Jarl Borg execution. Vikings Season 2, Episode 7
"The blood eagle is a ritualized method of execution, detailed in late skaldic poetry. According to the two instances mentioned in the Sagas, the victim (in both cases a member of a royal family) was placed prone, the ribs severed from the spine with a sharp tool and the lungs pulled through the opening to create a pair of 'wings'. There is a continuing debate about whether the ritual was a literary invention, a mistranslation of the original texts or an authentic historical practice." Source: Wikipedia.
The Blood Eagle was a particularly nasty form of sacrificial execution, but did the Vikings actually put people to death this way? As far as I can tell, the only primary documentary evidence for the practice comes from sources such as the Orkneyinga Saga, the Heimskringla, the Tale of Ragnar's Sons, and a handful of references in other texts.
Note: The Tale of Ragnar's Sons describes (among other things) the execution of King Aella of Northumbria, a scene also depicted in Vikings.
Jarl Borg in Vikings is an entirely fictional character, I believe. Aella, on the other hand, was apparently a real king, though the sources for his life are limited and very little is known about his reign. According to some accounts, he was executed by the Vikings after they invaded Northumbria following the king's execution of the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok, another figure who may or may not have actually existed. How Aella died is a matter of conjecture, though, because the sources contradict each other:
"Well into the last century, most historians of the Vikings accepted that the blood eagle was deeply unpleasant but very real. According to the eminent medievalist J.M. Wallace-Hadrill, its possible victims were not only Ælla of Northumbria but also Halfdán, the son of Harald Finehair, king of Norway, and the Irish King Maelgualai of Munster; in some interpretations, it is supposed that even Edmund the Martyr may have suffered the same fate."
One possibility is that the Blood Eagle was a real execution method sensationalized by later writers. For instance, the Welsh scholar and translator, Gwyn Jones, argues in A History of the Vikings (1968) that this "inhuman rite" was "unhappily no fiction ... but owes its eminence in pseudo-lore almost entirely to fiction ..." (footnote pp 119-220, 1968 edition)
It's also possible that the Blood Eagle is entirely fictitious. This seems to be the current consensus, but there's a lot of disagreement. Revisionist historians have challenged the idea that the Vikings were just a mob of cruel barbarians wearing horned helmets, but their depictions of "cuddly" Vikings went too far in the other direction. One of the main problems with our picture of the Vikings is that much of what we know about them was written by their enemies.
If the Blood Eagle is a literary invention, there's a good chance that this grisly method of execution was dreamed up by Christian writers trying to demonize the pagan Vikings. According to Wikipedia, "[t]here is debate about whether the blood eagle was historically practiced, or whether it was a literary device invented by the authors who transcribed the sagas. No contemporary accounts of the ritual exist, and the scant references in the sagas are several hundred years after the Christianization of Scandinavia." Considering the Christians' history of inventing martyr stories set in the Roman Empire, I wouldn't be surprised if they concocted similar atrocity stories about the Vikings.
Video from 2010.
When I first started to research this subject, I assumed there was a high probability that the Blood Eagle was a real thing because the Vikings are thought to have conducted human sacrifices and the Blood Eagle is, in a way, just another form of ritual sacrifice. As it turns out, though, the question of whether the Vikings killed people for religious purposes isn't all that straightforward.
There is some archaeological evidence that the Vikings may have sacrificed humans. For instance, "[a]t Trelleborg [Sweden] a sacrificial site was found from the time before the Viking fortress was erected in 980-81. In five c. 3 metre-deep wells human and animal skeletons were found, together with jewellery and tools. Of the total of five human sacrifices, four were young children aged between 4 and 7. " Source: National Museum of Denmark.
Blood sacrifice, including human sacrifice, was an intrinsic part of pagan religions. The historical sources for Viking human sacrifice are questionable, though, because they all seem to come, once again, from Christian accounts:
According to the National Museum of Denmark, "[t]here are several horrifying accounts of human sacrifices from the Viking period. The German bishop, Thietmar of Merseburg, describes how the Vikings met every nine years at Lejre on Zealand [Denmark] in January 'and offer to their gods 99 people and just as many horses, dogs and hens or hawks, for these should serve them in the kingdom of the dead and atone for their evil deeds.'"
A similar ritual (at a different location) is also depicted in Vikings.
"The German monk Adam of Bremen wrote a similar account in 1072 about the sacrificial tradition at [Gamla Uppsala] in Sweden, where the temple was devoted to Thor, Odin and Frey. Here the Vikings also met every 9 years to ensure the goodwill of the gods. 9 males of all kinds of living creatures were sacrificed in a holy grove nearby. According to Adam of Bremen dogs, horses and humans hung from the trees. The number 9 was apparently of magical significance to the Vikings and was involved in a number of rituals." (National Museum of Denmark)
"There has been extensive debate over whether these accounts were real or simply Christian propaganda."
I wouldn't be shocked to learn that the Vikings actually executed royal prisoners using the Blood Eagle. Even if the descriptions in the sagas were written for entertainment, they may have had some basis in fact. At this point, however, it looks like this particular form of execution was a literary invention derived from the skaldic poems and embellished by later Christian writers in yet another attempt to make the pagans look like cruel and bloodthirsty savages:
"One of the features of a skaldic poem is that it’s incredibly convoluted, like a cryptic crossword puzzle. If you have a reference to what appears to be the Blood Eagle in a skaldic verse, it’s quite likely this is a poetic conceit. Roberta Frank, at Yale, argues that the Blood Eagle is just the idea of a carrion bird scratching at the back of the dead. If you create lots of corpses, you are a very good warrior. That’s what is being referred to. But when later writers made prose stories around these skaldic verses, they seem to have interpreted it literally. So it’s quite likely that there was no such thing as this horrible form of torture, but it grew in the telling." Source: National Geographic (2017).