The Horrors of the Blood Eagle.


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:

images (2)
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.

Image from Pinterest

33 thoughts on “The Horrors of the Blood Eagle.

  1. 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.

    1. 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.

    1. 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.

  2. 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.

    1. 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.

    1. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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 ! !

  5. 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.

  6. So tough to read/watch! But such is the viking way, as you suggest. Your research must be so intriguing, Millie! There’s certainly be a resurgence in this topic in books, TV and movies over the last few years

    1. Thanks, Christy. You’re right, Vikings have become very popular over the last few years. I think I left my books too late! So many ideas I had years ago have already been done now. I wanted to start writing Book One in 2003, but I was still teaching and really didn’t have the time. The book went ‘on hold’ for several years until I retired in 2009. Even then, I didn’t get started for a couple of years.
      It’s funny how many views I have on this post every day, Christy. I wrote it in 2014! I suppose it’s because of the interest in all things Viking we’ve been talking about.
      The blood eagle was horrendous but probably no more so than many other historic executions. To be hung, drawn and quartered takes some beating in gruesomeness!

  7. Thanks, MG. I don’t know which kind of burial you have in mind here. There are a few different types and I believe few were actually in a burning ship put out to sea. If that did happen it would likely have been for men/warriors only. Other burials were on land, whether the straightforward burials of Christian times or ashes buried from a funeral pyre during earlier pagan period. Some people were buried in an actual ship, others weren’t, but many had stones put round the grave in the shape of a ship. Most women were buried in the usual way, with grave goods around them, especially in pagan times.

  8. Gruesome, but compelling. I confess I couldn’t bring myself to watch the clip. I first heard of this practice as a boy, reading the historical novels of Henry Treece (or was it Geoffrey Trease? – I used to get the two mixed up, and still do).

    1. Thanks, Jean. The blood eagle was only one of several gruesome ways of executing people. I looked up quite a few when I was writing this post four years ago. For a start, to be hanged, drawn and quartered was horrendous. I won’t describe some of the others I found! Man’s imagination knows no bounds.

    1. I’ve often thought that myself, Steven. The pain would have been excruciating. But our ancestors were a cruel lot and devised these awful methods of execution as a form of prolonged torture. Thanks for visiting. 😀

  9. The human species has been excelling in barbaric methods of inducing pain since the beginning of time. There could be a connection between sex, death, and torture that lies deep in our subconscious. After all, it isn’t just our ancestors who devised cruel methods of killing and executing each other.
    Years ago I read all Stanislav Grof’s books about his insights into our deep psychological make-up.
    Also, the human obsession with torture reminds me of AS Byatt’s book Babel Tower.

  10. You are spot on when you say it isn’t just our ancestors who devised such awful methods of torture and execution. We only have to think about some of the atrocities that have occurred in recent times – which happened for a variety of reasons. I haven’t read anything by either of those authors, Hanne, but something tells me I should do so! You are impressively widely read and never cease to amaze me with your wide knowledge. Thank you for reading this post. It’s six years since I wrote it – not too long after I first started on WP. Torture is a subject that I even hate to think about. Such cruelty can never be condoned.

    1. That is true, but the tragedy of it is that it happens and that some people get to enjoy inflicting pain and anguish on their victims. It is something that we don’t like to think about but it is also something that confronts us almost daily. Humanity hasn’t turned away from its animal roots. Somehow we are still red in tooth and claw. Perhaps the difficulty lies in the fact that we try to repress or deny our dark sides.

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