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Ragnar Lothbrok (Ragnarr Loðbrók) is a name that everybody knows, the legendary Viking, the raider, the man protected by the Gods. But probably the most legendary and exceptional legacy that he left behind was his own blood, his children: The Sons of Ragnar Lothbrok.

Ragnar’s sons were feared and respected throughout Europe. They fought and raided as north as Scandinavia and as south as Italy. Whenever they worked together, they were unstoppable.

As with Ragnar, many legends surround these mighty brothers: Grandchildren of the legendary Sigurd? Boneless yet feared in battle? 

In this article series, we’ll dive into the story of the sons of Ragnar, a story of myth, war, vengeance, strategy and legend.


Context

We don’t have historical proof of Ragnar’s existence, as mentioned in Ragnar’s article. But we have plenty of testimonies about his sons in Norse and in Latin literature.

The main sources used for researching Ragnar’s sons are: “The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok” (Ragnars saga loðbrókar) and “The Tale of Ragnar’s sons” (Ragnarssona þáttr).

This being said, I try to complete the information that we have with other sources such as: “Gesta Danorum” or Sögubrot.

Nevertheless, whenever I find myself in a conflict between sources, I’ll tend to choose the Norse version because I study Norse literature and not Latin literature; and because, in my opinion, Norse sources are closer and less opinionated on Norsemen’s history and life.


Lagertha and Ubbi

We may find some references to characters that are not mentioned in Norse sources, such as Ubbi1. He is not mentioned in either  “The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok” nor in “The Tale of Ragnar’s sons”, our two main Norse sources of information for the Lothbrok family. But his name is mentioned in Saxo Grammaticus’ “Gesta Danorum” and in Sögubrot.

In Saxo’s literature, he’s mentioned as an illegitimate son of Ragnar but in Sögubrot he’s a fearless berserker, a great champion that fights for Sigurd Hring2 (Sigurðr Hringr), Ragnar’s father. The Latin “Historia de Sancto Cuthberto” claims that “Ubba Duke of the Frisians” (Ubba dux Frescionum) invaded England in 867 rather than Ivar The Boneless.

So we see how easy it is to have a historical debate about Ubbi. He may have been Ragnar’s son according to Saxo, but then, why wasn’t he mentioned in any of the two main Norse sagas? He may have been the great champion that slew many men in the Battle of Brávellir fighting alongside King Hring, but then, was he older than Ragnar, his alleged father?

This type of conflation happens often with Norse history due to the fact that Norsemen didn’t write on paper all their affairs, unless not until the Medieval age. And because of that, we find Latin sources giving information from a totally different optic that may not be accurate at all at depicting the reality of the Norse people and facts.

Another example of historical debate is the character known as Lagertha (the latinized form of Hlaðgerðr). She’s mentioned in Saxo’s “Gesta Danorum”, but never mentioned in any saga.

According to Saxo, they met in Norway, and Ragnar was so impressed by Lagertha’s fighting skills that he started courting her. He then had to kill a bear and a wolf in order to gain Lagertha’s hand in marriage. They had a son named Fridleif and two daughters whose names are unknown. Then he returned to Denmark, divorced Lagertha, and got married to Thora, and the story goes on.

In the sagas, Ragnar allegedly conquers Thora’s love when he was just 15 years old. This would mean that previous to that he would have had a marriage with Lagertha and three children. Again we find ourselves with a conflation.

It has been debated that Saxo’s inspiration for creating Lagertha was the goddess Thorgerdr (Þorgerðr Hölgabrúðr). Several passages of her story and even her name indicate parallelism between the shield maiden and the goddess that seem to indicate that Saxo created a goddess character to match a legend such as Ragnar.

I believe that Lagertha was worth mentioning as her story in “Gesta Danorum” is very interesting but, as specified before, I’m going to set my focus on Norse sources.

Sons of Thora

After slaying the serpent guarding Thora’s bower, Ragnar married her and had two sons: Eirek and Agnar.

They were tall, handsome and strong, skilled in sports and combat. When Thora died of sickness, Ragnar was heartbroken and couldn’t rule anymore, so his sons took over ruling for him.

Sons of Áslaug

During one of Ragnar’s expeditions in Norway, his men came upon Áslaug and, after putting her to the test, Ragnar married her.

Kråka, daughter of Sigurd by Mårten Eskil Winge
Kråka, daughter of Sigurd by Mårten Eskil Winge

They had several children: Ivar the Boneless, Björn Ironside, Hvitserk, Rognvald and Sigurd Snake-in-the-eye.

Ivar the Boneless (Ívarr hinn Beinlausi), a big, strong, handsome and very wise man. His nickname spikes controversy because of all its possible meanings3. The most accepted meaning is that he didn’t have bones or were malformed. This is why in most of the battle scenes where he appears he’s carried by his men on a platform of shields. Ivar usually was the decision-maker of all of them.

Björn Ironside (Björn Járnsíða) and Hvitserk (Hvítserkr, “White shirt”) were great warriors, feared by many, their names grew in legend from raids and battles.

King Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye (9th century)
King Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye (9th century)

Sigurd Snake-in-the-eye (Sigurðr ormr í auga) was born after Ragnar had negotiated with King Eystein of Sweden the marriage with his daughter. At that time, Áslaug was known as Kráka, and everyone thought she was from poor lineage. When she found out about this secret pact that Ragnar made with the Swedish king, she revealed him her true story and identity. She also had the premonition that the child that she was bearing would be born with a snake in his eye, commemorating her father’s great deed (Sigurd the Dragonslayer).

Sigurd was special, not only because of the snake in the eye but also because he was a gifted child that would grow into a great warrior and leader.

Continue reading

In this first part, we’ve covered who were the sons of Ragnar and we also delved into some historical controversy.

In Part 2, we’ll discover some amazing stories of war, sorcery, legend and battle.

Continue reading Part 2

References

  1. Often also referenced as Ubbe or Ubba.
  2. King Sigurd Hring, was one of the two main forces that clashed in one of the most epic battles recorded in a saga: the Battle of Brávellir. The other mighty leader was King Harald Wartooth, one of the most “Odinic” characters in all of Norse literature.
  3. Ívarr hinn Beinlausi, “boneless”, may have been the “brittle bone disease”, and most scholars accept this version. Others suggest that “boneless” means impotent, a quote from “The Tale of Ragnar’s sons” hints: “had no lust nor love in him”. Also, because “beinn” could also mean leg, “leg-less” could be a metaphor for a snake, “Ivar the Serpent” could have been. Also, in Norwegian folk tradition, “boneless” meant “wind”, so he could have been known as “The Navigator” or some similar term. Lastly, it may have been a mistranslation from Latin exodus (hateful) to exos (boneless), let’s remember that Ivar was known for hating Christians.

Sources


Riccardo Polacci

Riccardo Polacci

Software Developer with a passion for History, specifically Norse history, language and mythology.

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