The History Channel series Vikings is a fictional tale of the legendary Norse hero Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), who was born a farmer and became a Scandinavian king. At the start of the series, a rival leader named Jarl Borg (Thorbjørn Harr) from neighboring Götaland leads an attack on Ragnar’s men and even convinces Ragnar’s brother to betray him. Borg doesn’t understand an easy death when his plans ultimately fail and he is captured. Ragnar performs the blóðǫrn (“Blood eagle”) on Borg, a macabre process of ritualized torture and execution believed to have taken place during the Viking Age (c. 750-1050).
The series prides itself on being as historically accurate as possible, which is a challenge, given that much of what we know about the Viking Age comes from epic poems recounting their accomplishments in oral form, ultimately written by the centuries later. This is particularly the case with the blood eagle ritual, which has long been dismissed as mere legend, whether due to repeated misunderstandings during translations of poems or perhaps a desire by Christian scholars to portray pagan Vikings as barbarians.
(Note: some graphic anatomical descriptions follow.)
The blood eagle allegedly involved slicing the victim’s back, cutting off the ribs from the spine, and then removing the lungs through the opening to display them on the spread ribs. The victim was said to have been alive the entire time, and his last breaths would cause the lungs to pound for the last time, similar to the beating of a bird’s wings. Some accounts also mention the pouring of salt on the victim’s wounds.
Whether it is a fact or a legend, performing such a ritual, while difficult, would have been anatomically possible with the tools available at the time, according to the authors of a recent article published in the journal Speculum, and would conform to the cultural mores of the Vikings. However, the victim would inevitably have died of shock and blood loss very early in the process, so the last beat of the lungs is likely poetic license.
Historical evidence for the blood eagle is scarce. For example, there is an account in the “Tale of the sons of Ragnar“Ivar the Boneless running the blood eagle on King Ila of Northumbria because the latter killed his father, Ragnar, and then they gouged out his lungs.”)
There are also two accounts of the execution of Halfdan Haaleg by Torf-Einarr. In a version, an eagle is carved on Halfdan’s back with a sword, all the ribs cut from the spine and the lungs stretched out. It is described as a sacrifice to Odin in thanks for Einarr’s victory. the Second account comes from the Norse poet and historian Snorri Sturluson: “Then Earl Einarr approached Halfdan and cut the blood eagle on his back, in the way that he thrust his sword into his chest by the spine and cut all the ribs up to the kidneys, then tore the lungs out; and this was the death of Halfdan. “
Viking historian Luke John Murphy of the University of Iceland decided to bring in true anatomists to assess whether the achievement of the blood eagle would even be possible. “They provided a whole new perspective on very old issues, and let’s approach the Blood Eagle in a new way,” he said. His co-authors conducted several simulations using modern anatomy software, while Murphy reassessed stories, archaeological evidence, and historical accounts in light of their findings.
Human anatomy is complex, and the authors noted three distinct anatomical challenges in performing the ritual, particularly if the goal was to keep the victim alive throughout the process. All the skin and muscles of the back should first be removed quickly; it would otherwise not be possible to cut and manipulate the underlying ribs so that the lungs can be removed. Second, simply opening the chest cavity from the back would likely weaken or cut several major arteries in the body and likely deflate the lungs. Finally, it would be extremely difficult to reposition the ribs in the shape of eagle wings and then pull the lungs through the opening.
According to the authors, “holding a sharp blade parallel to the underlying muscle layer, while making long cutting incisions just superficial to the muscles” would have removed the outer skin and muscle. This would be enough if the ritual consisted of simply carving an eagle into the victim’s back, then folding large scraps of skin and muscle on either side of the body to form “wings.” A typical Iron Age combat knife would have been ideal for this purpose.
In order to perform the full legendary ritual, the executioner would face obstruction of the shoulder blades and deeper back muscles and therefore would have to sever the underlying trapezius muscle and elevator muscle to expose the ribs. One account describes the cut as extending “to the kidneys”, and in this case the latissimus dorsi muscle in the lower back is said to have been cut as well.
It would have been very difficult to separate the ribs from the vertebrae, as the joints are stabilized by very strong ligaments. It wouldn’t be possible to cut each of them and tear off the ribs quickly with a serrated blade while the victim was still alive. Hitting the ribs with a sword or small ax would have severely damaged the lungs.
Instead, “We suspect that a particular type of Viking spearhead could have been used as a makeshift tool to ‘decompress’ the rib cage quickly from behind,” the authors wrote in an accompanying essay for The Conversation. “Such a weapon could even be depicted on a stone monument found on the Swedish island of Gotland, where a scene carved in stone depicts something that could have been a blood eagle or some other execution.”
Finally, for the last step of removing the lungs through the incisions along the spine, the ribs would have to be bent outward to create wings. This is technically possible, although it would require tremendous force and coordination, and the ribs would likely have to be fractured again somewhere on the victim’s side. The muscles attaching the ribs to the lower back should also be severed. The spine would still be an obstacle to the removal of the lungs, and the primary bronchi and pulmonary veins and arteries are not long enough to allow the lungs to be removed while they are still attached. The lungs would also likely have collapsed at this point into a compact tissue the size of a fist.
In Vikings, Jarl Borg endures the entire process in silence before exhaling, earning his place in Valhalla. In fact, he might have survived Stage One, but probably not in silence, as the soft tissue removal from his back would have been excruciating. But he would likely have died of shock, suffocation, and / or exsanguination within seconds of digging the blade into his back to cut his ribs. Ergo, “even if the ritual had been carefully performed, the victim would have died very quickly”, the authors wrote. “Therefore, any attempt to reshape the ribs into ‘wings’ or remove the lungs would have been carried out on a corpse. This latter ‘float’ would not have taken place.”
The authors also reassessed archaeological and historical data and concluded that the blood ritual was consistent with the behavior of the warrior elite of the Viking Age. Spectacular executions, exhibits of corpses and “deviant burials” took place, such as the skeleton of a beheaded nobleman buried with her head under her arm and her jaw replaced by a pig’s mandible. Viking warriors were known to go to great lengths to protect their reputation, and the Blood Eagle appears to have been reserved as revenge for the dishonorable murder of a father (or other male relative).
“Contrary to established wisdom, therefore, we argue that the blood eagle could very well have taken place in the Viking Age”, the authors concluded in their essay. “It was physically possible, in keeping with wider social habits regarding the execution and handling of corpses, and reflected a cultural obsession with demonstrating your honor and prestige. Plus, its spectacular brutality would have ensured that all who would hear of it would be enthusiastic to tell the story in all its gory detail, as we still tell today. “
DOI: speculum, 2022. 10.1086 / 717332 (About DOIs).
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