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Blood eagle

The famous Blood Eagle was a Nordic torture characterized by its brutality. We can ask ourselves exactly what this punishment consisted of or to whom. But above all, was the Blood Eagle real or was it just part of the legend?


What is the Blood Eagle?

We will begin by explaining what the Blood Eagle, which flourished  in Old Norse, consisted of . It was a bloody torture that worked as a method of execution. All those who were subjected to this test inevitably died.

The Blood Eagle began by immobilizing the victim face down. Then a cut was made in the back along the spine. Or two incisions, one on each side of the spine. From there the ribs are broken and removed, one by one, using an ax. Finally, the lungs are removed from the torso to leave them hanging on the back, like wings.

Some versions suggest that the shape of the wings was actually carved into the flesh of the back, and then salt was applied to the wounds. Another version indicates that the intestines were used to form wings.

Commendations of the Blood Eagle

In a society where writing was almost an anecdote, we have not received irrefutable evidence of the existence of this type of Viking torture. The sagas instead contain possible references to the blood eagle.

We must bear in mind that these texts were written several centuries after the end of the Viking era. By that time, the Scandinavian peoples had converted to Christianity. It is very likely that the exaggeration of orally transmitted legends and the demonization of pagan cultures by medieval Christians have altered the events being narrated.

This circumstance adds to the total absence of evidence in the tombs and other archaeological excavations. For these reasons, most historians doubt that the Viking blood eagle was real . Furthermore, there are those who claim that there have been misinterpretations of the language in the sagas.

Here are the mentions of this torture-sacrifice in the Nordic texts.

Orkneyinga Saga

The Orkeyinga Saga or Saga of the Orcadenses was written around the year 1200 . It tells the story of the Orkney Islands, located in present-day Scotland and which were colonized by the Vikings.

In one of his passages, Jarl Torf-Einarr captures his father’s killer, Jarl Halfdan Haleg and orders him to be sacrificed by the Blood Eagle. verbatim:

The next morning they found Halfdan Longlegs on Rinar Hill. The earl had a bloody eagle carved on his back with a sword, and he separated all his ribs from his spine and pulled out his lungs. So, he offered it to Odin as a victory offering, and then Einarr sang.


The Icelandic skald Sigvatr Þórðarson composed the poem Knútsiránpa between the years 1020 and 1038. In this lyric script it is mentioned that Ivar the Boneless ordered the execution of the Bloody Eagle on Ælla, king of Northumbria and responsible for the dishonorable death of his father Ragnar Lodbrok .

And Ivar, the one who had an eagle cut from Ælla’s back, resided in Iórvik.

Norna-Gests áttr

The Norna-Gests þáttr or Story of Norna-Gest is a short Icelandic account of this Norse hero. It was written around 1300 and later became part of the Olaf Tryggvason Saga . Some of his verses say:

Seldom a bolder warrior

that Sigmund’s killer made the earth red.

Hugin celebrated. Now with the biting sword

the Blood Eagle is branded on the back.

Stora Hammars I Runestone

The Stora Hammars I runestone, found in Gotland, Sweden, appears to illustrate this ordeal. Under the Viking symbol of Valknut , a man can be seen with his hands outstretched towards the back of another who is face down. Two birds can be seen above them.

The blood eagle on the stone of Stora Hammars I?

The truth is, knowing that the Valknut is associated with the cult of Odin, these birds could very well be his ravens Hugin and Munin. There is no consensus in the community of historians as to what exactly this part of the stone represents.

Victims of the Blood Eagle 

It is well known that the Vikings made human sacrifices, without torturing the victims. However, the sagas indicate that, many times in revenge , this bloodthirsty ritual was practiced on some men. According to legend, they are the following:

  • lla, king of Northumbria . Ivar the Boneless thus avenged the death of his father Ragnar Lodbrok in 867.
  • Edmundo Mártir, King of East Anglia . After being defeated by the Danes and for not renouncing his Christian faith, this monarch was brutally assassinated in 870.
  • Halfdan Haleg, son of Harald I of Norway . Also known as Halfdan Longlegs, this Viking warlord succumbed to his enemy Torf-Einarr, whose father he had killed. This happened in the 9th century.
  • Máel Gualae, king of Munster . The Vikings defeated this Irish monarch in 859 and applied this torment to him.
  • Ælfheah, Archbishop of Canterbury . Also known as Saint Alphege, he died in 1012 after refusing to pay a large ransom for his life.

It should be noted that these historical figures died at the hands of the Vikings, although the official version describes other types of deaths . For example, Máel Gualae was stoned and Edmundo Mártir was shot and then beheaded.