The Blood Eagle is one of the most graphic, cruel, and lengthy torture methods ever described. According to 12th and 13th century authors, the Blood Eagle had a long tradition in Scandinavia, often being associated with Vikings, and was used against the most heinous enemies. No exact date is attached to its origins, nor is there a specific legal prohibition as to its use, but popular culture depictions keep it alive and well.
The debate among historians about whether or not the Blood Eagle actually occurred continues. Was its inclusion in Viking sagas part of Christian propaganda meant to depict the Scandinavian pagans as heathens? Has the lore of the Blood Eagle surpassed the historical accuracy of its existence? Here are some details about this antiquated and shocking punishment to help fill in some of history's cracks.
The conventional interpretation of the Blood Eagle stipulates that the shape of an eagle was carved onto the victim's back, after which the skin was pulled back and the ribs were detached from the spine. The lungs were then pulled out and over the ribs, mimicking the image of the wings of a spread eagle.
According to some translations of the Viking saga, a less invasive Blood Eagle could be performed by simply carving an eagle with outstretched wings on the victim's naked body; however, for added cruelty, the eviscerating method could be performed from the front.
According to Saxo Grammaticus's Gesta Danorum, after the previously detailed mutilation, the flesh was rubbed with salt.
"For the slayer by a cruel death of their captive father, Ragnar's sons act the blood-eagle on Ella, and salt his flesh."
Saxo, who wrote during the late 12th and early 13th centuries, recorded oral traditions and history as well as events from his own time.
The use of salt was later adopted by writers; they described the process as a "saline stimulant" intended to inflict additional pain and suffering, usually applied before the lungs were spread.
The Norse god Odin was traditionally the recipient of Blood Eagle sacrifices before and after battles. Hdlfddn's death in The Orkneyinga Saga was as much an act of revenge as an offering to Odin, though writers later omitted the reference to the Norse god.
In the numerous sagas that mention the Blood Eagle practice, revenge and pure disdain often preceded its usage. In Frithiof's Saga, Bjorn swears to subject his comrade's killer to the Blood Eagle:
"Fall'st Thou, War Brother! I'll 'venge Thee well;
Blood-Eagle lines on Thy foe shall be flowing."
In The Orkneyinga Saga, Hdlfddn (Halfdan) underwent the Blood Eagle after he was defeated in battle:
"Next morning they found Hdlfddn Hdlegg on Kinar's Hill. The Earl made a blood eagle be cut on his back with the sword, and had his ribs severed from the back-bone, and his lungs pulled out."
The Saga goes on to explain that the Earl Einar subjected Hdlfddn to the Blood Eagle because he had killed the Earl's father.