Throughout history, weve proved how sadistic we can be as a species when given the chance and the Blood Eagle torture is a good example of this.
It’s incredible the lengths we’re willing to go to when it comes to hurting other people. We’re a sadistic species, always waiting for the chance to explore this side of ourselves and revel in it. But what are our motivations when it comes to inflicting terrible pain and suffering to others? That could be a very long answer, but what is certain is that we just have to take a look at any history book to realize that even when motives might vary, we only need the approval of our peers to reveal our dark and violent nature.
Throughout history, humanity has witnessed all sorts of horrors inflicted upon others in the pursuit of absolute power. But for many people, thanks to books and movies, the Vikings are still considered to be one of the most violent and sadistic civilizations of all time. Despite the many efforts of modern historians to change this perception, it’s hard to remove that image from our collective imagination when stories like the torture method we’re going to discuss come into the conversation. The question that remains is this: were Vikings really that brutal and violent, or are stories like this one just a hoax that never happened?
Let's start at the beginning. According to ancient Norse and Icelandic Sagas, Vikings resorted to a torture method called Blood Eagle whenever they wanted to send a strong message of vengeance to their enemies. The most ancient story dates from the ninth century when Aelle, King of Northumbria (today New Yorkshire, England), captured the Viking leader Ragnar Lothbork and killed him by throwing him into a pit full of venomous snakes. Legend has it that when Ragnar’s son, Ivarr the Boneless, rose to power, he was determined to avenge his father’s death with the most unimaginable torture method ever: the Blood Eagle.
Ivarr invaded Northumbria in 865 and easily captured Aelle. The punishment consisted of tying the victim from his feet and arms to keep him from moving, while Ivarr stabbed him in the back. He sliced it from the tailbone to the rib cage, exposing his organs. He meticulously separated each rib with his ax and pulled them outside the body to shape them as wings. Once the bones were set, he rubbed salt on the exposed flesh in what came to be known as a “saline stimulant,” which basically meant rubbing salt to make the wounds sting more. Finally, Aelle’s lungs were taken out and spread over the ribs to give the look of wings, all of this while he was still alive. Only then would they set him free, so that he moved and gave the impression of a bird fluttering. Finally, he died.
There are two theories about this torture method. The first one is that it was considered the ultimate sacrifice to Odin, God of War and father of the Norse pantheon. Thus, the Blood Eagle became known as the Sacrifice for Victory, which has to do with the second theory behind it: that it was meant for vengeance. According to the Sagas, at least four important European monarchs were subjected to this practice (two of them by the hands of Ivarr the Boneless), but though this is a really famous episode in Viking history, there’s still doubts about whether this actually happened or it's all fiction.
For starters, the only written evidence we have is the ancient Norse and Icelandic sagas we were talking about. However, these were written in the thirteenth century after the downfall of the Viking civilization. Actually, most likely, the victims of the Blood Eagle died between the ninth (like Aelle) and the eleventh century. Now, these sagas were compilations of ancient oral legends that used embellishments to make the stories sound more epic and heroic. This has led historians and scholars to take these texts just as approximations to history and not really as reliable testimonies. So, was the Blood Eagle fact or fiction?
That’s a discussion that probably won’t have a definitive answer unless there’s archaeological evidence to prove it. So, for instance, there are historians who argue that the descriptions about the torture method are so vivid that it makes it sound more probable that the stories came real witnesses. On the other hand, others believe that this was just a propaganda tool to spread the word on how vicious the Vikings were so that entire villages would give in more easily when they were invaded.
Roberta Frank, an Old English and Scandinavian Literature scholar at Yale, has a more logical-sounding theory on the matter, and that is that this it real, though not with the ferocity and gruesomeness that the tales narrate. According to her, as the centuries passed, the story got more and more details and, of course, these ended up being more sadistic and violent. In her words, “by the beginning of the nineteenth century, the various saga’s motifs -eagle sketch, rib division, lung surgery, and ‘saline stimulant’- were combined in inventive sequences designed for maximum horror.” This could mean that the Blood Eagle was a regular practice that got mixed with other horrors to make it sound like the terrible bloody torture method that prevailed in the story.
Whether it was half real and half fiction, there’s no doubt that we can get really creative when it comes to imagining a terrible punishment for others. People have gory fantasies that, when given the chance, can cross the fiction threshold and turn us into the horrible monsters we’ve proven to be throughout history. From Vikings to Spartans, Aztecs, Assyrians, Christians, Nazis, and even modern-day torturers, violence lies inside us. The question here is: are we capable of learning how to live without hurting the other?
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