Who Was the Real Ragnar Lodbrok?

Bearded Viking Warrior Chief Male near farmhouse surroundings
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Many people have heard of Ragnar Lodbrok, or Lothbrok, thanks to the History Channel drama series Vikings. However, the character of Ragnar isn't new—he's existed in Norse mythology for a long time. Let's take a look at who the real Ragnar Lodbrok was—or wasn't.

Ragnar Lodbrok Fast Facts

  • Historians aren't sure if Ragnar Lodbrok really existed; it is most likely that he is a composite of multiple historical figures.
  • The sons of Ragnar Lodbrok feature prominently in Norse mythology and history.
  • According to legend, Lodbrok was a great warrior king who invaded England and West Frankia.

Ragnar Loðbrók, whose surname means Hairy Breeches, was a legendary Viking warrior who is described in the Norse sagas, as well as numerous medieval Latin sources written by Christian chroniclers, but scholars aren't sure if he existed at all.

Norse vs. Frankish Accounts

In the Norse legends, Sigurðr hringr, or Sigurd Ring, was the king of Sweden, and battled against the Danish leader Harald Wartooth; Sigurd defeated Harald and became king of both Denmark and Sweden. After his death, his son Ragnar Lodbrok succeeded him and took the throne. According to the sagas, Lodbrok and his sons killed Harald's son Eysteinn, and then led an invasion into England. According to the Icelandic saga Ragnarssona þáttr, The Tale of Ragnar's Sons, during this invasion, Lodbrok was captured and executed by the Nortumbrian king Ælla, and so his sons sought vengeance and attacked Ælla's stronghold. The legend holds that the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok then executed the Northumbrian king in retaliation, although English sources claim he died in battle at York.

Despite the accounts in the Norse sagas, it's possible that Ragnar Lodbrok was someone else entirely. In 845 c.e., Paris was under siege by an invading force of Northmen—led by a man who is identified in Frankish sources as a Viking chieftain named Ragnar. Historians dispute whether or not this is the same Ragnar named in the sagas; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle indicates that the Ragnar who invaded and conquered Paris is unlikely to be the one referred to in the Norse legends.

What is more likely, according to academics, is that the character we know today as Ragnar Lodbrok is an amalgamation of the Norse chieftain who took over Paris and the legendary warrior king who was killed when King Ælla threw him into a pit of serpents. In other words, Lodbrok is a literary composite of at least two different figures, as well as several Norse chieftains.

However, several of his sons are documented as historical figures; Ivar the Boneless, Björn Ironside, and Sigurd Snake-in-the-eye are all considered part of Viking history.

The Sons of Ragnar Lodbrok

According to the Norse legends, Lodbrok had several sons by different women. In the Gesta Danorum, a book of Danish history written in the twelfth century by a Christian chronicler, he was first married to the shield maiden Lagertha, with whom he had at least one son and a daughter; Lagertha is largely believed to be representative of Thorgerd, a warrior goddess, and may be a mythical figure.

A hoard of Weapon wielding viking warriors fighting in a battlefield scene in the sea
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Lodbrok divorced Lagertha and then married Thora, the daughter of an earl of Gotaland, with whom he had Eiríkr and Agnar; they were eventually killed in battle. Once Thora died, Lodbrok then married Aslaug, whose father was the legendary Sigurd the Dragon Slayer; Sigurd's tale is told in the poetic edda, the Nibelungenlied, and the saga of the Völsunga. Aslaug's mother was the Valkyrie shield maiden Brynhildr. Together, Lodbrok and Aslaug had at least four sons.

Ivar the Boneless, also called Ivar Ragnarsson, earned his nickname because according to Norse legend, his legs were deformed, although some sources say that boneless referred to impotence and an inability to have children. Ivar was instrumental in the conquest of Northumbria and the death of King Ælla.

Björn Ironside formed a large naval fleet and sailed around West Frankia and into the Mediterranean. He later split up Scandinavia with his brothers, and took over rule of Sweden and Uppsala.

Sigurd Snake-in-the-eye got his name from a mysterious serpent-shaped mark in one of his eyes. Sigurd married King Ælla's daughter Blaeja, and when he and his brothers divided Scandinavia, became king of Zealand, Halland, and the Danish islands.

Lodbrok's son Hvitserk may have been conflated with Halfdan Ragnarsson in the sagas; there are no sources that mention them separately. Hvitserk means "white shirt," and could have been a nickname used to distinguish Halfdan from other men of the same name, which was a fairly common one at the time.

A fifth son, Ubba, appears in medieval manuscripts as one of the warriors of the Great Heathen Army that conquered England in the ninth century, but is not referenced in any of the earlier Norse source material.

Sources

  • Magnússon Eiríkr, and William Morris. The Volsunga Saga. Norrœna Society, 1907.
  • Mark, Joshua J. “Twelve Great Viking Leaders.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 9 July 2019, www.ancient.eu/article/1296/twelve-great-viking-leaders/.
  • “The Sons of Ragnar Lodbrok (Translation).” Fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda, www.germanicmythology.com/FORNALDARSAGAS/ThattrRagnarsSonar.html.
  • “Vikings: Women in Norse Society.” Daily Kos, www.dailykos.com/stories/2013/10/27/1250982/-Vikings-Women-in-Norse-Society.