Inside the tortuous execution ritual of the Viking Blood Eagle

The Viking sagas describe the ritual execution of the bloody eagle, in which the victims were left alive and their backs were cut open so that the ribs, lungs and intestines could be ripped out in the shape of bloody wings.

The Vikings did not come to cities walking on moonbeams and rainbows.

If you believe their sagas, the Vikings brutally tortured their enemies in the name of their god Odin, conquering territories. If even the thought of a bloody eagle was expressed, one could leave town and never look back.

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pinterestExecution by bloody eagle.

The Viking sagas describe the Blood Eagle as one of the most painful and gruesome methods of torture ever devised. The story describes how:

“Earl Einar went to Halvdan and carved a bloody eagle on his back in this way, which he thrust his sword into his body through the spine and cut off all the ribs from the spine to the thighs, and shot it through the lungs. …”

The story of the executions of the bloody eagle

One of the earliest accounts of the use of the bloody eagle is believed to date back to 867. It began a few years earlier when Aella, King of Northumbria (now North Yorkshire, England) fell victim to a Viking attack. Aella killed the Viking leader Ragnar Lothbrok by throwing him into a pit of live snakes.

Ragnar Lothbrok

Statue of Ragnar Lothbrok.

To take revenge, Lothbrok’s sons invaded England in 865. When the Danes captured York, one of Lothbrok’s sons, Ivar the Boneless, saw to it that Aella was killed.

Of course, just killing him wasn’t enough. Ivar’s father, Ragnar, would – should – meet a terrible fate in the snake pit.

Ivar the Boneless wanted to make an example of Aella and strike fear into the hearts of his enemies.

Thus he entrusted the cursed king to the bloody eagle.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7PD6zXrPKdo

Modern scholars debate how the Vikings performed these ritual tortures and whether they even used this horrific method at all. The bloody eagle process is truly so brutal and gruesome that it is hard to believe that it can be realized. Whether or not it was just a work of art, there was no denying the fact that the ritual was painful.

The victim’s hands and feet were tied to prevent escape or sudden movements. Then the one who took revenge stabbed the victim in the tailbone towards the chest. Each rib was then carefully severed from the spine with an axe, leaving the victim’s internal organs completely exposed.

The victim would remain alive throughout the procedure. To make matters worse, the Vikings then literally poured salt into the gaping wound in the form of a salt stimulant.

As if that wasn’t enough, after cutting off all of the man’s ribs and spreading them out like giant fingers, the torturer ripped out the victim’s lungs to make the man look like a pair of outstretched wings on his back.

Thus, the bloody eagle appeared in all its bloody glory. The victim turned into a slimy, bloody bird.

Blood eagle ritual

King Aella was not the last royal to face the Blood Eagle.

The researcher believes that the same fate befell at least four other prominent figures in the history of Northern Europe. King Edmund of England also fell victim to Ivar the Boneless. Halfdan son of King Haraldr of Norway, King Maelgualai of Munster and Archbishop Elheach were considered victims of the Blood Eagle’s torture because they were victims of Ivar the Boneless.

There were two main reasons why the Vikings used the bloody eagle on their victims. First, they believed it was a sacrifice to Odin, the father of the Norse pantheon of gods and god of war.

Second, and more plausibly, the bloody eagle was a punishment for scorned people. According to the Orkneying Viking Saga, Halfdan was defeated in battle by Earl Einar, who then tortured him with a bloody eagle as he conquered the kingdom of Halfdan. Likewise, Aella was tortured out of revenge.

Indeed, even stories of a bloody eagle – true or not – would have devastated any village by word of mouth alone before the Vikings could enter. At the very least, rumors of such torture would suggest that the Vikings were a god-awful fate—not to be laughed at.

Ritual or rumor?

Victims of this practice died in the 800s and 900s, possibly the 1000s. Written stories, often embellished and told for entertainment during the long northern winter nights, did not see the light of day until the 1100s and 1200s.

The authors of the Viking sagas heard the stories and wrote them down. Perhaps they embellished the ferocity of the Vikings to make them more heroic.

Lothbrok's painting

Wikimedia Commons A depiction of King Aella’s messengers bringing news to the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok. Of course, that didn’t help.

However, the Blood Eagle story may have some advantages.

The poets who wrote them were very precise in the method used. Someone must have tried this torture method because of the gory details someone described. The Danish historian Saxon Grammar tells us that this ritual was simply a way of carving an eagle on the victim’s back, with further details added later and “combined in ingenious sequences designed for maximum terror”.

Either the bloody eagle was real or it was a propaganda tool. But it was still terrible.

Other methods of Viking torture

The Vikings used other methods of torture besides the bloody eagle.

One was known as Meat Hung, which was as disgusting as it sounds. The Vikings pierced five victims, threaded ropes through the holes, and then pulled them upside down. Not only that piercing the heels was terribly painful, but also the blood rushed to the heart.

The fatal march was another horrific testimony of torture. One victim had their stomach cut open and a piece of intestine removed. The torturer then held the victim’s intestines as the victim walked around the tree. Eventually, the victim’s entire intestinal tract wound around the tree.

Whether it was the bloody eagle, hanging meat or the death march, the Vikings knew how to make an example of their enemies.


The next step into Viking violence is after learning about the Blood Eagle Ritual, reading about the practice of keel pulling or torture on the high seas. Then take a look at eight of the most gruesome medieval torture devices.

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