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The History in the Show Vikings

I love Vikings. Who doesn’t? They were badass warriors as well as being some of the greatest adventurers of their time. Basically, they were alt-rock personified. Cool, sometimes violent, and with a passionate hate for authority.

Not only do I love Vikings, but I own and have read many of the Icelandic sagas and did so FOR FUN and only a handful of people can say that so I’m here to share what I know so you don’t have to read them yourself!

You can only imagine how much and how hard I fanboyed when the History Channel first started airing their original show Vikings back in 2013.

Viking ship on fire.

Now, I have a lot of genuine love for this show, but I think it would be best to think of it as a historical fantasy. But, I mean, who doesn’t love fantasy? In fact, it might be best to think of the show as fantasy with historic inspiration.

The show uses the story of Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons (and wife and brother) to tell the story of the entire Viking Age, which lasted (from the English perspective) from 793 to 1066. Now let’s get nitty-gritty and look at some of the differences between the show and what inspired it.

Ragnar

We all love Ragnar, especially with Travis Fimmel portraying him. What might be most surprising about his character is that in all likelihood, he never existed but wait before you get disappointed. 

He appears as a king in Saxo Grammaticus’ History of the Danish Kings, but not as a historic one but rather as a mythological king. Ragnar appears in the same section that talks about how Odin was actually a regular human king who was just so cool that people (mistakenly, we are asked to remember) worshiped him as a god. So you can think of Ragnar as the Viking King Arthur. Big, strong, obsessed with glory and willing to fight anything that moves. Basically, a beloved example of what Vikings SHOULD be. 

Ragnar played by Travis Fimmel in the show Vikings.

This was actually a common tactic used by early Christianity to discredit the previous religion while also giving the converted an “out” for having believed in them in the first place.

In Saxo’s book, Ragnar is described as the son of Sigurd Ring (not to be confused with Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, his son, or Sigurd the dragon-slayer, his father-in-law, who had a thing for rings), who ruled all of Scandinavia before he got bored, gave half of it to Ragnar, and then challenged his son to a battle so that he could die in combat. Saxo states that something like 40,000 noblemen died in battle alongside an untold number of commoners.

And you thought your dad was mean.

Saxo is also the only place where we find any mention of Lagertha, but we’ll talk about her later.

Ragnar in the sagas

The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok and the Tale of Ragnar and His Sons give even more information. In the sagas, Ragnar is described as being obscenely big and strong. This should not be taken literally, since every Viking hero is always described as being bigger and stronger than normal men.

The sagas also give the story of his death, in which he is captured by king Ælla and thrown into a pit of venomous snakes as he cries out “The piglets would protest loudly/ if the boar’s plight they knew.” He also recites several poems that he happened to make up on the spot that basically amounts to a big raspberry directed at Ælla.

Ragnar's death in a pit of snakes.

A meme for a nickname

The sagas also give the story of his name. Lothbrok, also spelled Lodbrok or Lothbroka, translates as—I kid you not—“hairy pants.” The story goes that Ragnar went to woo a princess in western Sweden, who had—accidentally—raised a giant snake that now guarded her day and night and prevented even her own father from coming to see her.

Ragnar, clever man that he was, dipped his bear-skin trousers into the ocean and then let the water freeze, giving him a kind of armor. Then, walking like a doofus since he couldn’t bend his knees, Ragnar went in and killed the giant snake.

At the wedding feast the next evening, Ragnar tells his new father-in-law the story of how he killed the monster, to which the man bursts out laughing and starts calling him “hairy-pants.” No doubt Ragnar was hoping for something more epic like “Snake-bane” but you could do a lot worse than “hairy-pants.”

Ragnar and Aslaug on a ship.

Ragnar’s attack on Paris is not recorded in the sagas but we think that he did attack Paris since the Frankish histories mention a “Reginherus” that is usually linked with Ragnar. Unfortunately, this source also states that Ragnar and the entire Danish army later got sick and died from some unknown disease.

As far as we can tell, he almost certainly was not responsible for the attack on the abbey of Lindisfarne in 793 but the fact we think he was would probably make him very happy.

Rollo

In the show, Ragnar’s troublesome brother is called Rollo. This is funny because Rollo isn’t a Norse name. It’s actually a Frankish corruption of the name Hrolf, and also a type of candy.

Rollo in the show Vikings.

Hrolf the Walker was a real Viking adventurer who, after being banished from Norway for being a troublemaker (ie. a dick), led raids all along the coast of what is now France. According to the sources, he got his nickname “the Walker” from the fact that he was so big that he couldn’t ride a horse.

Statue of Rollo the Walker.
Statue of Hrolf the Walker.

He was so successful that the Frankish king offered him the city of Rouen if he would settle down, which is quite the negotiation. This worked for a while but Rollo, as he was now known, began fighting with his neighbors and eventually expanded his little plot of land to encompass the entirety of what became known as Normandy. Now that is Vikings as we know them!

In fact, Normandy comes from the Frankish term Normanni, meaning “Northman.”

Unlike in the show, Rollo didn’t kill his own men (because that would be stupid) and he never married a Frankish princess. He was, however, probably as much of an asshole as he was in the show if not even more so.

His descendants became famed as crazy but talented horsemen (kinda ironic since he couldn’t ride one himself) who later would conquer southern Italy and Sicily and England.

Tomb of Hrolf the Walker.

Lagertha

The story of Lagertha comes from Saxo Grammaticus and on the surface, it looks pretty cool. In the story, Lagertha is a famous shieldmaiden who marries Ragnar (somewhat against her will), gives birth to a couple of kids, and is then discarded in favor of a younger model. From there she marries another nobleman, and then kills him after an argument, and then takes over the reins of power for herself. Kind of like what happens in the first couple seasons of the show.

Lagertha played by Katheryn Winnick.

Here’s the part where you’re going to hate me: she probably never existed.

But this is NOT to say that shieldmaidens did not exist!

Archaeologists have actually recently discovered that the famous Birka burial was a shieldmaiden or at least a woman who highly valued weapons. The DNA analysis of her gender was discovered in 2017.

That said, the story of Lagertha still feels like an invention by Saxo Grammaticus. It’s a pretty common trope among ancient historians to give characters “unmanly” or “unwomanly” behaviors as a way of showing that they were bad people.

The story of Lagertha who, in true misogynist fashion, is always described as “having the heart of a man” despite the fact that she was a “frail woman” was likely used as a way for Saxo to condemn the pagan past as opposed to the stable Christian present.

As I said, he was a jerk and this just makes me think she was even cooler.

But as I mentioned, shieldmaidens almost certainly did exist, and evidence points to the fact that they existed during the Viking age which means Lagertha could have been inspired by them. There are also contemporary historical accounts, from sources outside of Scandinavia, of women fighting with the men.

A real Shield Maiden that may have inspired Lagertha.

In addition to that, women in the Viking world certainly enjoyed more freedom than they did among their contemporaries in Europe. There are stories and sagas of women becoming rulers, and of women fighting.

Aslaug

Listen, guys, the show really did Aslaug dirty.

In the sagas, Aslaug is incredibly badass. The daughter of Sigurd Fafnirsbane (think the Volsung saga and Wagner’s Ring Opera), she is orphaned as a child, hidden away by her father’s loyal retainer in a harp before he was killed, and is then raised by peasants who cover her in mud and make her dress in fishing nets to hide how extremely beautiful she is.

Aslaug, Ragnar's second wife in the show Vikings.

But as any guy will tell you, a fishing net dress just means it’s see-through. Naturally, Ragnar marries her (after his previous wife died), fathers a bunch of children, and is then about to leave her when she reveals her noble ancestry.

After Ragnar is killed in England, Aslaug rallies her sons and step-sons and they all go to war. While her sons conquered their own kingdoms, Aslaug ruled Ragnar’s old realm as a queen.

Her story only appears in one saga where she is the definite hero of the story, however, in other accounts that list Ragnar’s—ahem—MANY wives, there is usually one name that kind of looks like it might just almost be Aslaug.

If you squint and look at it funny.

Ragnar’s Kids

Ragnar’s sons definitely existed. At least the ones mentioned in the show. The various sagas and histories list a whole plethora of children.

Ivar the Boneless, Bjorn Ironside, Hvitserk (who was probably named Halfdan since Hvitserk just means “white shirt”), Ubbe, and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye were all famous Viking leaders whose names appear (in various forms) throughout the sagas and histories of both the Vikings and their enemies, the Anglo-Saxons and Franks.

Ivar the Boneless

Unlike in the show, Ivar the Boneless is usually listed as the oldest. He is listed as being one of the leaders of the “Great Heathen Army” that attacked England and is also said to have founded a kingdom in southern Scotland and the isles in the Irish Sea. He probably died in Ireland.

Ivar the boneless, one of Ragnar's most famous sons.

Why is he called “Boneless”? No one really knows. The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons says that it was because he was crippled from birth, and this is where the show got the idea. However, the show neglected to give him the magical ability to change his weight so that he could be thrown up high into the air only to drift down safely with the weight of a feather or to crush and kill his enemies by increasing his weight.

Bernard Cornwall, author of the Saxon Tales books which inspired the show The Last Kingdom, claimed that the nickname was because Ivar was so skinny. But my personal favorite is that he, um… had a little trouble getting it up.

Get it? He was Boneless!

And if you thought Ivar was mean in the show, you should read some of the stuff his contemporaries said about him. Chroniclers of the time talked about him like he was the anti-Christian, the embodiment of all things anathema to civilization. The only other person to illicit such fear from his contemporaries was none other than Attila the Hun.

Statue of Ivar the Boneless.

Ivar may not have besieged Rome, but, just like in the show, he certainly scared the crap out of everyone.

Bjorn Ironside

Like Ivar, Bjorn was a historical king and was very likely the progenitor of the Münso dynasty in Sweden, which ruled from Bjorn’s life until about 1060. For those of you paying attention, that’s basically the entirety of the Viking Age. Icelandic sagas point to him being present during the invasion of England following his father’s death, but it is actually in other sources that we get the really juicy story of his life.

Bjorn, Ragnar's oldest son in Vikings.

Bjorn was a true Viking, and I don’t mean that he liked horned helmets or was manlier than any of the others, but he clearly LOVED raiding.

Frankish, Irish, Andalusian, and Italian sources all give an account of the great raid into the Mediterranean Sea that Bjorn conducted between 859-861. Having raided along the Iberian coast and plundering much of Sicily, Bjorn and Hastein (not present in the show and who was probably his foster-father) and maybe one of his other brothers decided to attack Italy.

The huge fleet attacked the city of Luni, which they mistakenly believed to be Rome. Unlike in the show, it’s not like there was any kind of accurate map lying around, and when all you’ve ever known have been crude wooden huts, a city—even a relatively small city like Luni—made out of stone would have been impossible to imagine.

Bjorn's runestone marking his burial mound.
Bjorn’s runestone marking his burial mound.

There’s a fun story that the Vikings, seeing that Luni was well defended, opted to use trickery. Hastein sent word to the bishop of Luni saying that Bjorn was dying and wanted to convert. Bjorn’s casket was brought into the church with a small honor guard where—much to everyone’s surprise—Bjorn promptly jumped up and he and his Vikings rushed and opened the city gates for the rest of the army.

In the show, this tactic was given to Ragnar when he invaded Paris.

Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye

The rest of Ragnar’s children (at least the ones who participated in the invasion of England) don’t have quite the volume of stories told about them as Ivar and Bjorn do.

Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye actually made it out better than the rest of them. Instead of getting murdered, he settled down and became king of Denmark (more likely just Jutland or the island of Zealand), and his children married into and founded prominent dynasties.

Sigurd Snake in the Eye.

Snake-in-the-Eye refers to a defect in his eye that looked like an Ouroboros, or a snake forming a circle and biting its own tail. This is very mythological and sounds a lot like the story of the World Serpent, who was so big that he could wrap his body around the earth and bit his own tail. It also sounds like a piece of fiction, but it could also refer to the real-life Coloboma, a condition where part of the iris is missing resulting in a “snake eye” appearance.

Like his mother, Aslaug, the show really did him dirty.

Ubbe, the Frisian Jarl

Ubbe is mentioned in the sagas as an illegitimate child of Ragnar’s from a Frisian woman. He was with his brothers in their attack on England and probably led an invasion of Wessex at Devon. He had the misfortune of going up against Alfred the Great.

It is actually from him that we get the story of the famous “Raven Banner” that the Vikings believed had magical properties. It is also noteworthy that he probably was not the one to set foot in North America, that was a guy named Lief Ericsson, though evidence supports that Vikings did land on the eastern coast of Canada. 

Halfdan/Hvitserk

Halfdan/Hvitserk had a rather long career. After Ivar’s death, Halfdan took over control of the Great Heathen Army and fought his way from Northumbria into Mercia and East Anglia. Basically three-quarters of England. After that, he split the army between himself and another warlord named Guthrum and went on to fight against the Scots, tried to rule from Dublin and York until his death.

Hvitserk, one of Ragnar's sons who raided England.

Harald Hairfair

Harald Hairfair was actually a real person. The story that the show gives of how a hot girl told him that she wouldn’t marry him unless he was the king of all Norway comes from the sagas, although, surprise-surprise, it probably didn’t actually happen.

The truth is actually crazier.

The story goes that Harald refused to cut or comb his hair until he was king of Norway and so his people started calling him Harald Tanglehair. Then, much to everyone’s surprise, when he did become king and started using basic hygiene again, everyone was so impressed that they started calling him Hairfair (translated in the show as Finehair).

Fun fact: he was also a tyrant who caused a gigantic refugee crisis because of his strongarmed policies that eventually led to a massive wave of settlement in Iceland.

Statue of Harald Hairfair.

Princess Judith

There’s a lot of other things that could be mentioned, but I really want to talk about another woman in the show, who unlike many of the others actually did exist.

Like Aslaug, the show really did a number on Princess Judith. Not only was she not Northumbrian, but she also didn’t have the messy affairs that the show gave her. She also had a beautiful love story.

Judith portrayed in the show Vikings.

a bad couple of marriages

Judith was a Frankish princess, who at twelve years old was married (a better word might be “sold”) to king Æthelbert of Wessex. Who, by the way, was an OLD man at the time. This is the same Æthelbert as in the show. He lived for two years before dying, at which point his son, Æthelbald, forcibly married her before he died two years later.

Twice a queen and twice a widow, Judith was promptly shipped off back to Frankia where her father, Emperor Charles the Bald, put her up in a nunnery until he could find another advantageous marriage for him—uh, I mean, for her.

but then…

One day, Judith’s brother Louis happened to come by and visit with his good friend Baldwin, a lowly knight with no real prospects. Who also happened to be super hot. She and Baldwin fell helplessly in love and, with her brother’s help, they eloped. This enraged her father—you remember him, the Emperor—who sent men to kill Baldwin and drag Judith back to Paris.

Evading pursuit, the pair of lovebirds journeyed to Rome to appeal to the Pope for help, probably the only person in the world who could talk sense to the Emperor. Against all odds, they succeeded and Charles agreed to the match and to give Judith a dowry.

But there was a catch.

Instead of fertile land, Charles gave them the county of Flanders, the flat coastal plains that were prone to Viking raids and rebellions from the local populace. It was practically a death sentence.

Judith and Baldwin of Flanders.

Judith and Baldwin Strike Back

Again, they defeated the odds, and Baldwin and Judith pacified the region and brought stability to Flanders. With their enemies defeated, and eventually with Judith’s brother Louis now on the throne, the two of them were able to sit back and start raising a family.

Their story reads like a fairy tale (except for the bit about being sold by her father and raped by her stepson, which makes it more of a Grimm’s fairy tale), and with that, I’m going to leave them with the clichéd “and they lived happily ever after.”

The dynasty that they founded would later marry one of their daughters to William the Conqueror, a Norman duke and later the King of England who was himself descended from the very same Rollo that we talked about earlier.

It’s a small world.

What about all the rest?

Floki the boat builder is based off of Floki Vilgerdarson who is the first recorded man to intentionally set sail for Iceland. While he would have been a contemporary of the Ragnarssons, he probably had nothing to do with them. He also almost certainly did not mistake Iceland for Asgard but drugs are capable of making you believe a lot of things.

Egbert was a real king and did achieve hegemony over the rest of the Saxon kingdoms, albeit very briefly. He was probably very conniving and brilliant, but he didn’t enjoy his success long and ended up dying before the Viking invasions. His grandson, Alfred, was also real, but I hope to talk about him another time.

There were militant monks like Bishop Heahmund, but they weren’t… quite like that. Actually, a number of them lived in Ireland, and one of them was probably Saint Colombo, but that’s another story.

The Rus, who appear in the last season, are very complex and very interesting and there is no way in all hell that we have time to get into that smorgasbord of shifting alliances and petty squabbles that was the Kingdoms of Novgorod, Kiev, Muscovy, and all the rest. Needless to say, the Rus did give their name to modern Russia.

Rurik founder of the Rus dynasty.

This was a really fun show

As much as I bad-mouth this show, it was a lot of fun to watch! I really enjoyed the direction Travis Fimmel took in his portrayal of Ragnar. His Ragnar was much quieter and much more thoughtful than we normally see in Viking literature, both in history books and in the sagas themselves.

It was intensely interesting to watch.

Still, it was definitely a fantastical interpretation of Viking history.

But that’s what I want to leave you all with. There is so much that we still do not know about Viking history. And so much of what we do know comes from questionable sources (cough, cough, Saxo Grammaticus, cough, cough).

So there’s a lot more that we have to discover about Vikings. The notion that there really were shieldmaidens has only recently been proven (literally only within the past couple of years). And the Viking ruins in Newfoundland, while they did prove that Vikings had made it to America, it doesn’t definitively prove that that settlement was Vinland.

Possible Viking Shield Maiden burial.
Possible Viking Shield Maiden burial.

Vinland, and many other discoveries, are still out there waiting to be found.

if you like reading half as much as I do…

I think I’ve already mentioned how much I love reading about Vikings. I could go on and on, recommending this saga or that saga, but they are honestly a bit hard to read, even with a good translation.

That said, Egil’s saga slaps and I will challenge anyone to a holmgang, a duel, who disagrees with me.

There’s also The Vikings: A New History by Neil Oliver if you’d rather just read about Vikings. It is a really fast and easy read, and Neil Oliver tells the history well. It is non-fiction, but it is also not the least bit stuffy. It’s a great book if you are a Viking novice or even if you are more experienced. Beautifully written, but also written by a man who has sailed in reconstructed longships and slept through winter nights in a wooden hall with a bearskin blanket.

You can’t get more Viking than that!

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