Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Real Ragnar Lothbrok


Floki: "Ragnar Lothbrok challenges you to meet him in single combat."
Earl Haraldson: "Ragnar Lothbrok has a very high opinion of himself."
Floki: "Well, he is descended from Odin."
     --from "The Vikings," episode 6, as reviewed on medievalists.net

Ragnarr Loðbrók, to give his name the proper spelling, has become America's favorite badass Viking, thanks to the History Channel's exciting series, "The Vikings." But who was he really? Dr. Elizabeth Ashman Rowe has the answers. Rowe is University Lecturer in Scandinavian History of the Medieval Period at the University of Cambridge in England and author of a scholarly study published in 2012, Vikings in the West: The Legend of Ragnarr Loðbrók and His Sons

In the preface, she writes: "The Viking king Ragnarr Loðbrók and his sons feature in a variety of medieval stories, all of them highly dramatic." In a French version, he is a noble king in Denmark, father of a fearsome Viking who ravages France. In an English story, he "wickedly inflames" his three sons with envy for the English King Edmund, provoking the Danish invasion of England and Edmund's martyrdom.

Snorri Sturluson, subject of my book Song of the Vikings, wrote one of the 32 known Icelandic tales about Ragnarr. To Snorri, Ragnarr was famous as the first Norwegian king to keep a court poet, or skald. He was "the conqueror who established the definitive boundaries of the Scandinavian kingdoms," Rowe writes, "and the symbol of the ancient heroism that would be eclipsed by the new heroism of the Icelanders."

Concludes Rowe, "In short, Ragnarr and his sons were ciphers to which almost any characterization could be attached"--as the History Channel has effectively proved.

Was there a real Ragnarr Loðbrók? Rowe says no: "I do not think that there was ever a historical figure known as 'Ragnarr Loðbrók.'" Mostly it's the nickname she's leery of, noting that "the deeds and fate" of an "extraordinarily ferocious" Danish Viking known as Reginheri, who attacked Paris in 845, hanged 111 Christians, and died of illness soon afterwards, "may have given rise to stories about someone named Ragnarr, but there is absolutely no contemporary evidence that he was nicknamed Loðbrók."

He didn't get his nickname until after he died--Loðbrók first appears in two sources, one Icelandic and one from France, in about 1120--and there are several explanations of what it means.

An English writer in about 1150 said it meant "loathesome brook"--just what it sounds like.

But in Old Norse, the nickname would have been understood as "hairy breeches" or "shaggy trousers." The Icelander who wrote Ragnar's Saga in the 13th century explained that Ragnarr got his nickname from the pants he put on to protect himself when fighting a poison-breathing serpent (or dragon): cowhide pants boiled in pitch and rolled in sand.

Professor Rowe has a better explanation. As I've mentioned, the real Ragnarr Loðbrók, the ferocious Reginheri, died of illness soon after attacking Paris in 845. And not just any illness. Reginheri died of dysentery. As one account in Latin explains, after Ragnarr returned to the Danish court of King Horik he suffered terribly from diarrhea: "diffusa … sunt omnia viscera ejus in terram" (which Rowe helpfully translates: "all his entrails spilled onto the ground.")

Concludes Rowe: "I suggest that it was a similar report--one describing his diarrhea in terms of his feces-stained breeches--that gave rise to the posthumous nickname loðbrók. Ragnar's Saga's explanation ot the nickname loðbrók as derived from garments boiled in pitch comes startlingly close to reality, for one can imagine an onlooker at the court of King Horik telling someone later that Reginheri's breeches looked black and sticky, as though they had been boiled in pitch."

So alongside my favorite Viking name, Eystein Foul-Fart, we can now place Ragnar Shitty-Pants. And that's what their friends called them.

Join me again next Wednesday at nancymariebrown.blogspot.com for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world. And don't forget to enter the raffle for a free, autographed copy of Song of the Vikings. I'll be announcing the winner on May 1. For details, click here.

54 comments:

  1. High Brow stuff Nancy, as always..."Ragnar Shitty Pants"...LMAO!

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  2. After cleaning my Maine Coon cat, this was what I needed. LOL!

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  3. A guy sure needs to protect himself from nicknames. My father grew up with a kid they called Ole Snot. I have been thinking the History Channel has become more interested in entertainment than history. Whatever pays the bills, I guess.

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    1. while the HC might not care so much about history over a large payday, you have to give them credit for bringing such a vivid time in history to life, and in doing so inspired the curious to learn and the knowledgabe to teach

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    2. James I totally agree! I've been researching everything about Vikings since this show... regardless if they get the facts straight, they stir up a need to learn more and that's always a good thing

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    3. I am Icelandic and the word brok means pants in Icelandic and the pants was made out of something hairy like wool because lod something hairy Icelandic is the oldest language in Scandinavia and has not changed for over thousand. years
      Esther Helga Gudmundsdottir


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    4. I think there is a bit of folklore in many ancient stories , twisted about by man through time as always

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    5. I'm sure. How else could you explain the nonsense of Christianity, and other ridiculous religious mythologies? Religion has been the most prolific serial killer man has ever known. Thank god it is finally dying out.

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  4. Hi Nancy,
    So much diverse information about Ragnar Lothbrok. Could you shed some light on his wife (or any other women in his life)? There's sparse information...or maybe I haven't dug enough for that. BTW, I have your book The Far Traveler. The Abacus and the Cross caught my eye, so I'm adding to my "to be read" pile. Thanks for the interesting read today.
    Gina

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    1. He had three wives. Lagertha and Aslaug (who, of course are seen in the show), and Thora. Lagertha, the first wife, was every bit the badass she is in the show. Next was Thora. Legend says her father placed a serpent around her bower and promised her to whomever could kill the serpent. This is the poison breathing serpent mentioned in the article. Ragnar killed the serpent and they were married. They had 2 sons, both of whom died in battle, and Thora died of an illness. Finally, Aslaug. His final wife and bearer of his most famous sons, including Ivar the Boneless and Sigurd Snake-eye. When Ragnar took his final voyage to England, Aslaug warned him not to go, but his pride convinced him to go. When Ragnar fell, Aslaug and their sons sailed to England and sought revenge against King Aella. That's what I've found in my research. I hope it was helpful.

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  5. Aw awesome blog ! Awesome show !!! And it couldn't be more awesome I'd suspect to anyone than myself due to my finding out my lineage late last summer. I am descended from I would guess a close companion to Rollo as stated in a book published 100 years ago regarding my surname and its ancestors. I will share it and paste it here :**Sir Rolf (Radulphus) de la Pomeroy (Pommeraye) , was descended from Rolf the Norseman , who , under Rollo , landed on the shore of Neustra France , with Rolf Ganger (Rolf the walker) a prince of Norway, in the 9th centrury for the conquest of that province.

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    1. Yes, and I am descended from Julius Ceasar and Cleopatra. Nice try.

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    3. It's the most studied genealogical testing done and this information remains after a hundred years after its first publication as well as attempts by others to discredit it. Do some research before speaking next time. This is not a name to discredit. It's descendants have done well and your research will shock and amaze the many who read it and their many many great discoveries , victories and even the history of the USA where it's at the forefront. I bear this name and all who do share my ancestry and history. Science proves this. As far as your ancestry ...........

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    4. You deserved more respect than "Anonymous" gave you. What an unfortunate post. Does he think famous people leave no lineage--no legacy? If he traced his own back far enough he'd likely find someone at least semi-famous (or infamous) too. It's not all that unusual given it's a simple biological fact of evolution that the strong procreate and survive. Were people any stronger or more intelligent in their time than the Vikings. I would answer that with a resounding NO and I must admit I find the author's rather biased fantasy that the Icelanders of all people eclipsed them at anything more than a bit self serving if not downright laughable.

      Our ancestors were so much more than the rapists and pillagers history (and History) still portray them to have been. They were master ship builders and navigators hundreds of years ahead of their time, and I am among those who STRONGLY believe they were in the Great Lakes region of the U.S. harvesting copper hundreds of years before Columbus set sail seeking new trade routes for silks and spices.

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    5. no belief required, vikings lived in canada, we found their homes, not camps, HOMES. and copper axe heads are found here all the time ( i live in the great lakes area) and we know the primitive aboriginals didnt play with metals up here like they did in the central and south americas. the canadian aboriginals were still using rocks and sticks when the rest of europe got their lazy butts over here. interestingly the vikings left because the aboriginals chased them off.

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    6. Actually, all of you need to brush up on your genetics. It's been proven that all Caucasians, Native Americans, and Asians, are all the children of the third group to come out of East Africa. They had stayed in Central Asia area for a thousand years before getting curious again and heading out. Only one group ever went west, and they became the Caucasians. They were stubborn and tired of always heading east so they struck out on their own, strait into an ice age. It made them a bit brutal. However, they were still relatives of the first and second groups to emerge out of East Africa. The first, and most ambitious, made it all the way to Australia (via the southern coastline of Asia). The Second group were not so ambitious and only made it as far as...hmmm...Palastine, Israel, The Middle East, whatever you feel is politically correct for yourself. My point is, all three of these groups came from one very incredible people known as the Bushmen tribes. They are not black, or white, or brown, they are actually a bit grey clay colored. You can see every ethnicity in their features. We all come from one "Greatest Grandfather". So, if you take that, (which traces the Y chromosome, the only one to show markers) and add it to an other scientific fact; which is that we are all made up of atoms that do nothing without code (genetic code) and these atoms are the same atoms that have been around since...well atoms, and that break down in death and go off to become other things and other people...I think you're starting to get the picture. We are all one. Sorry folks, but Dr. Bronner, and a quite a few people that have experimented with psychedelics; have it correct. Science proves it, and continues to prove it further with every new discovery. So rejoice in your ancestry, but remember this, we are all literally a family.

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    7. My brother and I have just received our National Geographic Genome project 2.0 DNA results related to migration out of Africa. While expensive, the data has done wonders for students of many diciplines. To get the fullest genetics on your family's history, you must have both male and female samples. Facinating to see the differences. This data also sheds light on the spread of language and the web of relationships of the worlds languages.

      As to Ragnor, I love it!! I'm an old English history student, and had researched by traveling 3 times to UK as well as poking around in the "stacks" pre-web info. The Vikings on HC inspired me to go at it again. I think the writers have done a marvelous job of blending folk lore and "history" of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to produce great fun. They make no pretense of producing a documentary. There is so much daily life detail in every episode that I'm hooked. My most recent trip was a month on the Fall of 2013, in the South of England slogging around newly excavated sites. And of course walking the ancient trackway, with frequent stops a pubs in small villages.

      Anyone know what the Roman ruin shown in the latest episode of Vikings may be based upon? I'm assuming it would be near Winchester, as that was the Wessex capitol. I've searched but can't find anything that would fit. But....There probably were a few "libraries" surviving into Ecbert's (Egbert) time. There certainly were many villas with baths, although in ruin. Early Anglo-Saxon invaders mostly distroyed or ignored the Roman buildings. They also killed most of the Romano-British (Celtic) people left after the Legions departed. So, it is that most of the Saxons in the Britain of Ragnar's time truly did not know of the Roman history.

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    8. Jeigh is an idiot, lol. according to him, women don't have genes.
      sequences of mitochondrial, Y-chromosome, and autosomal DNA are all used to determine genetic history.

      The genetic origins of modern humans is still a contested and hot topic, so no, know one knows exactly where white people came from.

      No one who understands basic genetics uses the term Caucasian. The only people are Caucasian are the residents of the Caucus Mountain region.

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  6. Awesome post I enjoyed reading it. Nicely explained.
    University of England

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  7. I believe a man named Ragnar Lothbrok existed. He is attested in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. I think his legend has been massively inflated however.

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  8. Well spoken...as from an English prude who had lineage slaughtered from a greater tribe.

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  9. I have 117 pages of my Icelandic family history and on branch 68 ( green 68, 31) is Ragnar "Lodbrok" Sigurdsson son of Sigurd "hringur" Randversson.

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    2. as a Icelander I am very proud of my history,read some of my post about Ragnar

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  10. Ragnar's true last name was Sigurdsson

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  11. I do believe there was a real person by that name and he didn't die from dysentery - he was thrown into a snake pit by King Aella.

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  12. Floki didn't say that, the earl did. Also his death is better traced to 865 because his sons went to war to avenge his death in 865, why would they wait 25 years if he died in the snake pit in 840?

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    1. because his sons were small children at the time. so, 16-20 years there. add some time to hone their skills, build ships, gather warriors... yeah, 25 years sounds about right

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  13. After the season finale, I'd been calling him "Ragnar Shitty-Pants" on my own. This just confirms it!

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  14. As a boy whose nickname was "Stinky" I can perfectly relate to Ragnar's "poopy pants". It does hurt and I can see why he was so mean.

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  15. So an englander claims Ragnar is an entirely fictitious person eh? Yawn - the english have been seeking to denigrate Ragnar's achievements including their vicious & inhumane treatment of him, for more than a thousand years.
    This is despite considerable historical evidence from a diverse range of sources all of which supports the existence of a King Ragnar.
    The vehemence with which successive englander 'experts' on the history of a land far removed from their own, try to deny Lothbrok says much more about the shame & humiliation this great man's existence causes englanders, than it tells us of Lothbrok.
    Why listen to whatsome chinless englander writing in the 20th century asserts, when 'The AngloSaxon Chronicle' which was written contemporaneously with Lothbrok's life (mid 9th century) documents the existence of King Ragnar Lothbrok?

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    1. Thank you for settling the matter with fact rather than emotion. Even VIDEO GAMES (Skyrim) get in on the "let's all hate Ragnar" mobile. One of four or so songs sung in taverns in the very complex game is a completely fictitious account of his life and death, allegedly at the hands, or axe, of his angry wife. It's beyond belief, quite literally, how much people are still threatened and humiliated by a man long dead. I just love him all the more for it being no great fan of the victims of one of his more famous early attacks, and I don't mean the French!

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    2. Notnewz, thank you for your sensible comments among all the flotsam I found here. I've been researching my genealogy for nearly 40 years, my grandmother started the search decades before that. I'm lucky having Icelandic roots that are so intensely researched. Ragnar is my 35th great grandfather through his son Björn. The men are easier to follow through the various records (except when their nickname changes or they are named Jon Jonsson) but the woman are tough to find sometimes and even tougher still to figure out which child is from which "wife" since it's not uncommon to find more than one existing at the same time. I'm enjoying the series and it's attempt at accuracy. It's better then others have done before, obvious by this discussion.

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  16. notnewtz:
    be mindful of generalising your projections of 'englander' opinions. Evidence is evidence and i'm sure no genuine historian would deny the existence of anyone, if there was sufficient proof.
    Whether a document was written contemporaneously with the events it claims to document is irrelevant - the period during which a document was produced is no testament to its accuracy.

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    1. a whole religion, christianity is based only on records from people 100 years after the fairy tale man was supposed to have lived. contemporaries NEVER mention this jesus character. many historians read as fools, will say this jesus character was real because of some items and some writings, however the same loose evidence on another person and they must be a myth? you are right, its not when the documents are written that make them accurate, for example egyptologists still insist the sphinx was made by egyptians even though it has rain water damage which couldnt have been done unless egyptians were around about 4000 years before "historians" say. the vistors re-write history and later we dig it up and find the truth. the truth is ragnar is much like arthur, exaggerated legends of a real man.

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    2. The books of the Bible are written by exactly who they say they are. The evidence that they are not: no copies older than a couple hundred years later are known to exist. Unfortunately, absence of proof is not proof of absence. The key clue that they were all written before 70AD is the lack of mention of that major fulfillment of prophecy, the destruction of Jerusalem. The Bible makes a big deal out of the demand for 100% accuracy in prophecy, and such a fulfillment would have been clearly noted.

      Unfortunately, Northmen were far less fastidious about in their record keeping, so while I believe Ragnar, like Arthur, was a historical figure, he also like Arthur is victim of much enlargement and confusion of his exploits.

      Egyptian pharaohs are notoriously self-serving in having their life recorded. For example, a careful reading of Ramses II's great 'victory' at Kadesh will reveal that his only great triumph is in managing to survive a crushing ambush and fight long enough for re-enforcements to arrive and rescue him.

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    3. Sorry, but you are very wrong. The Roman Jewish war was in 65 A.D. and many called that destruction. Luke emphasizes it clearly and before 70 A.D. Predicting the destruction of Jerusalem is like predicting the seasons...the funny thing is Jerusalem is still around, by the very definition, then it has not been destroyed. Every heard of the King James Bible. Do you have any idea how many books have been shed from the Bible? Or how about the Book of Mormon. There's several million Mormons to argue that with you. False histories than man molds to fit his needs, just as he does his God's. Man's greatest need....to flee responsibility. For the good and the bad. Just blame it all on God...The divine one, that threw a fit and killed off his creation (man, except Noah of course) in a temper tantrum. So which is it, divine or evolving? Sure seems like God is evolving as man does....hmmmm.....

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  17. here here. just look at the bible's claims

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  18. Sorry but old Norse lodbrok does literally translates to hairy breaks.
    And there is plenty of evidence that he did in fact live. There may be dispute about the actual time heibed but he did marry a queen of Sweden, aslog, and have many sons including Bjorn Ironside and Ivar the Boneless.
    And aa for Lagertha, she too was a real and very famous shield maiden whom despite his infedelity he always loved Lagertha and makes her an jarl in her own right.
    I've been reading about vikings and the legend of ragnarr lodbrok for many years before this show and it is for the most part fairly accurate. Although he never had a brother named Rollo.

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  19. I only have to look at the British butchery and suppression of evidence in Africa to have reason to question the veracity of the English version of "history". Not that I can place much more faith in any other version, as almost all accounts suffer the burden of self service in chronicling the events of the past.

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  20. seems to me Swidish king 'Ragnar Sigurdsson Lodbrok' who supposedly reigned around 770 - 785 commes pretty close...

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  21. This is one of the most informative sites Ive seen on this subject. I myself have connection to the Vikings heritage and have always been interested in the legend and lore. Of course like many others this particular series dragged me in quickly and left me wanting to know more. Anyone whom says that History is more interested in entertainment than historical accuracy is reaching far to belittle what they've done here. Not only does this bring such an interesting and path paving culture to mainstream. It also is very "historically accurate" in the sense that these are legends and lore from this cultures history. So in turn making them historically accurate. Yes of course we know most of the epic saga History Channel is creating is for entertainment purposes, but they are pulling from real lore and legend. Love the show, love the culture and lore.

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    1. if you read some of my today's post you will what I know about Ragnar
      and his last name is translated in Icelandic wool pants

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  22. Ragnar was born in Sweden and was thei king of Sweden and Norway he died in 845 in snake pit England

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  23. correction Ragnar was also king of Denmark not norway

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  24. I do believe Ragnar was real my viking forefathers were very literature oriented they wrote our history and the saga are for real I can read them and have seen the books that are in Iceland ,that's pretty cool

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  25. I first watched Vikings solely because there was nothing else on TV. Thought it would be a snooze -- how wrong! Was totally captured by the show & now can hardly wait for each new episode. Wondered if the main characters were based on real life. Seems they are which makes the program even better. Thanks for this blog.

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  26. I am descendant of Ragnar Lothebrok. He is real, not of some Frenchman's imagination. Do your research in the real world.

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  27. Another Descendant of Ragnar, here. I guess we are just make believe to, huh? What a terrible blog. I would get upset, but it's not really worth my time...

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  28. The person who wrote this blog can't even get the lines from the show and who said them correct... what makes anyone think they can get anything about Ragnar correct?

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  29. I am a direct descendant of Odin, Ragnar is my first cousin 37th removed.

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  30. I could well be a descendent, too...if he truly had a son named "Halfdan" which, in the English might translate into "halfdane" or "Alden" as my lineage traces directly to Pilgrims John Alden and Priscilla Mullins of the Mayflower's voyage and landing at Plymouth Rock. Also, my maiden-name is Norwegian for "haystack." This lineage comes from both sides of my family, the Norwegian from my father's, but both came through Norsemen settled in England,

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