For three hundred years, beginning in the ninth century, they sailed the known world and discovered lands beyond their maps.1 They pillaged the peoples of England and France, canals along Middle Eastern coasts, and even their own Scandinavia, venturing as far as the east coast of North America. Being given names, such as pirates, barbarians, monsters, and farmers, today we know them as Vikings. Their people did not fear death in combat, and they would go to great lengths to find a worthy way to die. Being killed heroically with a weapon in hand could get the attention of a Valkyrie, or angelic female warrior, to determine if ones death was worthy. If deemed worthy one would ascend to Valhalla, the Nordic afterlife for a warrior, where one would brag about one’s adventures and fight to the death daily in the army of Oden, chieftain of the Norse gods, as preparation for the end of the world. One man that stood out among these hardened people and became one of the first Scandinavian kings was Ragnar Lothbrok.2
Being born just before the turn of the year 800 CE, Ragnar Lothbrok brought together the Scandinavian war bands under his command. With Europe poorly protected, and with Charlemagne’s rule coming to an end, Ragnar took the advantage and led his Vikings on many campaigns to loot Europe of its treasures.3 With little real knowledge of the Norsemen, the peoplesand treasures of Europe were easy targets. When in the fighting line, Ragnar was said to dwarf his companions that stood around him and fought in his armies as a berserker.4 A berserker is a warrior that fights in a rage-filled trance, being able to take on multiple injuries before falling in battle. Ragnar was admired for his skills in battle and for his strategic mind. His armies could hold their own against Charlemagne’s forces due to his strategic cunning. Ragnar is even father to other well-known Viking warriors, Bijorn Ironside, Hubb, and Ivar the Boneless, a figure of terror in Irish and English storytelling.5
The untimely demise of Ragnar Lothbrok became a story of revenge. With so many battles and victories against the Anglo Saxons, Ragnar had created enemy in Aelle, ruler of York. During Ragnar’s last battle, he was captured by the Anglo Saxons and became a prisoner. In honor of his new prisoner, Aelle, ruler of York, ordered his men to build a pit of snakes for Ragnar to be thrown into. As the snake venom was running through Ragnar’s veins, he is reported to have uttered, as his last words, “How the little pigs will grunt when they hear how the old boar has died,” referring to his sons as the avengers of his death.6 The death of Ragnar Lothbrok supposedly triggered a new age of Viking attacks. Those attacks had the ferocity and intensity that Vikings later became known for. Seeking to avenge their father’s death, Ivar the Boneless and his two brothers led their Viking forces to East Anglia in 865 CE. In the name of revenge, the brothers captured Aelle and killed him with the rite of the blood eagle.7 This rite was a gruesome and painful form of execution by torture that resulted in a slow death; after the torture, the poor soul subjected to the rite was to be tied by the wrists in the air to two separate trees, to resemble a bird in flight, to honor Oden’s sacred bird, the eagle. The ritual was so gruesome that it was hardly ever used and only on those deserving of it.
The story of Ragnar Lothbrok became a legend and was written into the Icelandic sagas and the Gesta Danorum.8 Over time he became another epic hero in a story with impossible adventures. Between the seventh and ninth centuries, multiple stories and lives of other people named Ragnar have surfaced. Despite these multiple stories, there will only be a true original Ragnar Lothbrok, the one that forced his way into history and built the reputation of the Vikings.