It often seems that people don't like heroes from the present as much as they respect the ones from the past. Once a warrior is slain, he's no longer a subject of envy, and his abilities are no longer a threat to society. In fact, he is no longer human but part of an ever-lasting legend that will continue to amuse generations ahead.
As enough time passes, stories of that warrior became more and more fascinating to the listeners. He starts to feel obliged to add some of his elements to it. And just like that, several centuries later, you get a myth of a man who once lived, but whose portrait is now covered with a veil of mystery.
Having that said, it is no wonder why present-day heroes are as underestimated. Why admire the ordinary when you can dream about magic?
Some of us have surely heard of a tragic Ancient Greek hero Jason, son of Aeson, who had been sent to an almost impossible search for a Golden Fleece and sacrificed all of his glory for love. Most of us have even read of Old Norse king Sigurd, a legendary Viking warrior who killed the dragon Fafnir, stabbing him directly in the heart.
But all of us are familiar with the name of Ragnar Loðbrók, the legendary Scandinavian king. He was probably the most courageous Viking leader during the Viking Era. The saga of Ragnar says that only mentioning the name of Ragnar Lothbrok could spread fear among his enemies, yet a complete delight among his confidants.
But what is it really known about the real Ragnar Lothbrok? Could he have been just a fruit of one's imagination? Was Ragnar a mighty victor who existed only in Old Norse myths, or a man of flesh and blood, who lived, fought, and died for his ideals - was Ragnar Lothbrok real?
From Greenland to the Mediterranean, all across the Viking world, up until the 12th century, the stories of Ragnar and his sons had been memorized by one generation of poets, after another. They found their place in many sagas and remained some of the most important pieces of the Viking puzzle.
In the year 814, the great king Charlemagne, ruler of Western Europe's largest empire, was dead. In the wake of his death, his once-prosperous realm soon devolved into a civil war between his descendants. From this chaos, three distinct kingdoms were born, and all of Charlemagne's efforts to keep the kingdom united were in vain.
On the one side was East Francia, the state which would eventually go on to become Germany. In the middle was Lotharingia, a realm that would eventually be absorbed by the other two kingdoms. In the west, however, in the Franks' original heartlands, along the Atlantic coast, was West Francia, the kingdom that would eventually become France.
West Francia was under the rule of Louis the Pious and his descendent Charles the Bald. But neither Louis nor his son was aware that their lack of centralized power would soon be capitalized upon by new power, the power of Vikings.
For years, the Franks had pushed onwards to the pagan north, to conquer new lands and bring more people to the Christian fold. And now, a payoff was on the way. At first, Vikings came in trickles, just handfuls of boats trying their luck. But as the years went by, larger and larger waves of sea raiders came flooding down from the north. The Viking age had begun.
Frankish sources at the time mention Horik, the king of Denmark, who was being undermined by the West Frankish king Louis the Pious. But since Charlemagne, standards have slipped, and the Frankish army was now only a shadow of its former self. After Horik successfully fought off the attacks from his rival, the full ferocity of the Norse men was about to come crashing down catastrophically.
Since the end of the Saxon wars during the late 8th century, Scandinavian raids had been conducted into Francia. Those wars had been long and drawn-out conflicts against the inhabitants of old Saxony. After this 30-year long crusade, the Franks had first come into direct contact with the Vikings.
During the 810s, Vikings were sailing with squadrons of three to four ships. These fleets met with significant success by raiding remote and lightly populated areas on the West Frankish coastline's peripheries. By the 830s, however, the fleets began to consist of tens of vessels, and as words traveled of the successes they found, Viking leaders increasingly tested their luck against more massive and larger targets.
On its face, king Horik seemed to have disapproved of these raids, which he publicly condemned in letters to Charlemagne's successor, Louis the Pious. Though this could easily have been a tactic, it suggests that in reality, king Horik held little power over the unruly and ambitious warlords of Denmark.
In 845, an entirely new breed of army arrived on the continent. This army did not consist of just tens of vessels; it was a fleet of more than five thousand Viking warriors. Where this fleet came from is anyone's guess, but according to the Frankish sources, it was led by a man named Reginherus, a figure who modern scholars associate with the most famous Viking of all – legendary Ragnar Lothbrok.
A significant number of sagas relate to the tales of Ragnar's early life. Yet the vast majority of these are likely to be later additions. This could be explained by the fact that many later warlords claimed descent from Ragnar and needed historical evidence to prove it. They wanted to inflate their egos, just as Ragnar himself claimed to have been a direct descendant of Odin.
Both runic inscriptions on the Orkneys from the 12th century and Icelandic sagas from the 13th century are living proof that Ragnar Lothbrok was still as famous after his death as he was in his lifetime. In fact, we are sure that Ragnar himself would be quite amused by the later stories that were told about him.
And if legends and stories about him bear any resemblance to the truth, we know that Ragnar Lodbrok was the first sea king Norse men ever had.
Ragnar's first name didn't raise many eyebrows during the 9th century Scandinavia. In fact, it is still a common masculine given name in many countries, including Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Sweden. It is a compound of Old Norse words "ragin," meaning counsel, and "hari" meaning army.
Ragnar's last name, however, wasn't as common during the Viking Era. If the stories are to be believed, Ragnar earned himself the name "Loðbrók" while fighting for the hand of his wife, Thora, who was guarded by a giant serpent. In order to protect himself from the snake's venom, Ragnar wore a pair of shaggy breeches covered with tar. After defeating the snake, Ragnar took the name Loðbrók with pride, even though its meaning was nothing but "hairy breeches ("loth" meaning hairy + "brōk" meaning breeches)."
To this day, scholars vigorously debate the issue of Ragnar Lothbrok's real accomplishments throughout history, and we shouldn't blame them for it. Over the centuries, embellished stories of this Viking hero were told to fill in the gaps, so much that the original tale about him became almost a fantasy.
So if we decide to ignore the sagas and put our trust only in external sources, we would still conclude Ragnar was a ruler powerful enough in his own right to launch the autonomous attacks and seize lands for himself and his followers on foreign shores.
Ragnar Lothbrok had probably been active in Francia during most of the mid 9th century, where he was granted land in Frisia. A few years later, Ragnar lost these lands, as well as the deal with the king Charles the Bald.
In 845, he entered the river Seine, at the head of the largest Viking invasion to hit Francia yet. In a time when armies usually numbered hundreds of men, according to the Frankish sources, Ragnar's legendary force numbered 5000. They sacked Rouen and sailed off with huge amounts of wealth. Before heading further south towards the capital, Norse men plundered many fertile districts around Paris. Like his predecessors and his descendants after him, Ragnar only fought when the odds were in his favor. He favored blitzkrieg tactics to terrorize, demoralize and overwhelm opponents before they could muster a strong enough force to oppose him.
Determined not to allow the invaders to sack the royal abbey of Saint-Denis, Charles the Bald assembled his army into two parts. One of which he placed on either side of the river. A shrewd tactician Ragnar simply attacked the smaller army, wiping it out in full view of their helpless comrades on the other side.
Frankish warriors could do nothing but watch as just over a hundred survivors were sacrificed to Odin on a small island in the river Seine. Faced with unbeatable odds, the city's horrified defenders could do nothing but wait for the eventual Viking attack. Even though Paris was situated on an island in the River Seine and fortified with strong defenses, it was perfectly suited for a Viking blockade and attack.
Not long after that, a disease began to spread throughout Ragnar's camp, which significantly weakened his position in a foreign land. He knew it was time to go home. On Easter Sunday, that same year, a date that was almost certainly picked on purpose in order to demoralize the Christian population, Ragnar demanded from Charles the Bald six thousand pounds of gold and silver. This was the first of many occasions when Viking raiders were paid off to leave Francia peacefully.
You might ask yourself why a mighty, self-respecting ruler like Ragnar Lothbrok would renounce his polytheistic faith and willingly accept the beliefs of his arch enemies? If he, in fact, converted to Christianity, which we don't have any written source to confirm, Ragnar probably didn't think much about the spiritual aspects of it.
It is important to remember that early medieval Christianity was based on one religion, one god, one king, one nation, and one state, which was an enormous power base for European rulers during the Viking Era. Additionally, the greatest emphasis was on how you demonstrate your faith, rather than on the faith itself, so accepting Christianity for Ragnar was more of a formality than the actual change of lifestyle.
After his success in Paris, Frankish sources never mention Ragnar's name again. There are numerous stories about his demise. Some say he was killed during a botched attack on the isle of Anglesey, others that he died in a civil war between Denmark and Norway off the coast of Ireland.
However, most famous of all is the tale that he was shipwrecked off the English coast in a storm and captured by the Northumbrian king Ælla, who, in a cruel punishment against the old sea-king, had him thrown into a snake pit.
Icelandic legendary tale "Ragnars Saga Loðbrókar" says that real Ragnar eventually became envious of his sons' growing fame, that he decided to make one last move – one more raid to England. At that time, Ragnar was already old and exhausted from previous raids, but he sailed to England despite all the odds.
According to one version of this tale, his famous trousers protected him to the very end. The irritated English king Ælla had to pull Ragnar out of the pit to have the pants removed before Ragnar was thrown into a pit again. According to the saga, just before Ragnar died in a snake pit, Ragnar made a famous reference to his sons: "How the little piggies will grunt when they hear how the old boar suffered." This reference is also mentioned in Michael Hirst's TV series, called 'Vikings.'
Interestingly, in late medieval chronicles, Annales Ryenses, who mostly based his work on the Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus, writes vividly about Ragnar's death in Ireland in 854.
Telling tales has always been an important part of life for the Germanic peoples of Northern Europe, but the tale of Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons is one of the greatest stories of the Viking Age. For more than a millennium, it has captivated audiences from medieval mead halls to 21st-century TV series. Even centuries later, it seemed to gain a new life by being told and retold again. However, this tale, just like many others, is never proved to be historically accurate.
It may be that since Ragnar's story was so giant, other Vikings such as Bjorn Ironside and Ivar the Boneless simply ended up being pulled into orbit by its gravity, much like the great Greek heroes ended up being pulled into the Odyssey and the Iliad. But, at the heart of it, is there any truth to this tale?
Ragnar's biological sons or not, no one can deny the values and deeds of these five brave Vikings. Bjorn Ironside, raider of the Mediterranean, Ivar the Boneless, so-called master of the Irish Sea, Ubba, the duke of Friesians, Halfdan Ragnarson, the first Viking to occupy Northumbria, and Sigurd Snake in the Eye were some of the most significant names during the late 9th century.
Upon hearing of their father's death in the sagas, his sons all swore to cross the sea to avenge him. Halfdan was playing chess at that exact moment, and once he heard the terrible news, he gripped a piece so hard that his nails bled. This impending invasion became known as the Great Heathen Army.
Let's talk a bit more about Ivan and Bjorn, as they deserve a bit more attention.
Apart from what semi-historical sagas told about him, very little is known about Ivar's early life. His epithet "the boneless," for example, has caused many speculations over the years. Ragnar's saga tells us that Ivar was unable to walk and had to be carried everywhere. But this piece of writing is a later source, and it isn't the only place we find information on Ivar the Boneless.
His name could simply stamp from a botched version of "exosus," the Latin word for "hated,'' or could have been the term for a skilled seafarer, which he undoubtedly was. Even though sagas have sometimes proven themselves to be far from the truth, Ivar the Boneless is definitively known to have been a real person who slipped out of legend onto the pages of history.
Namely, in the year 863, Ivar and his fleets arrived at the Northumbrian monastery of Lindisfarne. Initially assuming them to be traders, a great number of the monks went down to meet these newcomers on the shore. Out in the surf, they were met there with the sword and anger of Ivar the Boneless and his fleet. After that, nearly every year, similar reports were heard.
Northumbria has once been the homeland of intellectual heavyweights, but by the late 9th century, it has fallen on hard times. Riding up from the south on horses, as well as taking their fleet up the coast, Ivar the Boneless and the Great Heathen Army chose All Saints' Day to attack the city of Eoferwic in Northumbria. As you can probably guess, this day was no coincidence. Ivar used the same trick as one Ragnar supposedly used in Paris on Easter Day.
But it isn't here that Ivar's career began. For that, we have to turn to a very different set of sources and very different land. After this success in England, we hear nothing of Ivar until 873 when Irish sources talk of his death from the disease—naming him at the time of his death: King of the Northmen of all Britain and Ireland.
This Irish source refers to Ivar as Imar, founder of dynasty "Uí Ímair," and a grandfather to a famous ruler of Northumbria and the Isle of Man. His name was Ragnall, and we can assume that he got that name after his famous ancestor, Ragnar Lodbrok. Although not much is known about Ragnall's early life, as a prominent member of Uí Ímair, he is presumed to have been amongst the Vikings expelled from Dublin in the early 10th century.
Ragnall's expulsion from the fairly well-established city of Dublin may go some way to explaining the apparent restlessness of the young warrior and his desire for a new kingdom for himself. Or was it the spirit of his great grandfather that made him that way? Either way, this inner Viking force eventually drove Ragnall into becoming an exceptional warrior and a successful king. Unfortunately, as a pagan ruler in a mostly Christian country, Ragnall was one of a dying breed. He died in 921 but was soon replaced as king by his brother Sihtric who eventually agreed to be converted into the Christian faith.
We have all heard the name of Bjorn Ironside from the popular TV show called "Vikings," according to which he was the first son of Ragnar Lothbrok and his first wife, Lagertha.
Bjorn Ironside was thought to have been a fierce warrior, a raid leader, and a man who swept across the battlefield to bring fury upon his enemies during the Viking Era. His epithet Ironside probably referred to his strong, unyielding character as well as his durability in battle.
As one of the first Scandinavians to raid not only the unbelievably rich Iberian state of Al-Andalus but also the heart of Francia and most of Italy, we can confidently say that Ironside was everywhere but in his father's shadow.
It is important to remember, despite his extraordinary abilities and determination, even Bjorn Ironside couldn't do all that single-handedly. His older companion was Hastein, a grizzled tactician and a born survivor, who launched several sustained attacks on the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms later in his life.
After these expeditions, Bjorn headed north in the direction of Denmark. Perhaps, like so many sea kings before him and after, to utilize his newfound wealth in order to make a bid for power at home. Though some later traditions tend to suggest that Bjorn made it, dying in Denmark a wealthy man, potentially having founded a royal dynasty in Sweden. Another legend, however, is favored by modern-day historians such as Dr. John Heywood. In his book called "North Men," Heywood explains that Bjorn Ironside died in a shipwreck in Frisia and never made it to the homeland.
When talking about the accuracy of any series based on a true story, it is important to know its main historical sources, for only that way we will be able to separate facts from fiction. The 'Vikings' plot comes from the two main historical sources, as well as from many semi-historical chronicles, poems, and sagas.
Patriotic stories called Gesta Danorum or "Deeds of the Danes," written by Danish author Saxo Grammaticus is one of the two places where "Vikings" producer Michael Hirst found the inspiration for the series. Gesta Danorum provided the producers with information on Lagertha, Ragnar's first wife, and one of the most prominent characters from "Vikings."
The other main source for the television show is the saga of Ragnar Lothbrok or "Ragnars saga Loðbrókar," an Icelandic composition from the second half of the 13th century, which tells us the story of Ragnar's second wife, Auslaug. This is also the first time in history that names Ivar the Boneless, Bjorn Ironside, and Sigurd Snake in the Eye are mentioned as sons of Ragnar, and the name of king Ælla in the context of Ragnar's murder.
Having that explained, we assume that the main question still stands: How does the series differ from reality?
To answer that common question properly, we should start from the beginning. In the first episode of "Vikings," we are introduced to the story of two brothers, Ragnar and Rollo, both very famous for their success in raids. As the story evolves, we can see that Rollo starts to feel that he may be in the shadow of his older brother, and that envy pushes him into an obsession for fame.
However, the historical character of Rollo, the first count of Normandy, appears in medieval literature several centuries after the supposed year of Ragnar's birth. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the two Norsemen were acquaintances, let alone brothers close in age.
The other great liberty that the show took was that Ragnar Lothbrok discovered the British Isles. This detail aggravated many medieval historians and connoisseurs of the Viking Era, for England was not some mythical land located across the sea, but an important trading place Scandinavians were familiar with many centuries before. In fact, a popular hypothesis among historians is that the Viking Era actually began because Scandinavian traders felt discriminated against by Christian Europeans.
Another popular misconception that was also displayed on the show was that Norsemen called themselves Vikings. The term was used to describe the activity of going on expeditions overseas, but not in the context of an ethnic group. It wasn't until the end of the late Dark Ages when the term "Vikings" was used to define Norsemen as a group.
We all remember Athelstan, the Anglo-Saxon monk enslaved by Ragnar after the supposed first Viking raid in Northumbria. The character of Athelstan served not only as a digression from the unsettling plot but also as a window into the culture of medieval Britain. However, the friendship between him and Ragnar probably never happened, as there is no record of a monk captured by Vikings during any of their raids. And as Athelstan is almost certainly a fictional character, he also couldn't have been a secret father of King Alfred the Great.
For the ones who have seen "Vikings," detailed scenes of a ritual execution called "blood eagle" have probably been among the most disturbing to watch. For the ones who haven't, it is a process of execution where a person is laid in a prone position, held down by several people, having their legs tied. The victim is then approached by its executioner, who tears through the flesh in the person's back with so much power that he actually severs the ribs. Finally, the ribs are pulled and stretched outwards, like eagle wings.
Until recently, historians could mostly agree that the blood eagle was real, only for the fact that no medieval scribe could possibly make up such a horrific scene. But the fact that descriptions of the blood eagle got more and more brutal and detailed as the centuries passed could be evidence that the ritual either didn't exist or has been greatly distorted through time.
Here we are, our fellow Vikings, almost at the ending of our journey through medieval times. So far, we have seen that not always was so simple to detach mythical elements from facts, especially when it comes to the Norse sagas.
But regardless of whether some of the sagas had fantastic elements to them or not, some facts cannot be denied. We can confidently say that it was Ragnar Loðbrók who commanded a force of over 5000 Vikings, and with them landed on the Frankish coastline. That he was blessed with many sons, who were foretold to be as successful as their father, and who swore on their arm rings to avenge their father's death.
We also know that the name of Ragnar Lothbrok could never be forgotten, for the stories about his bravery are essential today just as they were during the Viking era.
Those stories are not just legends from the past, but lessons about fearlessness, dedication, and wisdom, which all of us should learn.
Until our next meeting,
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