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Ragnar Lothbrok: The Legendary Hero Who Inspired Vikings

Find out more about the blood-thirsty Viking hero who inspired the creation of the Vikings TV show main character

Ragnar Lothbrok
Ragnar Lothbrok was a conqueror Scandinavian king who ruled in the 9th century.

Introduced in the show as a peasant who becomes king thanks to his curious and innovative personality, Ragnar Lothbrok was actually a pagan Viking hero who inherited the throne of Sweden and Denmark at age 15, and who performed successful raids into the English kingdoms and the French kingdom throughout the 9th century.

However, around his figure, there is much confusion between the epic and the legends of Scandinavian chronicles and Icelandic sagas, and what actually unfolded in Viking history. This is the fascinating story of Ragnar Lothbrok, the legendary pagan hero who inspired the Vikings TV show.

Ragnar Lothbrok: the legendary pagan hero who inspired the Vikings TV show

Halfway between legend and reality, Ragnar Lothbrok was a legendary king of Sweden and Denmark, and a blood-thirsty Viking warrior who lived between the 8th and 9th century according to Icelandic chronicles and sagas. He is such a fascinating character, he inspired the four first seasons of the Vikings TV show on Netflix.  Ready to find out about this legend and what's true about his history?

Ragnar Lothbrok's real existence wasn't always accounted for by historians. In fact, for a long time it was thought that, when the Norse peoples wrote their chronicles, they built their story through a mixture of characters from the same family. However, a series of matches in Anglo-Saxon chronicles confirmed his existence.

It's hard to determine his real identity, although many historians point out he was probably a Dane because of his way of thinking and acting. His real name was Ragnar Sigurdsson, son of Sigurd Hring. Gifted with great boldness and ambition, he managed to invade English and French territories from his position as king of Sweden and Denmark.

According to the most trustworthy of sources, Sigurd Hring was a nobleman who was brought into the Swedish and Dane throne who, after several foreign attacks and internal uprisings, couldn't keep the kingdom afloat and gave his throne away to his son Ragnar. According to this version, that's when he performed different prowesses that gave him fame and acknowledgement.

He travelled for the first time around the Frisian coast (currently the Netherlands) and then along the entire West coast of Europe. There, he carried out his first attacks fully Viking-style, managing to gather an army of around 5000 to 6000 Vikings. With 120 ships on his fleet, he went to the mouth of river Sena, in the French kingdom.

Ragnar Lothbrok reached the very doors of Paris, looting and stealing through all the towns in the French kingdom that he crossed with his henchmen. Ultimately, Vikings submitted Paris, and demanded a ransom of gold to give Charlemagne's grandson his place back.

The second great event in Ragnar Lothbrok's life as a king and warrior was his trip to Northumbria, one of the kingdoms that Great Britain was divided in at the time. Having been warned about the great riches being stored there,  he ordered to build ships that were wider than the classic Viking drakkars, and went on to organise a looting expedition.

According to the chronicles of Viking history, his ships crashed against the coast and became useless. After losing all their chances at progress, Ragnar's warriors looted every single town and forced the king of Aella to bring together an army to face the fearsome Ragnar Lothbrok. That's how the end of the famed Viking king began to unfold.


Ragnar, Lagertha and Aslaugh: the Viking king's wives

However, Ragnar didn't just loot and invade. He also had time to create a legend of love stories around himself that reached even the Vikings TV show. In it we can see the two great ladies of his life who appear in the chronicles: Lagertha and Aslaugh.

In one of his first raids along the coast, he met a squire maiden, Lagertha, who is defined in the chronicles as being an expert warrior with a man's courage in her virginity and fought on the first line among the readiest of warriors. Ragnar fell in love with her fiercedom, and organised a nightly arrangement with the blonde fighter. 

Legend says that Lagertha ordered for a bear and dog to be tied down before her door to protect her virginity, but Ragnar managed to take down both, and got physical rights over his beloved. From their marriage came one son and two daughters.

Whatever the case, the truth is, Ragnar was a true Viking, and as such, wasn't meant to have just one wife. In one of his trips he found out that a nobleman from southern Sweden, Herrauld, offered his daughter's hand and a generous sum of gold to whoever killed a gigantic snake that ambushed his kingdom's boundaries.

That's how Ragnar won over young Thora, who texts describe as the most beautiful woman on Earth. This legend is important because, in order to defeat the snake, he made a pair of hairy pants who gave him the nickname of Hairy-Pants Ragnar ('hairy pants' was translated as lothbrok in his native language).

He had two daughters with Thora before she died from an illness. It seems she wasn't as important as Kráka, whom he met the following summer in his trip around Norway. There, his men informed him about a woman of unparalleled beauty they had seen in a raid. 

After meeting one another, Kráka became Ragnar Lothbrok's new wife, with whom he had several children. He found out that, despite having been raised in a peasant town, was from a noble family and actually called Aslaugh.

Who were Ragnar's children?

Of course, from such a busy love life, a vast lineage had to come. Among Ragnar Lothbrok's children, there are several warriors who looted towns all over Europe, something that chronicles say made the legend king himself have to prove he was better than his children.

Björn Ragnarsson

Also known as 'Steel Arm' Björn, Ragnar Lothbrok's first son was a powerful Viking chieftain who performed great raids across Europe. One of them, around the year 860, was a great expedition where they surrounded Spain until they crossed the Gibraltar strait to enter from southern France while pillaging and looting along the way. 

Legend says that, once he arrived in Italy, after failing to surround the doors of Rome, he sent messengers with the news that Björn had died having converted into Christianity and that he wished to be buried in the city. That's how they managed to bring his body in for him to jump out of the coffin, open the doors of the city and let his army in.

According to the chronicles, Björn was the son of Ragnar Lothbrok and Aslaugh, and his success as a conqueror was one of the main reasons for his father's jealousy.

Boneless Ivar

Ivar Ragnarsson, nicknamed Boneless Ivar, was a Viking chieftain with a berkver reputation. Berkvers were legendary warriors who fought half-naked while wearing animal fur. With his siblings Ubbe and Halfdan, he ruled over the Great Pagan Army which conquered and looted several English kingdoms in the late 9th century. 

In fact, chronicles describe Ivar as the cruellest of Ragnar's sons, so merciless that he tortured to death any Christians he encountered. One of his most renowned victims was the martyr King Edmund, who according to Viking history died at the altar of a church through the savage ritual known as the blood eagle.

He was also the son of Ragnar and Aslaugh, and he is attributed with the creation of the Ui Imair dynasty, which ruled over Northumbria from the capital of York from halfway through the 9th up to the 10th century, and ruled over the Ireland Sea from Dublin.

Ubbe Ragnarsson

This Scandinavian chieftain from Viking times, son of Ragnar Lothbrok, was one of the rulers of the Great Pagan Army. In this case, he is believed to be less important than his brother Ivar, and in fact, not much is known about his life story.

Through the chronicles, we know how his life ended. It seems that Ubbe performed a raid into the English coast starting at Combwich. After finding out that Saxons had found shelter in a fortress, Vikings under Ubbe's rule attacked it and decided to wait until the Saxons would die of thirst. However, the latter decided to counterattack at dawn by surprise and killed Ragnar's son.

Sigurd Snake In The Eye

Sigurd Ragnarsson is also known as Sigurd Snake In The Eye. According to the legend, faithfully reproduced by the Vikings TV show, was born with the uroboros symbol (a snake in a circle biting its tail) on his pupil. He performed several raids with his siblings but died when he was attacked by the emperor of Carynthum. 

Among the most interesting data on his life, there's his marriage to Blaeja, daughter of King Aelle of Northumbria,  with whom he had three children: Harthacnut, Aslaug and Thora.

Hvitsärk Ragnarsson

From the warrior saga born from the love between Ragnar and Aslaugh, there is one final name, Hvitsärk, who performed several raids in the Baltic Sea and the Kievan Rus'. According to the chronicles, he didn't have an army powerful enough to win, and he was imprisoned. When being asked how he wanted to die, he asked to be burned alive.

Hvitsärk's biographical stats are confusing, and he is sometimes attributed with the identity of another of Ragnar's sons, Halfdan, who ruled over the Great Pagan Army with his brothers.

Ragnar Lothbrok's death: from Northumbria to Valhalla

As we've seen before, the king of Aelle had managed to gather a powerful army to face the Norse barbarians. Although Ragnar's men had created a reputation of invincibility thus far, this time the battle didn't last long, and great Ragnar was surrounded and imprisoned.

Once captured, the king of Aelle didn't miss out on his chance to exert revenge upon Ragnar and killed him by throwing him into a pit of snakes. Chronicles say that, among his painful shrieks, Ragnar managed to utter a few words swearing that his children would avenge him sooner or later. That's how he managed to enter Valhalla.

The prophecy became true, and after finding out about their father's cruel death, Ragnar's sons organised an expedition with several ships and attacked the entire kingdom of Northumbria. They reached the grounds of the king of Aelle himself, imprisoned him, and gave him the most painful and cruel death known to Vikings: the blood eagle.

This torture method, which is also featured in the Vikings TV show, such as in the execution of Viking chieftain Jarl Borg, consists of opening up the convict's back with a knife and axe, and by opening up the ribs one at a time, taking out the lungs and hanging them around the neck. This way, the open ribs and the hanging lungs give the picture of an eagle with spread wings covered in blood.

Scene from the Vikings.
The 'Vikings' TV show, starring Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok.

Vikings, the TV show that brought Ragnar Lothbrok back to life

On March 3, 2013, the first episode of the Vikings TV show premiered, which is based on the life of legendary Viking chieftain Ragnar Lothbrok. This work of fiction from the mind of Michael Hirst mixes reality and legend around the life of this character and the events in Vikings' history, as well as their pagan beliefs and violent raids. Since then, 5 seasons have aired so far (69 episodes) and it is a hit Netflix show.

Ragnar Lothbrok is played by actor Travis Fimmel,  while Katheryn Winnick plays the role of Lagertha. If you've seen the show and read the article, you will have noticed by now that scriptwriters use the potential of each character, but add lots of fiction into the mix.

For instance, in the show, Ragnar Lothbrok often introduces himself as a humbly-raised man who reaches the throne after defeating chieftain Haraldson and because of his innovative vision as the discoverer of a new navigation method to sail west. According to sagas, Ragnar actually inherited his father's throne when he was 15. 

Another difference between the show and historians is the attack upon the Lindisfarne Cloister, which is featured on the first few episodes of the show, but which experts claim never happened. The attack occurred around the year 793, and Ragnar's first attacks are registered around the year 840. However, this is a chance for scriptwriters to include the story of Father Athelstan.

As we've seen before, there are other data that gets mixed up as well, such as the fact of making Björn the son of Ragnar and Lagertha, when according to the chronicles and sagas in Viking history, he was a descendant of Ragnar and Aslaugh. However, fiction is indeed faithful to the legend around Sigurd Snake In The Eye.

Still, the series has generally been praised for its historical accuracy when reflecting technical elements of the Viking peoples (like the life-size ships), their customs (hierarchy and social-political organisation), religious beliefs (constant references to Norse mythology) and their culture (clothing, food, parties, rituals, sacrifices and so on).