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.
By these wives, Ragnar had at least eight sons – Ivar the Boneless, Bjorn Ironside, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye and Ubbe among their number. These offspring were just as warlike as Ragnar and – courtesy of their own escapades – ensured that their father’s name lived on long after he met his death.
Revenge in battle
That death, when it came, was every bit as dramatic as the life that preceded it. While on campaign in northern England, Ragnar, we’re told, was captured by Ælla, king of Northumbria. Ælla was hellbent on putting his Viking foe to death but found that no ordinary weapons could kill him, so he had Ragnar thrown into a snake-pit. But not even this grisly fate was enough to deflate the irrepressible Ragnar. With death approaching, the Viking warrior recalled with pleasure his greatest victories and savoured the prospect of feasting in Valhalla, the great hall for slain Viking warriors. More ominously for Ælla, he vowed to exact revenge on his killer – a promise that was followed through by his sons, who duly went on to conquer Northumbria and slay Ælla in battle.
It’s an enthralling story. But what makes it more tantalising still is the prospect that it might – just might – have been inspired by the exploits of a historical figure.
Some of the men described in medieval legend as “sons of Ragnar” were certainly real people. Ivar, Ubbe and Bjorn, among others, can be identified with Viking leaders who were active in France, Ireland and England in the second half of the ninth century.
A Viking warrior named Bjorn – probably the inspiration for Bjorn Ironside – is known to have been raiding in the area around the Seine in 857–59. Ivar and Ubbe were among the leaders of the so-called ‘Great Heathen Army’ that descended on England in 865, conquering Northumbria and defeating its kings, Osberht and Ælla, in a great battle at York in 867. In 869 they moved south and killed King Edmund of East Anglia. Many of their followers settled in northern and eastern England, while Ivar became ruler of a Viking kingdom that stretched across the Irish Sea, with strongholds in Dublin and York. It is recorded that Ivar died in Dublin in 873. As for Ubbe, he may have been killed in battle in Devon in 878.
The activities of these warriors are attested in contemporary sources of the ninth century. We can be confident that these men existed. But there’s a problem: we do not know exactly how they were related to one other, and none of the early sources tells us who their father was.
Although his ‘sons’ were real enough, the historical origins of Ragnar himself are much less clear. One candidate for the figure on whom Ragnar might be based is a Viking leader from Denmark named Reginheri, who attacked Paris in 845. Contemporary sources say that raid was especially ferocious, telling how Reginheri took many captives and had more than 100 executed. Soon afterwards Reginheri returned to Denmark, where he died. We know nothing more about him.
The stuff of legend
In fact, as the histories of this period were written, it was not Ragnar but his supposed sons who were at first the focus of chroniclers’ tales. Ivar, Ubbe and the rest were among the most successful warriors of the Viking age, and their conquests and battles swiftly became the stuff of legend. It was not until the second half of the 11th century – nearly 200 years after their deaths – that they began to be identified as “sons of Ragnar Lothbrok”. A Danish king called Lothbrok was first mentioned in around 1070 by the Norman historian William of Jumièges, who named him as the father of Bjorn Ironside. A few years later the chronicler Adam of Bremen identified Ivar, “cruellest of Norse warriors”, as another of Lothbrok’s sons.
This Lothbrok may originally have been a separate person from Ragnar, and the origin of the name has been heavily debated. The Icelandic scholar Ari Þorgilsson, writing between 1120 and 1133, was the first to record ‘Ragnar’ and ‘Lothbrok’ together, claiming it was “Ivar, son of Ragnar Lothbrok” who killed Edmund of East Anglia.
Whatever the historical origins of Ragnar Lothbrok, by the 12th century his legend was rapidly emerging from his sons’ shadows and appearing in sagas, chronicles and poems across the North Sea world. By this time, a complex and colourful web of tales had developed around him – far removed from any likely historical origins.
The fullest versions of the story – on which most modern iterations of the legends are based – are found in the Old Norse Ragnars saga Loðbrókar, written in Iceland in the 13th century, and the works of Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, writing between 1188 and 1208. Both mix earlier written sources with disparate oral legends to produce elaborate, lengthy, contradictory narratives. The tales of Ragnar’s three wives may be the result of an attempt to combine three separate legends about Ragnar.
These stories tell us much more about how the Vikings were perceived by later medieval audiences in Scandinavia than they do about historical ninth-century warriors. Saxo was interested in these men as ancestors of the kings of Denmark, while Icelandic historians were eager to draw attention to Scandinavian domination of the British Isles. As time went on, the legend continued to incorporate new aspects, and became linked to another of the most famous cycles of Norse legend, the tale of the Volsungs (now best-known as the story behind Wagner’s Ring Cycle).
But it wasn’t only in Scandinavia that Ragnar’s escapades found willing audiences. Around the same time, legends about this celebrated Viking warrior were being enjoyed by English audiences, too. Here, Lothbrok and his sons most often appeared in legends connected to the death of Edmund of East Anglia, one of the Anglo-Saxons’ most popular saints.
One 13th-century chronicle tells how Lothbrok was innocently hunting at sea when he was shipwrecked on the coast of Norfolk and brought to Edmund’s court. He and Edmund became close friends, provoking the jealousy of one of Edmund’s huntsmen. That huntsman murdered Lothbrok and then told Lothbrok’s sons that Edmund was to blame for the murder. This version of the legend attempts to provide Ivar and Ubbe with a motive for killing Edward, so implying that this wasn’t a mindless act of Viking brutality. It presents Lothbrok as a sympathetic character – very different from the fierce warrior of Norse tradition. Does this mean that some people in eastern England regarded ninth-century Danish invaders as ancestors, not enemies? We’ll probably never know, but it’s an intriguing possibility.
By the end of the medieval period, Ragnar’s name was familiar to people across Scandinavia and the British Isles. But it was in the 16th and 17th centuries – as scholars began to rediscover Old Norse and Old English texts, plus the work of Saxo Grammaticus – that the modern Ragnar was born. In 1636, the Danish scholar Ole Worm translated Krákumál, an Old Norse poem about Ragnar’s death, into Latin, and it quickly became popular with readers in Britain. Krákumál was usually known in English as ‘The Death-Song of Ragnar Lothbrok’, and for 17th-century readers it seemed to offer an exciting glimpse of a Viking culture imbued with savage, pagan glamour. It provided a romantic image of a heroic and fearless Viking: glorying in battle and bloodshed, eager to enter Valhalla and feast with the gods for eternity.
Worm’s translation inadvertently added another layer to the Viking legend. A poetic reference to a drinking horn – “the curved branches of [animal] skulls” – was misunderstood to imply that the Vikings drank from the skulls of their enemies. This arresting idea, though completely untrue, is still sometimes encountered today.
The popularity of the ‘Death Song’ meant that, by the 19th century, when the Vikings were hugely fashionable in Britain and America, Ragnar had become one of the best-known figures from Norse legend. Since then his story has been reimagined many times – in novels, Hollywood films and, most recently, in a popular TV series. Stories about Ragnar and his sons have been told for almost a thousand years, and even today new legends about these archetypal Viking warriors continue to be created.
Snakes, songs and shaggy breeches
Three of Ragnar Lothbrok’s greatest escapades
Love and poison
One of Ragnar’s adventures explains how he got the nickname ‘Lothbrok’ while winning Thora, one of his wives. Thora was the daughter of a powerful earl, and one day her father gave her a little snake as a present. She kept the snake as a pet, but it quickly grew into a huge, poisonous serpent that terrorised the neighbourhood.
Thora’s father swore that he would give his daughter in marriage to any man who could kill the serpent. Hearing this, Ragnar decided to fight the snake. To defend himself against its venom, he coated his legs in woolly breeches that were coated with tar, making them stiff and impenetrable. He fought and killed the serpent, and claimed Thora as his prize. As a result he became known as Lothbrok – ‘shaggy breeches’.
The vengeful sons
Ragnar was captured in battle by Ælla, king of Northumbria, who imprisoned him in a pit full of snakes. As the snakes fed on his body, Ragnar sang a song of courageous defiance, listing the battles he had won and looking forward to feasting in Valhalla after death: “Gladly shall I drink ale with the gods on the high benches. Hope of life is gone; laughing, I shall die!”
When Ragnar’s sons heard of his death, the legend says that their reactions revealed which of them was most dangerous. Sigurd cut himself with a knife without noticing the pain; Hvitserk, playing a game when the news came, squeezed a game-piece so tightly that his hand bled; but Ivar was able to master his shock enough to ask for every detail of his father’s death. He set out with his brothers to avenge their father, and conquered Northumbria.
A dragon-slayer’s daughter
On one occasion, as Ragnar was sailing along the coast of Norway, his men went to find food at a farm where an old peasant couple lived. The couple had a beautiful daughter, Kráka, and when the men told Ragnar about her, he ordered her to come and see him on his ship. But he tested her by setting impossible conditions: she must be neither naked nor clothed, neither hungry nor full, and neither alone nor with company.
Kráka thought hard about how to follow these commands, and worked out a solution to the riddle. She went to meet Ragnar covered only by a fishing net and her own long hair; after having tasted food, but not eaten it; and accompanied by a dog. Impressed, Ragnar married her, and in time he learned she was not really a peasant-girl – her real name was Aslaug, and she was the daughter of the famous dragon-slayer Sigurd the Volsung.
Eleanor Parker is the author of Dragon Lords: The History and Legends of Viking England (IB Tauris, June 2018).
This article was first published in the July 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine
Read more articles from BBC History Magazine about the Viking era at historyextra.com/period/viking