The Blood Eagle – Worst Punishments in the History of Mankind

The Blood Eagle – Worst Punishments in the History of Mankind


Try and put yourself in this position for
a moment. You’re a king in 9th century medieval England
and you’ve been attacked and overrun by rather fearsome Viking hordes who’ve made
the trip to kill and pillage, in that order. You’ve been told you’re going to be executed,
and so you wait in some kind of tent wondering how that’s going to play out. What usually happens on your home turf is
offenders go to the chopping block. You think, ok, it’ll be quick and painless,
I’ll say my prayers and that’ll be that. I’m a martyr, heaven will be good to me. But you underestimate the brutal creativity
of your foes. You soon find out you’re going to have your
ribs and lungs pulled through your back to be turned into a kind of winged creature. Damn, that’s going to be rough, you think. That’s the blood eagle in short, but we’ll
add a bit more to the description of this nasty Viking execution procedure. First, the person is laid on their chest with
their back facing in the air. Perhaps if the victim hadn’t been told what
was going to happen they might have thought they were going to lose their head, as was
the custom in Anglo-Saxon England. We can’t be sure if they were told or not,
because there’s nothing in Viking literature that tells us so. We also presume they were held down by a few
people, or tied down. These bits are missing in the old texts. So, the person is lying on their front, waiting. This form of execution was a kind of ritual,
so no doubt it would have happened in a special place and would have been observed by a lot
of Viking men. The naked victim is then approached by an
executioner with a very sharp knife, or something bigger, like an axe. In some cases he might have had an eagle carved
into his skin. This was merely an aperitif. With that knife he then tears through the
flesh in the man’s back, with so much power that he actually severs the ribs. Those ribs are pulled and stretched outwards,
like wings. The piece de resistance is when the man’s
lungs are pulled through his back and wrapped over the rib-wings. This procedure was supposed to give more of
an impression of a bird’s wings, hence the blood eagle. It sounds too bad to be true, so how do we
know this actually happened? Well, during the Viking Age they had poets,
as many old cultures did back then. This was called skaldic poetry. These poems would become parts of Sagas, stories
which detailed things such as Viking invasions, the legends of great kings, bloody battles,
etc. Some of these stories have survived and they
have been translated. There is a story called the “Orkneyinga
saga”, and this details the exploits of a guy named Harald I Fairhair, who is said
to have been the first king of Norway. He is credited with being the ruler when the
Vikings took over the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland. If you don’t know where they are, and we
don’t expect most of you will, they are north of Scotland, but sets of islands, not
on the mainland. If you didn’t know, a group of islands is
called an archipelago. See, we are not just about describing blood
and gore. The saga details life on these isles. Some scholars might question if what is written
actually went down, because the saga was written many years after King Harald was around. It was written in the 13th century, but the
Vikings were there since the 9th century. Word of mouth might have passed down the details. Anyway, to cut a short story even shorter,
one of Harold’s warrior sons named Halfdan Long-Leg was executed because he’d been
involved in power struggles and had killed a member of Viking nobility and another 60
men. He’d done this with his brother. That brother was banished from Orkney but
the mastermind of the operation didn’t get so lucky. The son of the slain nobleman got his revenge
and demanded the blood eagle be performed on Halfdan Long-Leg as a sacrifice to the
God Odin. This is how it has been translated:
“Earl Einarr went up to Halfdan and cut the ‘blood eagle’ on his back, in this
fashion that he thrust his sword into his chest by the backbone and severed all the
ribs down to the loins, and then pulled out the lungs; and that was Halfdan’s death.” That’s case one. Case two involves a formidable Viking warrior
named Ivar the Boneless, who is said to have been the son of the Norse hero, Ragnar Loðbrok. Why “boneless” you might ask, and historians
have wondered the same thing. Some think that he wasn’t actually boneless,
but that his manhood didn’t work very well. What he lacked in physically he made up for
in brains, because it’s said he was an outstanding tactician in battle. This is a time when the Vikings were taking
over large parts of Anglo-Saxon England, and it’s detailed in the saga called the “Tale
of Ragnar’s sons.” It depicts what went down with the 9th century
king Ælla of Northumbria. That’s northern England. King Ælla learns about an upcoming invasion
by the great Ragnar Loðbrok. There are different accounts of what he got
up to and how he died, but one such account…er, SPOILER ALERT, IF YOU HAVEN’T FINISHED WATCHING
THE SHOW VIKINGS PLUG YOUR EARS NOW…is he is captured by King Ælla and thrown into
a snake pit. There he perishes. Ivar the Boneless is too clever to invade
northern England when the army there is so strong. He bides his time. In fact, he stays in England but asks King
Ælla for something called a “wergild”, which is a kind of compensation for a man’s
life, in this case his father’s. He tells Ælla that all he wants is an Ox’s
hide, and he will take only the land that he can stretch the hide around. In modern parlance, Ælla might have thought,
what an idiot, but smart Ivar cut the hide into very thin string and stretched that around
a large area. He said this will be a new city, and that
city is now supposed to be York in northern England. Ivar then proceeds to get all the chieftains
in that region on his side. He has a powerful army now and so decides
it’s time to attack the rest of England and get revenge on Ælla. Many of the northern English pledge allegiance
to Ivar because they respect him, which sounds a bit like Norse propaganda. This all ended with Ælla being captured and
Ivar becoming king of North-eastern England. His brothers basically go on a pillaging rampage
in England and all over Europe. Ælla meanwhile is about to get the dreaded
blood eagle treatment and in an 11th century poem this is how it went down, in translation:
“And Ívarr, the one, who dwelt at York, had Ella’s back, cut with an eagle.” That’s a rather family-friendly description
of events. But we have another description, too, if your
blood-lust wasn’t satiated. It went like this, “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.” Ok, so did all this actually happen? Well, who knows, because any historian that
tells you it’s the truth or not the truth can’t really be sure, either. They weren’t there. Some scholars say that Norse poets like modern
poets were cryptic, used symbolism, and so weren’t always literal. Saying that, in the 12th century a Danish
poet named Saxo Grammaticus also wrote about people being cut apart and turned into an
eagle, so there definitely seems to be a theme being shared in those dark days. In that account the Vikings took the ritual
a step further and poured salt into the opened body. Some say it might have happened and others
seem to think a lot has been lost in translation over the years. You see, the writers of sagas wrote that stuff
hundreds of years after the fact. As you know yourself, things tend to get exaggerated
over the passage of time. What starts as some guy pushing another in
a train station can by the end of the week be a bloody brawl where someone lost teeth
and an eye. A hero might also emerge from the mayhem. Did those stories of Viking violence get embellished
since people admired them and so stretched the ferocity of the Vikings? Or were they accurate? We just don’t know, but it’s a fact the
blood eagle was talked about a bit. Scholars are still in disagreement today,
but in the interests of this show, we won’t ask you to let the facts get in the way of
a good tale. You must be feeling a bit worn out after hearing
about this horrendous kind of execution and sacrifice, or do you want more. Now we’ll offer you two choices, more death
or some happiness. You make the choice, either “Strangest Ways
People Died” or “Top 20 Happiest Countries to Live In The World.”

100 thoughts on “The Blood Eagle – Worst Punishments in the History of Mankind

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *