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Who created the blood eagle?

The blood eagle is a brutal method of execution described in Norse mythology. But who actually created this gruesome punishment? In this article, we will explore the origins of the blood eagle and examine the evidence for who may have invented this particularly vicious form of execution.

What is the blood eagle?

The blood eagle involves the victim being placed facedown and restrained. An incision is made in the back through the ribs, exposing the lungs and heart. The victim’s ribs are then pulled outward and upward, bending back to form “wings” as the lungs are pulled through the opening in the back. Meanwhile, salt is sprinkled in the wounds to increase the agony. The victim is kept alive during this process, the combination of pain, massive blood loss, and exposure of organs leading to an excruciating death.

Descriptions of the blood eagle can be found in Norse skaldic poetry and sagas. According to these accounts, it was a sacrifice to the god Odin, also known as the Allfather. The victims were placed in a prone position, wings carved in their back through splitting the ribs, and lungs pulled through to form “eagle wings”. Victims were carefully positioned so they were looking skyward, toward Odin.

When did the blood eagle first appear?

The earliest surviving descriptions of the blood eagle date from the Viking age in Scandinavia, approximately 793-1066 AD. For example, the late 9th century skaldic poem Þorbjörn hornklofi’s Glymdrápa describes the use of the blood eagle in the execution of the enemy warrior Halfdan by the Vikings Ragnar Lodbrok and Ivar the Boneless.

However, some scholars believe the blood eagle may have even earlier origins. References to ritual dismemberment and animal sacrifice in Germanic and Scandinavian culture indicate similar religious practices may have existed prior to the Viking age, though the specifics of the blood eagle ritual may have crystallized later.

Did the Vikings actually perform blood eagle executions?

Whether the blood eagle was truly practiced during the Viking age remains a matter of debate among historians. While numerous Norse sagas and poems refer to it, many scholars argue that these accounts are unreliable. They point out that the earliest descriptions were written centuries after the Viking age, allowing myths and legend to potentially replace fact.

Additionally, there is debate over whether the procedure would even be physically possible to perform while keeping the victim alive. However, replicas of blood eagles using animal carcasses suggest it could work, provided it was performed expertly.

Ultimately, hard evidence of the Vikings carrying out blood eagle executions is lacking. While it cannot be ruled out that it occurred, scholarly consensus is that accounts should be treated with skepticism.

Who may have created the blood eagle ritual?

If the blood eagle did have real origins prior to the Viking age texts, who might have invented this shockingly brutal form of execution? A few possibilities exist:

  • Earlier Germanic tribes – Ritual human sacrifice was certainly practiced by various Germanic groups the Vikings descended from. Similar punishments may have existed earlier and become the blood eagle of Viking legend.
  • The Vikings themselves – It’s plausible that the blood eagle was an original invention of cruel Viking warlords intent on terrifying their enemies. The Vikings were certainly capable of gruesome punishments.
  • Christian propagandists – Some theories suggest Christian writers invented the blood eagle centuries later to portray pagan Vikings as sadistic heathens. However, this would not explain earlier poetic references.

Unfortunately, the true origins are effectively lost to time. But these remain the leading theories on who may have created the nightmarish punishment known as the blood eagle.

Which historical figures allegedly died by the blood eagle?

According to Norse legends, several prominent figures were executed by the blood eagle ritual:

Name Background
Halfdan Enemy of Vikings Ragnar Lodbrok and Ivar the Boneless
King Ælla of Northumbria Killed Ragnar Lodbrok after capturing him
King Edmund of East Anglia Christian king killed by Vikings in 869 AD

However, as noted earlier, scholars debate the reliability of these accounts. In the sagas, the blood eagle was usually reserved for royalty and commanders. But with little definitive evidence, who actually died this way remains an open question.

What does archeology tell us about the blood eagle?

No archeological finds directly validate the blood eagle’s use. However, some artifacts provide clues about ritual mutilation practices:

  • Bodies at archaeological sites show signs of unusual mutilation and rearrangement, such as modified rib cages.
  • A late 10th century carved animal head post from Norway shows a decapitated human body with rib bones pulled upward and outward.
  • The Oseberg Tapestry from Viking-age Norway depicts dismembered human bodies and severed heads.

While not definitive proof, these finds suggest the Vikings practiced some forms of post-mortem mutilation that may have been related to rituals like the blood eagle. But archeological evidence alone cannot confirm whether victims were kept alive during the process.

Does the blood eagle appear in popular culture?

Thanks to its shocking brutality, the blood eagle has featured in various works of modern popular culture, including:

  • The Vikings TV series dramatizes Ragnar Lodbrok executing King Ælla in this manner.
  • The game God of War (2018) for PlayStation 4 depicts the blood eagle performed on the character Kratos.
  • The DC comic book series Northlanders by Brian Wood features blood eagle executions by Vikings.
  • Celtic Frost’s 2006 album Monotheist contains the song “Blood Eagle Sacrifice”.

As a lurid punishment drawn from medieval legends, the blood eagle continues to capture popular imagination and appears in fictional media to this day.


In conclusion, the blood eagle was undoubtedly a horrific method of execution, but mystery surrounds its origins and whether it was actually practiced. Descriptions of the ritual first appear during the Viking age, leading most scholars to associate it with Vikings and Norse culture. However, since accounts surfaced centuries later, academic consensus is that the details may rely more on myth than actual history. While the blood eagle makes for compelling fiction, real evidence proving who created this torture method remains elusive after all these years.