All  
Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok in the History Channels Vikings Series.

Ragnar Lothbrok: The Ferocious Viking Hero that Became a Myth

Ragnar Lothbrok was a fearless hero of Norse lore who became widely known thanks to the History Channel’s hit series ‘Vikings.’ His historicity is subject to debate—as with King Arthur, for example—Ragnar is an amalgamation of a number of historical personages and minor characters of legend. So, the question is: Where does Ragnar the man end and the myth begin?

The Mythical Marauder

There is a theory that the folk heroes and demigods we know today were common men who did quite extraordinary things, for which they were rewarded with stories about them being told to later generations. As the years went on and generations passed, these stories gilded the characters and made them more godlike. That seems to be the case with Ragnar Lothbrok, whose actual existence is doubted by many scholars.

Artist’s depiction of a Viking King.

Artist’s depiction of a Viking King. ( RealNerd)

However, there is a respectable number of historians who suggest that Ragnar did live, but his story was exaggerated to the point that he became a mythical figure. He most likely was a warlord who was the first Scandinavian to invade Britain. He is mentioned in several Nordic sagas and the Gesta Danorum , which is believed to be the most illustrious literary work to come out of medieval Denmark, describing the country’s early history.

Many Names, One Man?

Both the name Ragnar and the nickname Lothbrok, which must not be confused with a surname, had many variations in the accounts of the age. “Lothbrok” could be interpreted as “hairy breeches” in Old Norse.

His name could be written as Regnar or Regner while his nickname could be written as Lodbrok or Lodbrog. The legendary Viking hero, who was also the king of Denmark and Sweden, was also known as Ragnar Sigurdsson, as he was said to be the Swedish king Sigurd Ring’s (or Hring’s) son in some accounts.

Attributed Exploits

Ragnar is believed to have been the scourge of both early medieval England and France, raiding the Anglian kingdoms of Northumbria and Wessex on many occasions, along with the Kingdom of West Francia, concluding in the siege of Paris in 845. Furthermore, he is also thought to have been married three times: first to shield-maiden Lagertha, second to the noblewoman Þóra Borgarhjǫrtr, and last but not least to Princess Aslaug.

Ragnar’s existence can also be proved through his many sons (all historical figures); Ivar the Boneless, Björn Ironside, Halfdan Ragnarsson, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, and Ubba; the Norse chieftains who would eventually lead the Great Heathen Army that would invade England, controlling and constituting it as a unified medieval state from 865 to 878, after which the Danelaw was created (a territory under Danish influence and rule in early medieval Britain).

Ragnar’s sons invaded England to avenge their father’s murder at the hands of King Ælla of Northumbria, who, according to legend, seized Ragnar at some point and decided to sentence him to death by casting him into a pit full of snakes.

Ragnar’s execution by King Ælla in a pit of snakes. Etching by Hugo Hamilton

Ragnar’s execution by King Ælla in a pit of snakes. Etching by Hugo Hamilton ( Public Domain )

Ragnar: The TV Series Hero

History Channel’s Vikings is a historical drama that is loosely based on facts and Norse sagas. Despite the undeniable awesomeness of the series, the great acting, and the immense success of the show, there are some glaring inaccuracies that any history buff can easily spot. Does this mean that the show isn’t good? No! The show is truly good, and if it hasn’t gotten your attention yet, you should start watching it immediately. Just make sure you don’t take everything you see literally because there are issues with the historical accuracy of the plot at times, Ragnar being involved in many of them.

Clarifying Some Stories that Stray from the Truth

To begin with, Ragnar’s “brother”, Rollo, is a character based on the Norwegian Viking Gange-Rolf, the man who became the first ruler of Normandy. He is recorded as being the first Norse leader to settle in Francia, and he continued to reign until at least 928 AD. His descendants became known as the Normans, lending their name to the region of Normandy. He is also the great-great-great-grandfather of William the Conqueror, also known as William I of England, which means that Rollo is one of the ancestors of the present-day British royal family. He was born in 846 and died in 930, so not only was he not Ragnar’s brother, but he also gets included in events that occurred before he was even born.

A statue of Rollo or Gange-Rolf

A statue of Rollo or Gange-Rolf. ( CC BY 2.0 )

Fans of the series probably remember Ragnar and his crew raiding a monastery on Lindisfarne, a tidal island off the northeast coast of what is today England during the first season, a real raid that took place in 793. For the record, this is viewed by many historians as the beginning of the Viking Age. Then, in Season 3, Ragnar and his crew haven’t aged a bit and attack Paris, an event that took place in 845 and again in 885, over 50 or 90 years after the sack of Lindisfarne’s monastery. In other words, Ragnar and his fellow Vikings must have invented a time travel machine that the history books don’t tell us about.

The failed Viking siege of Paris in 885-6 AD.

The failed Viking siege of Paris in 885-6 AD. ( Public Domain )

Last but not least, the show depicts Ragnar as being charmed by the Christian faith, but in reality, he was never baptized as the series depicts, as mass conversions of Danish Vikings didn’t happen until nearly a century later. He also doesn’t seem to be a very religious person in the series. He liked Athelstan very much and wanted to know more about his god out of curiosity. When Athelstan was killed by Floki, he didn’t forgive him easily. He buried Athelstan and even constructed a simple grave cross out of respect. However, it’s certain that when Ragnar fought against the Christians, he probably deeply believed that his gods helped him. And even if he appreciated Athelstan as a person and friend, it wasn’t that he believed in him like the Christian God, but rather believed in Athelstan’s qualities as a human being.

So the question remains: Was Ragnar a real person? Judging from Norse sagas and lore it would be safe to conclude that Ragnar most likely existed but has as much to do with the legends surrounding him as the real man who inspired Hercules has to do with the stories revolving around him. 

Top image: Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok in the History Channels Vikings Series. Source: History Channel Screen Shot

By Theodoros Karasavvas

References:

Encyclopædia Britannica (2017). ‘Gesta Danorum’ Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Gesta-Danorum

The Dockyards (2015). ‘The Historical Truth Behind Ragnar Lothbrok’ Available at: http://thedockyards.com/the-historical-truth-behind-ragnar-lothbrok/

Danishnet (2016). ‘Ragnar Lothbrock - Scourge of England and Normandy’ Available at: http://www.danishnet.com/vikings/ragnar-lothbrock-scourge-england-and-normandy/

History (2017) ‘Vikings (TV Series)’ Available at: http://www.history.com/shows/vikings

Comments

Ragnar was best played (IMHO) by Earnest Borgnine in the classic film, "The Vikings," with Tonny Curtis and Kirk Douglas, in 1958.

Interested in all aspects of ancient history, particularly military history.

I have just now began to watch the History Channel's series 'Vikings' and have found the series quite good. Here is my dilemma: I for one have never understood why so many stories 'based on actual events' have to be fabricated. Bringing to life actual events should be so much more accurate and better for it's viewers to understand what events took place and how they took place. I see that a lot with Hollywood productions - including Disney - changing storylines to suit their own needs. Generations from now, we tend to look at these movies and shows as the absolute truth and only leads to confusion of actual history. So endeth my two shillings.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Next article