During the Viking Age (793-1066 AD), Norsemen, chiefly from modern-day Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, pillaged, raided, conquered, and settled many areas of Europe. The sight of Viking longships looming over the horizon struck terror into generations of non-Viking people. They were known for their ruthlessness and brutality and were fighters of such renown that even the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople employed them in his elite Varangian Guard.
But what were these Norsemen like back on their home turf? Did they have law and order? How did they punish criminals?
In medieval Scandinavia, the community would meet at the ‘Thing’, a legislative assembly and court where disputes would be settled and penalties handed down.
Many cases were settled by arbitration, fines, or simply being told to clear off from the settlement and live in the wilds - known as ‘outlawry’ this wasn’t terribly good for your health and any citizen was free to kill you on sight!
But in other respects, their methods of legal retribution were bloodthirsty and callous, but also creative at times. Here are six of the most unpleasant Viking punishments, in order of severity.
Holy Cow! - Viking Rodeo
If you were an early medieval Norseman and someone insulted your wife, what sort of legal penalty could you have expected the offending party to suffer? Why, punishment at your own hand, of course. A common method of formal dispute resolution was a duel, called a ‘holmgang’.
In Sweden and Denmark, a man in a duel didn’t always have the option of just meekly surrendering or losing by spilling his blood first and walking away. Often his opponent would want deadly justice anyway. But there was one way the craven chap could get out of the scrape with his life...a cow rodeo.
A cow was brought into the arena where the fight had just taken place. Its tail was then shaved and covered in grease. The man’s shoes were also heavily greased and the cow was flogged and prodded to make it angry. The rodeo began when the man pulled on the cow’s tail, setting it off charging around and thrashing about like a firework. If the man can keep hold of the cow’s tail for a specified length of time, he had passed the test and was allowed to live. As an added bonus he was also allowed to keep the cow. Lucky guy.
Downtime - Tarring and Feathering
According to Sweden’s Bjarkey laws, which some scholars think may date back as far as 832, a man stealing on ‘trading journeys’ was made to suffer tarring and feathering. His head was shaved and covered in tar, then duck feathers chucked on top. The other traders then stood in two long parallel lines facing inwards.
The poor bloke covered in feathers was forced to run between the men who would shower him with stones and bricks. Anyone not throwing an object at the feathery fellow was liable to be fined. If the thief made it through the gauntlet without dying, he endured no further punishment.
Caught Red-Handed - Ordeal by Fire
One method of punishment in the later Viking times, which spread alongside Scandinavia’s conversion to Christianity, was the ominously named ‘Ordeal’. It could be a trial by drowning, eating, or fire.
If the prisoner survived the punishment it was taken to mean that God had judged them innocent and intervened to save them. If the ordeal resulted in death, the deceased was considered guilty and therefore got their just desserts.
Ordeal by fire involved the prisoner undergoing some sort of extremely painful exposure to heat. They might be asked to plunge their hand into a vat of boiling water or oil, walk across hot coals, or carry a red-hot iron for a certain number of steps.
How Enthralling - Slavery
Slaves, aka 'thralls', in Viking lands were either captives taken in war, domestic criminals, or those working off a debt. They were hugely important commodities to the Viking economy, with a slave network stretching from Ireland all the way to Russia.
Slavery was often used as a penalty for a variety of Viking domestic offences, too. A woman convicted of theft, for example, could be forced to be the thrall of her victim. To be a Viking and be forced into slavery for a debt or crime was by no means a light punishment. Thralls had virtually no rights and their masters could beat and abuse them with impunity.
If a male thrall refused to work for his creditor and no other solution was found at the Thing, the master was allowed to maim the thrall on his upper or lower body, or simply kill him. Thralls would typically share living space with domestic animals and livestock.
For many who served high-born masters, their punishment was seemingly never-ending, their masters needed someone to wait on them in the afterlife, so they often had one or two slaves buried with them. In parts of Viking Eastern Europe, one custom was for an ageing woman, known as the ‘Angel of Death’, to kill the master’s slave girls. Inside a makeshift tent at the funeral site, a couple of men would throttle the girl while the old woman thrust a blade into her heart, the victim was then taken to be interred with her boss.
Ear We Go Again - Amputation
In Viking societies, punishment was often dependent on status. Thralls were punished more harshly than free men, although if a thrall carried out a robbery at their master’s command, it was the master that was punished instead.
Various forms of mutilation were used from time to time and place to place, as a means of severe punishment.
Cnut, the famed Danish king of England from 1016-1035, enacted a grim law that died with him. It stipulated that a woman committing adultery must lose her nose and ears, while men were merely chastised.
The Grey Goose Laws of early medieval Iceland asserted that a thrall who’d killed their master and then tried to run away was to have their arms and legs cut off. They were allowed to live, spending the rest of their days crawling about everywhere to serve as a moving warning sign to others.
A Real Rib-Tickler - The Blood Eagle
If a crime was serious enough to warrant the death penalty among Vikings, then the guilty party would most likely be beheaded.
One extremely gruesome method of Viking execution is the stuff of legend, said to be a uniquely bloody form of punishment reserved as a vengeance by sons on their father’s killers.
This is the dreaded ‘blood eagle’, or ‘blood-red eagle’.
In 867, Ælla, King of Northumbria was said to have received the blood eagle punishment by Ivar the Boneless, revenge for the execution of Ivar’s father, Ragnar Lodbrok.
The condemned man’s back would be cut open, his ribs sawn and pulled out to create an aquiline shape. The murdered man’s son would then plunge his own hands through the bloodied eagle-shaped ribs and rip out the lungs.
According to some mythic depictions, the victim was suspended between two trees by his hands and hoisted up. The skin from the back would be pulled to the sides to resemble a pair of wings.