Vikings has done its utmost to be historically accurate, but how accurate was Ragnar’s death? Here’s how the real Ragnar died.
Ragnar Lothbrok, often known as Lodbrok, was a legendary Viking hero and Danish and Swedish ruler. He is known through Viking Age Old Norse poetry, Icelandic sagas, and near-contemporary chronicles. During the 9th century, Ragnar Lothbrok distinguished himself by leading several attacks against the British Isles and the Holy Roman Empire, according to traditional literature.
Ragnar Lodbrok occurs in Norse mythology, and according to the Icelandic mythical sagas ‘Ragnarssona áttr’ and ‘Sögubrot af nokkrum fornkonungum,’ his father was the great Swede king, Sigurd Ring.
The famous Norse commander, immortalized in the thirteenth-century Icelandic sagas, has become recognizable to modern viewers thanks to the blockbuster television show ‘Vikings.’ However, there are still concerns over his real existence.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and other medieval accounts, Ragnar, the son of King Sigurd ing, had three wives, the third of them was Aslaug, who brought him three sons: Halfdan, Inwaer (Ivar the Boneless), and Hubba (Ubbe), all of whom grew in size and reputation greater than he did.
Hubba (Ubbe) launched a Viking assault of East Anglia in 865. His sons might have been seeking retribution for Ragnar’s death, which could have been murder, or demanding territory to which they believed they had a title owing to a previous invasion by Ragnar, which could also have been murder. Most of what is believed to be known about Ragnar is shrouded in ambiguity, and it has its roots in post-Ragnar European literature.
As the sons grew into famous warriors, Ragnar decided to attack England with only two ships, not wanting to be surpassed. However, he was overpowered by greater English soldiers and thrown into a snake pit to perish in misery, as legends say.
When it comes to adapting Ragnar Lothbrok’s narrative to television, having him die in a pit of snakes, as he did in mythology, is a better, more dramatic story than having him die in combat or during an invasion.
Ragnar Lothbrok death remains a mystery, yet Vikings drew many aspects from Ragnar’s stories. After torturing him and carving a cross into his head, King Aelle put Ragnar into a pit of snakes, from which he couldn’t (or tried to) escape in season 4’s episode “All His Angels.” The legend of Ragnar Lothbrok claims that he died in the same way that he did in the series: by being thrown into a pit of snakes by King Aelle. However, Ragnar’s existence is unknown, and the Viking warrior everyone knows could be a mix of real-life people with a dash of fiction thrown in for good measure.
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But was he even real?
The evidence that Ragnar ever existed is scant, but it does exist. The highly credible Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has two allusions to a particularly notable Viking raider in 840 AD, referring to ‘Ragnall’ and ‘Reginherus.’ Ragnall and Reginherus are thought to be Ragnar Lothbrok in the same manner as Ivar the Boneless and Imár of Dublin are.
Ragnar’s murder at the hands of Aella in a pit of snakes appears to have its roots in myth rather than history since it is likely that Ragnar died somewhere between 852 AD and 856 AD on his voyage across the Irish Sea.
As far as we know, no historical figure has ever come close to matching Ragnar’s reported acts (and sons) to any degree. It’s more probable these legends arose centuries after the exciting 9th-century Viking raiding heyday to bring together diverse historical events and well-known people under one roof. Several scholars have suggested that Ragnar Lothbrok was a composite of several characters woven together into one mythological hero. In the ninth century CE, the latter terrorized northern Europe and fathered a slew of renowned sons. Perhaps the historical persons who came to be regarded as Ragnar’s sons were well-known enough to be given such a renowned pedigree.
While Ragnar’s connection with King Aella is most likely fictitious, his bond with his sons may not be genuine. Significantly more proof exists for his sons’ validity: Ivar the Boneless, Halfdan Ragnarsson, and Bjorn Ironside are historical individuals.
Intriguingly, while the Icelandic sagas that recount Ragnar’s life are frequently deemed wrong, many of his sons lived in the proper places at the appropriate periods to fit the events mentioned — and fact, his sons, claimed to be Ragnar’s children.
Could these Viking warriors have been Ragnar Lothbrok’s sons, or were they claiming genealogy to the famous name to elevate their status? Maybe a little of both. It was very unusual for Viking monarchs to ‘adopt’ sons of high standing to guarantee their authority remained after they died. So it seems to reason that Ragnar Lothbrok may have been affiliated in some manner with the likes of Ivar the Boneless, Bjorn Ironside, and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye.
What is undeniable is the enduring influence his alleged sons had on Britain. The Great Heathen Army invaded Anglia in 865 AD, killing Edmund the Martyr at Thetford before advancing north and besieging York, where King Aella was murdered.
The terrifying Ragnar Lothbrok mythology was most likely based on the reputation of Ragnar, who successfully plundered Britain, France, and Ireland in the ninth century for lavish amounts of money.
Ragnar’s persona most certainly absorbed the triumphs and successes of other Viking heroes throughout the decades that passed before his raids were ultimately chronicled in thirteenth-century Iceland.
So much so that the Ragnar Lothbrok sagas became a mash-up of various Norse tales and exploits, and the actual Ragnar quickly lost his position in history. The world of mythology completely accepted him.
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