Right, so I thought it about time to set the facts straight – just in case anyone is thinking Vikings is a correct portrayal of dear old Ragnar. (Not that I care, not with Travis Fimmel to rest my eyes on) First of all, I thought it might interest you to know that Ragnar Lodbrok in essence means Ragnar Hairy Breeches. Secondly, let us keep in mind that Ragnar, like all ambitious little Viking boys, early on dreamed of becoming rich – very rich even – by stealing from others, a.k.a. raiding. If he was successful enough, he’d be able to buy a farm and retire with a comely wife. Plus, if he was really successful, someone might even raise a runestone over him.
None of the above ever came true for Ragnar. The runestone thing mainly because Ragnar did not exist outside the sagas (although some say otherwise). The retirement thing because fate had other plans for Ragnar. You see, the Norse sagas are rarely very keen on the Happily Ever After. Such notions are for wimps, not for die-hard warriors like our Scandinavian forebears. No, the sagas are harsh and gritty stories of man pitted against his destiny, with not as much as a whiff of romanticism. Hang on: the sagas DO actually romanticise one thing – the concept of honour, of men who will rather die than betray their own integrity.
These days, things have gone downhill when it comes to honour and integrity – at least here in Sweden, where neutrality rather than integrity has been evoked as a guiding principle in (relatively) recent major conflicts. Not something all Swedes are all that happy about – at least not in retrospect, but then it is always easy to apply hindsight, isn’t it?
Neither here nor there – let’s get back to Ragnar. We have here a young man eager for adventure – and riches. So when he heard of poor Tora Borgarhjort, a pretty maiden whose bower was encircled by a fierce and deadly serpent, he decided to do the right thing and save her, to some extent motivated by Tora’s father’s promise that whoever killed the monster would wed his daughter and inherit his titles and riches.
We’re talking a huge serpent here, a vile creature that considered Tora its property and defended her from any potential suitor through a combination of fangs and poison. So potent was its poison that it burned holes through garments and human skin, and as a consequence, there was a pile of young dead men at the door of Tora’s bower.
Now Ragnar was a bright young man. He realised approaching the serpent required protective gear, which is why he fashioned himself a pair of breeches out of untreated goatskins (ergo the hairy breeches). These he then dipped in pitch and rolled in sand, so that they became more or less impregnable. In pants and with a spear in hand, he then snuck up on the serpent and managed to slay it, thereby gaining Tora’s hand and a jarldom.
I can hear some of you say, “What? Tora? Who’s this Tora, and where is Lagertha?” Sorry to tell you that the sagas are not always consistent, so in some Ragnar does wed Lagertha for a short while (after first having killed her tame bear and hound – beasts set upon him as a test by Lagertha) but divorces her to marry Tora, a much better catch seeing as she’s a jarl’s daughter and Danish – just like Ragnar.
By all accounts, Tora and Ragnar were very happy. Too happy as per the Norns, those rather cold-hearted crones that spin the threads of fate. Which is why they decided to cut Tora’s thread, and Ragnar was left a devastated widower. As any grieving Viking would do, Ragnar set off on a raiding expedition, hoping to dull the constant ache in his heart through violent action and plunder.
Ragnar and his men were in a Norwegian fjord, and Ragnar sent some of his men off the ship to do some baking (and I rather like the resulting picture of self-sufficient Viking warriors with bulging biceps kneading dough). As they were doing their bread thing, the men were distracted by the sudden appearance of a young girl called Kraka. So beautiful was she that the bakers forgot their task, mouths agape as they stared at this female apparition. As a result, the bread was badly burnt, and Ragnar was less than pleased when his men returned to the ship.
“It was Kraka’s fault,” the men said, going on to describe this gorgeous creature. I’m thinking Ragnar was intrigued not only by the description, but also by the amusing fact that someone so beautiful should be named Kraka, which means crow. Whatever the case, Ragnar decided it was best if he did some inspecting of his own, but before doing so, he decided to do some research.
In an age devoid of internet, finding out more about Kraka proved difficult for Ragnar. Fortunately for you, dear readers, I do have internet (and books) so I can tell you in confidence that Kraka was really named Aslög, and she was the daughter of Brunhilde and Sigurd Fafnesbane of Wagnerian fame. Now that story of love, betrayal, blood and death is so complicated it would take an entire post to explain it all, so let’s just summarise by saying little Aslög is left an orphan when her parents die, and she is smuggled to safety in a harp by a gentleman named Heimer. When Heimer asks for lodging with a poor couple in Norway, the wife urges her husband to kill their guest as she can see that he is rich, and among his belongings they discover the girl whom they rename Kraka and set to hard work.
Ragnar got as far as the Sigurd Fafnesbane bit and was very impressed – especially as Sigurd had died like two centuries prior to Ragnar seeing the light of the day, so either Kraka was very old, or there was magic at work. When in doubt, go with magic, and Ragnar found this additional ingredient quite alluring. So he decided to set the young woman a test and invited her to visit him on his ship “neither dressed nor naked, neither hungry nor full, neither alone and accompanied”. Clearly, my ancestors enjoyed speaking in riddles…
Kraka/Aslög rose to the challenge and appeared swathed in fishnets having eaten a clove of garlic and with a dog at her heels. This, apparently, sufficed to sweep Ragnar off his feet, and he carried Aslög with him back to Denmark where he promptly married her and had many, many children with her.
Together, Aslög and Ragnar had four sons: Ivar Benlös (boneless), Björn Järnsida (ironside), Sigurd Ormöga (serpent’s eye) and Vitsärk. Ivar Benlös was supposedly afflicted with some sort of disease (in some cases attributed to his parents having had sex before marriage), but it doesn’t seem to have hampered his style much, as he and his brothers grew up to be as fierce as their father. So successful were the brothers in their raiding expeditions that people began to mutter that the sons were better warriors than their father. This Ragnar did not like. At all.
In an effort to set things straight, Ragnar decided to launch his own little raiding party – and he was going west, to ransack the lands of King Aella of Northumbria. To really show the world just what a fearsome warrior he was, Ragnar decided to go with only two ships, sufficient, in his opinion, to defeat that milksop of an English king. Aslög begged him not to go, plagued by foresight. When he insisted on going, she gave him a magic shirt, a garment which could not be penetrated by iron. But she was weeping as he left, knowing deep inside she’d never see him again.
Ragnar arrived in England only to crash straight into Aella’s army. Thanks to his shirt, Ragnar survived while one by one his men died, and so he was captured alive and hauled before a smug Aella who demanded to know his name. Ragnar refused to tell him, and so Aella had him thrown into a pit with vipers, there to die a slow, painful and – most distressing for a Viking – ignominious death.
“The piglets will squeal when they hear how the old boar suffered,” Ragnar supposedly said before dying, smiling at the thought of the revenge his sons would wreak on Aella.
The piglets most certainly squealed. As per the saga, the brothers were in their hall when the messenger carrying the tidings of their father’s death reached them. Vitsärk was playing draughts, and squeezed so hard round the piece in his hand that blood began to well. Sigurd was paring his nails and cut himself to the bone. Björn was honing his spear, and tightened his hold on the shaft until it splintered. Ivar calmly asked the messenger to tell them everything. Everything, mind.
The three younger roared and gnashed their teeth together, wanting to set off immediately to kill Aella. Ivar urged caution and stealth.
“Revenge is a dish best eaten cold,” he said, but was overruled. So off the brothers went, with Ivar choosing to distance his ships and men from his revenge-maddened brothers.
Aella was no fool. Upon realising who had died in his snake pit, he knew it was just a matter of time before the sons came, so he’d amassed a sizeable army, big enough to beat back the brothers who turned tail and ran back to their ships. All except Ivar, who decided to visit with Aella and expressed himself willing to accept weregild for his father’s death. Aella was more than happy to oblige, and settled sizeable land on Ivar, who seemingly was content to live in proximity with his father’s murderer. Not…
Over the coming years, Ivar fostered unrest and resentment among Aella’s vassals, and once the kingdom had been sufficiently destabilised, he sent for his brothers. This time, there was no army to defend Aella. This time, he was captured and dragged alive before Ragnar’s four sons. Not for Aella the snake pit, no, Aella was undressed, thrown to the ground with his back bared to the sky, and ever so slowly Ragnar’s sons “carved a blood eagle” on him. This entailed slicing through his back, breaking the ribs and pulling them wide apart to resemble wings, and then pulling the lungs out through the resulting hole. Nice.
The sons returned to Aslög, and she was satisfied that her husband had been adequately avenged. Björn and Sigurd went on to become kings of Sweden and Denmark respectively. As to Ivar, he stayed on in England – as per the saga as king of all England, as per what little facts there are as the leader of the Viking army that despoiled most of Mercia and East Anglia in the late 9th century.
There is an interesting little add-on to Ragnar’s saga, which refers to Ivar’s final resting place. It is said Ivar ordered his burial mound to be built just at the edge of the sea, prophesising that as long as his bones lay untouched, no one would be able to invade England. According to this little codicil, “the bastard William” found the mound and had it opened. Upon finding Ivar’s body un-decayed, William ordered a pyre to be built, and only once Ivar’s bones had been reduced to ashes did he proceed with his invasion plans. I’m thinking Ivar would have applauded William – after all, they both had Viking blood, a gift for violence and pillage.
So, did Ragnar exist in any form? We don’t know, sources from the 9th century being understandably scarce. Some people seem to think there was a historic Ragnar, a Danish Viking of great renown. But for him to be married to a woman whose father slayed a dragon, well, that does seem difficult to believe, doesn’t it? Whether real or not, the story of Ragnar and Aslög is a story of two equals, two people who meet and know immediately they belong together. Maybe it was Aslög seeing the hole of grief in Ragnar’s heart. Or maybe it was Ragnar seeing in poor Kraka a woman with the spirit of a lion. Or maybe it was those pesky Norns, thinking it would be fun to twine these two threads together and see what happened. A lot, as it turns out. Enough to build an entire TV series on.