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The Blood Eagle of Viking lore was extremely grisly, but was it possible?

If you just ate, turn back now.

By Elizabeth Rayne
Liz Viking Warrior GETTY

If you’re into Viking history, you have probably heard of the infamous "Blood Eagle". No hardened warrior would cringe at the sight of blood, but this is so horrifying it almost sounds like fiction.

The Blood Eagle of Viking lore was a grisly method of execution that involved slicing open the back and externalizing the ribs and lungs into a gruesome version of the creature it was named for. Representations of the practice in recent pop culture include the song Blood Eagle by Swedish death metal band Amon Amarth and a chilling scene from the TV series Vikings that will freeze your blood. But which one is (remotely) historically correct — and are either of them even close?

The Amon Amarth song makes it sound like some berserker tore the enemy’s back open in the heat of battle, cracked his ribs and ripped out his entrails. It’s meant to be the ultimate auditory interpretation of gore with sound effects of screams and cracking bone. The scene from Vikings is the opposite extreme. It shows Ragnar (in white so the bloodstains can really show up) slowly and methodically dissecting his victim in more of a ritual setting, with the victim being tortured for what seems like hours, and background music that will haunt you for weeks.

Warning: You are now virtually entering Viking territory where things can get nauseating. You might want to skip this one for now if you just ate or don’t have a strong stomach.

Researcher Luke John Murphy, who led a study recently published in Speculum, wanted to see just how possible blóðǫrn, or Blood Eagle, was according to actual historical accounts. It turned out that this method of torture would have involved much more than a sword and a raging temper. The torturer needed enough knowledge of human anatomy to be able to take apart the body of a live captive. Sacrificial victims were apparently not chosen at random, either. Were Viking chroniclers boastfully exaggerating how they could torment their enemies?

“We argue that even the fullest form of the Blood Eagle outlined in our textual sources would have been possible, though difficult, to perform, but would have resulted in the victim’s death early in proceedings,” the researchers said.

So much for the Amon Amarth song, which makes it sound quick and dirty. That also makes an aspect of the scene from Vikings questionable. Victims would have never been able to survive that long with such an extreme amount of blood loss, so the crowd surrounding Ragnar would have not seen his nemesis Jarl Borg suffer much. Some medieval texts don’t even mention the practice as anything more than carving the likeness of an eagle into the enemy’s back and (literally) rubbing salt in the wounds. There is no mention of partially eviscerating someone.

Then there are medieval texts, like Haralds saga, which explicitly describes one tribal leader who “put a sword into the chest cavity at the spine, and cut down along all the ribs to the loins, and pulled out the lungs through the cut.” The researchers think it was possible that the authors of those texts which don’t go too deep may have already known their audience was familiar with what a Blood Eagle was, so there was no need to do so. This does match the bare-bones style of Norse prose back then. It could have also meant the enemy’s corpse was being left for eagles and other scavengers, with later accounts building on sensationalism.

The questions is whether “to cut with an eagle” meant the grisly Blood Eagle or just the slashing of an image on the back, which the victim would survive unless a lethal infection set in. This is even brought up in Ragnar’s Saga (though whether Ragnar Lothbrok was real or fictitious remains the subject of debate). However, cutting through and removing skin and muscle is more difficult than it sounds, and it would have been nearly impossible to pull off the severing of the ribs from the spine and keeping everything together long enough so the ribs could be positioned outside the body and the lungs displaced to appear like flying wings.

“We are seeking not to establish whether or not the Blood Eagle ever did take place in the Viking Age but whether or not it could have taken place as described in the extant source material,” said the researchers. “In doing so, we have chosen to consider the fullest, most elaborate possible form of the ritual.”

There is no way, they argue, that someone could have actually survived losing as much blood as they would from the flaying alone. Most of the ritual would have actually been performed on a corpse. So if a Blood Eagle really was carried out to the fullest extent, why was it so important to carve up a dead body? It probably had a sociocultural significance that would put it on par with human sacrifice or corpse desecration in other ancient cultures who wanted to display the ultimate dominance over an enemy or appease their gods. Sacrificer and the sacrificed were said to be of high standing, so it really wasn’t that different from putting the enemy king’s head on a spike.

Despite the rumors and writings, no physical evidence of a body that went through the Blood Eagle has ever been found. Maybe the corpses really were left to scavengers.