(Originally Published 23 December 2014)
With recent attention turned to the use of torture for information gathering purposes sanctioned by the United States Government, I’ve had to discuss torture as a common practice among cultures where “honor” was a highly prized value. Specifically, I am reminded of the prevalence of torture among American Indians and the “blood eagle” among the Norse.
What I find is that these tribes did not use torture as a means to gather information or any advantage in war. We don’t find records of prisoners in Indian hands being questioned or being told that their torture would end once they cooperated. We do find records of men and women being tortured and treated very harshly for years only to be accepted as full members of the tribe at some future point.
An Indian warrior living among the tribes of the American Southwest and the American Northeast, where torture seems to have been most prevalent, expected to be tortured if taken prisoner, just as his foes knew to expect torture at his hands if they fell into them. The purpose of this torture seems to have been twofold. On one hand, it served as a simple act of revenge and was often accomplished by women who had lost husbands and sons to the enemy.
Secondly, it tested the warrior’s mettle, possibly for the last time, and gave him a chance to prove his toughness, his spirit, and his honor. There are stories of great torture lasting for days wherein the victim did not cry out. This was seen as a great show of courage even among enemies. It was also apparently common for a victim who did cry out to be killed immediately, provided he had suffered in silence a sufficient time. White soldiers often began crying out immediately under torture and those cries were ignored.
In this cultural context, one sees torture used as part of an honor system where an enemy is provided a chance to prove he is strong and brave, and any need for revenge can also be satisfied. It was expected that both of these values were respected by all parties to the conflict.
What we do not see is instances of one tribe torturing prisoners while crying out that the other tribe is monstrous for its treatment of captives. Suffering for personal glory and the well being of the tribe is a warrior’s lot and the routine torture of prisoners is seen as a part of this.
The Norse Rite of the Blood Eagle was not such a part of a shared set of values. The blood eagle may have been a form of execution where a prisoner had his back cut open, his ribs hacked from his spine, and his lungs pulled out. In truth, we do not know what was meant when the Skalds reported that an eagle was cut on or in a man’s back, but this is the popular image, based on a description in the ORKNEYINGA SAGA.
To my knowledge, there are no human remains that suggest they were the victim of this rite as so described and earlier sources suggest it may have been so simple as carving the picture of an eagle on the victim’s back.
The most recent pop culture exploration of the blood eagle was in The History Channel’s VIKINGS, where Ragnar Hairy Pants (That IS what Lothbrok means. Kinda takes some of the grandeur out of it, huh?) inflicted this punishment on his enemy. What seems to have caught the public’s imagination most was Ragnar’s explanation that if the victim suffered in silence, he would prove he was worthy of Valhalla.
This, Gentle Reader, is good entertainment, but the sagas make no mention of such an aspect to the rite.
It was an execution or the prelude to an execution, pure and simple.
The Rite of the Blood Eagle (whatever it was) seems to have had only one objective; the painful death of an enemy. Ivarr the Boneless inflicts this death on his father’s slayer. Torf-Einarr inflicted this death on his enemy Halfdan Long Legs.
Neither are being honored in any respect. Nor are either of them being questioned. Neither has a chance to end their suffering with a confession or a vital piece of disclosure.
These are important distinctions when considering torture among those cultures and in our own.