Dusted off and brought into the limelight in History Channel’s TV-series Vikings, Ragnar Lothbrok has risen to fame anew more than a millennia after his death. Who was the real Ragnar Lothbrok and did he even exist?
Let’s look at what evidence there is. First of all, Ragnar wasn’t the brother of Rollo as seen in the TV-series. Rollo is a historically verified person who lived later on and Ragnar Lothbrok isn’t mentioned anywhere in those sources. So where does he hide? Well, Ragnar appears in a number of much more diffuse sources dating back to the Viking Age and the early medieval period. There are both fantastic sagas (where he hitches up with Lagertha) and historical sources that mention Ragnar.
The Sagas and Poems hail from the 9th – 12 th Centuries and Ragnar was according to them the son of a Svea (Swedish) king named Sigurd Ring. The sagas describe Ragnar as a badass fantasy hero who begins his career with killing a Lindworm and freeing a virgin. He did this while wearing “hairy armour” during the fight that protected him from the Lindworm’s poison. The armour was said to consist ouf of wolf-skin pants coated with pitch, which gave him the name “Lodbrok” (hairy pants). Our hero then ventured out on adventures and met Aslög, daughter of the Amazon Brynhilda and King Sigurd Fafnirsbane (also a famous dragon-slayer), who ended up giving birth to four sons; Björn Ironside, Ivar the Boneless, Hvitserk and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of annals chronicling the history of the Anglo-Saxons. The original manuscript hails from the late 9th Century. It is considered a relatively reliable source, which is bloody amazing, considering that it’s more than a millennia old. In it Ragnar was said to be the father of three sons, Halfdan, Inwaer (Ivar the Boneless) and Hubba (Ubbe), who led a Viking invasion of East Anglia in 865 to avenge the murder of their Father.
Gesta Norman Norum Ducum by William of Jumiège is dated to the 1060’s. According to Willliam the king “Lothbroc” exiled his son Bjorn and his friend Hasting. The tale then continues to account for the adventures of Bjorn (who is invincible thanks to a magic potion given to him by his mother) and his friend Hasting as they ravage France for three decades.
The Gesta Danorum is an ambitious, highly patriotic book from around the year 1200 by the Christian chronicler Saxo Grammaticus that details Danish history. Saxo goes to great lengths to validate a distant Danish past in his work, which was an attempt to emphasize the independency of the Danish Church in relation to the Holy Roman Empire. Where most of the contemporary (11-12th Century) information in it can be considered true, it is highly questionable how Saxo could describe events that took place hundreds of years earlier – especially since there were no written history to study. It was nevertheless expected of him. He had to forge a solid, strong and independent past for Denmark. So Saxo goes on and creates the awesome legend of Ragnar, the King of Denmark, which combines many unclear and contrary events from the distant past. Many of the deeds ascribed to Ragnar can now be associated with other, more historically certain figures, making the legend of Ragnar according to Gesta Danorum unlikely.
Summary: There is no doubt that there must’ve been a legendary Viking by the name of Ragnar. A man who made such an impact that his name was surrounded with considerable legend in European literature for several centuries following his death. It is, however, impossible to say what’s true and what deeds can be ascribed to Ragnar Lothbrok, since most sources have ulterior motives. He probably fathered the sons who later invaded Englad, since it is mentioned in all of the sources. But what else did Ragnar achieve? What we prefer to do is look at a trustworthy source that is rarely mentioned; a contemporary written source from a monastery in Seine that announces the following regarding the year 845:
“This year came Regner, the Viking leader, with his fleet, and he reached Paris, and the Holy Easter Saturday, which is March 28, he entered the city.”
That simple sentence links the name “Ragnar” with the Viking leader who sailed the River Seine, plundered the surroundings and besieged Paris in 845. The city was protected by Charles the Bald’s men, but they fled when the Vikings killed prisoners right before their eyes and hung 111 of them. The siege ended only after Ragnar was offered a Geld of 7000 pounds of silver, at that time an extremely large sum. Was this the same Ragnar who fathered the future invaders of England? There’s no way of telling.
How did Ragnar die? What about Ragnar’s death? Several “legendary” sources say that upon reaching old age, Ragnar sets off to England to conquer the nation, but is captured by the English King Aella, who throws him into a snake pit to die. That is where Ragnar utters his famous last words: “Grunt would the pigs if they knew how the old boar suffers” (referring to his sons) In the end it doesn’t matter who Ragnar was and what he did. It doesn’t matter that the TV-series often shows a misrepresented image of Viking and Norse Culture. What matters is that a man’s legend lives on more than a thousand years after his death. That is absolutely amazing.
Ragnar Lothbrok portrayed by Travis Fimmel in the TV-series Vikings.
Page one of the Gesta Danorum.
Ragnar has even made it into miniature war-gaming. (Stronghold Terrain)
Viking Siege of Paris. 19th Century painting.
Death of Ragnar Lodbrok – A 19th Century painting by Hugo Hamilton.