Can you imagine getting your ribs separated from your spine, followed by your bones and skin being pulled outward to form "a set of wings"?

This horrible way to die is known as the "blood eagle," and if the cruelty of it all sounds unbelievable and shocking to you - know that you aren't the only one. 

Scholars, researchers, scientists, and academics still debate whether the technique was actually used. This major mystery related to Viking history is almost as old as the translations of Viking sagas.

A stunned audience

Scientists, of course, examined heaps of documents depicting the Viking Age, but the gruesome "blood eagle" execution method caught the general audience's attention via the megapopular TV show "Vikings."

The "blood eagle" technique appeared in the seventh episode of season two, when Ragnar (portrayed by Travis Fimmel) performed the technique on his enemy, Jarl Borg (played by Thorbjørn Harr). 

Although not as graphic as gorry horror fans might have wanted it to be, the scene is quite bloody. Though the screams and sounds of ribs cracking were replaced by "ethnic" music, you can see how painful the technique is just by looking at Borg's face and the faces of other witnesses present at the execution, who turned their faces away from the scene.

"One of the best episodes from season two, Blood Eagle, explores the ancient custom of this old people. Ragnar imposes the Viking's worst punishment on Jarl Borg, going against the agreement with King Horik," one of the viewers in the comment section of the show's IMDB page stated.

"Can't even imagine that level of pain," "I cannot believe this was a form of execution... unimaginable brutality ", are just some of the YouTube comments on the clip of the "blood eagle" technique from the show.

For videogame fans, particularly fans of "Assasin's Creed ", the 2020 installment "Assassin's Creed Valhalla" also portrayed the blood eagle execution, with the character Ivar describing the procedure through the sounds of slashes, cutting, and screams of King Rhodri.

In the game, the appearance of Odin praising Ivar as a "true Norseman" also highlights the aspect of the "blood eagle" technique as being a way of honoring and bringing a sacrifice to the chief god in Norse mythology. In the "Vikings" series, this is portrayed in allegory, with a frame of a bird looking at the brutal execution.

A photograph of a Viking skeleton, skull and bones, dimly lit. Source: jens holm / Unsplash

From Skald to pop

While pop culture, especially TV shows and video games, made broader audiences aware of the execution technique, historians and academics studied the method through Viking poetry and sagas, which, quite understandably, aren't that easy to read and decipher for most people.

As the YouTube channel "The Infographics Show "explained in a recent video, this type of old Viking written art was called Skaldic poetry, and it described Viking invasions, kings, and brave endeavors.
One can find a mention of the execution technique in "The Orkneyinga Saga" about Harald I Fairhair, who is believed to be the first Norwegian king. Under his rule, the Vikings conquered the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland near Scotland.

As "The Infographics Show "points out in its video on the topic, the saga was written in the 13th century, while Harald I ruled in the 9th century.

Detailing the lives of Vikings in their new lands, the tale speaks of a warrior Halfdan Long-Leg who was involved in power struggles, and along with his brother, killed a nobleman and 60 other men.

While the brother was exiled from the community, the son of a nobleman demanded Halfdan Long-Leg, who was the brain of the operation, be punished by the "blood eagle" technique, as a sacrifice to Odin.

"Earl Einar went up to Halfdan and performed the 'blood eagle,' by thrusting his sword into the man's backbone, severing all the ribs down to his loins, and then pulling out the lungs - and that was Halfdan's death," the saga states, according to The Infographics Show.

Furthermore, it was also noted that those who performed the execution technique sometimes had an eagle symbol carved into their skin. 

The sagas that mention the technique also portray the life of Ivar the Boneless, so the story is well-known to the fans of the show.

However, these old texts do not provide details on whether the victims were tied or held down by Vikings or whether the victims would be told what horrible faith awaits them.

Skaldic poetry described Viking invasions, kings, and brave endeavors. Illustration: Carla Santiago / Unsplash

Will we ever know the truth behind the "blood eagle"?

As Smithsonian magazine points out, we will most likely never know whether the "blood eagle" technique was actually performed unless archaeologists discover corpses with clear proof.

Medical scientists Monte Gates and Heidi Fuller took a look at the medical aspects of the technique.

"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," the research of Gates and Fuller, as mentioned by the Smithsonian magazine, concluded.

The two medical scientists also joined forces with religion historian Luke John Murphy from the University of Iceland, which allowed them to approach the questions concerning the technique from a different angle.

They were able to put the medieval sources in a proper context, and with the help of anatomical modeling software, they recreated each step of performing the "blood eagle" technique on the human body. 

Their findings showed that torturers might have used spears with shallow hooks to perform the technique. However, when it comes to the depictions of blood eagle, Murphy pointed out one crucial aspect regarding the perception of Vikings in the 21st century.

"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. 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 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 ", Murphy said, as reported by the Smithsonian magazine.

Overall, while we may never know for sure whether the "blood eagle" technique was actually carried out, it certainly was something the Vikings wanted to be remembered by, as it was described in skaldic poetry. 

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