Violence is primarily the lens that Vikings are seen through. Their ability to fight and plunder make up most of the narratives that exist about them. However, they are somewhat misunderstood; the Vikings were generally peace-loving individuals. While that might be the case, the terror they reigned down in their enemies was enough for them to earn a reputation as being violent and ruthless.
That was the case when it came to their ritual killings. The Vikings ensured the victim felt as much pain as they could until their death. One such practice was called the blood eagle. There are secondary accounts of what that entailed, for which we will look at here. Be advised that this particular ritual killing was gory.
Blood eagle ritual killing
One of the accounts of the blood eagle is from the book History of the Anglo-Saxons (1799) by Sharon Turner. The ritual happened in stages, ensuring that it inflicted the most pain it could on the individual. It started with the victim being restrained, either kneeling or face down. From there, the executioner would cut the shape of an eagle with outstretched wings on the man’s back, hence the name.
Using an ax, the man’s ribs would get hacked from the spine, one by one. They weren’t severed; instead, they would be pulled back, along with the skin, to form a pair of “wings” on the man’s back. As this took place, it was said the victim was still alive, and of course, experiencing levels of pain that one can only imagine. The blood they’ve poured at this point is indeed a lot. However, it wasn’t over for them.
While in this state, salt would get rubbed over the 12 exposed ribs and the flesh around it. The agony would have been insufferable. The last stage of the blood eagle was pulling out the now exposed lungs through the back, and then spreading them over the now formed “wings.” As the man dies, those witnessing the executing would be preview to the lungs “fluttering” like an eagle until the man stops breathing.
Background on blood eagle
Historians do agree that the ritual was gory, but state there is evidence supporting the reality of the events. Medievalists such as J.M. Wallace-Hadrill state that victims of the blood eagle included Ælla, the king of a kingdom in medieval England called Northumbria, and Máel Gualae, a King of Munster that existed in Gaelic Ireland. What makes some question the blood eagle ritual, though, is that most accounts, no matter how detailed, come from the 12th and 13th centuries, which is past the Viking age.
Most of what historians quote comes from Icelandic and Norse sagas, written by poets. Others still were thought to be written by the descendants of saga heroes. Either way, it is not clear that the blood eagle was a fragment of someone’s imagination or something that did happen. Evens so, the details of the blood eagle are clear, serving as one more mark of Viking savagery.
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