So who was this mysterious woman who married and bedded the scourge of Frankish Paris, Ragnar Lothbrok? Was she just a mere literary invention or a powerful symbol of women's equality and equity in Viking societies?

The daughter of a dragon killer and a shield maiden

There is no character in Norse mythology and sagas quite like Åslaug Sigurdsdatter. Also known by the moniker, Kráka (The Crow), she appears as a character in 3 of the most important sagas of the Norse literary tradition: Snorri Sturluson's Edda, the 13th-century ancestral Volsungesaga, and the biographical Ragnar Lothbrok's Saga

She was said to be the daughter of the legendary shieldmaiden Brynhildr and Sigurd (a legendary king and Germanic proto-Saint George who killed a dragon but was murdered). She was, however, not brought up by these legendary parents but shipped off, after her parents' tragic death, to her mother's foster father, Heimer.

Given the tragic death of her parents, Heimer was naturally a little protective of her. In fact, he was so worried about the security and safety of his new adopted daughter that he created a harp so large that Åslaug was able to hide it between the strings. They then set off around Norway with Heimer disguised as a simple harp player. Arriving in southern Norway, they overnight at a house of local peasants, Åke and Grima. 

Believing the harp to contain valuable items and treasure, Grima convinces her husband to kill Heimer. However, as they break the harp open, they find no treasure but a sleeping Åslaug. They decide to raise her as their own (one can probably assume she wasn't thrilled about being adopted by cold-blooded killers).

To add insult to injury– and possibly winning Norse mythology's "Worst Parents" award – they decide to hide her beauty (which was, apparently, a sign of her blue blood) by smearing tar and soot onto her face, making her wear dirty rags, and essentially force her to work. This face tarring gives rise to her nickname, Kráka - Old Norse for "Crow."

Enter Ragnar Lothbrok

What further information we have about Åslaug comes mostly from Ragnar Lothbrok's Saga. Many historians and academics believe that Ragnar Lothbrok was indeed a historical person but whether he actually lived out some of the adventures and tall tales as stated in this saga is highly unlikely.

Ragnar Lothbrok is returning from a military campaign (having just defeated a dragon) and stops in Norway. He sends some men ashore to fetch supplies. As they pass through a field, they see Åslaug tending to the cows. Åslaug was forbidden from bathing. However, she ignores this and goes for a bath in a river. The men pass by and see her beauty and completely forget about the food supplies. 

When they arrive back on the ship empty-handed, they tell Lothbork about this bathing beauty. He summons for her with three simple instructions – "to not come dressed or undressed," "not hungry and not full," and "not alone and not with others." Åslaug, smart as she is beautiful, then decides to wear a fishing net, have a bite of an onion, and get a dog to follow her: fulfilling all of the three tricky requirements that Lothbrok had.

Lothbork is clearly struck by her beauty and makes her an offer to be his queen. She declines and hurries back to her foster parents. She now tells them that she knows that they murdered Heimer and, reluctantly, returns to Lothbrok and the Vikings. Living up to the stereotype of a rapacious Viking, Lothbrok immediately wants to lie "as man and wife" as soon as possible. 

However, Åslaug holds off his advances for three nights. She warns that there will be dire consequences if they lie together before marriage. On the third night, Lothbrok cannot control himself and manages to sleep with her. The result is a child, a boy who, living up to Åslaug's warning, has only cartilage where they should be born hence his name, Ivar the Boneless.

The majority of what we know about Ragnar Lothbrok comes from a variety of Icelandic sagas and tales dating from the late 12th and early 13th century CE. Photo: Leah Morillon / Pexels

Prophetic visions and advice not taken

Away on campaign in Sweden, Lodbrok meets a petty king who persuades him to marry Swedish Princess Ingeborg instead of Åslaug. While he travels back to Norway, three messenger crows have already told Åslaug about Lothbrok's new flame. She confronts him and reveals that she is of noble lineage, and he changes his mind about staying with her. The Swedish petty king rebels against Lothbrok but Åslaugh has ordered one of Lothbrok's sons, from a previous marriage, to go and assassinate this rebel.

Whilst on campaign in England, Lothbrok, again, does not heed Åslaug's prophetic warning. He is captured by King Ælla of Northumbria and thrown into a pit full of poisonous snakes. However, Åslaug gifted him a magical shirt before he went on the campaign that protects him from poison. For some unknown reason, Lothbrok discards the shirt, is bitten by a multitude of snakes, and dies.

Is Åslaug just a sexist stereotype, or does she break down Viking Era gender roles?

Like so much of early medieval literature, characters like Åslaug are often assigned secondary and supporting roles. The embedded violent nature (either physical or sexual) of Viking societies is inherent in all of the sagas where Åslaug appears. What is interesting, though, is that she is often portrayed as the intellectual equal (if not better) of Ragnar Lothbrok. She is portrayed as a natural beauty, an intellectual powerhouse, and – with the assassination of the rebel Swedish king – a Machiavellian international political powerhouse.

Having said that, Åsalug also adheres to many stereotypical gender roles of the age: a peasant girl who is often helpless to decide her own fate, a powerless woman to stop the advance of a Viking, and little more than the wife of a powerful Viking ruler. With royal blood in her veins, this is often downplayed as she is best remembered as being a prototype of a "good peasant girl."

She does, however, give her name to one of the best poems of the so-called "Viking Age." The Krákumál is an epic skaldic poem of 29 stanzas. Composed sometime in the 12th century, it deals with Ragnar Lothbrok's musings, whilst captured by King Æella of Northumbria, on a warrior's life, death, and hopeful entrance to Valhalla.

For a deep dive into the Ragnar Lothbrok legend – with several mentions of Åslaug and their sons – visit the BBC History Extra website here.

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