What Is a Blood Eagle?

The blood eagle is considered one of the worst execution methods in history. Supposedly, Viking hordes used it to kill people between the eighth and eleventh centuries.

It has been depicted in popular culture: the Swedish film Midsommar, the video game Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, and twice in the History Channel series Vikings.

The blood eagle is a punishment where the person is strangled and stabbed with an ax by their tailbone and up towards the rib cage, separating every rib from the backbone.

The Vikings rubbed salt on the wound to make things more painful and pulled the victim’s lungs over their shoulders.

This article will discuss the representation of the blood eagle.

It will also explore if a person can survive a blood eagle and if the Vikings conducted the blood eagle.

Also, see 11 Facts About Viking Longhouses to learn more.

Viking axe
What does the blood eagle represent? See below

What Does the Blood Eagle Represent?

The blood eagle is believed to represent an offering by the Vikings to Odin, the Norse god of war, battle, and victory.

It is also thought that the blood eagle is used to reclaim the lost honor of a dead Viking.

Conducting the blood eagle is usually seen as a human sacrifice to Odin as they conquer lands and terrorize the people they subjugate. [1]

It is believed to have been done to the Vikings’ prisoners of war or their sworn enemies. [2]

Several people wrote nine Old Norse and Latin accounts, which are parts of the sagas, from the medieval period that describe this form of punishment. [3]

In those accounts, the authors wrote only four execution instances through the blood eagle: 

  • Halfdan Long-Leg
  • Ælla of Northumbria
  • Lyngvi Hundingsson
  • Brúsi of Sauðe [5]

Most of these people were influential in the societies in which they lived.

The blood eagle is also seen as a way for the Vikings to retrieve the lost honor of their relatives.

Viking warriors were known to be protective and mindful of their image as warriors.

Their relatives believed that they could only restore the honor of their loved ones by conducting the blood eagle on the person who killed them.

The execution is called a blood eagle because the final result after pulling the ribs out and arranging the lungs of the victim’s body resembles the wings of an eagle. [1]

Also, see Who Killed Lagertha in Vikings? to learn more.

Viking ship
Can someone survive a blood eagle? See below

Can Someone Survive a Blood Eagle?

A study by researchers published by the University of Chicago in January 2022 has found that the way the blood eagle was executed was possible using the tools available to the Vikings during that time. [5]

Still, it is undoubtedly challenging for the executioner, who must have enough knowledge of the human body to do the execution. [6]

The medieval accounts did not indicate how a person who went through the blood eagle died, but they say that the people who underwent the torture died instantly.

Furthermore, some of these accounts recorded instances where the Vikings ripped the lungs out of their victims.

The 2022 study has deduced that cutting and removing the skin, muscle, and shoulder blades from the back while keeping the lungs intact would be possible but challenging. 

It has also indicated that separating the ribs from the backbone to make an image of eagle wings would be next to impossible.

To successfully do this, the executioner must use blunt force using a sword to cut the ribs from the spine.

The study has also looked into the potential blood loss the victim would have experienced during the execution.

Cutting through the back would sever the blood vessels that supply a large amount of blood.

The researchers pointed out that the victim’s position during the execution and the stabbing could also cause damage to the aorta.

Apart from the blood loss, repeatedly stabbing the victim would damage the lungs and the heart.

The person who experiences massive blood loss will undergo what is called a hypovolemic shock.

A loss of more than 1,500 milliliters of blood will cause a decrease in blood pressure and confusion in humans.

Going beyond 2,000 milliliters will make the heart beat fast, but the person will feel extremely tired. This condition will eventually lead to death. [8] 

Researchers have also argued that removing the lungs from the victim’s body would be almost impossible without cutting them from the other internal organs, such as the trachea, the other blood vessels, and the heart.

This would make the display of the lungs after the execution unlikely.

According to scientific studies, there is no way that a person who underwent the blood eagle punishment will be able to survive.

The victim would become unconscious within moments of the execution and die from suffocation or blood loss even before it was completed. 

Also, see 5 Famous Valkyries to learn more.

Viking warrior
Did the Vikings really do the blood eagle? See below

Did the Vikings Really Do the Blood Eagle?

There is an ongoing debate about whether the Vikings really performed such inhumane acts as the blood eagle.

Historical records during the Viking Age are scarce, and the only accounts that depict that period come from Skaldic poetry and the sagas.

For years, scholars have determined that the blood eagle is a myth, making them think it was a misinterpretation of the Viking sagas and poems. [4] [9]

Archaeologists could not find evidence that the Vikings conducted the blood eagle in the past. [3]

The Vikings did not create their historical accounts or save any records about their civilization, and the people wrote the accounts about them several decades after these were believed to have happened.

The poets who wrote these accounts about the Vikings aimed to entertain people during the long winter, not for historical purposes.

Of the nine narratives that depict the blood eagle, only one is believed to have been written during the Viking Age. 

Some people even believed that Christian writers made these accounts to portray the Vikings as barbaric heathens. [7] Christians were the most likely victims of Viking incursions. [10]

However, the University of Chicago study has argued that the Vikings could have tortured people through the blood eagle during the medieval period.

However, the researchers did not investigate whether the execution method existed. [5]


Whether the blood eagle is real or not, there is no doubt that no person could survive this cruel way of punishment by the Vikings.

Also, see Did Vikings Use Two-Handed Axes? to learn more.

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Christian Christensen

Christian started Scandinavia Facts to explore his family heritage, raise awareness of one of his academic interests as a professor, and civilly promote the region. Please see the About page for details.

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