Archaeology

Brutal Viking Blood Eagle Execution ‘Could’ Have Happened

 

Scientists have calculated that victims’ screams would have stopped before their lungs were drawn through their backs. This is after discovering the brutal ‘Blood Eagle’ could have happened.

Ancient Norse sagas talk of a brutal ritual called ‘Blood Eagle.’ Until now, no evidence had ever been gathered to determine if this bloody death rite could ever have happened. However, the Blood Eagle ritual execution was brought to the masses via the History Channel drama ‘Vikings‘ as well as the 2019 horror film ‘ Midsommar‘, so the question of if it was actually performed has been brought to the fore.

‘Blood Eagle’ involved slicing a victim’s back open and chopping through the ribs, before pulling the lungs out of the opening in the back. With archaeology being a science, and no proof that ‘Blood Eagle’ could actually be performed on a human body, many researchers have disregarded the practice as a thing of legend. But new research shows the blood eagle ‘could’ have happened.

The Viking Age Lärbro St. Hammars I picture stone, Gotland, Sweden has a section that could be a representation of a Blood Eagle being performed (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Viking Age Lärbro St. Hammars I picture stone, Gotland, Sweden has a section that could be a representation of a Blood Eagle being performed ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Karl Hauck’s drawing, based on a latex mold of the same panel. Nachlass Karl Hauck, Zentrum für Baltische und Skandinavische Archäologie, Slide, 67. (University of Chicago Press)

Karl Hauck’s drawing, based on a latex mold of the same panel. Nachlass Karl Hauck, Zentrum für Baltische und Skandinavische Archäologie, Slide, 67. ( University of Chicago Press )

Vikings Were All About Power And Honor

A team of researchers from the University of Iceland have published a new study in The Journal of the Medieval Academy of America demonstrating that ‘a barbed or lugged Viking spear’ could have been used to conduct the gruesome ritual. However, it was also found that victims must have died long before their lungs were pulled out through their backs to make the pair of bloody ‘wings’.

The ‘Blood Eagle’ ritual was allegedly practiced from the 8th to the 11th centuries by Scandinavian sea raiders. The ritual was only known about from sagas until the University of Iceland team discovered that it ‘could have’ been performed with Viking weapons . The research team also stated that the ritual was ‘consistent with the Viking’s habitual treatment of enemies and corpses.’ Furthermore, the paper suggests ‘Blood Eagle’ was possibly associated with ‘ defense of their honor ’.

The imagination leads one to picture a victim facedown with their lungs inflating on their open back like a bird’s wings flapping. But the researchers said victims ‘would not have lasted long’. And contrary to the saga legends they would have died before their lungs were fully drawn through the back.

The physiology of performing a Blood Eagle is explored in the news study. (Image generated using 3D4Medical Complete Anatomy software / Murphy et al. University of Chicago Press)

The physiology of performing a Blood Eagle is explored in the news study. (Image generated using 3D4Medical Complete Anatomy software / Murphy et al. University of Chicago Press )

What Exactly Was A ‘Cut’ And A ‘Carve,’ Was Always The Problematic Question

Leader of the new study, Dr Luke John Murphy of the University of Iceland, asked whether or not the Blood Eagle ritual could ever actually have taken place, like it was detailed in sagas. His answer was a clear ‘yes’ and the subsequent research was undertaken with medical scientists from Keele University.  The team explained that all previous research on the blood eagle ritual generally focused on the mediaeval texts, but the meanings of words like ‘cutting’ or ‘carving’ of the victim’s back were always debated.

The team analyzed nine medieval accounts of the blood eagle ritual and suggest that barbed or lugged Viking spearheads could have ‘unzipped the rib cage quickly from the back.’

Norwegian Type L barbed spearheads from Homerstad, Stange, Innlandet (left) and Strand, Elverum, Innlandet (right), could have been used to perform the torturous procedure. (Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi—The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters / University of Chicago Press)

Norwegian Type L barbed spearheads from Homerstad, Stange, Innlandet (left) and Strand, Elverum, Innlandet (right), could have been used to perform the torturous procedure. (Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi—The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters / University of Chicago Press )

This weapon is illustrated on one of the 7th century ‘Stora Hammars’ stone monuments from the Swedish island of Gotland. Furthermore, this stone depicts a scene that can be interpreted as a rendition of the ritual. The researchers say many different muscles were cut in order to ‘fracture and articulate the rib cage outwards to form ‘wings’. The study showed that if the ritual was carefully performed, victims would have died very quickly.’ This means the saga’s brutal accounts of the ‘last fluttering’ of the lung wings ‘would not have happened.

An Attention-Grabbing Gore Fest

‘If the blood eagle ritual was ever actually performed, it was reserved as a demonstration of elite power in the Viking Age. The whole affair of cutting bones and removing organs would have been a blood soaked gore fest. However, the victim’s screams would have silenced soon after the soft tissue was sripped from their backs, an event which the scientists said would have been ‘audible over a significant distance’.

None of the above would have been ‘entirely out-of-character for the brutal Viking-age warrior elite.’  The researchers also said Viking rulers ‘had no qualms about displaying the dead bodies of humans and animals in special rituals, including during spectacular executions.’ This was all about taking and maintaining power through fear, and the scientists concluded that the anatomical realities of the blood eagle make it clear that the procedure would be ‘attention-grabbing.’

Top image: Viking helmet and shield covered in blood, from Blood Eagle execution. Source: Sergio / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie


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