When The World Isn’t Enough: The Life And Legends Of The Viking Ragnar Lothbrok

More myth than man, Ragnar Rothbrok is considered to be a hero of Viking legend, regardless that his actual existence has been under debate by scholars for generations. Nevertheless, Ragnar is remembered by history as one that successfully raided the British Isles, the Holy Roman Empire, became a king to his people, and changed the continent of Europe forever. So, draw your sword, raise your shield, and charge into history to learn about a man who was so fascinating that his name has withstood the test of time, even if he never existed.

He Had Many Wives And Sons

Ragnar and his sons
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According to the legends, over the course of Ragnar’s life, he had three wives which included a noblewoman named Thora Borgarhjotr, the Norse queen Aslaug, and Lagertha. With his various wives, Ragnar fathered numerous sons such as Ivar the Boneless, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, Bjorn Ironside, Ubbe, and possibly others.

While history has proven that many of these men did exist, historians are unsure who their fathers may actually be if Ragnar himself is considered to be more of a myth than a man.

He Was Betrayed By One Of His Sons

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Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Although Ragnar had three different wives, not all of his sons came out of marriage. At one point, he had an affair with the young daughter of a fellow Viking named Esbjørn who gave birth to their son named Ubbe.

According to legend, when Ubbe was a man, he and Esbjørn rose up in rebellion against Ragnar, and Ragnar was forced to fight against his own son’s forces to bring an end to the uprising. Nonetheless, Ubbe was a real person and was one of the Vikings that led the Great Heathen Army against England.

Not The Greatest Of Fathers

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Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Although many of Ragnar Lothbrok’s sons gained reputations of their own that almost rivaled their father’s, that doesn’t mean that Ragnar was the most loving of fathers. One of the oldest surviving texts about Ragnar comes from William of Jumieges, of Normandy.

William explains that many Danish kings would exile their sons away to ensure they wouldn’t attempt to overthrow them. He describes how he did this to his son Bjorn. Upon leaving his father’s kingdom, Bjorn set off raiding across Europe on his own, even making his way to the Mediterranean.

The Immortal Man

Drawing of viking ships
The Print Collector via Getty Images
The Print Collector via Getty Images

Considering that so many ancient texts and legends about Ragnar claim that he was immortal, modern historians believe that he could be the combination of multiple men.

This is most likely because the man that was supposedly Ragnar suffered terrible fates on more than one occasion, and it’s unlikely that he survived any of them. In one tale, Ragnar sailed a fleet of 120 ships to Paris where there was an outbreak of dysentery that killed him. However, this is unlikely.

The Myth Of The Second Wife

Ragnar and Kráka
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When Lothbrok took his second wife, something that wasn’t uncommon in Danish culture, it was a bit of an odd situation. While sailing on the coasts of Norway, his men reported that they had spotted the beautiful peasant of a daughter. Instead of taking her in normal Viking fashion, he sent a message to the girl named Kráka to meet him in the form of a riddle.

He instructed her to come undressed nor clothes fed nor hungry, and neither alone nor with someone else. Kráka appeared on the ship was a fishing net and her own hair covering her body, a bite of food in her out, and a dog at her side. It was love at first sight for Ragnar.

Not Whom She Appeared To Be

Man slaying dragon
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

While Ragnar’s men claimed that Kráka was the daughter of a peasant, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Upon marrying Kráka, Ragnar learned that she was an Aslaug, and was the daughter of a legendary dragon slayer named Sigurd the Volsung.

Apparently, Aslaug also had the gift of “sight” and could foresee the future. At one point, she predicted that their son would be born with the mark of a dragon’s eyes, that he would be deformed, and that Ragnar’s invasion of England would result in defeat.

How He Might Have Actually Died

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In the text, the Gesta Danorum, written by the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus in 1185, Ragnar was a 9th-century Danish king. He eventually went to war with the Holy Roman emperor at the time, Charlemagne.

However, according to the story, he was eventually captured by the Ango-Saxon king Aella of North Umbria and thrown into a pit of poisonous snakes. The same account was recorded in the Icelandic works Ragnars saga loðbrókar and Þáttr af Ragnarssonum.

It’s Unlikely He Ever Met Rollo

Rollo as a knight
Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images
Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images

Although in the popular History Channel show Vikings, Ragnar Lothbrok is brothers to another Viking named Rollo, this is likely highly historically inaccurate, and while Ragnar is considered more of a legend than a man, Rollo is based in history.

Rollo was born in Scandinavia around 845, participated in raids in the Kingdom of West Francia, and eventually became the first ruler of Normandy. However, it’s almost sure he wasn’t related to Ragnar, and the two likely never even met as Ragnar was most likely 25 years older than Rollo.

He Commanded The Great Heathen Army

Illustration of the Siege of Paris
Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images
Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images

In his prime, Ragnar Lothbrok was the commander of the Great Heathen Army, a coalition of Scandinavian warriors, although the majority of them were Danish. Aside from the typical raiding and pillaging they did, Ragnar set his sights on other, more distant parts of Europe for wealth and glory.

In 845, Ragnar and his army lay siege on Paris, where they demanded thousands of pounds of gold and silver as ransom. With no other choice, King Charles the Bald was forced to pay the ransom to get the army to leave his lands.

The Meaning Behind The Nickname “Lothbrok”

Ragnar and the serpent
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Legend has it that the name “Lothbrok” wasn’t one that he was born with but earned when trying to win over the heart of his first wife, Thora. A powerful earl, when Thora was a little girl, her father gave her a snake as a gift. Yet, the snake turned into a large and poisonous serpent.

So, her father swore he would give his daughter’s hand in marriage to any man that could kill the beast. Ragnar volunteered and coated his breeches with tar to make them still and impenetrable to the serpent. His plan worked; he killed the serpent, married Thora, and was given the name Lothbrok which means “shaggy breeches”.

His Sons Avenged His Death

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ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

It is reported that moments before his death, Ragnar uttered, “How the little piglets will grunt when they hear the old boar suffers,” and he was right. Ragnar’s sons returned to England with the Great Heathen Army with a vengeance. They ensured the death of the East Anglian king Edmund the Martyr and began heavily raiding the East Anglia, eventually torturing King Aella to death, the man that killed their father.

The Heathen Army made its way through England, and eventually parts of France. There’s little doubt that the Viking presence during this time had an impact on European culture that we know today.

He’s A Common Name In Modern Popular Culture

Ragnar in Vikings
BBC
BBC

Considering Ragnar’s legendary and often embellished life, it’s not surprising that many have written about his ambition and actions. He has been the center of countless novels such as Sea Kings by Edward Atherstone and Sword of Ganelon by Richard Parker.

Films have also been made about his accomplishments such as The Vikings, 1958, with BBC also devoting almost an entire show to his life Vikings, which follows his rise from a farmer to a king, as well as the accomplishments of his sons.

He Was Possibly Swedish

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Although many accounts and historians claim that Ragnar if he was real, was a Norseman, it’s possible that he may not have just been Swedish, but the son of the Swedish King Sigmund Hering.

However, it is also noted that he may have had some Danish blood and was also related to the Danish King Gudfred. Yet, this topic is still highly debated about Ragnar’s bloodline as well as his existence even though his sons have been accepted as historical figures.

Ragnar Was Not The First To Explore Many Territories

Vikings on a boat
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Although stories like to portray Ragnar as a man ahead of his time, exploring new locations like the North Sea and England, this is far from the truth. While he did make a name for himself, Scandinavian seamen and others had been sailing to the west and both raiding and trading with the British Isles since the Roman era.

So, more likely than not, Ragnar was well aware of what laid west and was aware of all of the plunder that was there for the taking.

Was He Even A Man?

Man on the front of a boat
Nawrocki/ClassicStock/Getty Images
Nawrocki/ClassicStock/Getty Images

When it comes to the image of Ragnar Lothrbrok, it’s almost impossible to differentiate what is fact from fiction. For example, some scholars even debate whether he was a man at all, and possibly a woman.

In one runic inscription carved in Orkney in the 12th-century inscription referring to Ragnar, it reads, “This howe was built a long time before Lobrok’s. Her sons, they were bold; scarcely ever were there such tall men of their heads.” For some, this proves that not only was Lothbrok real but was indeed a mother.

He Was A Cunning Warrior

Painting of the siege of Paris
Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images
Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images

One of the tactics that made Vikings such successful and fearsome raiders, especially those supposedly serving under Ragnar was their element of surprise. Nobody could tell where or when the Vikings would be coming to raid until they could see their formidable sails on the horizon.

For example, during the famous Siege of Paris in 845, Ragnar and his men were successful despite being on the offensive because they attacked on Easter Sunday when the majority of the city was attending mass.

He Didn’t Take Kindly To Being Resisted

Engraving of a battle
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adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images

Although at one point, King Charles the Bald of France had awarded Ragner land, he eventually lost it, along with the king’s support. This resulted in the Siege of Paris. During the battle, Charles made the tactical error of splitting his forces on either side of the Seine, leading Ragnar to focus his attention on one of the armies.

After decimating the Frankish soldiers, Ragnar left over one hundred of them alive and publicly hanged them on an island on the Seine as a sacrifice to Odin and a warning to Charles.

Writings About Him Were Slightly Biased

Drawing of Grammaticus
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Saxo Grammaticus is a historian that was known for his particular interest in Ragnar Lothbrok and detailed his adventures and accomplishments. However, when it came to Ragnar’s death, Grammaticus essentially agreed that he had it coming.

His reasoning? Grammaticus was Christian writing in a time when Christianity ruled over everything. As a Christian, Grammaticus could be impressed by everything that Ragnar may have done, but he couldn’t condone all of the crimes that Ragnar had committed against Christianity and its followers.

He’s The Subject Of A Popular Poem

Painting of Ragnar
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The Old Norse poem Krákumál became incredibly popular after a Danish scholar translated it in 1636. It translates in English to mean The Death Song of Ragnar. The poem tells the story of the heroic Ragnar that was loved by his people, his passion for love, and his fearlessness in battle.

It also describes his devotion to reach Valhalla to sit and feast next to the gods that he admired. The poem also goes into detail about his final encounter with King Aella.

Legend Or Not, The Vikings Invaded England

Ivar and soldiers
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Whether Ivar the Boneless and his brothers were the son of the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok and avenged his death or not, the Great Heathen Army’s conquest over England is historically verified.

Several sources site that Ivar the Boneless along with other Vikings led a massive army into England in which they defeated kings Osberht, Edmund, and Ælle in battle. Ivar would then go on to rule over a kingdom that stretched across Dublin and York, changing the country’s history forever.