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11 facts about legendary viking warrior Ragnar Lothbrok

The Norse sagas are filled with stories of legendary heroes, none more famous than the Viking king Ragnar Lothbrok. His exploits and epic deeds have echoed through the centuries and continue in popular culture today.

Portrait of a Viking warrior | Image: Shutterstock

A popular character from Sky HISTORY’s hit show Vikings, Ragnar Lothbrok was originally a legendary hero and king of Norse sagas. Known for his countless raids of the British Isles, fearless leadership, and legendary sons whose own epic sagas have immortalised them in Norse legends, Ragnar’s adventures have captivated audiences across centuries.

However, despite the popularity of Ragnar and his sons, there are still a lot of unanswered questions and debates surrounding his life and legacy. With some arguing that he was a myth or a purely fictional character, here’s what we know about Ragnar Lothbrok.

1. Did Ragnar Lothbrok exist?

There is a considerable debate as to whether Ragnar Lothbrok was an actual person. He was born during a time when births and deaths weren’t recorded, and the first written accounts to mention him weren’t put to paper until at least 350 years after his adventures took place. This means that we can’t say with 100% certainty that he existed.

2. History or his story?

The considerable gap between when Ragnar lived and when his story was written means that his adventures were passed down through generations by word of mouth. Travelling storytellers spread the tales of Ragnar Lothbrok and likely embellished them or added parts that weren’t true. This furthers the argument that he was more of a fictional character used to spread ideas and allegories rather than a living, breathing person.

3. The real Ragnar Lothbrok

Ragnar’s adventures and heroics are recounted in multiple sagas. They describe him as a fierce warrior who led numerous raids across the British Isles and later became the king of Sweden and Denmark.

A lot of what is written about Ragnar is likely fictionalised myth created to highlight the might and ferocity of the Vikings. Another argument suggests that all of Ragnar's adventures could have been undertaken by different men but were all rolled into the myth of Ragnar to make it easier to share the story.

4. When was Ragnar alive?

If what we know of Ragnar is based on truth, he would have been alive sometime between 801 AD and 900 AD.

Ragnar Lothbrok and his third wife, Aslaug
Ragnar Lothbrok and his third wife, Aslaug by August Malmström | Public Domain

5. He had an interesting wardrobe

Ragnar’s name wasn’t passed down to him from his family but was actually a nickname derived from his interesting choice of wardrobe. Ragnar Lothbrok translates to ‘Ragnar Hairy’ or ‘Shaggy Britches’ and refers to his shaggy fur trousers and cape. He boiled his cape in tar to protect him from a venomous snake.

6. He wasn’t related to Rollo

Rollo, unlike Ragnar, is an accepted historical figure. The Viking chieftain would go on to become the first Duke of Normandy in France but was no relation to Ragnar. Rollo’s descendants would continue to rule in Normandy and even go on to invade England in the Battle of Hastings in 1066! William the Conqueror was a distant relative of Rollo - clearly living up to the family legacy.

7. Lagertha nearly killed him

When Ragnar first proposed marriage to Lagertha in his sagas she was disinterested and turned him away. She expected him to be eaten by the bear and hound that guarded her home, but Ragnar won the fight and slew both beasts. Lagertha was impressed after he presented their bodies to her and agreed to his new marriage proposal.

Following their separation, Lagertha, a famed shield maiden in her own right, continued to fight alongside Ragnar and support him. She is seen coming to his aid many times throughout the sagas, and by all accounts, they both held each other in high esteem despite their divorce.

8. Lagertha and Aslaug weren’t his only wives

Ragnar had a third wife that didn’t make it into the series. He won Thora’s affections after saving her from a giant snake that was wrapped around her home. The couple went on to have two children together, Erik and Agnar. Following Thora’s death from illness, Ragnar met and married Aslaug.

9. Bjorn wasn’t Lagertha’s son

Bjorn was actually the son of Ragnar and Aslaug, not the son of Lagertha. Their other sons were Ivar the Boneless, Sigurd Snake-in-the-eye, and Halfdan. There is considerable historical evidence to suggest that Ivar, Sigurd, Bjorn, and Halfdan did exist, and the impact their own stories had on history is what helped keep the legend of Ragnar alive. In fact, if they hadn’t been so popular, we probably wouldn't have known about Ragnar at all!

10. The sons of Ragnar

Despite only having three wives, there were many more Vikings that boasted the name Ragnarsson. Many Vikings claimed to be descended from the legendary Ragnar, but the likelihood is that they were just using the name to gain an intimidating reputation.

Ragnar did also father two daughters with Lagertha, and many more children out of marriage, but their stories were left out of the sagas.

11. His death is contested

There are two different stories attributed to the death of Ragnar. The first was that he was shipwrecked in the Irish Sea when a violent storm hit his raiding party.

The second (and far more popular) is that he was captured by King Aella of Northumbria and thrown into a pit of snakes as retribution for the Viking raids on the kingdom.

Ragnar Lothbrok in Norse mythology

Written during the 12th and 13th centuries, the Norse sagas are filled with stories of legendary heroes, none more famous than the Viking king Ragnar Lothbrok. His exploits and epic deeds have echoed through the centuries and continue in popular culture today.

Was Ragnar real or not? That’s a debate for another time. Instead, we’re going to sift through the sagas and uncover the adventures that immortalised the great warrior in Norse mythology.

Lagertha, the bear, and the hound

During his life, Ragnar was married three times and each of his wives played a large role in the stories surrounding the heroic king.

Ragnar’s first wife was a fearsome shield-maiden by the name of Lagertha, whose bravery on the battlefield caught his eye. Wishing to propose to the young woman, Ragnar arrived at her home only to find it guarded by a bear and a hound, both of which were Lagertha’s pets.

Undeterred, Ragnar killed the bear with his spear before strangling the hound to death with his bare hands. Impressed by his skills, Lagertha accepted his proposal, and the pair would go on to have three children together – one son and two daughters.

Thora and the snake

A while later, Ragnar decided to divorce Lagertha and seek the hand of a beautiful woman by the name of Thora. However, just like Lagertha, a large beast stood in his way if he wished to propose to her.

As a young child, Thora had been given a lindworm, a mythical serpent-like creature. As Thora grew so did the snake, until it was so large it encircled the house in which Thora lived. Thora’s father, the Earl of Götaland, promised her hand in marriage to whoever could free her from the clutches of the beast.

Ragnar accepted the challenge and prepped himself for the fight. To slay the serpent, Ragnar needed protection, so he boiled wolfskin trousers and a hide shirt in tar to provide him with invulnerable armour. This action would go on to give Ragnar his surname ‘Lothbrok’, which in Old Norse translates as ‘hairy trousers’.

As he approached the serpent it spat poison on him, but the venom was unable to penetrate Ragnar’s clothing. The Viking warrior proceeded to impale the snake with his spear before cutting off its giant head.

Upon saving Thora, the pair were wed and went on to have two sons together.


Thora and Ragnar lived happily together but sadly not into old age. Thora contracted an illness and passed away.

Ragnar’s third and final wife was called Aslaug, the daughter of Sigurd, a king and legendary hero. However, it would be a while after meeting Aslaug that Ragnar would learn the true identity of his new wife.

After the death of her parents as a young child, Aslaug went into the care of a man called Heimer. Fearing Aslaug might also fall foul of her parents’ enemies, Heimer constructed a harp large enough for the young Aslaug to hide in. Heimer then travelled under the guise of a poor harp player, carrying Aslaug around with him.

When a poor peasant couple saw flashes of gold coming from underneath Heimer’s clothing, they murdered him in the hope of uncovering more riches hidden in his harp. When they opened it, they discovered Aslaug inside. Deciding to care for her, the couple changed her name to Kráka, hid her noble beauty with rags and smeared her with tar.

One day when she was older, she was spotted by Ragnar’s men whilst she bathed. Her beauty was so mesmerising that the men burnt the bread they were making. When Ragnar enquired why the bread was burnt, his men spoke of the girl they’d seen in the woods.

Unbelieving that there could be a woman who surpassed his beloved Thora in beauty, Ragnar sent for the girl asking her to come ‘dressed nor undressed, neither fasting nor eating, and neither alone nor in company’. She arrived draped in a net, biting an onion and with a dog by her side.

Mesmerised by her wit, Ragnar conceded she was indeed more beautiful than Thora. The pair married and had four sons together. However, things nearly unravelled a while later when Ragnar became betrothed to another beautiful woman called Ingeborg.

Hearing the news, Aslaug revealed to Ragnar she wasn’t called Kráka but was in fact born of royal blood and named Aslaug. Upon hearing this, Ragnar broke off his engagement to Ingeborg and remained happily married to Aslaug for the rest of his life.

Ragnar and the snake pit

The sons born to Ragnar by Aslaug would become great warriors in their own right - Ivar the Boneless, Bjorn Ironside, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye and Halfdan Ragnarsson. Whilst the historical existence of Ragnar is still up for debate, his sons are all genuine characters from history.

Together with his children, Ragnar pillaged and plundered across England, France and further afield. However, he eventually began to grow jealous of his sons’ achievements and so sought to outdo them all by conquering England with just two ships.

His plan failed and he was captured by King Ælla of Northumbria who then, according to legend, threw the Viking warlord into a pit filled with snakes. In that damp, dark, serpent-infested hole the story of Ragnar Lothbrok came to an end.

Upon hearing the death of their father, Ragnar’s sons sought revenge and in 865 AD, Ivar the Boneless led the Great Heathen Army onto English shores. Within a couple of years, York, the capital of Northumbria had fallen to the Viking invaders and King Ælla found himself in the clutches of Ivar.

According to legend, King Ælla was tortured to death by the method of the blood eagle, a grisly Norse ritual of execution whereby a victim suffered severe mutilation via having their back carved open, ribs severed and lungs spread out behind them to create a pair of wings.