Heralded in poetry, tales, and even Netflix series, it can be hard to separate the facts of his life from the legends. Considered a national hero today in three Nordic countries, just who was this fierce warrior king?

Born of royal blood

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. The most important are The Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok, the Tale of Ragnar’s Sons, and the Heimskringla, which all state that Lothbrok was the son of the legendary king of Sweden, Sigurd Ring, whilst other sagas state he was the son of a Danish king. 

Lothbrok has an unusual surname with a curious description. In old Norse, his surname, Loðbrók, actually means "hairy trousers." Historians have taken this to mean that he fashioned armor out of animal skins.

What the sagas and tales can agree on, however, is that he was the son of Norse royalty, living sometime in the late 8th to early 9th century BCE. This was a time of great insecurity throughout Northern Europe as the collapse of the Western Roman Empire had led to a splintering of tribes and kingdoms. The collapse of society in the British Isles was exploited by various Germanic tribes invading, especially the Angles, Saxons, and the Danes.

Aside from the sagas and tales, historians are somewhat confident in saying that the historical Ragnar was a warlord in the service of Danish royalty that became king of Denmark from about 830 – 865 CE.

Leader of a Viking raid on Paris

Lothbrok spent much of his life as a pirate and raider, capitalizing on the political insecurity of the early medieval period. As much of Northern Europe, especially the Scandinavian, Baltic, and Russian peoples, had not been Christianized yet, Lothbrok was a Pagan with little regard for the followers of Christ. Legend has it that one of his favorite ploys, as a raider and Viking, was to attack Christian towns or villages on religious holidays or festivals where soldiers would be attending church services.

The 9th century signaled the beginning of the so-called "Viking Age."  The Kingdom of West Francia, which cantered around modern-day Paris, was soon at the forefront of Viking raids. The most daring was the Siege of Paris, traditionally taking place in 845 CE. Frankish King Charles the Bald assembled a small army, which the Norsemen easily defeated. The Vikings then organized a flotilla of 120 ships and 5,000 men to sail up the Seine and besiege Paris.

The leader of this Viking expedition has been identified as Lothbrok. The Vikings only stopped the destruction, rape, and pillage of the City of Light only after Charles the Bald paid a hefty ransom.

The Vikings first rowed up the Seine to attack Paris in 845. Photo: Meik Schmidt / Pexels

Next stop: The British Isles

Following his success in France, Lothbrok then turned his attention to the British Isles. Both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which is near contemporaneous to Lothbrok’s life) and the Irish Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib (written later in the 12th century BCE) place Lothbrok as conducting Viking raids on the northern and eastern shores of Britain.

Lothbrok is said to have taken part in raids against the Kingdom of Northumbria, which was then a mighty Anglo-Saxon fiefdom ruled by Ælla. Legend has it that Lothbrok met his end battling King Ælla of Northumbria. Lothbrok and his men were finally defeated in battle in Northumbria, and King Ælla is said to have thrown Lothbrok into a pit filled with poisonous snakes.

According to legend, his last words were, “the pigs would grunt if they knew the boar was suffering.” This was a reference to his sons (Ivar, Agnar, Halvdan, Sigurd, Bjørn, Ubbe, and Magnus) from his two wives, Tora Borgarhjort and Åslaug Sigursdatter. When his sons heard that he had perished, only his son Ivar would avenge his father’s death by capturing York and then northern England from 866 CE.

A part of Scandinavian popular culture for more than a millennium

The legacy of Ragnar Lothbrok looms large in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland. For the three Scandinavian countries, he is somewhat of a mythical and mystical king, a sort of Norse King Arthur. He is a key and important character in many Northern European stories, tales, and sagas.

In more modern times, Lothbrok has been portrayed in a 1958 film (The Vikings), a French comic book (Ragnar Le Viking), and as the main character in a 1993 alternative history novel (The Hammer and the Cross).

In recent years, Scandinavian history, especially the Viking Age, has become mainstream thanks to television shows like "Vikings" and "Vikings: Valhalla." Due to his legendary nature and exploits, it is no surprise that Lothbrok looms as a major character in "Vikings," played by Australian actor Travis Fimmel.

Lothbrok is also a key character in the video game "Assassin’s Creed": Valhalla, released in 2020.

What is certain is that the legend of Ragnar Lothbrok is as powerful as the fierce warrior he once was.

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