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The Vikings' 'blood eagle' torture was horrible — and it could have occurred.

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A cruel, ritualized manner of torture and killing practiced by Nordic people during the Viking Age was so horrible that some experts questioned whether it could even be performed on a human body.

Researchers have discovered that the act is known as blórn, or "blood eagle," was anatomically conceivable and might have been accomplished with known Viking weapons.

Victims were often seized in battle, according to descriptions of the blood eagle in poems and prose ranging from the 11th through the 13th centuries. Captors would cut and tear great swaths of skin and muscle off the backs of their living victims, then separate the ribs from the spine, opening the ribs out to the sides to form "wings." The torturer would next finish the ceremony by extracting the victim's undamaged lungs and putting them atop the stretched ribs (by this point, the victim was certainly deceased, the researchers wrote).

Performing such a heinous deed would have been "anatomically demanding" for the torturer, but not impossible, according to scientists writing in the January 2022 issue of Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies.

The blood eagle procedure was analyzed in the current study by first evaluating human anatomy, then breaking down the chronology of the torture step by step and simulating how it might have been conducted in a public rite. They then examined weaponry from the period to see what kinds of blades would have been utilized for such a lengthy and horrific process.

Certain Viking knives, swords, and spears may have been used for various phases of the blood eagle ceremony, and previous archaeological findings show instances of weapons that would have been well-suited for this horrible activity. According to the study, single-edged "combat knives" with inflexible handles have been discovered in aristocratic Viking burials, and several resemble huge knives used in modern autopsy. For the first phase of the blood eagle ceremony, such a knife could have been used to cut and peel back the skin and muscle layers.

Severing the ribs was a more difficult task, especially if the lungs needed to be spared, as chopping at them with a sword or sawing with a serrated knife would have likely torn or perforated the lung tissue. However, ribs might be "unzipped" from the spine with a short, barbed spearhead, and similar weapons have been recovered from Viking tombs, according to the experts.

Archaeologists have never discovered human remains that show traces of having been subjected to this rite. According to the study, the people who ordered the torture and their victims were men of elevated social position, with the majority of them being royal, in the nine known documented descriptions of the blood eagle ceremony. The scriptures suggested that an authorized official was on standby to perform the blood eagle act in some situations, maybe because it required highly specialized knowledge of anatomy and butchering.

Performative displays of social standing and ritualized executions that included "conspicuous mutilation" were common practices in elite circles of Viking society, according to the researchers. This suggests that written accounts of the blood eagle ritual were describing events that occurred and were socially significant for leaders celebrating victory over a powerful enemy.

"The blood eagle was thus more than just torture: it had significance," the study's authors said.

While dissecting a living human body in this manner was possible, surviving such agony was not. Victims would have lost consciousness early in the procedure as flesh was removed from their backs; the amount of blood loss and subsequent lung collapse would have killed them long before the gruesome procedure was completed, and "much of the procedure would have been performed on a corpse," the scientists reported.

"There is no chance that a victim would have survived the procedure," the researchers said. "A victim undergoing a 'complete' blood eagle procedure would have died long before their ribs could have been molded into the shape of wings and their lungs externalized."