The Blood Eagle: When the Vikings Sentenced You to Death, They Didn’t Mess Around

The Blood Eagle

The Vikings, the word conjures images of bloodthirsty Norsemen storming the beaches as unsuspecting residents cower in fear. While this did happen, the real story of the Vikings is much more complicated; they weren’t mindlessly raping and pillaging throughout Europe as the old books and movies would have you believe. The Vikings had a robust and exciting culture that has filtered down throughout the ages. With that being said, this book is about blood and guts, so we will focus on what I believe to be the most bonkers aspect of their culture, and that was their highly ritualistic and rare form of execution, used only for their most hated enemies, the Blood Eagle.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that something called “the blood eagle” wasn’t a walk in the park.  Through all my years of morbid historical research, I have found it to be easily in the top three of the worst possible ways to die. The actual act of the Blood Eagle is controversial today because some scholars believe that it never actually happened, but according to the Viking Sagas passed down through the ages, it did. You had to tick off a Viking to receive the sentence of death by Blood Eagle; it was usually reserved for revenge killings and the killings of high-ranking enemies.

The most infamous Blood Eagle execution was of the Northumbrian King Ælla. Northumbria was a kingdom inside of present-day England, and Ælla ruled it against the onslaughts of Viking raiders. Ælla and his people captured and supposedly executed the Viking leader, Ragnar Lodbrok also known as Ragnar Hairy-Breeches, (My God! Vikings had cool names) and subsequently killed him.

As you can imagine, ol’ Hairy Pants’ family wasn’t too thrilled with their patriarch getting mutilated by the Northumbrians, and the response was swift and violent. Ragnar’s son, Ivar the Boneless(I honestly have no idea what this nickname means, but it’s still pretty cool), decided to invade the whole freaking kingdom of Northumbria in retaliation! The Northumbrians were defeated around the City of York, and, according to the Viking Sagas, Ælla was captured. Ælla was sentenced to die by Blood Eagle, and this is when the story gets good.

There isn’t a polite way to explain the Blood Eagle, so if you just ate school lunch, I’m sure your stomach is already churning, you might want to go read a story about fairies or something and come back to this later. All the lightweights gone? Ok, good. Well, the Blood Eagle began when the condemned was laid down, face first, on a table or some other flat surface. The Executioner carved the outline of eagle wings into the back of the condemned with an ax or sharp knife. As their black was filleted open like a trout, their ribs were pulled out of their back, one by one, exposing the lungs. The person was still alive! Salt was then poured into the wound, and slowly, the lungs were taken from the gaping wound and placed, spread out, on the back of the condemned to mimic the wings of an eagle. The poor sod who was being killed would live throughout the entire process until they literally drowned because their lungs were exposed out of their bodies.

The Viking Sagas have this to say about the death of Ælla, “And Ella’s back, at had the one who dwelt Ívarr, with eagle, York, cut.” Being sentenced to die in any age by any group of people would suck, but I can think of nothing worse than getting on the wrong side of a Viking Horde.





Published by TheOddPast by Matthew A. Perry

Writer, teacher, broadcaster, and podcaster from West Virginia. I write about and discuss the wacky and weird side of history on my website and my podcast "The Odd Past Podcast" available everywhere

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