indeed, the Nordic references on the blood eagle are not numerous, and the rare sagas which exist all go back to the time which follows the Christianization of Scandinavia.
A rite of execution or Odinic sacrifice?
It is known that the Vikings have never been choirboys. After each victory, they tortured their enemies and offered them to the god Odin. One of these rituals was that of the blood eagle, the most terrible of all. The mere suggestion of it would cause entire villages to flee!
The Viking sagas all agree on its cruelty, but there are still some discrepancies on its modalities as well as on its real value between the different sources:
- In the Haralds saga hárfagra and the Orkneyinga saga, it is a ritual of sacrifice to the god Odin. After each conquest, the Vikings sacrifice their enemies in order to obtain Odin’s blessing;
- In the Ragnars saga Loðbrókar, the Gesta Danorum and the Knútsdrápa, it would be a means of revenge. In this case, it was used by Ragnar’s sons to avenge the murder of their father by King Ælle of Northumbria;
- According to the Reginsmál and Orms þáttr Stórólfssonar mythical sources of Viking legends, the blood eagle is even used by divine creatures.
In addition to these differences, these same sagas do not describe the course of this operation in the same way. In some of these sources, notably the Reginsmál, the Ragnars saga and the Gesta Danorum, the ribs are not incised. An eagle is carved into the back of the victim, and salt is sometimes thrown on it.
In any case, the Irish historian Alfred Smyth supports the historicity of the blood eagle. He states that it is clearly a rite of human sacrifice in the name of the Viking god Odin.
The blood eagle, a pure literary invention?
In an article published in 1984, Roberta Frank describes the blood eagle as “the bird that never would have been. The article, Viking Atrocities and Scaldic Verse: The Blood Eagle Rite, questions the very existence of such a ritual.
Since the Viking sagas were mostly written after the Christianization of the Nordic countries, she states that the authors misinterpreted the ancient scaldic verses. According to her, this mistranscription of the Reginsmál stanza is due to the kenning (a particular syntax) of the word “eagle”.
In addition to this, Roberta goes on to describe the Reginsmál as “an enigmatic and allusive story that is difficult to interpret. Unfortunately, being the only source from the Viking era to attest to its existence, it is very difficult to establish its veracity.
Roberta’s explanation is that the practice is simply a reference to leaving the remains of enemies face down on the battlefield, so that carrion can tear and shred their backs.
A Christian myth to demonize the Vikings?
Many other historians support the theory that the blood eagle is pure invention. Worse still, it would be a myth created by Christians, sworn enemies of the Vikings, with the sole aim of demonizing them.
In addition to Roberta Frank, two other historians, David Horspool and Ronald Hutton, agree that it is a creation purely designed to induce a sensation of maximum horror.
According to them, it is simply a Christian myth with no historical basis that results from :
- The misunderstanding and misinterpretation of ancient Norse verses ;
- To which are added details of stories of Christian martyrs and heroes, which would be at the origin of this atrocious torture rite.
In fact, by comparing certain features of the blood eagle with certain Christian stories, the myth theory remains plausible. Let’s take for example the story of the death of Saint Sebastian, who had the sides of his back shredded by arrows, who was abandoned and in a second time devoured by scavengers.
The meaning of the blood eagle
The eagle is a bird that is closely linked to Odin. A symbol of power and dominion of the heavens, it refers directly to the father of the gods and protector of the worlds designated as the “eagle god”. It is undoubtedly for this reason that many historians consider the blood eagle as a ritual sacrifice to the god Odin.
The Orkneyinga saga reinforces this theory through the legend of Torf-Einarr. According to this ancient story, the Viking hero offered his enemy Hálfdan as a sacrifice to the god Odin to celebrate his victory.
On the other hand, other examples suggest that this was a method of revenge, especially for his father. The popularity of this hypothesis is mainly due to the story of the death of King Ælle of Northumbria, which is mentioned repeatedly in the literature.
The victims of the blood eagle
Although he marked history by his atrocity and barbarity, the blood eagle will have claimed only 4 alleged victims in total. What doesn’t help matters is the fact that some of them are fictitious, so the stories could be fabricated in every way.
In addition to two Viking legends, there are only two very specific cases where the punishment was actually used:
- The revenge of Ragnar’s sons on the instigator of their father’s murder;
- The sacrifice to the god Odin of Hálfdan háleggr with the long leg by Torf-Einarr.
The legendary revenge of the sons of Ragnar
The legend of the revenge of Ivar the Boneless and his brothers is the most popular historical example of the application of the blood eagle for the sole purpose of revenge.
Ragnar Lothbrok, thirsty for power and driven by a deep desire to expand his lands, sets out to conquer England. His pride plays a bad trick on him, and he unfortunately falls into a trap set by King Ælle of Northumbria. Condemning him to a horrible death, he throws him into a snake pit to make an example of him to anyone who tries to invade his territory.
Having naively triggered a violent rage in the Viking camp, he does not suspect what awaits him in return. Thus, the response of Ragnar’s sons was not long in coming! For the punishment that their father undergoes, there is only one torment capable of equaling or surpassing it in terms of violence and aggressiveness: the blood eagle! The king soon succumbs under the hands of the merciless Ivar the boneless.
King Ælle of Northumbria is undoubtedly the most famous victim of this abominable punishment, and the first to have endured such an atrocious death. The story of this bloody vengeance appears in many historical sources, in particular the Tale of the Sons of Ragnarr, which tells the story of the English king who dared to defy the Scandinavians.
This story has become a true example of Viking fury. It was used in various film adaptations, including the 1958 American masterpiece “The Vikings” which was strongly inspired by it. Decades later, it is the series Vikings that will shock the viewers once again, by repeating the scene of this ritual in its every detail.
The sacrifice of King Hálfdan son Harald
The second historical use of the blood eagle sanction does not occur until a century after Ragnar’s death. With the Nordic kingdom in the midst of a power struggle, his death marked the beginning of the division of the Scandinavian people.
Governed by Harald of the Fair Hair, his many sons, including Hálfdan, competed for the throne and the succession of power. Hálfdan began by dominating the Nordic countries, then colonized and chased the jarl Torf-Einarr from his lands. Wanting to further humiliate the jarl, he kills his father without mercy to this innocent man who is not involved in the conflict.
Determined to avenge his father, Torf-Einarr prepares an army to fight Hálfdan the following fall. Through his determination, he succeeds in defeating the prince and capturing him alive.
Inspired by the story of the revenge of Ragnar’s sons, he decides to inflict the blood eagle on Hálfdan, but he does not stop there. This ritual is meant to be an offering to the god Odin, and represents in the eyes of the orphaned Jarl the triumph of good over evil.
The blood eagle in Viking mythology
A complete review of Viking mythology only brings up two characters who would have undergone this torture. These fictional legends would have preceded the story of Ragnar’s sons, and would probably have suggested this method of torture to them.
The Reginsmál and Nornagests þáttr tell how the Viking hero Sigurd takes revenge on his father’s murderer “Lyngvig”. Sigmund, Sigurd’s father, is a central character in Norse mythology.
The Orms þáttr Stórólfssonar cites the second time this ritual is used. According to the legend, an evil giant named Brúsi kills a minor Norse deity “Ásbjörn”. To avenge the death of his brother, Ormr made this giant undergo the worst torment, that of the blood eagle.