The Vikings: Carving the Bloody Eagle
by Chaz Wood
There’s been a long and serious tradition of late to “revise” history for modern readers. Usually, this means providing evidence (of varying strength) that certain individuals, tribes or organisations were nowhere near as bad as the legends and popular myths have painted them. Thus the Spanish Inquisition burned thousands of people at the stake, but actually many were only done so in effigy, or in absentia;
Elizabeth Báthory didn’t murder anything like 600 maidens nor bathe in their blood, and child rapist/murderer/sadist Gilles de Rais was framed in complicated power struggles over land, fortune and influence. Inevitably, this trend of humanizing and de-mystifying the pariahs of the past would be applied to that eternal tribe of proto-Hell’s Angels and everyone’s favourite bad boys, the Vikings. So, were they not truly cultured poets, mariners, traders and lawmen after all, who only occasionally indulged in a spot of recreational rape (and furthermore, pillage) ? Well, yes, they were all that and more, though they were not without their truly eye-watering pastimes when it came to matters of vengeance and victory. One of which, the notorious Bloodeagle (or rista blóthrn, in the rugged Old Norse tongue), consists of the following procedure:
a living victim was bound over a stone and executed by means of splitting the ribs from the spine with a blade, breaking them and folding them back to resemble the wings of a bird. The lungs were then pulled out of the chest cavity and thrown over the back, after which, salt was poured into the bloody holes, and the victim left to die on the spot.
Ever fractured a rib playing sports? Well, multiply that by about 24, and imagine your diaphragm being emptied, none too gently, by the hairy hands of bearded warriors while still conscious. By the time your blood has started to soak into the earth and your breathing system strangled for air, the salt will probably be the least of your concerns. Unlike some grotesque methods of execution (crucifixion comes to mind), death would actually come pretty quickly, probably due to the absence of support for the lungs, shock, and massive blood loss and general body trauma. The other slim advantage (?) of this execution is that the victim is spared the sight of his own body collapsing or being disassembled before him, unlike crucifixion, burning, or the English tradition of hanging, drawing and quartering.
The rite is famously documented thus:
“…they found Halfdan Long-Leg. Einarr had his ribs cut from the spine with a sword and the lungs pulled out through the slits in his back…” (Orkneyingasaga 8, “Sagas of the Kings of Orkney, Penguin Classics, 1978).
Einar dedicates the victim of Odin, the god of war, and composes a jolly verse about the event.
Another bloodeagle is recorded by the 13th C. Danish historian Saxo, one of those old writers about whom we know nothing apart from his name:
“Meantime, Siward and Biorn…declared war against the king…and when they had captured him, they ordered the figure of an eagle to be cut in his back, rejoicing to crush their most ruthless foe by marking him with the cruellest of birds. Not satisfied with imprinting a wound on him, they salted the mangled flesh. Thus Ella was done to death…” (“The Nine Books of the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus”, translated by Oliver Elton (Norroena Society, New York, 1905))
Some have argued against the historical veracity of the Sagas and Saxo, trying to pass off the tales as “misunderstandings”, “mistranslations”, or possibly just good old-fashioned spite on the part of the Christian chroniclers. Certainly, good Christian monks and bishops have hardly been backward at coming up with vomit-inducing methods of extracting confessions from “heretics” under the auspices of their own various Inquisitions. But that’s another article, and I doubt it would have taken their learned ancestors much effort to concoct such a barbarous myth to demonize their hated heathen enemies, who desecrated and destroyed the ecclesiastical coastlines of the British Isles for generations, starting from 793 AD.
However, what is definitely known is that the Vikings, like all Germanic tribes, practiced the blood sacrifice (blót), the highest form of which was that of a human victim, dedicated usually to Odin (according to Tacitus’ Germania). Rudolf Simek certainly believes that the bloodeagle was possibly a real sacrificial rite, also reserved for the King of the Gods, and could also have led to the procedure becoming a special form of revenge against the murderer of one’s father (“Dictionary of Northern Mythology”, Brewer, 1993.) From what we do know of the Vikings’ celebratory attitude to war, weapons and vengeance, there is no hard historical reason not to assume the existence of the bloody eagle in some form.
–Chaz Wood’s website can be found at FenrisWulf Books