Centre for Medieval Studies Lecture Series

Luke John Murphy

An Anatomy of the Blood Eagle

The Anatomical and Sociocultural Limits of Viking Torture

Thursday, January 23, 2020, at 16.30
Lögberg 101

Luke John Murphy

The infamous blood eagle ritual has long been controversial: did Viking-Age Nordic people really torture one another to death by severing each others’ 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 presentation, I will present the results of a collaborate research project that analysed medieval descriptions of the ritual in the light of modern anatomical knowledge. I hope to 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. On the basis of these discourses, I will present our conclusions 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 consider archaeological evidence of “deviant burials”, suggesting 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.

Luke John Murphy completed his Ph.D. at Aarhus University in spring 2017, held a Bernadotte Post-Doctoral Fellowship at Stockholm University in autumn 2017, and was a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Leicester 2018–2019. He is currently a Postdoctoral Researcher in Archaeology at the University of Iceland, working on early medieval religion and ritual. His research interests include ritual objects, religious and cultural transition, and method and theory in the study of Pre-Christian religions.

The talk will be delivered in English. All are welcome to attend.