The im­mor­tal Vik­ing

He butchered ser­pents, pil­laged on an epic scale, laughed in the face of death – and, in do­ing so, helped forge the mod­ern ideal of the ar­che­typal Vik­ing war­rior. Eleanor Parker tells the story of the ul­ti­mate Norse leg­end: Rag­nar Loth­brok

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY GEORGIE GOZEM

Eleanor Parker re­veals how the leg­endary fig­ure of Rag­nar Loth­brok helped forge the ideal of the ar­che­typal Vik­ing war­rior

Con­sider the quin­tes­sen­tial Norse war­rior – the fear­some raider, the mer­ci­less foe, the ale-swill­ing pa­gan who laughed in the face of death – and the chances are you’re think­ing about Rag­nar Loth­brok. Rag­nar’s ad­ven­tures read like they’ve been plucked from a Hol­ly­wood block­buster. The son of a king of Den­mark and Sweden, he fought gi­ant snakes, led armies into bat­tle, con­quered vast swathes of Scan­di­navia, and ter­rorised the un­sus­pect­ing peo­ple of the Bri­tish Isles.

Many, if not all, of Rag­nar’s ad­ven­tures are myth­i­cal – the prod­uct of Norse chron­i­clers’ vivid imag­i­na­tions. But that didn’t stop them cast­ing a long shadow over north­ern Eu­rope dur­ing the Vik­ing age. And, cour­tesy of ev­ery­thing from epic medieval po­ems and death songs to the block­buster TV se­ries Vik­ings – they’ve con­tin­ued to do so for more than a thou­sand years.

For pure drama, Rag­nar’s story takes some beat­ing. Even his three wives were ex­tra­or­di­nary char­ac­ters. One was Thora, whom Rag­nar wooed by killing a fe­ro­cious ser­pent. Another was Lathgertha, a mighty war­rior who fought along­side her hus­band in bat­tle. And the other was As­laug, daugh­ter of Sig­urd the Vol­sung and the shield-maiden Bryn­hild, them­selves two of the most celebrated lovers in Norse literature.

By these wives, Rag­nar had at least eight sons – Ivar the Bone­less, Bjorn Iron­side, Sig­urd Snake-in-the-Eye and Ubbe among their num­ber. These off­spring were just as war­like as Rag­nar and – cour­tesy of their own es­capades – en­sured that their fa­ther’s name lived on long af­ter he met his death.

Re­venge in bat­tle

That death, when it came, was ev­ery bit as dra­matic as the life that pre­ceded it. While on cam­paign in north­ern Eng­land, Rag­nar, we’re told, was cap­tured by Ælla, king of Northum­bria. Ælla was hell­bent on putting his Vik­ing foe to death but found that no or­di­nary weapons could kill him, so he had Rag­nar thrown into a snake-pit. But not even this grisly fate was enough to de­flate the ir­re­press­ible Rag­nar. With death ap­proach­ing, the Vik­ing war­rior re­called with plea­sure his great­est vic­to­ries and savoured the prospect of feast­ing in Val­halla, the great hall for slain Vik­ing war­riors. More omi­nously for Ælla, he vowed to ex­act re­venge on his killer – a prom­ise that was fol­lowed through by his sons, who duly went on to con­quer Northum­bria and slay Ælla in bat­tle.

It’s an en­thralling story. But what makes it more tan­ta­lis­ing still is the prospect that it might – just might – have been in­spired by the ex­ploits of a his­tor­i­cal fig­ure.

Some of the men de­scribed in medieval leg­end as “sons of Rag­nar” were cer­tainly real peo­ple. Ivar, Ubbe and Bjorn, among oth­ers, can be iden­ti­fied with Vik­ing lead­ers who were ac­tive in France, Ire­land and Eng­land in the sec­ond half of the ninth cen­tury.

A Vik­ing war­rior named Bjorn – prob­a­bly the in­spi­ra­tion for Bjorn Iron­side – is known to have been raiding in the area around the Seine in 857–59. Ivar and Ubbe were among the lead­ers of the so-called ‘Great Hea­then Army’ that de­scended on Eng­land in 865, con­quer­ing Northum­bria and de­feat­ing its kings, Os­berht and Ælla, in a great bat­tle at York in 867. In 869 they moved south and killed King Ed­mund of East Anglia. Many of their fol­low­ers set­tled in north­ern and east­ern Eng­land, while Ivar be­came ruler of a Vik­ing king­dom that stretched across the Irish Sea, with strongholds in Dublin and York. It is recorded that Ivar died in Dublin in 873. As for Ubbe, he may have been killed in bat­tle in Devon in 878.

The ac­tiv­i­ties of these war­riors are at­tested in con­tem­po­rary sources of the ninth cen­tury. We can be con­fi­dent that these men ex­isted. But there’s a prob­lem: we do not know ex­actly how they were re­lated to one other, and none of the early sources tells us who their fa­ther was.

Al­though his ‘sons’ were real enough, the his­tor­i­cal ori­gins of Rag­nar him­self are much less clear. One can­di­date for the fig­ure on whom Rag­nar might be based is a Vik­ing leader from Den­mark named Regin­heri, who at­tacked Paris in 845. Con­tem­po­rary sources say that raid was es­pe­cially fe­ro­cious, telling how Regin­heri took many cap­tives and had more than 100 ex­e­cuted. Soon af­ter­wards Regin­heri re­turned to Den­mark, where he died. We know noth­ing more about him.

The stuff of leg­end

In fact, as the his­to­ries of this pe­riod were writ­ten, it was not Rag­nar but his sup­posed sons who were at first the fo­cus of chron­i­clers’ tales. Ivar, Ubbe and the rest were among the most suc­cess­ful war­riors of the Vik­ing age, and their con­quests and bat­tles swiftly be­came the stuff of leg­end. It was not un­til the sec­ond half of the 11th cen­tury – nearly 200 years af­ter their deaths – that they be­gan to be iden­ti­fied as “sons of Rag­nar Loth­brok”. A Dan­ish king called Loth­brok was first men­tioned in around 1070 by the Nor­man his­to­rian Wil­liam of Ju­mièges, who named him as the fa­ther of Bjorn Iron­side. A few years later the chron­i­cler Adam of Bre­men iden­ti­fied Ivar, “cru­ellest of Norse war­riors”, as another of Loth­brok’s sons.

This Loth­brok may orig­i­nally have been a sep­a­rate per­son from Rag­nar, and the ori­gin of the name has been heav­ily de­bated. The Ice­landic scholar Ari Þorgils­son, writ­ing be­tween 1120 and 1133, was the first to record

‘Rag­nar’ and ‘Loth­brok’ thbrok to­gether, claim­ing it was “Ivar, son of Rag­nar Loth­brok” who killed Ed­mund of f East Anglia.

What­ever the his­tor­i­cal ori­gins of Rag­nar Loth­brok, by the 12th cen­tury his leg­end was rapidly emerg­ing g from his sons’ shad­ows and ap­pear­ing in sagas, as, chron­i­cles and po­ems across the North Sea world. By this time, a com­plex and colour­ful our­ful web of tales had de­vel­oped around d him – far re­moved from any likely his­tor­i­cal is­tor­i­cal ori­gins.

The fullest ver­sions sions of the story – on which most mod­ern it­er­a­tions of the leg­ends are e based – are found in the Old Norse Rag­nars saga Loðbrókar, writ­ten in Ice­land in the 13th cen­tury, ry, and the works of Dan­ish his­to­rian Saxo Gram­mati­cus, us, writ­ing be­tween 1188 and 1208. Both mix ear­lier writ­ten sources with dis­parate parate oral leg­ends to pro­duce elab­o­rate, lengthy, con­tra­dic­tory ctory nar­ra­tives. The tales ales of Rag­nar’s three wives ives may be the re­sult of an at­tempt to com­bine ine three sep­a­rate leg­ends about Rag­nar.

Later per­cep­tions tions

These sto­ries tell us much more about how the Vik­ings were per­ceived by later medieval au­di­ences ces in Scan­di­navia than they do about his­tor­i­cal cal ninth-cen­tury war­riors. Saxo was in­ter­ested ted in these men as an­ces­tors of the kings of Den­mark, en­mark, while Ice­landic his­to­ri­ans were ea­ger ager to draw at­ten­tion to Scan­di­na­vian dom­i­na­tion mi­na­tion of the Bri­tish Isles. As time went on, the leg­end con­tin­ued to in­cor­po­rate new as­pects, and be­came linked to another of the most fa­mous cy­cles of Norse leg­end, the tale of f the Vol­sungs (now best-known as the he story be­hind Wag­ner’s Ring Cy­cle).

But it wasn’t only nly in Scan­di­navia that Rag­nar’s es­capades es found willing au­di­ences. Around the same e time, leg­ends about this celebrated Vik­ing war­rior ar­rior were be­ing en­joyed by English au­di­ences, s, too. Here, Loth­brok and his sons most t of­ten ap­peared in leg­ends con­nected cted to the death of Ed­mund of East Anglia, one of the An­glo-Sax­ons’ most pop­u­lar saints. nts.

One 13th-cen­tury ury chron­i­cle tells how Loth­brok was as in­no­cently hunt­ing at sea when he was ship­wrecked pwrecked on the coast of Nor­folk and brought ught to Ed­mund’s court. He and Ed­mund be­came came close friends, pro­vok­ing

In Eng­land, Loth­brok most

of­ten ap­pears in leg­ends con­nected to the killing of King Ed­mund, one of the An­glo-Sax­ons’ most pop­u­lar saints

the jeal­ousy of one of Ed­mund’s hunts­men. That hunts­man mur­dered Loth­brok and then told Loth­brok’s sons that Ed­mund was to blame for the mur­der. This ver­sion of the leg­end at­tempts to pro­vide Ivar and Ubbe with a mo­tive for killing Edward, so im­ply­ing that this wasn’t a mind­less act of Vik­ing bru­tal­ity. It presents Loth­brok as a sym­pa­thetic char­ac­ter – very dif­fer­ent from the fierce war­rior of Norse tra­di­tion. Does this mean that some peo­ple in east­ern Eng­land re­garded ninth-cen­tury Dan­ish in­vaders as an­ces­tors, not en­e­mies? We’ll prob­a­bly never know, but it’s an in­trigu­ing pos­si­bil­ity.

By the end of the medieval pe­riod, Rag­nar’s name was fa­mil­iar to peo­ple across Scan­di­navia and the Bri­tish Isles. But it was in the 16th and 17th cen­turies – as schol­ars be­gan to re­dis­cover Old Norse and Old English texts, plus the work of Saxo Gram­mati­cus – that the mod­ern Rag­nar was born. In 1636, the Dan­ish scholar Ole Worm trans­lated Krákumál, an Old Norse poem about Rag­nar’s death, into Latin, and it quickly be­came pop­u­lar with read­ers in Bri­tain. Krákumál was usu­ally known in English as ‘The Death-Song of Rag­nar Loth­brok’, and for 17th-cen­tury read­ers it seemed to of­fer an ex­cit­ing glimpse of a Vik­ing cul­ture im­bued with sav­age, pa­gan glam­our. It pro­vided a ro­man­tic im­age of a heroic and fear­less Vik­ing: glo­ry­ing in bat­tle and blood­shed, ea­ger to en­ter Val­halla and feast with the gods for eter­nity.

Worm’s trans­la­tion in­ad­ver­tently added another layer to the Vik­ing leg­end. A po­etic ref­er­ence to a drink­ing horn – “the curved branches of [an­i­mal] skulls” – was mis­un­der­stood to im­ply that the Vik­ings drank from the skulls of their en­e­mies. This ar­rest­ing idea, though com­pletely un­true, is still some­times en­coun­tered to­day.

The popularity of the ‘Death Song’ meant that, by the 19th cen­tury, when the Vik­ings were hugely fash­ion­able in Bri­tain and Amer­ica, Rag­nar had be­come one of the best-known fig­ures from Norse leg­end. Since then his story has been reimag­ined many times – in nov­els, Hol­ly­wood films and, most re­cently, in a pop­u­lar TV se­ries. Sto­ries about Rag­nar and his sons have been told for al­most a thou­sand years, and even to­day new leg­ends about these ar­che­typal Vik­ing war­riors con­tinue to be cre­ated.

In the 17th cen­tury, ‘The Death-Song of Rag­nar Loth­brok’ of­fered a glimpse of a Vik­ing cul­ture im­bued with sav­age, pa­gan glam­our

A ninth-cen­tury Vik­ing pic­ture-stone show­ing du­elling war­riors. Could Rag­nar Loth­brok’s leg­endary tale be based on the war­like Dan­ish leader Regin­heri, who at­tacked Paris in 845, cap­tur­ing and killing many of its peo­ple?

The myth­i­cal Rag­nar Loth­brok ter­rorised the seas around north­ern Eu­rope aboard a Vik­ing long­ship – like the one de­picted here in an il­lu­mi­na­tion. But, in one ver­sion of his story, a ship­wreck off the coast of Eng­land led to his demise

Vik­ings dis­em­bark in Eng­land in a 12th-cen­tury man­u­script. Ubbe and Ivar the Bone­less, both of whom were de­scribed as “sons of Rag­nar”, at­tacked north- east Eng­land in 865

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