Ragnar Lothbrok, there are few characters in Norse literature that can be deemed as legendary as him. He represents the ultimate Viking, the legendary warrior that conquers and raids, the hero that slays monsters in the name of love, feared amongst men and blessed by the Gods.
The story of this mighty viking was such that it inspired local folktales, legends, songs, poems and even movies.
The more we dive into his legend, the more questions start to rise though. Was he real? Or was he a myth? Was he perhaps several historical characters merged into one legendary figure?
In this article we’ll dive into the life and undertakings of one of the most known Vikings, a man whose reputation preceded him and which ambition may have had him killed.
We’ll also try to shed light on some misconceptions that have been generated over the years about him and his family, and discover how many illustrious men are believed to be his descendents.
Most of what we know about Ragnar is due to three main Norse literature sources: “The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok” (Ragnars saga loðbrókar), “The Tale of Ragnar’s sons” (Ragnarssona þáttr) and “Krákumál”, a skaldic poem of Ragnar’s dying words.
We can confirm, date, complete or even sometimes invalidate what is told in these sources by also reading Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum, Sögubrot, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, etc.
Despite the fact that we don’t have a definitive proof that Ragnar existed, we find him in many historical testimonies: Frankish chronicles identify a viking called Reginheri sacking Paris in 845; Frankish king Charles the Bald gave land to a Raginarius in 840; and Irish chronicles record a major Norsemen invasion in 851 led by a Norse king named Ragnall.
It may be the case that these references are casual and that the figure of Ragnar Lothbrok has been created as a merging of all these legendary viking raiders.
The best description that I’ve found of the sources and veracity of Ragnar’s story is a quote by Ben Waggoner himself: “A dimly visible historical core, covered by a mass of folktales and legends”. A confirmation of this statement would be the fact that Áslaug, Ragnar’s second wife, is said to be the daughter of two of the most famous legends in northern Europe: Sigurd and Brunhild. Even if these legends existed, they would have lived 350 years before Áslaug.
This being said, the sagas were not seen and interpreted as folktales nor stories, and Ragnar Lothbrok was indeed a real legend for all the Norsemen.
We may not know with certitude which parts of the sagas and stories are true and which are folktales, but we do know that his and his family’s story is one of a kind, and shaped the minds and hearts of anyone that heard of it.
Ragnar was big, strong, handsome, fierce to his foes and generous to his men. As soon as he was old enough he got himself a warship and started raiding and making a huge name for himself.
Not far from his father’s kingdom, in Gautland, Earl Herrund had a daughter named Thora5, she excelled all other women in beauty. Herrund loved her greatly and frequently gave her many presents, one of these was a snake that grew so greatly that became a huge snake-monster surrounding Thora’s bower.
Nobody dared getting close to the snake nor the beautiful woman’s bower, and out of concern and fear, Herrund swore an oath that any man able to defeat the monster would have his daughter in marriage.
Soon after, Ragnar heard about the legend of the monstrous snake and Thora’s godly beauty. He soon started to plan his feat, had some shaggy clothes6 made and boiled in tar.
As soon as he arrived in Gautland, he rolled on the sand in order to add extra protection to his tar boiled shaggy clothes. He then proceeded to go alone to Thora’s bower, faced the monster with his mighty spear, and promptly killed it. Leaving the spearpoint in the reptile’s head. He turned while the serpent was still agonising and left.
When the Earl found the slayed creature lying with the spearpoint, he decided to gather all young men that would be able to perform such an heroic action, and since Ragnar’s shaft matched the spearpoint left behind, he was given Thora as a wife.
After getting married, they returned to Ragnar’s kingdom, in Denmark, and ruled it together. They had two children: Eirek and Agnar. They greatly loved each other but, sadly enough, Thora died of sickness, breaking Ragnar’s heart.
He was so heartbroken that he decided not to rule anymore and appointed other men to govern with his sons. He went back to what he was most famous for: being a Viking7.
Now, we can’t go further without briefly telling the story of Áslaug.
She was the daughter of legendaries Sigurðr and Brynhildr (Sigurd the Dragon-slayer and Brunhild the Shieldmaiden or Valkyrie8). Once her parents died, her foster father, Heimir, decided to hide her so that her parents’ enemies would not find and harm her.
Heimir hid the small child in a custom made harp, abandoned his lands and his wealth, and started traveling to protect the beloved child. At a certain point, he arrived at a small farm in Norway, where he was killed in his sleep by the two old treacherous farm owners that, when discovered the child, decided to keep her as their own.
They were very old and ugly, and Áslaug was the most beautiful child to ever be seen, so they shaved her hair, smeared it with tar and dressed her poorly and dirty. Kráka9 is how they called her, and she had lived with them ever since.
In one of Ragnar’s voyages and adventures, he docked in Norway near a farm. His men went to land to gather and cook food for their noble champion. When working at the farm, they noticed the beauty of Kráka, and reported back to Ragnar about their finding.
He didn’t believe it at first, so he sent another group of men to confirm if indeed she was as beautiful as his unsuccessful10 cooks claimed her to be. He told them that if it were true, they should tell her to meet him at the ship with the following conditions: “To be neither clad nor unclad, neither sated nor hungry, and for her not to come alone, yet no one may come with her”11.
When she presented herself to Ragnar, she was wearing a fishing net with her hair falling over her, she had tasted a leek so that she could have eaten but yet not be sated, and she was accompanied by a dog so that she wasn’t alone nor with someone.
Shortly after that, they parted together to Ragnar’s homeland and got married. They had a very loving and good marriage. During the first night of marriage, Ragnar wanted to lay with his new love but Kráka, whom he still didn’t know her true identity, said that she could not lay with him for the first three nights or the consequences may be a crippled son.
Their first son was Ivar the Boneless (Ívarr hinn Beinlausi), clearly Ragnar didn’t wait three nights, then they had Bjorn Ironside (Björn Járnsíða), Hvitserk (Hvítserkr, “White shirt”) and finally Rognvald (Rögnvaldr).
During a feast-visit in Sweden, at King Eystein’s hall, Ragnar is offered the king’s daughter in marriage because everybody knew that Kráka didn’t have a lineage worthy of a king such as Ragnar. He agreed that he would marry her but first he returned to his kingdom, where his wife awaited him.
Even though this deal should have been secret, Kráka knew about it. She claimed that birds told her about what happened in Sweden. When she confronted him, he explained why he had to strike this deal, little did he know that his wife was actually the daughter of the mightiest of Norse legends. But, when she told him the truth about her identity, that she wasn’t Kráka but rather Áslaug, daughter of the great Sigurd Dragon-slayer and Brunhild the Valkyrie, he didn’t believe her. So she made a premonition: the child that she was bearing would be a boy with the mark of a snake in his eyes. If this premonition didn’t come true, he could go wherever he pleased, but if it were to come true, the child should be called Sigurd, after both of his grandfathers.
This is how their fourth child was born, Sigurd Snake-in-the-eye (Sigurðr ormr í auga), a great warrior.
Even though this article is exclusively about Ragnar, it’s worth mentioning how his sons gained more and more fame by doing exactly what he was famous for: raiding.
Rognvald died during a raid with his brothers. Eirek and Agnar died invading Sweden and were avenged by the rest of the brothers. Ivar, Bjorn, Hvitserk and Sigurd continued raiding all over Europe, one of the most known raids was the one in Italy, at Luna.
Fearing that his fame could be eclipsed by his sons, he decided to attempt an impossible raid in England. Instead of sailing with several longboats, he decided to sail with two transportation boats, bigger and less suitable for the Denmark-England voyage, the risk of shipwreck was very high.
When his beloved wife found out of his plans, she urged him to reconsider, to bring more men and use longships instead, but of course he refused such things for the deed would not be as great. After Ragnar’s stubbornness, she gave him as a present a long shirt, this wasn’t any normal clothing item, this was a protection shirt blessed by the Gods. Wearing this long shirt would make Ragnar immune to wounds and weapons. He wore it and departed.
Of course both his ships wrecked but, at least, all of his men survived. They advanced towards Northumbria, King Ælla’s kingdom. They fought bravely but, due to the reduced number of the norse expedition, they lost every single man. Ragnar, on the other hand, was invincible. Armed with the same spear that slew the serpent of his beloved Thora many years ago, and wearing the magic long shirt from his now wife and love Áslaug, he fought many men at once but none could harm him. Nevertheless, due to the fact that he was the last man standing, after slaying countless men, he was captured.
King Ælla was worried, he told his men before battle to avoid slaying a viking called Ragnar Lothbrok, because of what his sons could do to avenge him. And when he was captured they didn’t really know who he was, but they suspected. In order to find out, they decided to torture him by throwing him in a snake pit until confession.
He stayed in that pit for a long time and no snake harmed him. Ælla’s men admired and feared this mighty man, nor weapons nor snakes could pierce him. Ælla was less impressionable. He ordered the men to strip the viking from his clothes, and as soon as they did this the reptiles launched at him, injecting their lethal venom.
During his dying moments, it’s said that he recited a poem, Krákumál, and out of his last words a famous sentence stands out, a premonition, a threat, almost a certainty that Ælla’s suffering and downfall would come from his sons’ raging pagan axes:
“Gnyðja mundu nú grísir, ef þeir vissi, hvat inn gamli þyldi”“How the piglets would grunt now, if they knew about the old boar’s condition”
After pronouncing his final words, he died and was carried out of the pit.
Hearing these verses, King Ælla realised that this mighty man was indeed the legendary Viking, Ragnar Lothbrok, and he knew what his sons were capable of. The king’s fate was doomed from the moment the poison entered Odin’s warrior, but this part of the story will be told when we’ll tell about Ragnar’s sons and their mighty deeds.
Many claim to descend from Ragnar Lothbrok.
Genealogists even traced Queen Victoria’s lineage to Ragnar.
Some distinguished Icelandic families claimed in Landnámabók (Icelanders book of Settlers) to also be Ragnar’s descendents, through his son Bjorn Ironside. One of these families is the Oddaverjar, which included the famous Snorri Sturlusson himself.
Another famous descendant is Thorfinn Karlsefni, one of the most notorious explorers.
The daughter of Sigurd Snake-in-the-eye, Ragnhild, was the mother of King Harald Fairhair, first sole ruler of all Norway.
Amongst other great descendants we find Olaf the Red, and many other kings and chieftains.
Something that fascinates me about Ragnar Lothbrok is the fact that his story makes me feel like walking on tightrope. The balance between myth and truth is sometimes so fragile that I may be reading a true story, a true event or a legend passed down through generations of oral storytelling traditions.
The uncertainty of what’s historical and what’s myth is what hooked me into learning more about this character that shaped the world’s understanding of what a great Viking should be. His legend survived and even grew bigger through his children, and everybody that could remotely be a descendant of his and claimed to be so.
He embodies courage, strength, might, love and justice. But he also represents more human-earthy treats like vengeance, ambition and carelessness.
There is historical proof that the sons of Ragnar existed. And I believe that whoever might have been the historically real father of the so-called “Sons of Ragnar”, he could not have been an average Ragnar, he must have been a mighty man in order to produce such mighty and legendary sons.
Whomever the real Ragnar might have been, I’m sure that in all the minds of the Norse Ragnarr Loðbrók is now sitting next to Óðinn in Valhöll, getting ready for Ragnarök.
- In this article I will be focusing as much as possible on Ragnar, the story of Ragnar’s Sons will be told in a new article that will follow this one. ↑
- Loðbrók means “shaggy pants” or “shaggy breeches”. Also, I reference him as Lothbrok, rather than Lodbrok. Both are correct, but I prefer the term Lothbrok because the ð in ON is pronounced as th in the English word father. So I rather stick to the version that’s closest to the ON pronunciation. ↑
- He was one of the two kings faced in one of the most legendary battles ever to be told in Norse literature: Battle of Brávellir. A battle between King Sigurðr Hringr and his uncle King Harald Wartooth (Haraldr hilditönn). It’s almost like Ragnarök on Earth. ↑
- Following on the reference 1. I here use the d for the English version of Sigurðr, as instead of th. Contrarily to Loðbrók, Sigurðr by convention has always been translated as Sigurd. ↑
- Þóra Borgarhjörtr, Thora “Town-Hart” or “Fortress-Hart”. Hart is an archaic word for stag. She had this nickname because the stag excels over all other animals the same way she excels over all other women. ↑
- Ragnar started to be known by his nickname after wearing these clothes. ↑
- Víkingr, ON for Viking, was a term that didn’t include all Norsemen, contrary to what many misconceptions want to make us believe. It rather was a term reserved for raiders and pirates. In some instances, it even had negative connotations, referring to pirates, for example. In Ragnar’s case, it’s referred to his raiding activities, therefore admired for his courage and warrior’s skills. ↑
- Sigurd and Brunhild are one of the most famous folktales in Northern Europe. The story of Sigurd slaying the Dragon and falling in love with Brunhild is found in a plethora of Scandinavian and Germanic sources. “The Poetic Edda” and “Völsunga saga” are the main Norse sources for learning the story of these two heroes. ↑
- Literally means Crow. ↑
- Ragnar’s cooks asked to work in the farm, and while cooking they burnt the food. They were distracted by Kráka’s beauty. ↑
- Translation from B. Waggoner. Book in sources section. ↑
- The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok (Ragnars saga loðbrókar)
- The Tale of Ragnar’s sons (Ragnarssona þáttr)
- B. Waggoner, 2009, “The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok”