History’s Vikings has seen the rise – and fall — of a famous Viking: Ragnar Lothbrok. But how historically accurate is the History Channel’s retelling of Ragnar’s life? Did this Viking even exist?
According to Vikings creator, Michael Hirst, Ragnar Lothbrok was a Scandinavian farmer who rose to fame and became one of the most famous Vikings of his time, as he explained to Monsters and Critics recently.
“[Ragnar Lothbrok] looked like what he was supposed to be, which is a Scandinavian farmer with the tough bod. Travis himself came from farming stock in Australia and identified with Ragnar’s simple philosophy. All his life Ragnar didn’t want power or to rule people. He wanted to find rich earth, good growing earth for his people.”
However, if you look to the historical stories about the Vikings, there are many tales about Ragnar Lothbrok, some of which are significantly different from each other. The reason for this is varied. Many of these events were written down long after they occurred, sometimes as long as two hundred years later, giving the oral stories about the Vikings many years in which to flourish and be embellished.
There is also the possibility that these accounts relate to different men called Ragnar. After all, Ragnar was a common name, much in the same way Harald was in that time frame, and there are many stories in the Viking sagas that relate to different Harald’s as well. So, let’s have a look at all of the different sources that talk about Ragnar Lothbrok.
In the ninth book of the Gesta Danorum, which was written by an English scholar many years after Ragnar’s lifetime, Ragnar Lothbrok listed as the grandson of Siward, the King of Norway.
“He was succeeded on the throne by Ragnar. At this time Fro, the King of Sweden, after slaying Siward, the King of the Norwegians, put the wives of Siward’s kinsfolk in bonds in a brothel, and delivered them to public outrage. When Ragnar heard of this, he went to Norway to avenge his grandfather.”
So, the Gesta Danorum lists Ragnar as being of royal stock, and not a farmer. This story also deals with two of Ragnar’s wives, as well as how he came to be known as Ragnar Lothbrok.
According to this tale, Ragnar married Lagertha (known as Ladgerda in this tale), who was one of the women placed into a brothel by Fro. He was so impressed by her skill as a warrior that he pursued her relentlessly. Lagertha, on the other hand, seemed determined to repel his advances and had a bear and a hound set outside her house for protection. When Ragnar slayed these beasts, she had no choice but to accept his hand in marriage. The marriage lasted long enough for Lagertha to bear three children, a boy called Fridleif, and two unnamed daughters.
However, after sometime, Ragnar decided he was mad at Lagertha for setting the bear and hound against him and divorced her. He then began pursuing a woman called Thora (also known as Thóra Borgarhjǫrtr), who was the daughter of King Herodd, the king of the Swedes. Once again, Ragnar had to defeat wild beasts in order to win the girl.
Thora had raised two serpents that grew up to be enormous and deadly. Thora’s father promised his daughter’s hand in marriage to anyone who could kill the snakes. Ragnar sat back and watched as many men tried and failed at killing the beasts. He learned from their mistakes though.
“Many warriors were thereto attracted by courage as much as by desire; but all idly and perilously wasted their pains. Ragnar, learning from men who traveled to and fro how the matter stood, asked his nurse for a woolen mantle, and for some thigh-pieces that were very hairy, with which he could repel the snake-bites.”
Afterwards, when Ragnar was victorious, and King Herodd saw the way in which Ragnar was dressed, gave him the nickname, Lodbrok or Lodbrog (also known as Lothbrok), which translates into “hairy-breeks” or “hairy breeches.” So, for those who watch History’s version of Vikings, Ragnar’s surname of Lothbrok did not actually come about until after he was divorced from Lagertha and as a result of a women never even mentioned in the TV series.
The Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok
While the Gesta Danorum deals with two of Ragnar Lothbrok’s wives, he did marry one more woman: Aslaug (known also as Kráka). Their story is told in the Tale of Ragnar Ladbrok, which is a part of the 13th century Icelandic sagas known also as the Volsung saga. Aslaug was the daughter of Sigurd and Brynhildr. The way in which Ragnar Lothbrok met Aslaug in the sagas is much the way in which History Channel portrayed it in Vikings. Aslaug also bore him four sons: Ivar the Boneless, Hvitserk, Bjorn Ironside and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye.
However, in the Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok, Aslaug outlived Ragnar. She was so concerned about Ragnar returning to England she warned him against traveling. When he would not heed her warnings, she gave him a magical shirt. This shirt Ragnar Lothbrok wore when King Aelle captured him and threw him into the snake pit. When Aelle realized the shirt was repelling the snakes, he ordered it be removed. Once this was done, Ragnar Lothbrok was bitten by the snakes in the pit and died.
Anglo Saxon Chronicle
The Anglo Saxon Chronicle is a collection of seven manuscripts written in relation to the history of England. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, this chronicle is the “primary source for the early history of England.”
Within the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, Ragnar Lothbrok is mentioned as having three sons: Halfdan, Ivar the Boneless, and Ubbe. This source deals with Ragnar’s son’s invasion of East Anglia in 865. This event is what fans of History Channel’s Vikings are anticipating seeing in upcoming episodes. These sons formed what is known, historically, as the Great Heathen Army in retaliation for Ragnar Lothbrok’s murder at the hands of King Aelle. In fact, all three sources mentioned so far talk about this event to some degree.
Other Historical Sources Involving Ragnar Lothbrok
Ragnar Lothbrok is also mentioned in other historical sources. The Krakumal is an Icelandic poem from the 12th century that tells of Ragnar’s death. Other Icelandic sources that also deal with Ragnar Lothbrok are the Ragnars saga loðbrókar and Þáttr af Ragnarssonum, both of which retell Ragnar Lothbrok’s death at the hands of King Aelle.
While many of these tales about Ragnar Lothbrok talk about how he died at the hands of King Aelle, there is another version of how Ragnar died. According to the Norman Descendants website, Ragnar Lothbrok died as a result of cholera and wounds sustained during his battle at Paris.
It is also suspected that the real Ragnar Lothbrok was not a single man, but an amalgamation of several Vikings from history. Norman Descendants lists the following possibilities for who these tales could be talking about.
- King Horik I
- King Reginfrid, a Danish king who came into conflict with Harald Klak
- Reginherus, man who invaded Paris in the mid-9th century
- Rognvald (or, alternatively, Ragnall) of the Irish Annals
So, as you can see, thanks to the fact many of the tales involving Ragnar Lothbrok were written down after the event, or by people who were not of Viking descent, it is unclear just what the truth is surrounding this famous Viking.
What do you think is the true story of Ragnar Lothbrok? Let us know by commenting below.
Vikings is currently screening on the History Channel every Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET.
[Featured Image by Bernard Walsh/HISTORY Channel]
Ragnar Lothbrok: What Is The True Story According To History? is an article from: The Inquisitr News
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