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Torf-Einar and the Blood Eagle

The Orkneyinga saga episode involving the Blood-Eagle is a controversial one.  Was the Blood Eagle really an historical method of execution? Or was it merely a literary addition, included for dramatic or symbolic effect?

Aside from the Orkneyinga saga, the Blood Eagle appears in a number of “viking” accounts.

In the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, for example, we read that the viking chieftain, Ivar the Boneless, had the Northumbrian king, Aella II, put to death:

"They caused the bloody eagle to be carved on the back of Ælla, and they cut away all of the ribs from the spine, and then they ripped out his lungs."

The motif also occurs in Norna-Gests þáttr. Here, Regin carries out the execution of Lyngvi:

"Regin then took his sword from me, and with it carved Lyngvi's back until the ribs were cut from the back, and the lungs drawn out. Thus Lyngvi died with great valour. Then Regin said:

'Now the blood eagle
With a broad sword
The killer of Sigmund
Carved on the back.'”

The veracity of these accounts has been debated fiercely.

While some scholars are adamant that the practice took place, others suggest that the Blood Eagle did not exist outside the literature – created either as a literary device or perhaps a genuine mistranslation of earlier Skaldic verse.

Skaldic verse, such a that attributed to Einar, used a variety of metaphors.

One such metaphor, representing a violent death, utilised the term “eagle’s claws”.

According to the saga, after Halfdan’s death, Einar recited:

"Mighty men of no mean race,
From divers mansions of the earth;
But for that they do not know,
These, until they lay me low,
Which of us the eagle’s claws
Shall bow beneath ere all be o’er.”

This, it has been suggested, could be the source of the Blood Eagle episode – a misinterpretation of Einar’s words, in which he simply states that his enemies will not know, unless they kill him first, who will die before the affair is concluded.

Did the mention of eagles in Einar’s verse prompt the saga compiler to incorporate the infamous human sacrifice?

From this, for example, the Blood Eagle’s inclusion in the Orkneyinga saga appears to be for dramatic effect. The episode creates a clear contrast between the "barbaric" origins of the Orkney earldom with the more "civilised" later years, typified by heroes such as the saintly Magnus.

Along the same lines, Einar's dedication of the sacrifice to Odin could also be a later inclusion - added to contrast and compare the "heathen" episode.

Three of the five surviving Orkneyinga saga manuscripts depict Einar as performing the sacrifice himself.

The other two have him delegating the task. When Snorri related the incident in Harolds saga hdrfagra (chap. 30), he eliminated the reference to Odin altogether.

The saga as it comes to us today, however, clearly depicts Einar as being an Odin-like figure. Just as Odin is the father of the gods and the ancestor of royalty, Einar was the first of the Orkney Earls. Odin had a knowledge of poetry, as did Einar.

The comparison to Odin is most apparent, however, when we look at the saga’s description of Einar.

 ‘Einar was tall and ugly, and though one-eyed he was still the most clear-sighted of men’

This is undoubtedly a reference to the one-eyed, all-seeing, Odin, who sacrificed an eye in exchange for a drink from the waters of wisdom in Mímir's well.