Blood Eagles and Fatal Walks Revisited: Orms þáttr stórólfssonar

It’s nearly two years since we posted our article on the viking tortures of literature and the likelihood that the acts as described ever occurred. This included two implausible instances of brutality: the ‘blood eagle’ and the ‘fatal walk’. We looked at the blood eagle in the context of the death of Hálfdan Longlegs, son of the Norwegian king, at the hands of the Orkney Earl, Torf-Einnar, and in the light of the more famous death of King Aella of Northumbria at the hands of the sons of Ragnar Loðbrók. The ‘fatal walk’ was considered as described in Njals saga as the punishment for Broðir, the Scandinavian mercenary who reputedly killed King Brian Boru at the Battle of Clontarf. However, these are not the only examples of the two punishments (although it’s pretty close for the blood eagle). In fact, there is one tale in which both tortures are described that I didn’t tackle last time: Orms þáttr stórólfssonar. So that is our focus today, the bloody Tale of Orm Storolfson, the man who ‘blood-eagled’ a troll (or giant). But first a bit of a recap.

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.

Opening page of Orms þáttr stórólfssonar in Flateyarbók

The Fatal Walk

So let’s begin, in the case you haven’t read our earlier article, with the description of the fatal walk as described in Njals saga, so you know what we’re dealing with:

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.

It is an act of brutality that, in substance, I find has little credence. Once the incision was made, once Úlf had drawn out Broðir’s intestines to loop them around the tree, what possible inducement could bring Broðir to his feet to begin the walk? The answer is pride, is heroism and, as such, the answer is that it is a literary trope. A hero dies well in the face of extreme circumstance. Indeed, a saint also dies well in the face of bodily trial, and there is a distinct hagiographical precedent for the fatal walk: it is a surprisingly common motif. For example, it appears in Geffrei Gaimar’s twelfth-century quasi-hagiographical rewriting of the death of Alfred Ætheling at the hands of Earl Godwine in 1036:

Then they took Alfred prisoner and brought him to Ely where they had his eyes put out. They made him walk around a stake, having first pulled out his large intestine. With goads that they had made they drove him round and round, in order to strip out his intestine until finally he could no longer stay on his feet.

It also appears in the account of St Amphibilus’ martyrdom from the twelfth-century, recounted here by Matthew Paris in a his thirteenth-century poem on the lives of Ss. Alban and Amphibilus:

The evil pagans fix a stake in the ground and they pull the intestine out of Amphibalus’s belly like lions that want flesh from an animal’s body. To the stake they fastened it with great torment of the heart; they tied his hands with a horse’s reins; they do not let him rest or stop anywhere, around the stake they chase him, as if he were walking for a whole day…

The difference here is that both of these are saintly figures who die well, who face their tormentors in the knowledge that God will empower them for their sacrifice. Not so Broðir, in fact Broðir is an apostate, having reverted to paganism having once been a deacon of the church. With this in mind we can probably guess what the Njals saga author is up to. Both the Alfred and Amphibilus tales, even in their wildly editorialised form, predate Njals saga by at least a century and there seems little doubt that Njals saga draws on this tradition. Broðir here becomes a didactic exemplar – the apostate may suffer like a saint, but has no hope of redemption or salvation.

Broðir is an outlier though. While the overt Christian imagery is lacking in the episode from Orms þáttr, the victim there – Asbjorn prúði – is a hero of the saintly type, accepting his fate with stoicism, dying on his feet. But before we get there…

The Blood Eagle

The blood eagle has always been divisive. Since the Vikings TV show apparently decided to read it literally and go for the full gruesome tableau (haven’t watched it, but I have heard stories), it has only become more so. In essence it boils down to whether it is a literary affectation, or an identifiable and locatable deed preserved in saga literature (with lots of shades of grey between the two). Let’s take a quick look at the two more famous instances in which kings suffer that fate. First is the description of Hálfdan Longlegs’ death as told in Orkneyinga saga:

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.

Then the description of King Aella’s death from Þáttr af Ragnars sonum:

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.

So obviously there are a few ways to read this; however, as I discussed in some graphic detail, this is not so much a torture as the posthumous mutilation of the victim’s body. I will let those who wish to read about it go back to our previous article, but suffice it to say that there are at least three physiological barriers to surviving once the process of cutting the ribs had begun. My personal opinion is that, if this mutilation were undertaken as described, then it was not for the benefit of the tortured person (who was long dead before the worst occurred) but a visual display for the communities who had supported them, of what awaited those who displeased these viking lords.

As a whole, the pagan references feel a little explicit, the ‘otherness’ of the vikings too evident. Given the saga authors wrote in a Christian era, it reads a little as a Christian author’s imagining of how he believed pagan vikings would have acted.

The Tale of Orm Storolfson

So, finally, Orms þáttr stórólfssonar. It is not a þáttr (an Old Norse-Icelandic short-story) that I expect many people to have read, but those of you familiar with the literature will recognise many of the tropes. Our hero, Orm Storolfson, is of the type we see in men like Grettir Ásmundarson or Egil Skallagrímsson – heroic, certainly, but deeply problematic for Icelandic society. As usual with this sort of character, Orm is preternaturally disposed to greatness, ‘big and strong from an early age and highly accomplished in skills, because by the time he was seven years old he was the equal of the mightiest men in strength and all skills.’ Fortunately, whereas Grettir was flaying horses alive in his youth and Egil was killing other boys, the worst Orm does is throw a horse and its cart on top of a pile of hay and lift the entire arrangement, in the process knocking his father off, breaking three of his ribs. The literary archetype is clear though, especially as Orm’s father had been goading him about his laziness. These types of problematic heroes in saga literature tend to be characterised as lazy in their childhoods, performing wild deeds of strength in response which do little to negate that reputation for laziness, but do demonstrate potential (and a destiny) that other men do not possess.

Let’s skip forward then – the next few chapters have some interesting features, but really do little more within the narrative arc than continue to demonstrate Orm’s strength and haughty character. Chapter five introduces Asbjorn prúði – my translation has this sobriquet as ‘elegant,’ but that’s clearly not the intention of the saga author – Asbjorn is so named because he is ‘the most courteous of all men’. ‘Courteous’ is actually a reasonable translation for prúði, as is ‘proud’ – but let’s call him Asbjorn ‘the Courteous’ here, and enjoy how unsubtle our author is in establishing him as the antitheses to Orm. Which isn’t to say they won’t be best mates, this is another feature typical of the literature – our grumpy hero needs a foil.

Asbjorn’s introduction to the narrative is in the company of a seeress who tells the lad that ‘he will travel widely and be reckoned the finest of men wherever he may find himself, and he will achieve much that will bring him renown, and he will die in advanced age so long as he does not go to Northmore in Norway …’

So Asbjorn and Orm both grow up over the next half a page (!), become blood brothers and swear a mutual oath of vengeance (important to the narrative and yet another trope), upon which Asbjorn entirely reasonably decides that he really must go to Northmore  as he is ‘keen to find out … whether I’ll drop dead as soon as I set foot there, as that miserable old seeress said.’

Well he doesn’t die immediately, but once there he finds out about ‘the ruler of the outer island [of Saudoy who] was a giant named Brusi. He was a great troll and ate human flesh, and it was believed that he could not beaten by mortal men, no matter how many they were; but even more formidable was his mother, a coal-black she-cat as big as the biggest of sacred oxen.’

Look there’s a lot in there. The troll, his mother the giant cat, the fact that he is reputed to be immortal and looks upon people as a food source – naturally, given his apparent ability to entirely ignore an obvious warning, Asbjorn wants to go check it out. While Orm initially persuades him against it, once the two men separate in their journeying, Asbjorn heads straight back to Saudoy with 24 men, and that is really it for the lad and his mates. Asbjorn wakes up early on their first morning to seek out the monsters, and as soon as he leaves the camp ‘the men notice that a horrible she-cat had come to the door of the tent. She was coal-black in colour and rather fierce-looking, for it appeared that fire burned in her mouth and nostrils … The cat then leapt into the tent at them and grabbed one after another, and it is said she swallowed some of them and tore others apart with the claws and teeth.’

Three men do escape the massacre, likely because our author realised that he would need someone left alive to go tell Orm of the tragedy. Asbjorn’s fate, however, is somewhat more gruesome. He does find Brusi’s cave, but is snatched up and dashed to the floor immediately – there is no fight from Asbjorn who clearly underestimated (or did not believe in) his opponent. In a delightfully understated bit of banter, Brusi indicates that he wishes to test if Asbjorn is ‘any tougher than other men.’

‘That won’t be much of a test,’ said Asbjorn. ‘Things have taken an unfortunate turn for me in that I was unable to defend myself in any way, and it certainly looks like my hour has come.’

Emphasising the heroic nature of his stoicism in the face of certain death, Asbjorn goes on to speak ten poetic verses as Brusi performs the fatal walk on him:

Then Brusi opened up Asbjorn’s belly and took hold of the end of his intestines, which he fastened to the iron column; then he led Asbjorn round and round, and Asbjorn kept going until his intestines had been wound out of him, all the while speaking [verses].

You’re likely thinking that this comes from a Norse tradition of the fatal walk – certainly Orms þáttr is late enough to have borrowed the motif from Njáls saga. Yet that fundamental difference, that it was a punishment for an evil deed by an apostate in Njáls saga, but a heroic feat of endurance by Asbjorn the Courteous in Orms þáttr, cannot be overlooked. There is a good chance that the Orms þáttr author had direct contact with the hagiographical tradition of the fatal walk and borrowed it as a fully formed motif in narrating Asbjorn’s death. Incidentally, if we read Asbjorn’s verses as a stopwatch for the fatal walk, it seems he lasted for around two minutes.

Now there is little ambiguity for the source of the blood eagle in Orms þáttr, as we will see it is a very familiar description. Upon learning of Asbjorn’s fate from the three survivors, Orm gears up to fulfil the blood vengeance owed his blood brother – good thing that Orm’s extraordinary strength (and recklessness) have already been established! It’s also a good thing that Brusi’s half-sister shows up in Orm’s dream to give our hero gloves that grant him unbounded strength. She also tells Orm she will give him ownership of Saudoy should he be victorious, all which she does because ‘I prefer to be on your side because I like the looks of you…’. It’s honestly the only reason she gives, and seems a bit of an awkward excuse for facilitating your half-brother’s murder. Either way, Orm makes his way to the cave and great battle ensues. I’d love to give it all to you, but this article’s already too long…

Cat-mum attacks first, biting Orm’s arrows in two and digging her claws into him. Leaving little doubt as to the author’s religious predilections, Orm regains his strength after praying to God and St Peter and promising to go on pilgrimage to Rome if he wins. He subsequently snaps the cat’s back. He then fights with Brusi, the gloves allowing him to hold so tight to the troll-giant’s beard that he rips it from his face. With Brusi weak from loss of blood, Orm bends him backwards over a platform as the giant begs Orm to cut his head off and end it quickly (in the process once more acknowledging how well Asbjorn had died, and establishing a deliberate dichotomy between the Christian man and the monster). Orm declines this mercy in a way that would have been problematic for a man such as Asbjorn, but perfectly suits his own character-type:

‘You did an evil thing,’ said Orm, ‘to torment so valiant a man to such an extent, and you shall have something to remind you of it.’

He took out his short-sword and carved the blood eagle on Brusi’s back, cutting the ribs from the backbone and drawing out the lungs so that Brusi lost his life with little dignity. Orm then lit a fire and burned both Brusi and the ogress to ashes.

And there we have it, a description of the blood eagle so archetypal as to have almost been copied word-for-word from Orkneyinga saga (which it may well have been). It is notable though that, just as Orms þáttr reverses the motif of the fatal walk from other examples in Old Norse-Icelandic literature, so too does it alter the blood eagle. Elsewhere the blood eagle is a notably pagan motif performed on kings and princes by men who are, to a degree, characterised as transgressive within their own narratives, but in Orms þáttr it is a man who (ornery as he may be) willingly cries out to God and the saints for help that performs the rite on a murderous giant. It is an interesting dichotomy, yet this particular example of the blood eagle gets little attention in comparison to those relating the deaths of King Aella and Hálfdan. There are probably three reasons for this: Aella and Hálfdan are historical figures, they are royalty, and the tales in which their tortures are told have something resembling a historical realism, in contrast to the obviously folkloric, and notably derivative Orms þáttr. Oh, and if you were wondering, yes Orm did fulfil his promise to God and St Peter and visit Rome…

Matt Firth

References:

  1. Feature image: Flateyarbók, Reykjavík Safn Árna Magnússonar, GKS 1005 fol. f. 75v. Harald Fairhair receiving the kingship from his father. Harald was the father of Hálfdan, and Harald’s saga in Heimskringla is another source for the story of Hálfdan’s blood eagle.
  2. Robert Cook, trans.,  Njals saga, London: Penguin, 2001.
  3. Matthew Driscoll, trans., Orm Storolfsson’s Tale, in The Complete Saga of Icelanders, ed. by Viðar Hreinsson and others, vol. 3 (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson, 1997),  pp. 455 – 467.
  4. Roberta Frank, ‘Viking Atrocity and Skaldic Verse: The Rite of the Blood-Eagle,’ The English Historical Review 99 (No. 391, 1984): 332 – 343.
  5. 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.
  6. Rory McTurk, Studies in Ragnars saga loðbrókar and its major Scandinavian analogues, Oxford: The Society for the Study of Mediæval Languages and Literature, 1991.
  7. Hermann Pàlsson and Paul Edwards, Orkneyinga saga, London: Penguin, 1981.
  8. Rosemary Power, ‘Njál saga and the Battle of Clontarf: A Case of Vernacular Source Transmission?’, Saga Book 42 (2018): 125 – 52.
  9. 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.

If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:

Blood Eagles, Fatal Walks, and Hung Meat – Assessing Viking Torture

Danish Invasion, Viking Violence, and Cnut’s Mutilation of Hostages at Sandwich

Monsters and the Monstrous in the Sagas – The Saga of Grettir the Strong

When Justice Cost an Arm & a Leg – The Mutilated Body in Medieval Anglo-Scandinavian Law

See our bibliographies on the Viking World and Chronicles and Editions

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