Ragnar Lothbrok is the most famous of Vikings, known as the scourge of Paris, a teenage slayer of dragons, and a devoted husband to Lagertha, the spectacular shield maiden.

As a legendary figure, he was the sire of many of the finest and most famous Vikings of his era and the vanquisher of the various armies of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Not to mention a direct descendant of Odin.

Yet, did he really exist? 

In this article, The Viking Herald examines the legend of Ragnar Lothbrok through the sagas that helped spread his name throughout Europe and beyond, an array of different chronicles, and a lineage that seems to encompass a coterie of wives and a never-ending series of heroic offspring.

Son of royalty 

Most of the information we have about Ragnar Lothbrok comes from the Icelandic sagas. 

These were largely written in and around the 13th century but had likely been passed down orally for many generations. 

There are several sagas that feature the figure of Ragnar, including Heimskringla and the Hervarar Saga. Arguably the most influential, however, is The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, which narrates the story of a man born to Sigurd Ring, King of the Swedes:

Sigurđ Ring had a son named Ragnar. He was a big man, handsome and well-provided with wisdom. He was good to his men and cruel to his enemies. As soon as he had grown old enough, he assembled an army and a fleet of ships and became the best kind of warrior, so that there were few who could equal him.

(The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, translated by Jackson Crawford) 

Ragnar initially found fame as a teenager after he struck down a dragon to win the heart of Thóra, a local maiden. 

He is aided by trousers made of wolfskin that are boiled in pitch, earning the name Lothbrok, or "hairy trousers:"

Now Ragnar turned toward Thóra's cabin, and when he came inside the fence where the dragon was, he stabbed his spear into the dragon and pulled the spear back, and then he stabbed at the dragon again. The spear pierced the dragon's back, and then Ragnar twisted the spear so swiftly that the spearhead came loose from the shaft. The dragon made so much noise as it died that the cabin shook all around.

(The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, translated by Jackson Crawford) 

The saga of Ragnar Lothbrok details his sons' exploits, from establishing strategic footholds like York to avenging their father's death by killing King Aella. Illustration: The Viking Herald

A life lived to the full 

After losing his wife Thora to illness, Ragnar sails to Norway, where he meets the simple farm girl Kraka and is beguiled by her beauty. 

Kraka's real name was later revealed to be Aslaug: she was the daughter of the legendary Germanic heroes Sigurd and Brunhilde and had gone into hiding. 

Aslaug bears Ragnar four sons: Ívarr, Bjǫrn, Hvítserkr, and Sigurðr.

Ragnar and his sons invade England, but Ragnar is eventually defeated in battle by King Aella of Northumbria and meets his end in a snake pit. His death, of course, is suitably dramatic and defiant:

We struck with our swords!
I have stood in the ranks
at fifty-one folk-battles,
foremost in the lance-meet.
Never did I dream that
a different king should ever
be found braver than me—
I bloodied spears when young.
Æsir will ask us to feast;
no anguish for my death.

I desire my death now.
The disir call me home,
whom Herjan hastens onward
from his hall, to take me.
On the high bench, boldly,
beer I'll drink with the Gods;
hope of life is lost now—
laughing shall I die!

(The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, translated by Jackson Crawford) 

The saga goes on to detail the further exploits of Ragnar's sons, including the foundation of the city of York by Ívarr and the conquest of Lúna in Italy.

Naturally, they also take revenge on King Aella, who suffers the ultimate retribution: execution by blood eagle

In Norse mythology, Ladgerda stands out as a formidable warrior who, after being cast aside by Ragnar Lothbrok, continues to demonstrate her martial skill and independence, eventually ruling in her own right. Illustration: The Viking Herald

The fearsome Ladgerda 

Another extensive account of Ragnar's exploits was actually written in Latin: Saxo Grammaticus's Gesta Danorum, or The Danish History

The Danish History, written in the 12th century, also features another legend: Ladgerda (Lagertha).

This fierce and fearless shield maiden joyfully weds Ragnar, only to be ruthlessly cast aside and replaced by Thora, daughter of King Herrod. 

Despite the rejection, Ladgerda and her new husband later take Ragnar's side in battle:

…the Jutes and Skanians were kindled with an unquenchable fire of sedition; they disallowed the title of Ragnar, and gave a certain Harald the sovereign power. Ragnar sent envoys to Norway, and besought friendly assistance against these men; and Ladgerda, whose early love still flowed deep and steadfast, hastily sailed off with her husband and her son. She brought herself to offer a hundred and twenty ships to the man who had once put her away.

(The Danish History, translated by Oliver Elton)

With their forces united, Ladgerda and Ragnar look to subdue the warring factions that threaten Ragnar's dominance.

There is a fierce battle against King Harald, where one of Ragnar's many sons, the seven-year-old Iwar, acquits himself splendidly. 

Ragnar drives his warriors forward before Ladgerda pushes the battle decisively in their favor through her courageous actions:

Ladgerda, who had a matchless spirit though a delicate frame, covered by her splendid bravery the inclination of the soldiers to waver. For she made a sally about, and flew round to the rear of the enemy, taking them unawares, and thus turned the panic of her friends into the camp of the enemy. At last the lines of Harald became slack, and Harald himself was routed with a great slaughter of his men.

(The Danish History, translated by Oliver Elton)

The true ferocity of Ladgerda's nature is arguably revealed, however, in her actions once the battle is won:

Ladgerda, when she had gone home after the battle, murdered her husband... in the night with a spearhead, which she had hid in her gown. Then she usurped the whole of his name and sovereignty; for this most presumptuous dame thought it pleasanter to rule without her husband than to share the throne with him.

(The Danish History, translated by Oliver Elton) 

In a fittingly dramatic conclusion to his saga, Ragnar Lothbrok was captured by King Aella and faced a grim fate in a pit teeming with venomous snakes. Illustration: The Viking Herald

From Orkney and Ireland, back to the snake pit 

In The Danish History, Ragnar and his sons later visit the Orkney Islands, where they succeed in defeating the local king, Murial. 

Ragnar, however, also loses two of his other sons, Dunwat and Radbard, in the fight, and upon returning to Norway discovers that another wife, Swanloga, has been lost to illness. 

Stricken by grief, Ragnar locks himself inside his house before the sudden arrival of Iwar finally lifts his spirits:

…this bitter sorrow was driven out of him by the sudden arrival of Iwar, who had been expelled from the kingdom. For the Gauls had made him fly, and had wrongfully bestowed royal power on a certain Ella, the son of Hame. Ragnar took Iwar to guide him, since he was acquainted with the country, gave orders for a fleet, and approached the harbor called York.

(The Danish History, translated by Oliver Elton)

York is swiftly conquered in a three-day battle, and King Ella (Aella) flees the scene. 

Ragnar happily embarks on a year of conquest in England before moving on with his sons to Ireland, where he swiftly eliminates the king and besieges Dublin

Unfortunately, Ella allies with the Irish to finally defeat Ragnar. According to the Christian author of this tale, Ragnar is punished for his rejection of the one true God and duly perishes in a gruesome fashion:

Meanwhile, Ella betook himself to the Irish, and put to the sword or punished all those who were closely and loyally attached to Ragnar. Then Ragnar attacked him with his fleet, but, by the just visitation of the Omnipotent, was openly punished for disparaging religion. For when he had been taken and cast into prison, his guilty limbs were given to serpents to devour, and adders found ghastly substance in the fibers of his entrails. His liver was eaten away, and a snake, like a deadly executioner, beset his very heart. Then in a courageous voice he recounted all his deeds in order, and at the end of his recital added the following sentence: "If the porkers knew the punishment of the boar-pig, surely they would break into the sty and hasten to loose him from his affliction."

(The Danish History, translated by Oliver Elton)

And so begins, once again, the revenge of the sons of Ragnar.

Reginheri in Paris 

Those are the stories, then, but what about contemporary historical accounts that might confirm the existence of the real Ragnar Lothbrok? 

Though not always wholly reliable, the records kept by the church or by kings in Europe were essentially sober records of historical events and have been used to confirm the historical presence of a number of Viking leaders.

Unfortunately, there is very little evidence of a man named Ragnar Lothbrok in documents that are contemporary to the era when he may have lived. 

It is, however, possible to identify a few scarce details of Norse figures who could conceivably have inspired the legend. 

One particularly notable example is found in the Annals of Xanten, which were a continuation of the Royal Frankish Annals.

One passage describes an influx of northern "Gentile" invaders, i.e., pagan Vikings, in the year 845, who assaulted Paris and other settlements:

Another party of invaders devastated Gaul; of these more than six hundred men perished. Yet, owing to his indolence, Charles agreed to give them many thousand pounds of gold and silver if they would leave Gaul, and this they did. Nevertheless the cloisters of most of the saints were destroyed and many of the Christians were led away captive.

(Annals of Xanten, translation from Readings in European History, by James Harvey Robinson)

However, after a brief interlude describing how King Louis deals with some Slavic upheaval in Saxony, the narrative returns to tell us how Reginheri dies of disease on Frankish land:

…the robbers were afflicted by a terrible pestilence, during which the chief sinner among them, by the name of Reginheri, who had plundered the Christians and the holy places, was struck down by the hand of God.

(Annals of Xanten, translation from Readings in European History, by James Harvey Robinson)

Compelling as the idea of Ragnar Lothbrok assaulting Paris is, the fact that this particular version of Ragnar fell in and died in Paris would seem to preclude the idea that the same figure also explored the British Isles. 

Additionally, none of the main sagas describe an assault on the Frankish city. 

In 845, the Annals of Xanten recorded a Viking assault on Paris, led by Reginheri, a figure some historians speculate could be linked to the legend of Ragnar Lothbrok. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Danish claims: royal appropriation? 

The Chronicon Roskildense, or The Chronicle of Roskilde, however, does mention a king known as "Lothpardus," who is the father to Ywar (Ivar), Ubbi, Byorn, and Vlf and fights against the Franks. 

The Chronicle of Roskilde is the earliest Danish historical chronicle and is said to rely heavily on the accounts of Adam of Bremen, a German medieval chronicler. 

It was completed in the 12th century by an anonymous author and briefly narrates the story of Danish leaders from 826 to 1138:

At this time, with his men having been gathered together, Ywar, son of Lothpardus, most cruel king of the Northmen, whom they say lacked bones -- whose brothers Ingvar, Ubbi, Byorn, and Vlf ruled the people of the North -- called also the kings of the Danes to his aid to destroy the kingdom of the Franks.

(Chronicle of Roskilde, available on the Augustana website)

Though most of the sagas indicate that Ragnar was of Swedish origin, the chronicle also indicates that the legendary figures of Ivar and Ragnar Lothbrok were Danish, perhaps an attempt to bestow additional glory on the emerging country of Denmark.

Ragnall: The scourge of the Orkneys 

One final lead comes from the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, a collection of various annals and historical documents that were written in Middle Irish. 

Here, a certain "Ragnall" attacks York before seeking refuge in the Orkney Islands:

At this time came the Aunites (the Danes) with innumerable armies to York, and they sacked the city, and they overcame it; and that was the beginning of harassment and misfortunes for the Britons; for it was not long before this that there had been every war and every trouble in Norway, and this was the source of that war in Norway: two younger sons of Albdan, king of Norway, drove out the eldest son, i.e. Ragnall son of Albdan, for fear that he would seize the kingship of Norway after their father. 

So Ragnall came with his three sons to the Orkneys. Ragnall stayed there then, with his youngest son. The older sons, however, filled with arrogance and rashness, proceeded with a large army, having mustered that army from all quarters, to march against the Franks and Saxons.

(Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, translated by Joan Newlon Radner)

The details of Ragnall offered in the annals are relatively scarce. 

At the same time, the detail that Ragnall is said to have had a son named Ima (Ivar), when combined with the fact that a visit to the Orkney Islands is also mentioned in the Danish History, makes the account tantalizingly plausible, at least from a certain point of view. 

The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland narrate the tale of a certain Ragnall, a Norse chieftain who sacked York before fleeing to the safety of the Orkney Islands. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Forever a legend 

And so we return to the original question: did Ragnar Lothbrok really exist? 

The only realistic answer that can be offered is, "Well, sort of." 

There is certainly enough information in the various legends, sagas, and chronicles to suggest the possible existence of a man named Ragnar (or similar) whose sons went on to perform great and terrible deeds. 

The sagas were created primarily to entertain and preserve the spirit and the beliefs of the Norse people. 

Yet experts have demonstrated time and again that many (though by no means all) of their elements are rooted in historical fact. 

The oral tradition was extremely strong in Viking Age Scandinavia, and there is no question that the greatest feats of Viking warriors would have been immortalized in Norse stories. 

But how can the countless disparities in the various accounts of his story be explained? 

It would make sense to assert that the figure of Ragnar Lothbrok is a complicated combination of myth, legend, and genuine historical events. 

He would probably embody the blended tales of more than one historical figure, with further additions made to embellish the narrative and excite the listener – a common approach to mythical storytelling. 

Ultimately, though, we must admit that it is almost impossible to separate fact from fiction. Perhaps a fortunate archeologist or historian will one day uncover a clue that unlocks the secret of his existence. 

In all likelihood, however, the real Ragnar Lothbrok will remain forever elusive. 

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