16 Facts About the Brutality of Viking Life
16 Facts About the Brutality of Viking Life

16 Facts About the Brutality of Viking Life

Steve - November 29, 2018

16 Facts About the Brutality of Viking Life
Detail from Stora Hammars I, depicting a man believed to being subjected to the blood eagle. Wikimedia Commons.

1. The Vikings possessed imaginative brutality, devising perhaps the most unpleasant method of execution in human history – the blood eagle

Given the immensely brutal conditions of existence within Viking culture, it is perhaps unsurprising that they are held responsible for the creation of the one of, if not the most vicious and painful mode of execution ever devised by humanity: the blood eagle. The blood eagle was a ritualistic and sacrificial method of execution, whereupon the victim was lain before his killer and who severed his ribs from his spine; through the opening created by this painful brutalization, the victims’ lungs were then pulled out and draped over their shoulders to create an illusion of wings. Accounts of the blood eagle appear just twice in surviving Norse accounts, although is alluded to in other sources, with both named victims of royal status and killed by a son in vengeance for the murder of their father, suggesting the reservation of the method of execution only for those of special significance and specific purpose.

The execution of the first victim, Halfdan Haaleg, also known as “Halfdan Long-leg”, is provided by the Orkneyinga saga, detailing the sacrifice of the son of Harald Fairhair to Odin at the hands of Torf-Einarr: “Einarr made them carve an eagle on his back with a sword, and cut the ribs all from the backbone, and draw the lungs there out, and gave him to Odin for the victory he had won. The second known victim, Ælla of Northumbria, described in the “Tale of Ragnar’s sons”, was executed by Ivar the Boneless in 867 CE in retribution for the murder of his father, the legendary Viking ruler Ragnar Loðbrók. Captured after a battle at York, the saga recounts that “they caused the bloody eagle to be carved on the back of Ælla, and they cut away all of the ribs from the spine, and then they ripped out his lungs.”

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Viking Answer Lady – Hólmgang and Einvigi: Scandinavian Forms of the Duel

New York Time Magazine – Viking Age Smallpox Complicates Story of Viral Evolution

Listverse – 10 Interesting Viking Rituals

History Extra – The Truth About Viking Berserkers

Medievalists – The Vikings, Their Worms, And The Diseases They Got

History Channel – What We Know About Vikings and Slaves

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“The Old Icelandic Duel”, Marlene Ciklamini, Scandinavian Studies (1963)

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“Incisor raiding: Viking marauders had patterns filed into their teeth”, Maev Kennedy, The Guardian (July 4, 2011)

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“The Vengeance of Ivarr the Boneless”, Mike Dash, Smithsonian Magazine (March 13, 2013)

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