I just finished watching the TV show Vikings, all of it that is available at any rate, and as I do so often when I find myself enamored with some new and fascinating saga, once I have finished it up I do some research on it. I was surprised to learn, as many of you may be, that there is a thread of reality weaved into the show. As one of the taglines states “All things begin and end as stories”. These words ring very true, especially among ancient cultures like that of the Vikings, so much so that at this point it can be difficult for modern scholars to tell what really happened in those days of yore. And yet, thanks to the intense efforts of many a historian and archeologist as well as the snappy writing of renowned historical dramatist Michael Hirst, we now all get to experience the fantastic saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, but how much of what we see in the show actually occurred in the real world?
Just a brief warning; since this article is discussing the historicity of Vikings as in depth as it can there may be spoilers ahead, even for those who have watched all of the show. You have been warned.
Please keep in mind that this is a simple 50 thousand foot overview of the facts and is only meant to be a basic primer on the historicity of the characters and events in Vikings, and as much as I would like to I cannot cover everything here.
The general concept of the show is based on the legendary Viking Ragnar Lodbrok, or as the series spells it Rangar Lothbrok. Since we are dealing with a person who’s origin lies in an ancient time and place, you will find that while doing research on the subject most of these individuals are referred to by several similar names, some used more prominently than others.
Ragnar’s legacy is primarily described in the Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok, and the Tale of Ragnar’s Sons, two legendary sagas steeped in the mythology of the Viking hero worship tradition. Ragnar’s tale is also documented in several pieces of epic poetry. But sadly that is where Ragnar himself is stuck; in stories. There is no solid historical documentation from external sources which corroborates the deeds and acts of Ragnar Lodbrok, King of the Vikings. But many of the events and people associated with Ragnar do indeed appear to be real; so the historians have come up with a theory: It is very likely that the deeds of Ragnar are misattributed and that Ragnar Lodbrok himself is likely an amalgamation of several actual people.
Depending on where you are getting your information there are several competing candidates for the identity of the men who accomplished the deeds of Ragnar. The first candidate for the title of “historical Ragnar” is, ironically enough, a man with the same name as one of Ragnar’s main antagonist throughout some of the series’ earlier Seasons, King Horik I. The real King Horik I was the lone King of the Danes from approximately 824 to 854 and his reign was marked by many raids on the Franco-German Empire.
The second potential candidate was known as Reginfrid or sometimes Ragnfrid and was co-King and then, sole King of Denmark before he was usurped by the sons of the previous King in 813. I feel I should mention quickly that these dates are all common years as were shown on the Julian calendar. Take that for what you will.
Yet another candidate for Ragnar Lodbrok can be found in the form of an unnamed King who was a partial ruler of Denmark and who was known to have come into conflict with Herald Klak, who happened to be a possible brother of King Reginfrid.
Then there is Ragnall ua Ímair, also known as Rognvald of the Irish Annals. The Irish Annals are partially complete compiled historical documents from Ireland which some historians find unreliable. Even though Rognvald as a candidate for the “historical Ragnar” does suffer from the fact that his deeds seem to possibly be an amalgamation of two different Vikings as well, he does have the fact that he very likely had an important son named Ivar who happened to die in the same country as the legendary Ivar the Boneless in his favor.
Perhaps the most thrilling person to possibly be considered for the position of the Ragnar of a legend is Reginherus, the commander of the fleet of Northmen who put Paris under siege and then sacked it in the year 845. This event is well documented due to the fact that Paris had a much larger literate population than did the attacking Vikings, some of whom were able to document the current events in a timely fashion. These records have made their way down through the ages to us and this is why the Sacking of Paris is such a well-known event; there are many more documents around to verify the authenticity of it. Interesting, side note, Reginherus is the Latinized version of the name Ragnar.
The way that Ragnar was finally able to get inside the city, by faking his own death and forcing the gates open, is actually a clever recycling of what may have been an actual historical event. His son, Björn Ironside, is a well-documented historical figure, especially considering that the location of his burial mound is known. His connection to Ragnar might be tenuous, but it is almost a certainty that Björn Ironside did actually exist. And while he was around he got up to just as much trouble as his legendary father figure. In the show Björn comes across a map, which gives him knowledge of the Mediterranean and while there is no guarantee that this is why the real Björn traveled there, he did lead a raiding party, alongside his brother Hastein (who is not mentioned in the show), into the Mediterranean, raiding Francia and various other countries along the way. Björn and his army eventually landed in Italy and captured the town of Pisa. They then made their way to the town of Luni which at the time, the Vikings thought to be Rome. After being unable to gain entrance to the city the real world Björn did as the televised Ragnar had and sent word to the city that he would like to convert to Christianity because he was dying and as soon as his honor guard brought him inside, Björn hopped off of his stretcher and his men forced open the gates as the raid commenced in earnest.
The rest of the men named as Ragnar Lodbrok’s sons are just as legitimate as Bjorn Ironside; assuming the tales are true and his nickname isn’t some odd attribution or mistranslation, Ivar the Boneless likely suffered from the genetic disease osteogenesis imperfecta and may have also been known as Ímar the founder of the Viking dynastic house known as Uí Ímair, or the House of Ivar. Halfdan Ragnarsson became the King of Jórvík (the Southern part of Northumbria), as well as the disputed ruler of the Kingdom of Dublin. It has been suggested in recent times that the birthmark that gave Sigurd Snake-in-the-eye his nickname was caused by a congenital mutation in his genes. The televised Ragnar’s remaining child, Ubba, had several versions of his name and may have been alternately known as Hubba, Ubbe, and/or Ubbi.
The one thing that connects Ragnar’s supposed children in the real world is the fact that they were all leaders and chieftains in the Great Heathen Army, a force of Norsemen intent on concurring and destroying the majority of the English landmass who started their raids in 865 A.D. This is the last suggested identity of Ragnar Lodbrok, as the unnamed Viking who fathered all of the leaders of the Great Heathen Army, although it has never been accurately shown that they were all brothers so this link is still somewhat tenuous.
What about the women in Vikings? Well, it turns out that the two major female players in the show are, sadly, about as unlikely to have been real people as the man they married. Ragnar’s first wife, the shieldmaiden Lagertha, also known as Ladgertha, or Ladgerda, appears to have been almost entirely a fictitious entity, as one of the primary “historical” sources which speak in detail about her, the Gesta Danorum, has recently had its authenticity as such called into question and many of the tales and attributes of Lagertha are almost identical to those of the Goddess Thorgerd.
The same is true for Ragnar’s second wife, Queen Aslaug, alternatively known by Aslög, Kráka, Kraba and Randalin. Her origin story goes like this: Her father, the wandering King Heimer, was afraid that people would attack him and his daughter due to her beauty and so he built a harp to hide her inside in their travels. At some point, they spent the night with a farmer and his wife who thought that the man must be hiding valuables inside the harp, so they killed him only to discover Aslaug inside. They felt bad and raised Aslaug as their own, but they shared King Heimer’s fears and thought that Aslaug’s beauty would denote her noble birth and so they had her constantly cover herself in mud and detritus. Some time later, Ragnar’s soldiers were passing by and stopped to stare at Aslaug long enough so that the food they were cooking at camp became burnt. When they got back, Ragnar confronted them about this and they explained what had happened and from there things continued as they did in the show, except Aslaug arrived eating an onion instead of apple. Several historians have noted that Aslaug’s story matches up nearly perfectly with the classical archetype known as the “Clever Peasant Girl” folk tale and indeed even the Brothers Grimm mentioned that the tale of Aslaug sounded very much like one of the tales in their own collected works.
And that my friends are everything that I could learn, with any decent amount of certainty, about the historicity of Vikings, all but one remaining factoid. In my research, I stumbled across an article about the Blood Eagle, which if you recall is the gruesome ritualistic execution method which was bestowed upon Jarl Borg near the end of Season 2. It seems that this horrifying method of death-dealing lies somewhere in between reality and myth. There is no solid evidence for a specific Blood Eagle ritual, and the likely genesis of this myth comes from mistranslations, misinterpretations, and confused and misattributed accounts of actual Viking practices, that all got swirled around and lumped together to create one ceremony more horrifying the anything that actually existed.
As of now there is still no official word about the mid-season premiere of Vikings, except for the fact that it will likely appear sometime in 2016. Do you think that Vikings is better than Game of Thrones? Do you think that the show is garbage and that it completely misrepresents history? Or have you never even heard about real world Vikings before? Whatever you have to say, we want to hear about it in the comments section.
Trent Katzenberger is a writer, youtuber, gamer, nerd, and just all around a strange sort of guy. He loves trying new stuff and creating odd things.