In this second article, we’ll cover tales of battles, vengeance, sorcery and legend.
Even before Sigurd was born, his brothers were already seeking fame for themselves. As a matter of fact, while Ivar was discussing with Björn and Hvitserk, he decided that they should stop living under Ragnar’s shadow and asked his father for ships and crews.
The brothers then started raiding and, wherever they went, their fame, loot and host grew. Victory was the only thing they knew, so much so that Ivar proposed to look for a target that was more powerful than the previous ones so that the opposition would be more challenging and the glory of conquering greater.
They were told of a place called Hvitabaer1, that “many have attempted to conquer it, and none have gained victory”, even Ragnar had tried and failed. After hearing all these stories, Ivar wondered if the town’s forces were that large or if there was any other obstacle. He got an unexpected answer: they had two powerful bulls, no man could withstand their bellowing, filled with dreadful magic power2.
Ivar didn’t need to hear more, he wanted to face that sorcery and defeat it. So they set course to Hvitabaer.
Once they arrived, they told Rognvald, the youngest of all, to stay with the ships and guard them. Before attacking, Ivar explained to the men the sorcery that they were about to face and said: “Stand against them as best as you can, even if they frighten you- and you will not be thought less of, if so”3.
While they were approaching the town, the powerful bulls were unleashed causing havoc and panic, as soon as Ivar saw that, asked his men to fetch him his bow. He then quickly shot both bulls and killed them promptly, the threat was neutralised, and the real battle began.
Meanwhile, Rognvald was growing impatient and decided to go with his men into battle, disobeying his brothers’ orders. He thought that they wanted the glory for themselves. Rognvald and his men charged fiercely but soon enough, he was killed.
The surviving brothers broke into the town and the battle renewed. The townsmen fled and were chased by the Norsemen. The town was looted and burnt to the ground; the walls were torn down. The Vikings sailed away leaving a razed landscape behind them.
Some time after Sigurd Snake-in-the-eye was born, his step brothers Eirek and Agnar decided to raid the Swedes.
There are two versions of the reason behind this raid: in “The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok”, King Eystein and Ragnar break their relationship because the latter didn’t go to an agreed feast at Uppsala. Also the fact that he stayed married to Áslaug and didn’t finally marry Ingibjorg (King Eystein’s daughter) as promised didn’t help in their relationship either.
Due to the two rulers falling out, the brothers decided to raid Sweden.
On the other hand, in “The Tale of Ragnar’s sons”, Ragnar doesn’t like the fact that his sons set themselves in his tribute-paying lands, and thus called King Eystein to take care and defend his kingdom (that included Sweden at that time) from his sons.
In a summer that Ragnar was raiding in the Baltic, Eirek and Agnar went to Sweden and told King Eystein to rule under them instead of Ragnar, and also that Eirek would marry his daughter. King Eystein and his chieftains decided not to betray Ragnar and defend the land against his sons and thus summoned a huge army.
Except for the reasoning, both sources are pretty much aligned with what happened in Sweden. King Eystein summoned a huge army to face Eirek and Agnar and camped in a forest bringing with them Sibilja, the mightiest of cows. This cow received sacrifices, increasing her power with each one of them. Her bellowing was so powerful and full of dark magic that enemies would lose their minds and fight each other.
When the sons of Ragnar faced the army, they thought themselves lucky, the forces were even. They charged into battle when, suddenly, the rest of King Eystein’s army appeared from the forest with Sibilja charging in the lead. The strategy was successful, the king had his forces divided and had only shown a small portion of his army at the beginning, boosting the brothers’ morale, as soon as they attacked boldly he displayed the might of his entire army.
The confusion was total, the cow was bellowing and the men were running frightened and even, in some instances, fighting each other out of pure terror. The creature tore apart many men with her horns. Amongst all this confusion, blood, terror and fear, two men stand out, fighting in the forefront and breaking through King Eystein’s army lines: Eirek and Agnar. It seemed that Sibilja had no effect on them, mighty as they were.
Despite their bravery and combat skills, they couldn’t overcome the overwhelming numbers and sorcery of the king’s army and were defeated. Agnar died in battle, his brother saw it and bore himself with bravery and carelessness, fighting his way through. But, after being surrounded by many men, he was captured.
King Eystein ordered the battle to stop and offered safe conduct to Eirek along with riches and her daughter in marriage.
He accepted safe conduct for his men but didn’t accept any of these terms for himself, as instead, he asked to choose his way of dying. King Eystein tried to persuade him otherwise, but in the end, he agreed to Eirek’s request.
The son of Ragnar asked to stick as many spears as possible in the ground so that he could lay on the spearheads, elevated over the fallen. And so it was done. He gave his ring to one of his men and spoke final verses about how he would prefer to die rather than take his brother’s blood-money, and how Áslaug’s fury would spur the biggest vengeance upon the Swedes when she talks to Ragnar’s sons about what happened there. He then laid down his life with great courage, high above the slain.
Back in Denmark, the messengers arrived bearing Eirek’s ring and final verses. At that time, Ragnar and his sons were raiding, but Áslaug was there with three-year-old Sigurd.
She heard the sad news from the messengers, and it is said that she cried her first and only tear. She swore that as soon as Ragnar or his sons returned from their expeditions, vengeance would be done.
The first ones to return were the mighty brothers. They told her about Rognvald falling in one of their raids, but this didn’t seem to upset her. She said that he couldn’t have lived for greater glory than dying how he did.
Áslaug then updated the sons with the news from Sweden, she was deeply enraged by what had happened, how these two mighty warriors fell. She urged the brothers to prepare for a terrible vengeance.
The reason why she was so upset about Eirek and Agnar and not that much about Rognvald is not clear. Probably because the first two were very valuable and renown warriors, and were defeated by sorcery and not pure skill or bravery.
Nevertheless, the first brother to speak was Ivar, and he refused to risk going to Sweden and fight the sorcery of Sibilja, for that sorcery was more powerful and evil than any other they may have ever faced.
When Áslaug was leaving after failing in convincing the brothers, Sigurd Snake-in-the-eye spoke verses of vengeance and victory. This speech inspired the rest of the brothers, so much so that they started planning the invasion right away.
A great host was summoned by all the brothers, including Sigurd (his foster father took care of it for him). Even Áslaug assembled a great force and changed her name to Randalin, her war name.
Once the great army arrived in Sweden, they advanced, burning every house and building that they found, slaying any living thing across their path. Few men survived and told King Eystein, that, as soon as he heard the news, knew exactly who these invaders were. The king then summoned the biggest force that we could and confronted Randalin and Ragnar’s sons right away.
Sibilja led the charge. Ivar then commanded all the men to clash their weapons and shields, to roar, to shout battle cries. But when they advanced more, Sibilja’s bellowing was so loud and her magic so powerful that it was like if the men were standing still in silence. The terror and confusion started spreading, making every man wanting to fight each other. All were affected, except for the brothers, that stood their ground.
Before the battle, Ivar ordered a big tree to be cut and made into a bow, with huge arrows along with it. No man thought this bow could be drawn. He ordered his men to take him close to the wicked beast and then drew the bow as if it was a normal one. He drew it so much that the tips of the arrows were behind the bow itself. He then released. The noise was loud. The arrows flew in a straight line, faster than any arrow shot from the strongest crossbow.
The arrows pierced Sibilja’s eyes. She fell and tumbled, bellowing harder than ever. She then charged fiercely at them but Ivar, brave as he was, ordered his men to launch him on top of her. And so they did. When they launched him, his weight seemed like that of a child. He flew a great distance landing on top of the beast. When he landed, his weight was like a boulder falling off a mountain. Sibilja’s bones crashed, and she died.
After this, Ivar ordered his men to lift him up and he then spoke to his men, with such a strong voice that everyone could hear him as if he was standing next to them. He harangued his men into battle, asking them to do their worst to their enemies.
The battle was fierce, Björn and Hvitserk advanced with such power and rage that no man was left standing after they were through. King Eystein was slain, and the brothers granted truce to the survivors.
After achieving victory, they left that razed land behind them and returned home.
In this second part, we’ve discovered how cunning and ambitious the Ragnarssons were, and how mighty their vengeance can be. But this is nothing compared to what we’re about to see.
In Part 3, the most epic battles, vengeance plans and raids will be unveiled.
- May have been Whitby in Northumbria (England), was attacked in 867 by Vikings, or may have been Vitaby in Sweden. ↑
- Supernatural cows are common in Norse culture. We find these creatures in many Norse sagas, even in Norse mythology, the cow Auðumbla is the one that feeds the giant Ymir. Bronze Age rock carvings of venerated cows may suggest that there is a past of sacred cattle that endured in the form of these supernatural cows that we find often in the sagas. ↑
- Jackson Crawford’s literal translation. ↑
- The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok (Ragnars saga loðbrókar)
- The Tale of Ragnar’s sons (Ragnarssona þáttr)
- B. Waggoner, 2009, “The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok”
- J. Crawford, 2017, “The Saga of the Volsungs with The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok”