Vikings actually could tear out a person’s lungs, researchers suggest

One of the most fantastic and gruesome stories about the Vikings was the torture ritual known as the Blood Eagle. New research suggests that the ability to tear out a person’s lungs through their back is anatomically possible.

Several Norse sagas tell of a practice known as the Blood Eagle. It is said to have involved separating a victim’s ribs from their spine to symbolise an eagle’s wings and hanging their lungs out through the wounds while they are still alive. Some of the sources are vague in their descriptions, but others like the Saga of Harald Fairhair (Haralds saga hárfagra) offer more details:


Then Einar Jarl went to Hálfdan. He carved an eagle on his back in such a way, that he 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. That was the death of Hálfdan. 

For decades, historians have debated whether an infamously violent Viking torture ritual ever really happened, or if it was a misunderstood or embellished story passed down through poetry over the centuries. Now, a team of researchers from the University of Keele and the University of Iceland has published new research in the journal Speculum, that investigated whether it was even possible for the ritual to be carried out as described, which could support any discussions as to whether it is likely to have taken place.


Working with Viking historian Dr Luke John Murphy from the University of Iceland, co-lead author Dr Monte Gates, Dr Heidi Fuller and Professor Peter Willan conducted simulations using state-of-the-art modern anatomy software combined with a reassessment of stories and historical accounts of how the ritual was carried out, and fresh analysis of how early-Medieval Nordic society used violent behaviour.

“Working with the anatomists on this project has been fascinating,” says Luke John Murphy. “They’ve provided a totally fresh perspective on some very old questions, and let us tackle the Blood Eagle in a new way, which has produced all sorts of exciting results.”

The researchers do note that carrying out the Blood Eagle would be a very challenging procedure, especially if one of the goals was to keep the victim alive for most of the ritual. They note three major anatomical challenges:

The first is the difficulty in rapidly removing the skin and muscles of the back, which would have been necessary because these obstruct the cutting and manipulation of the underlying ribs to allow the removal of the lungs (and the formation of “wings”). The second is the negative effects that opening the thoracic cavity would have had on the integrity of major arteries of the body and of the negative intrapleural pressures that keep the lungs inflated. Finally, the formation of the shape of an eagle’s wings from the posterior rib cage, and the mobilization of the lungs through the posterior openings in the thoracic wall, would have been anatomically challenging.


The article then offers explanations on how these challenges could be overcome, and what tools would need to be used in the process. The team also finds that there was no possibility that a victim could survive the entire ordeal – perhaps they could survive the early stages, but they would certainly die within seconds of having a blade was thrust into their back to cut the ribs, either from exsanguination (severe loss of blood) or suffocation.

Their findings provide an important contribution to the study of early-Medieval society, as they also argue that any such ritual would have served an important role in “Viking” culture, particularly to secure the social status of the ritual’s commissioner following an earlier “bad death” of a male relative at the hands of the ritual’s victim.

Monte Gates, co-lead author from Keele University adds, “The cross-disciplinary ethos of the work enabled us to not only look at the Blood Eagle from an anatomist’s perspective of ‘how?’ but also the sociocultural perspective of ‘why?’”


The article “An Anatomy of the Blood Eagle: The Practicalities of Viking Torture,” by Luke John Murphy, Heidi R. Fuller, Peter L. T. Willan and Monte A. Gates is published in Speculum. Click here to read it.

See also: Viking atrocity and Skaldic verse: The Rite of the Blood-Eagle

Top Image: A section from the Stora Hammars I stone from Gotland, Sweden. The illustration shows a man lying on his belly with another man using a weapon on his back – Wikimedia Commons