Murphy, LJ, Fuller, H, Willan, PLT and Gates, M (2022) An Anatomy of the Blood Eagle: The Practicalities of Viking Torture. Speculum, 97 (1). pp. 1-39. ISSN 0038-7134

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The infamous blood eagle ritual has long been controversial: did Viking-Age Nordic people really torture one another to death by severing their ribs from their spine and removing their lungs, or is it all a misunderstanding of some complicated poetry? Previous scholarship on the topic has tended to focus on the details and reliability of extant medieval descriptions of the blood eagle, arguing for or against the ritual’s historicity. What has not yet been considered are the anatomical and sociocultural limitations within which any Viking-Age blood eagle would have had to have been performed. In this article, we analyse medieval descriptions of the ritual with modern anatomical knowledge, and contextualise these accounts with up-to-date archaeological and historical scholarship concerning elite culture and the ritualised peri- and post-mortem mutilation of the human body in the Viking Age. We argue that even the fullest form of the blood eagle outlined in our textual sources would have been possible, though difficult, to perform, but would have resulted in the victim’s death early in proceedings. Given the context of the ritual depicted in medieval discourse, we also argue that any historical blood eagle would have existed as part of a wider continuum of cultural praxis, and been employed to reclaim or secure the social status of the ritual’s commissioner following the “bad death” of a male relative at the hands of the ritual’s eventual victim.

Item Type: Article
Additional Information: This is the accepted author manuscript (AAM). The final published version (version of record) will be available online via University of Chicago Press at - please refer to any applicable terms of use of the publisher.
Uncontrolled Keywords: early medieval Scandinavia, Old Norse literature, torture, execution, ritual, anatomy, deviant burial, bad death
Subjects: R Medicine > RS Pharmacy and materia medica
Divisions: Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences > School of Pharmacy and Bioengineering
Depositing User: Symplectic
Date Deposited: 09 Feb 2021 15:14
Last Modified: 22 Apr 2022 13:20

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