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11 facts about legendary viking warrior Ragnar Lothbrok

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.

If you enjoyed reading about Ragnar Lothbrok check out this article about Odin, another legendary figure from Norse mythology.