The Horrors of the Blood Eagle.

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This incredible hazard sign was shared on Facebook on November 11th by The Heathen Mead Hall. It was one of my daughters who drew my attention to it. I don’t know where the sign came from, or who made it, but it’s quite hilarious – considering it refers to such a gruesome thing.

I’m sure that anyone who has been following the TV series ‘Vikings’ will already be familiar with what the blood eagle execution entailed. I haven’t watched the series, for the same reason that I haven’t read the wonderful Bernard Cornwell’s books about King Alfred and the Danes. I don’t want to be influenced in any way by what either say/show until I’ve finished my own books.

Here’s the blood eagle scene from the ‘Vikings’ Tv Series, uploaded to YouTube by Star Wolf:

Wikipedia tells us that the blood eagle was a method of execution, ‘performed by cutting the skin 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 Aella of Northumbria, Halfdan son of King Harald Harfagri of Norway, King Maelgualai of Munster, and possibly Archbishop Aelfeah of Canterbury’.

I’d like to add a couple of points about this barbaric ritual. I’ve referred to, and combined, a number of sources here, so if there are any mistakes, they are my own. Historians today are still in dispute over the authenticity of such accounts. The Viking Orkney website discusses whether the blood eagle was really a method of execution, or simply a literary addition, included for dramatic effect. It tells us that the blood eagle appears in several Nordic accounts, including one from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. In that we hear how the Northumbrian king, Aella, was executed by Ivar the Boneless:

“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.”

It also appears in Norna-Gests páttr, where Regin executes Lyngvi:

“Regin then took his sword from me, and with it carved Lyngvi’s back until the ribs were cut from the back, and the lungs drawn out. Thus Lyngvi died with great valour.”

Some scholars firmly believe that the blood eagle took place. Others believe it could be derived from metaphors used in Skaldic verse – as in the saga attributed to Einar, in which the term ‘eagle’s claws’ represents violent death. Following Halfdan’s death, Einar recited:

“Mighty men of no mean race,
From divers mansions of the earth;
But for that they do not know,
These, until they lay me low,
Which of us the eagle’s claws
Shall bow beneath ere all be o’er.”

It’s been suggested that this could be the source of the blood eagle episode. But whether the practice was used or not is still highly debatable, although take a look at this image on the Hannars I Stone on the island of Gotland. It clearly shows a person lying on their front over a table and someone attacking his back with a weapon:

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A scene from the Stora Hammars 1 stone. Author: The Man in Question (from source: Sacrificial scene on Hammar). Creative Commons.

Viking novels and films have become popular in recent years – many of them including scenes of extreme violence and brutality. They make good reading or viewing. And as long as we don’t accept everything we read or watch as totally accurate, that’s fine. I even have a ‘blood-eagling’ scene in my own second book. But I take care not to present all the Vikings as totally evil and/or debauched. I even have some rather nice ones.

Another gruesome image – but not exactly primary evidence.

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Image from Pinterest

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About milliethom

I am a reader and writer of historical fiction with a keen interest in the Earth's history and all it involves, both physically and socially. I like nothing better than to be outdoors, especially in faraway places, and baking is something I do when my eyes need respite from my computer screen.
This entry was posted in historical fiction, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to The Horrors of the Blood Eagle.

  1. Crom Cruach says:

    The Blood Eagle is no more brutal than drawing and quartering, impalement, or burning at the stake. It’s definitely not too far-fetched to have happened.

    • milliethom says:

      No, it isn’t, I agree. Brutal deaths have been common throughout history. I presented different scholars’ opinions as to one particular type of execution – as well as pointing out that there was also a side to Viking life that film makers often overlook. I have tried to address both sides in my books.

  2. talesbytink says:

    Your researching must be fascinating!

  3. Now that was interesting and I’ve read about some of this. Oddly the humans of days past were very creative in their killing if the Romans are anything to go by lol.

    • milliethom says:

      Yes, they were definitely a creative lot, our ancestors – especially when it came to ways of inflicting pain. Mutilations have always been common, but pulling out body parts perhaps not so much. I can only think of the blood eagle and being hung, drawn and quartered. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn of more, though. Thanks a lot for the comment – much appreciated.

  4. Quite gruesome, but fascinating nonetheless.
    Jim

  5. shanechall says:

    Interesting. I’m leaning more to the side of it being real, since there’s so many other bizarre execution methods. The last picture is pretty shocking. Although, as far as execution methods go, I don’t think anything beats ‘the boats’ or scaphism.

    • milliethom says:

      I think more people agree with you on that than not, Shane. There are definitely many equally shocking methods of execution – scaphism being one of them. I suppose the blood eagle is held to question because of limited evidence. Perhaps, too the ‘pulling out’ of innards seems particularly heinous. I think we could make comparisons forever over which method was worse! Hope all is going well with your writing, by the way. I’ve been so busy finishing off my book this week, I’ve had very little time to do a post, or comment on others.

  6. Julia Manuel says:

    Gruesome yet the sign is hilarious! Love it

    • milliethom says:

      The word ‘gruesome’ keeps popping up with this one! If you watched the series, or the video link above, you’ll know just how gruesome it was. Thanks, Julia.

  7. Your research and the story is fascinating and very scary. My son Nathan would love this. I agree with Julia Manuel, the sign is so funny. You must get one. I believe Santa will get you one.

  8. mojoshawn says:

    Very interesting, Millie. You’ve probably seen this already, but I thought I’d share just in case you haven’t. || http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/02/iceland-temple-norse-gods-1000-years ||

  9. jjspina says:

    Thank you for following my blog. I will follow you too. Pretty gruesome stuff on The Vikings show. I saw that episode and had to close my eyes in between the bloody scenes. My husband loves the show. I put my head into a book or work on the iPad or computer to distract me from all the violence. Best wishes!

  10. tech says:

    All this proves to me is that if this did in fact happen, its just more proof that we are one really FU***D up organism to be capable of such acts of cruelty to one another. It makes me think sometimes that our creator did one piss poor job to not only create a being capable of boundless acts of love,bravery, and empathy, and kindness and then balance that out with (if that what you want to call it) utter savagery and brutality towards our own no-less…… It’s just sometimes hard to wrap my brain around all that ! !
    Peace

  11. milliethom says:

    Yes, it’s hard to accept that humans can actually do such things to each other. It’s also hard to know for certain whether the blood eagle was ever used as a method of execution as so many of the Viking stories are cloaked in myth. Yet there were other forms of execution used throughout history that were equally barbaric, so we can’t completely rule out the possibility of the blood eagle. To be hung, drawn and quartered must equal it in savagery.
    I realise this isn’t the point you were making. Like you, I find it hard to understand how human beings can exhibit such utterly different aspects of behaviour. I’d like to think that these savage qualities were only a feature of peoples of the past, but events in more recent times tells me they’re not.
    Thank you for the interesting comment.

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