An act of torture is rarely an act of finality in feud cultures – the family of the tortured man, whether he survives or not, will rarely allow such a deed to stand without vengeance. For that reason, it is rare to find examples of torture in saga literature (excluding perhaps the King’s sagas – that Olaf Tryggvason could be a bit intense). This means that, where saga authors do relate occasions of deliberate mutilation, they stand out within the literature and gain a certain amount of infamy.
So today’s is a brief(ish) post, a kind of follow up to our article on the body in law, looking at the logistics of some of the more famous acts of brutality from saga literature (both from a physical and literary perspective): the ‘fatal walk’ of the Viking Broðir in the aftermath of the Battle of Clontarf, Hrafnkel Freysgoði and his men being strung up by their heels and, of course, the infamous blood-eagle. What we will see in these instances of torture is that, even where the act is physically possible, the sheer unlikeliness of the deed and the manner in which these violent interludes are deployed by saga authors recommends them more as literary tropes than genuine deeds. Which is not to say that brutality did not occur in the Viking settlement cultures of Iceland, Ireland, and Britain during the period, or even that these accounts have origins in cultural memories that evolved over time but, in this article, I want to focus on the acts as written.
Disclaimer: I will only be as graphic as what is written in the saga texts, but there are descriptions of disembowelment, evisceration and bodily torture.
So first up I want to turn to the torture sequence in Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða which, of our three examples, has the greatest plausibility as a physical act of vengeance.
They took Hrafnkel and his men and tied their hands behind their backs. Then they broke into the storehouse and took some ropes down from a peg; then they drew their knives and pierced holes through the men’s heels behind the tendons, and pulled the ropes through the holes. They threw the ropes over the beam and strung the eight of the up together.
This is a logistical possibility. My first thought was that surely the achilles tendon would not hold the full weight of the body, however two things speak in favour of this being possible. Firstly, the tendon does support up to 8x a person’s body weight while active – while the weight is obviously distributed more evenly than in this hanging situation, it is a robust piece of the body. Secondly, across cultures, this is a traditional way for animal carcasses of all types to be hung to age the meat – with hooks inserted between the bone and the tendon. This latter fact, however, may well indicate that we are dealing with authorial invention.
The context for Hrafnkel’s torture is found in a recently lost court case in which Hrafnkel had been outlawed. An outlaw’s property was forfeit. However, with no centralised system of authority like a police-force, such forfeiture could not be enforced against a powerful man like Hrafnkel unless a force was gathered by his prosecutors to conduct a confiscation court at the property. This is exactly what had happened and Hrafnkel was caught in bed by his enemies, who strung him up as the confiscation court was conducted and his property divided amongst the men in attendance. I would argue that Hrafnkel’s prone body is intended to evoke the image of hung meat being stripped of its flesh. It is a sophisticated piece of allegory by the author who creates a metaphorical allegory between butchered meat and the prone Hrafnkel being stripped of his property. While the author creates a reasonable verisimilitude in the small details of this incident, such as describing the blood running into Hrafnkel’s eyes as he hung there, I think what we are dealing with is a literary construct in a well-thought-out piece of saga writing.
Incidentally, Hrafnkel was not killed after the event, which may have been the course of wisdom from his enemies’ perspective. Rather, Hrafnkel was cut down and allowed to live on in his new-found poverty. Needless to say, he later wreaks his vengeance against his torturers, an entirely predictable outcome which displays the ineffectiveness of deliberate mutilation in a feud culture.
The Fatal Walk
Let’s turn next to Broðir in Njals saga. Broðir was a Viking mercenary at the famous Battle of Clontarf in Ireland, and Njals saga places the responsibility for the death of the Irish high Brian Boru at his feet.
Messengers ran to tell the pursuers that King Brian had fallen. Úlf Hræða and Kerthjálfað turned back at once. They surrounded Broðir and his men, and smothered their weapons with branches. Broðir was now taken prisoner. Úlf Hræða slit open his belly and led him around and oak tree, and in this way pulled out his intestines; Broðir did not die until they had all been pulled out of him.
Here’s a fact you never wanted to know. If the intestines alone are removed from the body, a person can continue to live a very unpleasant existence for hours. But that is not precisely what we see here. Firstly, Úlf was not working with surgical precision and any incision in the belly would have caused significant blood loss. Secondly, Úlf then had a good rummage around to find a loop of intestine to attach to the tree. These two acts, along with the associated shock, make it unlikely Broðir survived to undertake the fatal walk. But if he did, he knew death was imminent, he was in insufferable pain, and he was getting weaker by the second – I will absolutely not be convinced that, even in an honour culture, Úlf somehow managed to motivate the dying man to his feet to unwind his guts around the tree. It is simply not believable.
What we see in Broðir’s fatal walk is an intrusion of hagiography into saga literature. Broðir’s fatal walk is a mode of death whose first textual recording is in a twelfth-century saint’s life-style account of the death of the Anglo-Saxon royal Alfred Ætheling, an event of political importance and therefore extensively recorded in annals that predate that narrative, none of which note the Ætheling’s evisceration. Similarly, none of the extensive contemporary records make mention of Broðir’s evisceration in the aftermath of the Battle of Clontarf. In detail, the fatal walk is likely hagiographical fantasy. However, there is little reason to doubt the place of a mutilation motif within the narrative as something contemporaneous with the story it told. In the case of Alfred, when he was captured by political enemies upon landing in England. he was blinded to negate his claims to the throne. This act of mutilation is an element in the accounts of his death from their earliest redactions and, in the twelfth-century account, the fatal walk simply takes its place while still performing the same literary function. That the saint-figure underwent an ordeal was known, whether the detail of that ordeal was forgotten or embellished does not negate the motif as a preservation of oral memory. Likewise, it is not unreasonable to presume that a man who had killed the Irish king, as Broðir was reported to have done, would suffer a brutal reprisal that grew in the telling, with the fatal walk providing the Njáls saga author a convenient and suitably gruesome tableau.
So. I have saved the contentious one until last – the ‘blood eagle.’ There has been significant scholarly debate around the motif since Roberta Frank told us all in 1984 that it was a misinterpreted fictionalisation of the common ‘beast of battle motif.’ This is to say that the descriptions of the ‘blood eagle’ are intended to describe the eagle, one of the ‘beast of battle,’ feasting on the backs of the carrion. Rory McTurk in turn (among others) has defended the accounts as a genuine cultural memory of ritualised execution/sacrifice and, over the past thirty years, both arguments have been extensively re-examined as scholars have taken up positions anywhere between those two positions. Giving the motif even more fame, I believe (as a non-watcher) that the TV show Vikings depicted it as a genuine execution method, giving it a semblance of confirmed reality the popular imagination.
So what is it? There are only two (or three) instances of the blood-eagle recorded across four (or five) texts. First is the death of Hálfdan Longlegs, the son of the Norwegian King, at the hands of the Orkney Earl, Torf-Einnar. In the thirteenth-century Orkneyinga saga it is described…
There they found Hálfdan long-leg, and Einnar made them carve an eagle on his back with a sword, and cut the ribs all from the backbone, and draw the lungs there out, and gave him to Odin for the victory he had won.
In Snorri Sturluson’s twelfth/thirteenth-century Heimskringla the event is related in this way…
He cut an eagle on his back after this fashion, that he thrust a sword deep into his back and cut all the ribs right down to his rump, drawing out his lungs through the wounds.
Then is the famed execution of King Aella of Northumbria at the hands of the Viking leader Ívarr hinn Beinlausi (the boneless) as vengeance for Aella’s equally infamous execution of Ívarr’s own father. Described by Sigvatr Þórðarson in the early eleventh-century poem, Knútsdrápa…
And Ívarr, who dwelt at York, carved the eagle on Aella’s back.
The same event is described in Þáttr af Ragnars sonum as such…
They now had the eagle cut in Aella’s back, then all his ribs severed from the backbone with a sword, in such a way that his lungs were pulled out there.
In Hrafnkel we have a one-time motif with obvious parallels in imagery of butchery. In Broðir we have a one-time narrative in which the specific motif of torture is clearly drawn from hagiographical topoi, appearing elsewhere only in hagiography (or pseudo-hagiography in Alfred’s case). In the blood-eagle, however, we see two seemingly independent narrative traditions employ the motif, with its use described by multiple authors in a range of periods. It is true that, in the case of Orkneyinga saga the addition of the blood eagle seems a later authorial flourish; however, just because Einnar may not have conducted a blood eagle, it does not follow that it did not exist. The Orkneyinga saga author may simply have drawn upon a narrative tradition of ritual sacrifice. Sigvatr Þórðarson, notably, wrote in a time close to the period of the conversion and thus in a culture for whom the practices of the pagan past were a recent cultural memory, not yet as subject to Christian reimaginings of pagan ritual as later authors. Certainly, with multiple attestations to the blood-eagle across time, narrative traditions, and authors, it stands out from our examples as the most likely to be genuine. Indeed, I do believe that the blood-eagle has historical grounding. But ‘Ockham’s razor’ must apply – let’s look at precisely what we are told as the simplest explanation of the act, as opposed to creating out own imagery. There are three steps to performing the blood-eagle:
- Cut the shape of an eagle into the back of the victim
- Cut the ribs away from the spine
- Reach in and pull out the lungs
Step 1 is the stage of the process in which the victim would be most aware of the torture. Slicing into the skin on someone’s back would be brutally painful while remaining non-fatal. Splitting the ribs from the spine is a different story, and the victim would not have survived the full process. Firstly, without modern surgical equipment, cutting the ribs from their associated vertebrae would be a difficult process requiring either a significant investment of time with a serrated edge or a significant investment of force with a tool like an axe (the sword described in Orkneyinga saga seems implausible). Either way, the victim is certainly dead before 3 occurs. If shock, blood-loss or terminal spinal cord injury didn’t do for the victim, once the thoracic wall had been compromised and the pleural cavity associated with each lung was pierced, the victim would effectively have suffocated before the lungs could be pulled out. I apologise for this information…
So what of stage 3? Well firstly I should highlight that any image in your mind of a grim tableau of displayed ribs and lungs as a ‘blood-eagle’ is probably a bit of revisionist hyperbole. The only eagle reference in the passages is to the carved image of the eagle in the back. Bearing in mind that the event is described as a sacrifice to Odin in Orkneyinga Saga, a god often associated with the eagle, this imagery makes sense and could be considered to ‘brand’ the sacrifice as belonging to him. While the entire process has ritualistic overtones, and the death of the victim is a necessary part of the ‘sacrifice,’ I think the didactic nature of the execution should be considered. If stage 1 is considered a statement of intent and dedication to Odin, and stage 2 considered the execution and a display of vengeance to those present, stage 3 then, the removal of the lungs as a staged display of the brutalised corpse, is a didactic exemplar for the community at large.
Both Einnar and Ívarr had reason to send such a message to the communities in which the event took place. Firstly, Einnar had to establish control of the Orkneys in the face of aggression from resident Danish warlords, secondly Einnar desired to hold the Orkneys as independent to direct Norwegian hegemony, and thirdly, Hálfdan had been a party to the murder of Einnar’s father. In the ritual execution of the Norwegian king’s son, Einnar both took his vengeance, and declared his power in the Orkneys stood independent of the Norwegian crown. Ívarr in his turn had also to avenge his father, but further, sought to raid the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and, later events would show, he had perhaps already planned the ongoing Scandinavian migrations and settlements that began shortly after his arrival. In the ritual execution of the Northumbrian king, he took his vengeance at the same time as declaring his intent to overthrow the traditional power-structures of the land he had come to raid and establish Danish hegemony. And, of course, by leaving the bodies of their enemies so displayed in a graphic frieze of torment, Einnar and Ívarr declared the cost of opposing their power to any so inclined.
Well I hope that has been enjoyable and enlightening, and hasn’t left you traumatised. I am aware that there are some strongly-held positions and beliefs surrounding the blood-eagle, I will reiterate that this is my reading of the texts, and I am happy for comments discussing it. For a strong theoretical grounding in its literary representations, I recommend hunting out Roberta Frank’s article and Rory McTurk’s book in the references list below (the former looking out how the blood eagle may have crept into our sources as authorial invention/misreading, the latter on the view that this was a genuine ritual).
- Feature image: Sacrificial Scene from Stora Hammars I, one of four Viking Age carved stones in Gotland, Sweden. The scene contains imagery to support an association between Odin and ritual sacrifice, if not the Blood Eagle.
- Robert Cook, Njals saga, London: Penguin, 2001.
- Roberta Frank, ‘Viking Atrocity and Skaldic Verse: The Rite of the Blood-Eagle,’ The English Historical Review 99 (No. 391, 1984): 332 – 343.
- John Frankis, ‘From Saint’s Life to Saga: The Fatal Walk of Alfred Ætheling, Saint Amphibalus and the Viking Bróðir,’ Saga Book 25 (2001): 121 – 37.
- D. Fulk, ‘The Moral System of Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða,’ In Saga Book 22 (1998): 1 – 32.
- Rory McTurk, Studies in Ragnars saga loðbrókar and its major Scandinavian analogues, Oxford: The Society for the Study of Mediæval Languages and Literature, 1991.
- Hermann Pàlsson, Hrafnkel’s saga and other Icelandic tales, London: Penguin, 1971.
- Hermann Pàlsson and Paul Edwards, Orkneyinga saga, London: Penguin, 1981.
- Snorri Sturluson, Haralds saga ins Harfarga,in Heimskringla, translated by Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes, 3 vols, vol.1, London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2011 – 2014, 54 – 87.
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