Did Ragnar Lothbrok Exist?
To fans of Vikings, he will need no introduction, but who was Ragnar Lothbrok and did he even exist?
He’s the man who sailed West, the most famous Viking of his time. Scourge of the Saxons, conqueror of Paris – and a man with better hair and make up than anyone else in the dark ages – this is the Ragnar Lothbrok fans of Vikings have come to know and love, but did he really exist?
Who was Ragnar Lothbrok?
The answer to that is yes and no. His name pops up from time to time in the chronicles, but it’s not certain that they refer to the same man. We first hear from him in 845 when a Viking leader named Ragnar Lothbrok led an attack on Paris in the culmination of an invasion of West Frankia.
Where he really does come into his own, though, is in the Icelandic Sagas. In the Tale of Ragnar Lothbrok written in the 13th century, Ragnar is portrayed as a legendary raider.
Having divorced his shield maiden wife Lagertha seeks the hand in the marriage of Thora Borgarhjqrtr, the daughter of the Earl of Gotaland (in Sweden). Thora lived in a bower protected by a large serpent. In order to protect himself from Miss Borgarhjqrtr’s guard snake, Ragnar coated his trousers with tar and sand, which is where he got his name – Lodbrok, which translates as hairy breeches’. Ragnar and Thora married and had two sons, but both Thora and their sons died and Ragnar married Aslaug. She bore him six sons whose names are much more familiar: Ivar the Boneless, Halfdan, Ubba, Bjorn Ironside, Sigurd and Hvitserk. They all survived childhood to become fierce warriors.
Ragnar and Aslaug, fought alongside their sons until Ragnar’s death. There are several versions of how this happened, but the most famous – and the one which makes it into the show – sees him tossed into a pit of snakes by King Aelle of Northumbria (England). King Aelle is a historical figure, but whether or not he executed Ragnar, or anyone else, for that matter, in a pit of snakes, is not known for sure. Scandinavian sources suggest he was killed by the sons of Ragnar in revenge for the death of their father while the Anglo Saxon Chronical suggests he was killed in battle at York.
Ragnar, then, is to Scandinavia what King Arthur is to us. The Sagas were stories with a kernel of truth embellished with a big helping of fantasy. They do have real events and real people, but they also have elves, dragons and monsters.
The Ragnar we know today – as the show’s creators admit – is a composite of different stories and people. They just needed a name to tie them all together. He’s a person about whom there are lots of stories, whispers, rumours and a mead hall’s worth of gossip, but who can’t really be pinned down in a bona fide historical document.
The good news is that many of his contemporaries are. Four of Ragnar’s son’s, Ivar the Boneless, Halfdan, Ubba, and Bjorn Ironside are historical figures and they did indeed lead their Great Heathen Army to terrorise Britain.