In popular lore, few images are as synonymous with Viking brutality as the “blood eagle,” a practice that allegedly found torturers separating the victim’s ribs from their spine, pulling their bones and skin outward to form a set of “wings,” and removing their lungs from their chest cavity. The execution method shows up twice in the popular History Channel drama series “Vikings” as a ritual reserved for the protagonists’ worst enemies, Jarl Borg and King Ælla, a fictionalized counterpart to the actual Northumbrian ruler. In the video game “Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla,” Ivarr the Boneless, a character based on the Viking chieftain who invaded the British Isles in the ninth century C.E., performs the blood eagle on his nemesis, King Rhodri.
These representations take their cue from medieval sources written in both Old Norse and Latin. In each of the extant nine accounts, the victim is captured in battle and has an eagle of some sort carved into their back. Some references to the torture are terse. Others are more graphic, aligning with the extreme versions depicted in contemporary popular culture. Either way, the ritual’s appearance in these texts is intended to send a message tied to honor and revenge.
Experts have long debated whether the blood eagle was a literary trope or an actual punishment. The sources are often vague, referencing legendary figures of dubious veracity or mixing up accepted historical chronology. Unless archaeologists find a corpse bearing clear evidence of the torture, we’ll likely never know.
If the Vikings did perform the blood eagle, does that mean the Middle Ages were as brutish, nasty and “dark” as stereotypes suggest? The answer is complex. Vikings, like many medieval people, could be spectacularly violent, but perhaps not more so than other groups across a range of time periods. The work of scholars is to understand how this violence fit into a complex society—and a new study does just that.
Set to be published in Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies later this month, the article sidesteps the question of whether the ritual actually took place during the Viking Age, instead asking whether the blood eagle could feasibly serve as a torture method. The answer, according to an interdisciplinary team of medical doctors, anatomists and a historian, is a resounding yes.
Study co-authors Monte Gates and Heidi Fuller, both medical scientists at Keele University in England, were spurred to investigate the blood eagle by the “Vikings” series. The show led them to medieval sagas, which opened up further questions and made them realize they needed to consult a historian. The give-and-take nature of the pair’s collaboration with Luke John Murphy, a historian of religion at the University of Iceland, proved eminently fruitful, with the different perspectives of history and medicine pushing the scholars in unexpected ways.
“Work on the anatomical limits of the ritual spurred me to consider the wider social and cultural limits within which any historical blood eagle would have had to have taken place,” Murphy says. This, in turn, led to a more nuanced discussion of not only what could have happened, but how and why.
In the paper, the authors move methodically through the medieval sources before discussing what would happen to the human body if the fullest version of the procedure was carried out (in short, nothing good). Unless performed very carefully, the victim would have died quickly from suffocation or blood loss; even if the ritual was conducted with care, the subject would’ve almost certainly died before the full blood eagle could be completed.
As Murphy explains, “The blood eagle plays a prominent role in our early 21st-century constructions of ‘Vikings,’ which generally favor an [understanding that] violence was commonplace in the Iron Age Nordic region.” That’s been the case for quite a while, he adds: “The [ritual], as it exists in popular culture today, ... owes a lot to the attitudes of Victorian scholars who were keen to exaggerate its role” in order to emphasize the barbarity of the past and civilized nature of their own time. This worked doubly well for the Victorians as a means of demonstrating the superiority of the “native” English over the Viking invaders.
Approaching the question from a different angle allowed the researchers to dig through the scholarship, place the medieval sources within the proper context and draw on modern technology to examine what actually would have happened during the ritual. They used anatomical modeling software to effectively recreate extreme versions of the blood eagle, simulating the effect of each step of the torture on the human body. In line with the study’s interdisciplinary bent, the authors paired this analysis with historical and archaeological data about the specialized tools available within Viking society. Their findings indicate, for instance, that torturers may have used spears with shallow hooks to “unzip” the ribs from the spine—a conclusion that could explain the presence of a spear in one of the few (possible) medieval visual depictions of the ritual.
The blood eagle’s prominence within Viking society—both during the medieval era and as ascribed in the centuries since—stems from its emphasis on ritual and revenge. The execution method’s recurring appearances in medieval texts, often without extensive explanation, suggests a common understanding among Viking-age readers and listeners, many of whom would have learned the tales through oral tradition.
For Ivarr the Boneless, the feared Viking portrayed in Assassins Creed: Valhalla, the Old Norse Knútsdrápa simply says, “And Ívarr, who ruled at York, had Ælla’s back cut with an eagle.” (This succinct description has led some scholars to posit that an actual eagle was used to slice open the Northumbrian king’s back.) Other sources detail the practice more fully. Harald’s Saga, from the Orkney Islands, states that Viking Earl Torf-Einar had his enemy’s “ribs cut from the spine with a sword and the lungs pulled out through the slits in his back. He dedicated the victim to Odin as a victory offering.”
A common element in the medieval sources, according to the authors of the new study, is that the aggressors perform the ritual on enemies who killed one of their family members. As such, the scholars conclude, “the blood eagle could have formed an extreme, but not implausible, outlier” to the idea of the “bad death” within wider Viking society: a way to avenge an “earlier deviant, dishonorable or otherwise culturally condemned death.” This was an act that had meaning.
Matthew Gillis, a historian at the University of Tennessee and the author of an upcoming book on medieval “horror,” describes medieval Christian authors as “horror experts.” He says that textual vignettes like the ones featured in the new study were intended to teach a lesson, such as “frighten[ing] their audiences into returning to God.” Though some of the Old Norse sources detailing the practice predate Christianity’s rise in the region, they were read and retold for centuries after their creation.
Gillis’ observation builds on the earlier work of scholar Valentin Groebner, who wrote in 2004 that “terror tends to disorient.” Violence (and how that violence was portrayed) in the European Middle Ages was a way of making meaning, of rendering visible important ideas that had previously remained unseen. In other words, rituals like the blood eagle had meaning because they were a way—in practice or on the page—of drawing lines between groups of people and warning outsiders of the dangers of crossing that boundary. Ritual torture like the blood eagle dehumanized by literally transforming man into an animal.
The value of this new scholarship lies in its imagination, in the way it manages to take something conceptual and make it more concrete. The Vikings do indeed loom large in the modern American popular imagination. During the 1980s, Murphy says, the “prevailing attitude in scholarship [was] … that the Vikings had been unfairly maligned as bloodthirsty barbarians, and that they were really savvy [and rational] economic actors.” The pendulum had swung the other way.
As this new article helps demonstrate, perhaps the pendulum needs to stop. In our forthcoming book, The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe, we show clearly how the Vikings were savvy traders who rode camels into Baghdad and explorers who settled new lands across the Atlantic. But they were also a society that reveled in brutality, that was structured around enslaving people and trafficked in sexual violence. All of those things can be, and are, true. People are messy, and, by extension, history is, too. Seeing that fullness, that richness of our subjects in the past, allows us to not only better understand them but ourselves as well.