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