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The Saga of the Volsungs With the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok by Jackson Crawford
The Saga of the Volsungs: With the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok by Jackson Crawford

Ragnar Lodbrok

The Viking Hero and King

In the annals of Viking history, the name Ragnar Lodbrok resonates with tales of legendary exploits and daring conquests. This enigmatic figure, known by the epithet “Ragnar hairy-breeches,” has left an indelible mark on Old Norse poetry, Icelandic sagas, and chronicles from the Viking Age. Let us delve into the captivating narrative of Ragnar Lodbrok, a Viking hero and a ruler who traversed the realms of Sweden and Denmark, leaving a trail of awe-inspiring raids in his wake.

The Raids and Conquests of Ragnar Lodbrok

According to the rich tapestry of traditional literature, Ragnar Lodbrok’s legacy rests upon his audacious exploits against the British Isles and the Holy Roman Empire. Legends and sagas intertwine to recount his daring raids during the 9th century, as he fearlessly led his Viking forces into battle. These tales, handed down through generations, elevate Ragnar to the status of a fearless warrior king, revered for his unwavering determination and strategic brilliance on the battlefield.

Legends and Norse Sagas: Ragnar Lodbrok’s Ancestral Origins

The legend of Ragnar Lodbrok stretches beyond his own achievements, as he is enveloped by the mystique of Norse mythology. Within the captivating sagas of his time, such as the Tale of Ragnar’s Sons and a Saga about Certain Ancient Kings, Ragnar’s lineage intertwines with the realm of divine ancestry. These ancient tales ascribe Ragnar’s fatherhood to the legendary king of the Swedes, Sigurd Ring, further entwining his fate with the tapestry of ancient Scandinavian rulers.

Ragnar Lodbrok’s Enduring Legacy

Through the poetic verses of Old Norse literature and the echoes of near-contemporary chronicles, Ragnar Lodbrok’s name resounds across the ages. His ferocity in battle, his strategic genius, and his relentless pursuit of conquest have solidified his place as a Viking hero and a revered figure in Viking lore. Ragnar’s legacy endures, inspiring awe and fascination, as his legendary persona continues to captivate the imagination of those who seek to unravel the enigmatic tapestry of Viking history.

Icelandic Sagas

The Origins of Ragnar Lodbrok
The single surviving page known as the Kringla leaf (Kringlublaðið) is kept in the National and University Library of Iceland in Reykjavík.

The single surviving page known as the Kringla leaf (Kringlublaðið) is kept in the National and University Library of Iceland in Reykjavík.

Deep within the annals of Nordic sagas, the accounts of Ragnar Lodbrok’s lineage weave a complex tapestry. Drawing upon the Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok, Tale of Ragnar’s Sons, Heimskringla, Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks, Sögubrot af nokkrum fornkonungum, and other Icelandic sources, the threads of his ancestry intertwine with kings and legends.

Royal Bloodlines and Intricate Connections

According to these sagas, Ragnar was the son of Sigurd Ring, the king of Sweden. His father’s father was none other than the renowned Danish king Randver, whose wife Åsa hailed from the lineage of King Harald of the Red Moustache from Norway. Notably, Randver’s own ancestry is traced back to the legendary Scandinavian king Ivar Vidfamne through his daughter Aud.

The Battle of Brávellir and the Rise of Sigurd Ring

Following the demise of Ivar Vidfamne, Harald, Aud’s eldest son by the Danish king Hrœrekr Ringslinger, seized his grandfather’s realm, earning the name Harald Wartooth. Upon the death of Randver, Sigurd Ring ascended to the throne of Sweden, possibly as a subking under Harald. A fateful clash, known as the Battle of the Brávellir, unfolded on the plains of Östergötland, where Harald and many of his warriors met their end, leaving Sigurd to rule Sweden and Denmark.

The Birth of a Fabled Hero: Ragnar Lodbrok

Sigurd Ring, a king of renown, fathered a son with Alfhild, the princess of the petty kingdom of Álfheimr. This son was Ragnar Lodbrok, who would go on to inherit his father’s mantle. The tales speak of Ragnar as a man of exceptional stature, the epitome of beauty, resembling his mother’s kin.

Marriages, Triumphs, and Tragic Demise

The sagas emphasize Ragnar’s marriages, shedding light on his personal life rather than his feats of warfare. His first wife, Thora Borgarhjort, became his bride after he slayed a colossal serpent guarding her father’s abode. This daring act earned him the nickname Lodbrok due to the unique protective attire he donned during the battle. Together, Ragnar and Thora had two sons, Erik and Agnar.

Kraka (Aslaug) by Mårten Eskil Winge

Kraka (Aslaug) by Mårten Eskil Winge

Following Thora’s passing, fate led Ragnar to Kráka, a woman of unparalleled beauty and wisdom. He wed her, unknowingly marrying the secret daughter of the revered hero Sigurd Fafnesbane, Aslaug. From this union, a new generation of warriors emerged—Ragnar’s sons: Ivar the Boneless, Björn Ironside, Hvitserk, Ragnvald, and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye.

Yet, Ragnar’s desire for glory urged him to set sail with a mere two ships, determined to conquer England. However, he was vanquished by the superior forces of the English and cast into a pit of venomous serpents, succumbing to a gruesome death.

Ragnar’s Sons: Warriors Carrying the Torch

Despite their father’s tragic fate, Ragnar’s sons rose to prominence, forging their own legacies. The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, Tale of Ragnar’s Sons, and Heimskringla vividly recount their exploits, but none more striking than the Great Heathen Army’s invasion of England around 866. Led by the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok, this fearsome force sought revenge against King Ælla of Northumbria, who had captured and executed their illustrious father.

Revenge and the Great Heathen Army’s Wrath

The Great Heathen Army’s relentless onslaught upon the shores of England shook the kingdom to its core. With their iron will and indomitable spirit, Ragnar’s sons sought vengeance for their father’s demise, leaving a trail of devastation in their wake. Their saga would forever be etched into history as they exacted retribution upon those who dared to cross their lineage.

Through the intricate narratives of the sagas and the brushstrokes of historical accounts, the legend of Ragnar Lodbrok and his valiant lineage endures. From the labyrinthine web of royal bloodlines to the triumphs and tragedies that marked their lives, the story of these Viking warriors captivates the imagination and beckons us to delve deeper into the age of legends and Viking sagas.

Danish Sources

The Chronicles Unveiled

In the 12th-century Chronicon Roskildense, Ragnar Lodbrok is mentioned as the father of the ruthless Norse King Ywar, along with his brothers Inguar, Ubbi, Byorn, and Ulf. They call upon Danish petty kings for assistance in their quest to devastate the realm of the Franks. Interestingly, Ywar’s attacks on the kingdoms of Britain are not driven by revenge, unlike the Icelandic sagas.

Sven Aggesen’s Account

Sven Aggesen’s chronicle, dating back to the 12th century, introduces us to the full name of Ragnar Lodbrok—Regnerus Lothbrogh. It recounts the invasion of Denmark by Ragnar’s son Sigurd, who slays the Danish king and marries his daughter, thus ascending to the throne. Their son, Knut, becomes the ancestor of future Danish kings.

Saxo, drawn by the Norwegian illustrator Louis Moe.

Saxo, drawn by the Norwegian illustrator Louis Moe.

Saxo Grammaticus Unveils History

Saxo Grammaticus, in his 13th-century work Gesta Danorum, blends Norse legend with historical data from Adam of Bremen’s chronicle. Here, Ragnar’s father is Sigurd Ring, a Norwegian prince married to a Danish princess. The saga distinguishes this Sigurd Ring from the victor of Brávellir, who lived thirteen generations earlier. Saxo elevates Ragnar to the Danish kingship after the deaths of Sigurd Ring and his cousin Ring in battle.

Ragnar’s Legendary Exploits
Lagertha as imagined in a lithography by Morris Meredith Williams in 1913

Lagertha as imagined in a lithography by Morris Meredith Williams in 1913

Saxo’s narrative reveals Ragnar’s first triumph over the Swedish king Frö, avenging his grandfather’s death. Assisted by the fierce shield-maiden Ladgerda (Lagertha), whom he forces into marriage, Ragnar fathers Fridleif and two daughters. Later, he repudiates Ladgerda and weds Thora Borgarhjort, daughter of the Swedish king Herrauðr, after defeating venomous giant snakes guarding her abode. With Thora, Ragnar begets sons Radbard, Dunvat, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, Björn Ironside, Agnar, and Ivar the Boneless. Additionally, a non-marital relationship with an unnamed woman brings forth Ubbe. Ragnar’s final marriage to Svanlaug (possibly Aslaug) results in three more sons: Ragnvald, Eric Weatherhat, and Hvitserk.

Sub-Kings and Conquests

Ragnar’s sons are installed as sub-kings in various conquered territories. Ragnar himself leads a Viking expedition, slaying England’s King Hama and Scottish earls while installing Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye and Radbard as governors. Norway is subjugated, with Fridleif ruling there and in Orkney. Ragnar and three sons invade Sweden, eliminating the new king Sörle and placing Björn Ironside on the throne. Björn is later appointed ruler of Norway, while Eric Weatherhat governs Sweden before meeting his demise at the hands of Eysteinn. Ubbe rebels against his father under the influence of his maternal grandfather Esbjørn, resulting in a fierce battle where he is ultimately defeated and captured.

Exploits and Rivalries

Saxo recounts numerous expeditions to the British Isles, including the expulsion of Ivar the Boneless by Ælla, son of Hama, with the help of a group known as the Galli, possibly Norse-Gaels. Hvitserk becomes ruler of the Scythians but is treacherously captured and burned alive. Ragnar, upon learning of this, leads an expedition to Kievan Rus’ and captures Daxon, who is subsequently spared and exiled.

Ragnar’s Legacy

Contrary to Icelandic sources, Saxo’s account primarily highlights Ragnar’s successful Viking invasions across vast territories. Notably, battles against the Bjarmians and Finns prove formidable due to the Bjarmians’ magic spells and the Finnish archers’ skiing skills. Harald Klak, a historical king, becomes another persistent enemy of Ragnar, repeatedly inciting rebellion but consistently facing defeat. In a twist of fate, Ragnar meets his end in England, captured and thrown into a snake pit, mirroring the traditional fate of the early Burgundian king Gunnar.

Ragnar’s Reckoning

While Saxo praises Ragnar Lodbrok, he considers his demise as God’s rightful vengeance for the contempt he showed towards the Christian religion. Through these historical accounts, the legendary figure of Ragnar Lodbrok emerges, showcasing a complex tapestry of conquests, rivalries, and a legacy that continues to captivate the imagination.

Anglo-Saxon & Irish Accounts

The initial page of the Peterborough Chronicle

The initial page of the Peterborough Chronicle

The Battle of Cynwit and the Mysterious Banner

According to the contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Asser’s Life of Alfred, a momentous event unfolded in 878. A naval fleet, led by the enigmatic “brother of Hingwar and Healfden,” made landfall in Devon, England. This force was none other than a contingent of the Great Heathen Army, infamous for their Viking conquests. The invaders clashed with the Saxons in a fierce confrontation known as the Battle of Cynwit.

The Decisive Outcome and the Legendary Banner

During the Battle of Cynwit, the Vikings suffered a significant defeat. Their king met his demise, and many warriors fell on the battlefield. Only a handful managed to escape to their ships, fleeing the wrath of the victorious Saxons. In the aftermath of this momentous clash, the Saxons claimed a bountiful plunder, including a highly symbolic artifact—the banner named “Raven.”

Myth and Legend Interwoven

The early 12th-century Annals of St Neots add another layer to the tale, introducing a captivating legend surrounding the fabled banner. It is said that the three sisters of Hingwar and Hubba, daughters of the renowned figure Lodebroch (Lodbrok), meticulously wove the banner in a single day. In every subsequent battle, the flag served as a mystical omen. If victory was within their grasp, a live crow would soar above the flag’s center. However, if defeat loomed, the crow would remain motionless, hanging down solemnly. History records numerous instances where this prophecy held true.

Early References to the Legendary Hero

This account stands among the earliest references to the legendary hero, Ragnar Lodbrok. The Irish Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib, a work from the 12th century drawing on earlier annals, sheds light on the name “mac Ragnaill,” attributed to King Halfdan who perished in 877. Scholars speculate that “Ragnall” may refer to either Ragnvald or Ragnar himself, suggesting that Ivar’s and Halfdan’s father was indeed named Ragnar or a variant thereof.

The Intriguing Saga of the Viking Sons

The early 11th-century Three Fragments weaves a semi-legendary narrative surrounding the capture of York by the Vikings in 866. It recounts the tale of Halfdan, King of Lochlann, and his three sons, among them Ragnall. Forced into exile, Ragnall sought refuge in the Orkney islands with his offspring. Over time, two of his sons embarked on audacious raids, plundering both the English and the Franks. It was during these exploits that one of them received a divine vision, foretelling a tragic battle in which their youngest brother would fall alongside Ragnall himself. Returning with a multitude of dark-skinned captives, the two Viking sons carried the weight of their eventful journeys.

Unraveling the Saga’s Historical Threads

Scholars have posited that this Irish account may represent an alternative version of Ragnar Lodbrok’s saga. It suggests that the Mediterranean expedition, historically dated between 859 and 861, became intertwined with the legendary figure’s story. The fusion of myth and historical events presents an intriguing puzzle for historians and enthusiasts alike.

In the complex tapestry of history, these accounts illuminate the extraordinary exploits of Ragnar Lodbrok and his entwined legacy, revealing glimpses of a bygone era steeped in both fact and folklore.

The Great Heathen Army and the Revenge of Ragnar Lodbrok

A map of the routes taken by the Great Heathen Army from 865 to 878

A map of the routes taken by the Great Heathen Army from 865 to 878

The Great Heathen Army: A Retribution Led by the Sons of Ragnar Lodbrok

The Great Heathen Army, an infamous force in Viking history, was believed to be led by the vengeful sons of Ragnar Lodbrok. Their primary objective? To exact revenge upon King Ælla of Northumbria, who had condemned Ragnar to a gruesome demise by casting him into a pit teeming with venomous snakes. This dramatic tale, rooted in vengeance and bloodshed, sets the stage for the legendary exploits of these historical figures.

The Sons of Ragnar: Architects of the Great Heathen Army

Among the key organizers of the Great Heathen Army were several of Ragnar Lodbrok’s sons, whose names have become synonymous with Viking lore. Historical records confirm the existence of Ivar the Boneless, Ubba, Halfdan, Björn Ironside, and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, all playing significant roles in this audacious campaign. While the historical authenticity of Hvitserk remains somewhat dubious, the remaining brothers’ prominence cannot be denied.

Ivar the Boneless

From 865 to 870, Ivar the Boneless held the reins of the Great Heathen Army, steering its course with strategic brilliance and unwavering determination. However, English historical accounts abruptly cease mentioning him after 870, leaving his fate shrouded in mystery. According to the Anglo-Saxon chronicler Æthelweard, Ivar met his demise in 870, marking a turning point in the saga of the Great Heathen Army.

Halfdan Ragnarsson

Following Ivar’s departure from historical records, Halfdan Ragnarsson assumed leadership of the Great Heathen Army around 870. His ambition led him to launch a formidable invasion of Wessex, leaving a lasting mark on the English landscape. Notably, Halfdan’s forces received reinforcements from the Great Summer Army, an influx of Viking warriors hailing from Scandinavia, led by King Bagsecg of Denmark.

Confrontations, Truces, and the Legacy of the Sons of Ragnar

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Danes engaged the West Saxons in a series of nine fierce battles, each clash escalating the tension between the two forces. One of the notable encounters was the Battle of Ashdown on 8 January 871, which witnessed the demise of King Bagsecg. Following this loss, Halfdan Ragnarsson negotiated a truce with the newly crowned king of Wessex, the future Alfred the Great, setting the stage for future alliances and power dynamics.

Björn Ironside

Björn Ironside, a prominent figure among Ragnar’s sons, is reputed to have ascended to the throne of Sweden and Uppsala. While the chronology presents some inconsistencies, sagas attest to his kingship. Björn’s legacy continued through his sons Erik and Refil Björnsson, with Erik eventually becoming the next king of Sweden, succeeded in turn by Refil’s son, Erik Refilsson.

Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye

Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, possibly the same individual as Sigfred, Halfdan’s brother, rose to power as a king in Denmark, ruling jointly with Halfdan in 873. According to sagas, Sigurd expanded his dominion to Zealand, Skåne, and the lesser Danish Isles. Sigfred-Sigurd, potentially Halfdan’s successor as the ruler of Denmark, might be the Viking king Sigfred, whose life was tragically cut short in West Francia in 887.

Through the accounts of battles, truces, and the rise of Viking kings, the saga of Ragnar Lodbrok and his sons echoes through the annals of history. The Great Heathen Army stands as a testament to their indomitable spirit and thirst for revenge, forever leaving an enduring legacy within the pages of Viking lore.

Featured Image

Ragnar Lodbrok with sons Ivar and Ubba, 15th-century miniature in Harley MS 2278 folio 39r

Ragnar Lodbrok with sons Ivar and Ubba, 15th-century miniature in Harley MS 2278 folio 39r

The 15th-century miniature found in Harley MS 2278 folio 39r offers a captivating glimpse into the world of Ragnar Lodbrok and his formidable sons, Ivar and Ubba. In this intricately crafted artwork, the figures are depicted with meticulous attention to detail, conveying their powerful presence and status as legendary Viking figures.

Ragnar Lodbrok, the central figure, exudes an air of authority and command. He is portrayed with a regal bearing, adorned in traditional Viking attire, complete with ornate armor and a helmet symbolizing his warrior status. His piercing gaze reflects his unwavering determination and strategic prowess, as if plotting his next audacious conquest.

Beside Ragnar stand his sons, Ivar and Ubba, both notable warriors in their own right. Ivar, known as “the Boneless” due to a physical condition, is depicted with an air of mystique surrounding him. Despite his apparent disability, Ivar’s cunning intellect and tactical brilliance made him a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield. Clad in his battle gear, his expression reveals a combination of calculated confidence and an underlying intensity.

Ubba, on the other hand, is portrayed as a paragon of strength and physical prowess. His muscular physique is emphasized, emphasizing his reputation as a fearsome warrior. With a determined countenance and a firm grip on his weapon, he exudes an aura of raw power and martial skill.

This remarkable depiction in Harley MS 2278 folio 39r serves as a testament to the enduring fascination with the legendary Viking figures. It not only showcases the artistic craftsmanship of the 15th century but also immortalizes Ragnar Lodbrok, Ivar, and Ubba as iconic symbols of Viking history, inspiring awe and curiosity among those who encounter their legendary tales.

Sources

  • File:Harley MS 2278, folio 39r excerpt.jpg – Wikimedia Commons. (2020). Wikimedia.org. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Harley_MS_2278,_folio_39r_excerpt.jpg

  • Groeneveld, E. (2018, August 31). Ragnar Lothbrok. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/Ragnar_Lothbrok/

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, May 17). Ragnar Lodbrok. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ragnar_Lodbrok

  • Crawford, J. (2017). Krákumál: Ragnar Lothbrok’s Last Words? [YouTube Video]. In YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M59xsFRl490

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, February 3). Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tale_of_Ragnar_Lodbrok

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, May 1). Tale of Ragnar’s Sons. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tale_of_Ragnar%27s_Sons

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, March 15). Heimskringla. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heimskringla‌

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, May 30). Saxo Grammaticus. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saxo_Grammaticus

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