Viking atrocity and Skaldic verse: The Rite of the Blood-Eagle
By Roberta Frank
English Historical Review, Vol.99, No.391 (1984)
Introduction: The rehabilitation of the viking begun by Peter Sawyer over thirty years ago has recently taken a curious turn. New studies of the Scandinavian invaders of England seem determined to stress their demonic side, to expose the dark virulence and fanaticism of Norse paganism. Vikings in these works behave for the most part like rational political beings. They are committed to career advancement, territorial aggrandizement, and the latest technology; they trade, they farm, and they sculpt stone — whenever they are not carving up conquered enemies according to the Odinic rite of the blood-eagle. This peculiar method of execution, lovingly described by a chain of authors from the end of the twelfth century to the present, is prominent in current discussions of whether or not vikings were more sinister than ‘groups of long-haired tourists who occasionally roughed up the natives’. The significance of the blood-eagle was heralded in the 1974 Stenton Lecture when J. M. Wallace-Hadrill made available the then-unpublished observations of Alfred Smyth:
Examples of this practice may have included: King Ælla of Northumbria, Halfdan son of King Haraldr Harfagri of Norway, King Edmund (a victim, like Ælla, of the great Danish Viking Ivarr), King Maelgualai of Munster, and just possibly Archbishop Ælfheah . . . It happened in Scandinavia, in Ireland and in England. I am presuming that Francia was not exempt.
The historical reality of this ‘ferocious sacrificial ritual’ is accepted by both Patrick Wormald and Eric John in their distinguished contributions to The Anglo-Saxons? as it had been sixty years earlier by Allen Mawer in Tie Cambridge Medieval History. Even the pro-viking opposition has been forced to concede that the torture ‘was unhappily no fiction’. ‘Bloodeagle’ did not make the 1933 Oxford English Dictionary, but is now — along with ‘radical chic’ and ‘Rubik’s Cube’ — in the Supplement, defined as ‘a Viking method of killing someone, usually the slayer of a man’s father, by cutting out the ribs in the shape of an eagle’.
Descriptions of the sacrifice start only in the late twelfth century. In the course of the next two hundred years Scandinavian authors associate the blood-eagle with four individuals. Two of the victims are historical figures from the ninth century: Ælla (Saxo, Gesta Danorum, IX. v; Ragnars saga Lodbrokar, ch. 17; Þattr af Ragnars sonum, ch. 3) and Halfdan (Orkneyinga saga, ch. 8; Heimskringla, Haralds saga hdrfagra, chs. 30—31); in both cases, the accounts of Saxo and the sagas are contradicted — sometimes flagrantly — by contemporary sources. The remaining two victims are from the world of legend: Lyngvi (Reginsmdl, st. 26; Nornagcsts Þattr, ch. 6) and the giant Brusi (Orms Þattr Stdrdlfssonar, ch. o.). The blood-eagling procedure varies from text to text, becoming more lurid, pagan, and time-consuming with each passing century. Saxo and the compiler of Ragnars saga in NKS 1824b to merely envisage someone scratching, as deeply as possible, a picture of an eagle upon Ælla’s back. For a touch of colour, the saga reddens the outline sketch with the victim’s blood, while Saxo’s version pours salt on the wound. Orkneyinga saga describes the tearing out of ribs and lungs and provides the information that the rite was intended as an offering to Odinn; Snorri Sturluson, relating the same incident in Haralds saga hdrfagra, eliminates all reference to the god of battle. The late Þattr of Ragnars sonum give’s a full, sensational report of the event: an eagle is carved, then ribs are torn from the spine and lungs pulled out so that the corpse might resemble a spread-eagle.
Here is how the practice was portrayed in the TV series Vikings: