According to Viking lore, Ragnar Lodbrok or Lothbrock was a famous legendary figure during the Viking age. He comes across as a hero as seen in a number of saga and Old Norse poetry. According to legend, Ragnar was a menace for England and France as he ferociously led raiding attacks to both countries. In Old Norse poetry and the Sagas written about Lodbrock, it is claimed that he descends from Odin, the god of war. The Volsungasaga links him to two famous shield maidens: Lathgertha in Gesta Danorum and Queen Auslag. It is said he fathered several famous sons: Ivar the Boneless, Bjorn Ironside, Sigurd snake-in-the-eye, Halfdan Ragnarsson and Ubba who are all historical figures. Let us try and assess the Historical Truth of Ragnar Lodbrok.
Ragnar himself is a contested figure historically. As to whether he really existed is subject to controversy. Ragnar’s stature seems to be an amalgamation of several individuals. Irish lore talks of a Reghnal, a warrior who raided Paris and later passed on while in England. The Norse stories mention a Ragnar who was a menace for France at the time. These are probably the same person.
Accounts of his death stoke up controversy, there are two versions depicting his death. One states that he was taken by his nemesis, the Northumbrian King; Aella, who threw into a pit of vipers thereby meeting his death. And for that, his brave sons avenged their father by invading England with the Heathen army. In yet another description, Ragnar dies from wounds sustained when invading Paris and from a bout of dysentery or cholera. History seems stuck when deciding how he died.
Historically speaking, the life of the man that is Ragnar Lodbrock can only be deducted from places and times covered by written sources. His existence does not enjoy firm ground. Hilda Ellis Davidson comments on Gesta Danorum, Saxo’s accounts of Ragnar as being an attempt to marry contradictory and confusing events that happened during the reign of king Ragnar. It is notable that many acts credited to Ragnar seem to be associated with some legendary figures who may have more historical relevance than him. These figures include;
- King Horik the I
- King Reginfrid
- A King who ruled part of Denmark and came into conflict with Harald Klak
- “Reginherus” who attacked Paris in the middle of the ninth century.
- Rognvald of the Irish Annals
The father of the Viking leaders who invaded England in 865 with the Great Heathen Army
Ragnar Lodbrock was a skilled warrior who instilled fear in his enemies. One thing that made him a legend is the fear that his sons would beat him. So he urged and led raids to his perceived enemies. France was his target of choice. He led several pirate raids into France. He used the rivers to his advantage in sailing his fleet of longships into the heart of the Frankish empire. His most famous raid was the one he landed in Paris in 845. Ragnar’s forces were so ferocious that when King Charles the Bald, led the French army to oppose them, Vikings totally destroyed one division. This created fear in the French army that it retreated. Ragnar and his Vikings reached Paris when Easter was in full swing. Ragnar raided and occupied the city. He would only withdraw from the city after receiving a ransom payment of 7,000 French Livres. He took a liking to attacking France for the most part of the 9th century, and he was successful at that. He also fought in many Danish civil wars at the same time. His exploits and bloodthirstiness created a legend of him. Something striking about him is he was witty a leader as he was a ferocious and successful warrior.
During one of his voyages, it is sai that his long boats got shipwrecked off the Northumbrian coast. He and his army survived the shipwreck. However, they met the Northumbrians in battle. The Northumbrians effected a heavy defeat again Ragnar Lodbrok. Most of his men fell and he was captured by King Aelle. The King Aelle ordered Ragnar’s murder by throwing him into a pit of poisonous vipers. Ragnar’s death is supposedly put at between 840 and 865. So it may be that h was born in 820.
As is with legends, the legend of the Krákumál probably written in Iceland during the twelfth century, talks of ragnar singing his death song. In the song, he displays pride at the thought of entering Valhalla. He also expresses exuberance that a bloody revenge would be meted out by his sons.
“It gladdens me to know that Baldr’s father (Odin) makes ready the benches for a banquet. Soon we shall be drinking ale from the curved horns. The champion who comes into Odin’s dwelling Valhalla does not lament his death. I shall not enter his hall with words of fear upon my lips. The Æsir will welcome me. Death comes without lamenting. Eager am I to depart. The Disir summon me home, those whom Odin sends for me Valkyries from the halls of the Lord of Hosts. Gladly shall I drink ale in the high-seat with Æsir. The days of my life are ended. I laugh as I die.”
Legend says that Ragnar married three times. His first wife was the shield maiden Lagertha and then went on to marry the noblewomen Borgarhjortr. He later marries Auslag. Auslag was the daughter Sigurd and the shieldmaiden Brynhildr. According to the Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok, written in the thirteenth century. Upon his demise, Ragnar had several sons, Ivar the Boneless – a Viking leader and be legendary reputation, a berserker, and Bjorn Ironside, Hubba, Sigurd Snake in the Eye, and Halfdan Ragnarsson. Legend has it, that on hearing the news of how their father met his untimely death, the Viking sagas show that his two sons, Ivar the Boneless and Ubba sword to avenge him. Legend even contends that when the sad news of Ragnar’s death, arrived Halfdan was playing chess. The impact was so evident that he gripped a chess piece so hard that his nails bled. In 866, in a bid to avenge their father, they crossed the North Sea with a massive fleet. Several sources call it the Great Heathen Army.
Just to demonstrate the full extent of their brutality, they seized King Edmund of East Anglia. Then Ivar had Edmund tied to a tree, and he let the Viking shoot arrows into him until he passed on. After that, they beheaded him. In a show of might, the Great Heathen Army camped there for close to 14 years, waging a war on the small Saxon towns. They then looked for King Aelle, whom they defeated and captured. To avenge Ragnar, they put Aelle through the bloody eagle. In Viking traditions, it is a vile form of torture and execution. They cut Aelle’s ribs by the spine, broke them to resemble bloody wings, and pulled his lungs through the wounds on his back.
The medieval sources that cover Ragnar include:
- book IX of the Gesta Danorum, a 12th-century work by the Christian chronicler Saxo Grammaticus,
- the Tale of Ragnar’s sons (Ragnarssona þáttr), a legendary saga,
- the Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok, another saga, a sequel to the Völsunga saga,
- the Ragnarsdrápa, a skaldic poem of which only fragments remain, attributed to the 9th-century poet Bragi Boddason,
- the Krákumál, Ragnar’s death-song, a 12th-century Scottish skaldic poem.