15 October 2012

Executed: The Blood Eagle of the Vikings

By Michelle Styles

Viking ferocity and the terrible ways in which they killed people has fascinated people throughout the ages, no more so than the so-called  ‘blood eagle’ or carving of an eagle on a victim’s back. If some writers are to be believed carving a blood eagle was the primary way of Viking execution. Some say that it had to do with a ritual associated with Odin where the back is cut open, the rib cage spread apart and the lungs pulled out all while the victim remains alive. It is supposed to be the  classic example of Viking and therefore pagan barbarity. There is just one problem — other than in the fertile imagination of 12th century and beyond writers, there is actually very little concrete evidence that it happened.
Scene supposidly showing a Viking execution of a defeated enemy
Carving a blood eagle is now considered to be a 12th century misinterpretation of skaldic verse. In short a 12 century Christian invention to show how dreadful and  terrible the pagan Vikings were.

The verse in question dealt with the murder of the Christian Northumbrian king Aella by the pagan Ivar during the capture of York.  It basically says that Aella was killed by Ivar the Boneless. To be fair, Aella had killed Ivar’s father, Ragnar the Hairy Breeches (Ragnar Lodbrok -- the subject of the Historiy channel Viking series)  by putting him in a snake pit without his famous trousers.  Aella had also usurped the throne and Northumbria was engaged in a civil war. Ragnar’s three sons vowed revenge and took it.  Getting rid of Aella provided the pretext for the invasion of Britain and the conquering of Northumbria.  

Some excitable scribe decided that he was killed by carving an eagle in Aella’s back. Aella looks a bit like the Latin word for eagle. The story grew and grew until it became very complicated. It fit the image that Christian scribes wanted for the Vikings. Basically even though many Christian warriors behaved with great ferocity during that time, it made for better reading if the Vikings were worse.

So did the Vikings ever do this sort thing? Who knows. It may be that they simply never thought about it. They certainly did not hesitate to kill their enemies and their respect for the law was more in how much they could manipulate it to their advantage.  Some scholars point to the word blothorn (blood eagle) as evidence for the pratice. It could be that the Vikings turned the defeated on thier stomachs, exposing thier backs which allowed eagles (or more likely vultures and other carrion birds) to attack their backs.

Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romance from a wide variety of time periods including Viking. Her next novel Hattie Wilkinson Meets Her Match is set in the relatively more civilised ear of the Regency England but she is currently working on a Viking novel . To leanr more about Michelle and her books visit www.michellestyles.co.uk