Ragnar is my 36th great grandfather. It doesn’t matter much to me that historians say that he is half-mythical. When you lead an unbelievable life there are stories told about you. Fortunately, or unfortunately, there are many sagas written about Ragnar. Oh yeah, and a fairly successful TV show called “The Vikings”. Yep, that’s my 36th great grandfather!
Ragnar was born somewhere between 736 and 750 in Uppsala, Sweden. Some say his father was the Swedish King Sigurd Ring. When Sigurd died, Ragnar took over. In their accounts of his reign, the Sagas of Icelandic Prehistory, known as fornaldarsaga tell more about Ragnar’s marriages than about feats of warfare. According to the Sögubrot, “he was the biggest and fairest of men that human eyes have seen, and he was like his mother in appearance and took after her kin”. He first killed a giant snake that guarded the abode of the East Geatic jarl’s daughter Thora Borgarhjort, thereby winning her as his wife. The unusual protective clothes that Ragnar wore, when attacking the serpent, earned him the nickname Lodbrok (“shaggy breeches”). His sons with Thora were Erik and Agnar. After Thora died, he discovered Kráka, a woman of outstanding beauty and wisdom living with a poor peasant couple in Norway, and married her. This marriage resulted in the sons Ivar the Boneless, Björn Ironside, Hvitserk, Ragnvald and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye. Kráka was later revealed to actually be Aslaug, a secret daughter of the renowned hero Sigurd Fafnesbane. As the sons grew up to become renowned warriors, Ragnar, not wishing to be outdone, resolved to conquer England with merely two ships. He was however defeated by superior English forces and was thrown into a snake pit to die in agony. The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, Tale of Ragnar’s Sons, and Heimskringla all tell of the Great Heathen Army that invaded England at around 866, led by the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok to wreak revenge against King Ælla of Northumbria who is told to have captured and executed Ragnar. He died in an English snake pit in 866.
Apparently the revenge on the king took the form of another semi-mythical tradition of the Vikings. It was called “the Blood Eagle”. Very quick ax strikes both the back of the victim, next to the spine, allowed the ribs to be spread. Then both lungs were pulled out while the victim was still breathing. The effect was that they looked like little wings flapping, the Blood Eagle!
Maybe most of the stories are just stories, but Ragnar had sons, and his sons had sons and daughters, and that eventually made him my 36th great grandfather.