In each of the nine existing accounts, the victim is captured in battle and has some sort of eagle carved into his back.
Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

In popular tradition, 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 pulling their lungs out of their chest cavity. The method of execution appears twice in the popular History Channel drama series “Vikings” like a reserved ritual for the worst enemies of the protagonists, Jarl Borg and king lla, a fictitious counterpart of reality ruler of northumbria. 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 CE, plays the blood eagle on his sworn enemy, King Rhodri.

These representations are inspired by medieval sources written in both Old Norse and Latin. In each of the nine existing accounts, the victim is captured in battle and has some sort of eagle carved into his back. Some references to torture are laconic. Others are more graphic, aligning with the extreme versions depicted in contemporary popular culture. Either way, the appearance of the ritual in these texts is meant to send a message related 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, referring to legendary figures of questionable veracity or confusing accepted historical chronology. Unless archaeologists find a corpse with clear evidence of torture, we’ll likely never know.

If the Vikings executed the eagle in blood, does that mean that the Middle Ages were also brutal, wicked and “darkAs the stereotypes suggest? The answer is complex. The Vikings, like many medieval peoples, could be spectacularly violent, but perhaps no more than other groups over a range of time periods. The job of academics is to understand how this violence fits into a complex society, and that’s precisely what a new study does.

Execution of Ragnar Lodbrok

Popular tradition suggests that King Ælla executed Viking leader Ragnar Lodbrok by throwing him into a pit of snakes (pictured). Ragnar’s sons supposedly took revenge on Ælla by executing the blood eagle on him.

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Scheduled 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 if the blood eagle could possibly be used as a method of torture. The answer, according to an interdisciplinary team of physicians, anatomists and a historian, is an emphatic yes.

Co-authors of the study Doors of the Mount and Heidi fuller, both medical scientists at Keele University in England, were prompted to investigate the blood eagle by the “Vikings” series. The show took them to medieval sagas, which opened up other questions and made them realize that they needed to consult a historian. The give-and-take nature of the couple’s collaboration with Luc John Murphy, historian of religions at the University of Iceland, has proven to be eminently fruitful, with different perspectives in history and medicine prompting scholars in unexpected ways.

“The work on the anatomical boundaries of the ritual prompted me to consider the broader social and cultural boundaries within which any historical blood eagle should have taken place,” says Murphy. This, in turn, led to a more nuanced discussion of not only what could have happened, but also how and why.

In the article, the authors methodically go through medieval sources before discussing what would happen to the human body if the fullest version of the procedure were performed (in short, no good). Unless executed very carefully, the victim would have died quickly of suffocation or bleeding; even if the ritual were carried out carefully, the subject would almost certainly be dead before the bloody eagle could be completed.

“The [ritual], as it exists in popular culture today, … owes much to the attitude of Victorian scholars who were keen to exaggerate its role.

As Murphy explains, “the blood eagle plays a prominent role in our early 21st century ‘Viking’ constructions, which generally favor a [understanding that] violence was rife in the Iron Age northern region. This has been the case for quite some time, he adds: “The [ritual], as it exists in popular culture today, … owes much to the attitude of Victorian scholars who insisted on exaggerating its role “in order to emphasize the barbarism of the past and the civilized nature of their own time. It worked doubly well for the Victorians as a means of demonstrating the superiority of the “native” English over the Viking invaders.

Approaching the matter from a different angle allowed researchers to dig into scholarship, place medieval sources in the proper context, and draw on modern technology to examine what actually happened during the ritual. They used anatomical modeling software to effectively recreate extreme versions of the Blood Eagle, simulating the effect of each stage of torture on the human body. In keeping with the interdisciplinary focus of the study, the authors combined this analysis with historical and archaeological data on the specialist tools available within Viking society. Their findings indicate, for example, that the torturers may have used spears with shallow hooks to “unzip” the ribs from the spine – a finding that could explain the presence of a spear in one of the few. (possible) medieval visual representations of the ritual.

The blood eagle’s importance to Viking society, both in medieval times and in the centuries that followed, stems from its emphasis on ritual and vengeance. The recurring appearances of the method of execution in medieval texts, often without a detailed explanation, suggest a common understanding among readers and listeners of the Viking Age, many of whom are said to have learned tales through oral tradition.

For Ivarr the Boneless, the formidable Viking represented in Assassins Creed: Valhalla, old norse Knútsdrápa says simply, “And varr, who reigned in York, had Ælla’s back cut off with an eagle.” (This succinct description has led some scholars to postulate that an actual eagle was used to slice off the back of the King of Northumbria.) Other sources detail the practice in more detail. The Harald saga, from Orkney Islands, states that Viking Earl Torf-Einar had his enemy’s “ribs cut off from the spine with a sword and the lungs removed through the slits in his back.” He dedicated the victim to Odin as a victory offering.

Wider view of the representation of the blood eagle

This scene from the Stora Hammars stones – created in what is now Gotland, Sweden, around the 7th century CE – is one of the few (possible) medieval representations of the blood eagle torture.

Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

A common element in medieval sources, according to the authors of the new study, is that attackers perform the ritual on enemies who have killed one of their family members. As such, the researchers conclude, “the blood eagle could have formed an extreme aberration, but not implausible” to the idea of ​​the “bad death” within Viking society at large: a means of revenge a “deviant, dishonorable or otherwise culturally condemned elder. It was an act that made sense.

Matthew Gilles, historian at the University of Tennessee and author of a book coming soon on medieval “horror” describes medieval Christian writers as “horror experts”. He says text vignettes like the ones featured in the new study were meant to teach a lesson, like “scare[ing] their audiences to return to God. Although some of the Old Norse sources detailing the practice predate the rise of Christianity in the region, they have been read and told for centuries after their creation.

Gillis’ observation builds on the researcher’s previous work Valentin Groebner, Who wrote in 2004, that “terror tends to disorient”. Violence (and the way that violence was portrayed) in the European Middle Ages was a way of making sense, of making visible important ideas that had previously remained invisible. In other words, rituals like the Blood Eagle made sense because they were a way – in practice or on the page – to draw lines between groups of people and warn strangers of the dangers of crossing over. this border. Ritual torture like the dehumanized blood eagle literally transforming man into animal.

The value of this new scholarship is in her imagination, in how she manages to take something conceptual and make it more concrete. The Vikings indeed occupy an important place in the modern American popular imagination. During the 1980s, according to Murphy, “the predominant attitude in scholarship [was] … that the Vikings had been unfairly disparaged as bloodthirsty barbarians, and that they were really wise [and rational] economical actors. The pendulum had swung in the other direction.

As this new article helps to demonstrate, maybe the pendulum needs to stop. In our next book, The Shining Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe, we clearly show how the Vikings were savvy traders who rode camels to Baghdad and explorers who colonized new lands across the Atlantic. But it was also a society that reveled in brutality, which was structured around slavery and trafficking in sexual violence. All of these things can and are true. People are messy, and by extension so is history. Seeing this fullness, this richness of our subjects in the past, allows us not only to better understand them but also of ourselves.


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