Ragnar Lothbrok: the immortal Viking

He butchered serpents, pillaged on an epic scale, laughed in the face of death – and, in doing so, helped forge the modern ideal of the archetypal Viking warrior. Eleanor Parker tells the story of the ultimate Norse legend: Ragnar Lothbrok

Ragnar Lothbrok. (Illustration by Georgie Gozem for BBC History Magazine)

Consider the quintessential Norse warrior – the fearsome raider, the merciless foe, the ale-swilling pagan who laughed in the face of death – and the chances are you’re thinking about Ragnar Lothbrok. Ragnar’s adventures read like they’ve been plucked from a Hollywood blockbuster. The son of a king of Denmark and Sweden, he fought giant snakes, led armies into battle, conquered vast swathes of Scandinavia, and terrorised the unsuspecting people of the British Isles.

Many, if not all, of Ragnar’s adventures are mythical – the product of Norse chroniclers’ vivid imaginations. But that didn’t stop them casting a long shadow over northern Europe during the Viking age. And, courtesy of everything from epic medieval poems and death songs to the blockbuster TV series Vikings – they’ve continued to do so for more than a thousand years.

For pure drama, Ragnar’s story takes some beating. Even his three wives were extraordinary characters. One was Thora, whom Ragnar wooed by killing a ferocious serpent. Another was Lathgertha, a mighty warrior who fought alongside her husband in battle. And the other was Aslaug, daughter of Sigurd the Volsung and the shield-maiden Brynhild, themselves two of the most celebrated lovers in Norse literature.

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