See also The Real Ragnar Lothbrok in History by Henry Wheaton 1831
"Last from among the Heroes one came near,
No God, but of the hero troop the chief—
Regner, who swept the northern sea with fleets,
And ruled o'er Denmark and the heathy isles,
Living; but Ella captured him and slew;—
A king whose fame then fill'd the vast of Heaven,
Now time obscures it, and men's later deeds."
MATTHEW ARNOLD, Balder Dead.
Ragnar Lodbrok, who figures in history as the contemporary of Charlemagne, is one of the great northern heroes, to whom many mythical deeds of valor are ascribed. His story has given rise not only to the celebrated Ragnar Lodbrok saga, so popular in the thirteenth century, but also to many poems and songs by ancient scalds and modern poets. The material of the Ragnar Lodbrok saga was probably largely borrowed from the Volsunga saga and from the saga of Dietrich von Bern, the chief aim of the ancient composers being to connect the Danish dynasty of kings with the great hero Sigurd, the slayer of Fafnir, and thereby to prove that their ancestor was no less a person than Odin.
The hero of this saga was Ragnar, the son of Sigurd Ring and his first wife, Alfild. According to one version of the story, as we have seen, Sigurd Ring married Ingeborg, and died, leaving Frithiof to protect his young son. According to another, Sigurd Ring appointed Ragnar as his successor, and had him recognized as future ruler by the Thing before he set out upon his last military expedition.
This was a quest for a new wife named Alfsol, a princess of Jutland, with whom, in spite of his advanced years, he had fallen passionately in love. Her family, however, rudely refused Sigurd Ring's request. When he came to win his bride by the force of arms, and they saw themselves defeated, they poisoned Alfsol rather than have her fall alive into the viking's hands.
Sigurd Ring, finding a corpse where he had hoped to clasp a living and loving woman, was so overcome with grief that he now resolved to die too. By his orders Alfsol's body was laid in state on a funeral pyre on his best ship. Then, when the fire had been kindled, and the ship cut adrift from its moorings, Sigurd Ring sprang on board, and, stabbing himself, was burned with the fair maiden he loved.
Ragnar was but fifteen years old when he found himself called upon to reign; but just as he outshone all his companions in beauty and intelligence, so he could match the bravest heroes in courage and daring, and generally escaped uninjured from every battle, owing to a magic shirt which his mother had woven for him.
"'I give thee the long shirt,
Woven with a loving mind,
Of hair——-[obscure word].
Wounds will not bleed
Nor will edges bite thee
In the holy garment;
It was consecrated to the gods.'"
Ragnar Lodbrok Saga.
Of course the young hero led out his men every summer upon some exciting viking expedition, to test their courage and supply them with plunder; for all the northern heroes proudly boasted that the sword was their god and gold was their goddess.
On one occasion Ragnar landed in a remote part of Norway, and having climbed one of the neighboring mountains, he looked down upon a fruitful valley inhabited by Lodgerda [Lagertha], a warrior maiden who delighted in the chase and all athletic exercises, and ruled over all that part of the country. Ragnar immediately resolved to visit this fair maiden; and, seeing her manifold attractions, he soon fell in love with her and married her. She joined him in all his active pursuits; but in spite of all his entreaties, she would not consent to leave her native land and accompany him home.
After spending three years in Norway with Lodgerda, the young viking became restless and unhappy; and learning that his kingdom had been raided during his prolonged absence, he parted from his wife in hot haste. He pursued his enemies to Whitaby and to Lym-Fiord, winning a signal victory over them in both places, and then reentered his capital of Hledra in triumph, amid the acclamations of his joyful people.
He had not been resting long upon his newly won laurels when a northern seer came to his court, and showed him in a magic mirror the image of Thora, the beautiful daughter of Jarl Herrand in East Gothland. Ragnar, who evidently considered himself freed from all matrimonial bonds by his wife's refusal to accompany him home, eagerly questioned the seer concerning the radiant vision.
This man then revealed to him that Thora, having at her father's request carefully brought up a dragon from an egg hatched by a swan, had at last seen it assume such colossal proportions that it coiled itself all around the house where she dwelt. Here it watched over her with jealous care, allowing none to approach except the servant who brought the princess her meals and who provided an ox daily for the monster's sustenance. Jarl Herrand had offered Thora's hand in marriage, and immense sums of gold, to any hero brave enough to slay this dragon; but none dared venture within reach of its powerful jaws, whence came fire, venom, and noxious vapors.
Ragnar, who as usual thirsted for adventure, immediately made up his mind to go and fight this dragon; and, after donning a peculiar leather and woolen garment, all smeared over with pitch, he attacked and successfully slew the monster.
"'Nor long before
In arms I reached the Gothic shore,
To work the loathly serpent's death.
I slew the reptile of the heath.'"
Death Song of Regner Lodbrock (Herbert's tr.).
In commemoration of this victory, Ragnar ever after bore also the name of Lodbrok (Leather Hose), although he laid aside this garment as soon as possible, and appeared in royal garb, to receive his prize, the beautiful maiden Thora, whom he had delivered, and whom he now took to be his wife.
"'My prize was Thora; from that fight,
'Mongst warriors am I Lodbrock hight.
I pierced the monster's scaly side
With steel, the soldier's wealth and pride.'"
Death Song of Regner Lodbrock (Herbert's tr.).
Thora gladly accompanied Ragnar back to Hledra, lived happily with him for several years, and bore him two sturdy sons, Agnar and Erik, who soon gave proof of uncommon courage. Such was Ragnar's devotion to his new wife that he even forbore to take part in the usual viking expeditions, to linger by her side. All his love could not long avail to keep her with him, however, for she soon sickened and died, leaving him an inconsolable widower.
To divert him from his great sorrow, his subjects finally proposed that he should resume his former adventurous career, and prevailed upon him to launch his dragon ship once more and to set sail for foreign shores. Some time during the cruise their bread supply failed, and Ragnar steered his vessel into the port of Spangarhede, where he bade his men carry their flour ashore and ask the people in a hut which he descried there to help them knead and bake their bread. The sailors obeyed; but when they entered the lowly hut and saw the filthy old woman who appeared to be its sole occupant, they hesitated to bespeak her aid.
While they were deliberating what they should do, a beautiful girl, poorly clad, but immaculately clean, entered the hut; and the old woman, addressing her as Krake (Crow), bade her see what the strangers wanted. They told her, and admiringly watched her as she deftly fashioned the dough into loaves and slipped them into the hot oven. She bade the sailors watch them closely, lest they should burn; but these men forgot all about their loaves to gaze upon her as she flitted about the house, and the result was that their bread was badly burned.
When they returned to the vessel, Ragnar Lodbrok reproved them severely for their carelessness, until the men, to justify themselves, began describing the maiden Krake in such glowing terms that the chief finally expressed a desire to see her. With the view of testing her wit and intelligence, as well as her beauty, Ragnar sent a message bidding her appear before him neither naked nor clad, neither alone nor unaccompanied, neither fasting nor yet having partaken of any food.
This singular message was punctually delivered, and Krake, who was as clever as beautiful, soon presented herself, with a fish net wound several times around her graceful form, her sheep dog beside her, and the odor of the leek she had bitten into still hovering over her ruby lips.
Ragnar, charmed by her ingenuity no less than by her extreme beauty, then and there proposed to marry her. But Krake, who was not to be so lightly won, declared that he must first prove the depth of his affection by remaining constant to her for one whole year, at the end of which time she would marry him if he still cared to claim her hand.
The year passed by; Ragnar returned to renew his suit, and Krake, satisfied that she had inspired no momentary passion, forsook the aged couple and accompanied the great viking to Hledra, where she became queen of Denmark. She bore Ragnar four sons—Ivar, Björn, Hvitserk, and Rogenwald,—who from earliest infancy longed to emulate the prowess of their father, Ragnar, and of their step-brothers, Erik and Agnar, who even in their youth were already great vikings.
The Danes, however, had never fully approved of Ragnar's last marriage, and murmured frequently because they were obliged to obey a lowborn queen, and one who bore the vulgar name of Krake. Little by little these murmurs grew louder, and finally they came to Ragnar's ears while he was visiting Eystein, King of Svithiod (Sweden). Craftily his courtiers went to work, and finally prevailed upon him to sue for the princess's hand. He did so, and left Sweden promising to divorce Krake when he reached home, and to return as soon as possible to claim his bride.
As Ragnar entered the palace at Hledra, Krake came, as usual, to meet him. His conscience smote him, and he answered all her tender inquiries so roughly that she suddenly turned and asked him why he had made arrangements to divorce her and take a new wife. Surprised at her knowledge, for he fancied the matter still a secret, Ragnar Lodbrok asked who had told her. Thereupon Krake explained that, feeling anxious about him, she had sent her pet magpies after him, and that the birds had come home and revealed all.
This answer, which perhaps gave rise to the common expression, "A little bird told me," greatly astonished Ragnar. He was about to try to excuse himself when Krake, drawing herself up proudly, declared that while she was perfectly ready to depart, it was but just that he should now learn that her extraction was far less humble than he thought. She then proceeded to tell him that her real name was Aslaug, and that she was the daughter of Sigurd Fafnisbane (the slayer of Fafnir) and the beautiful Valkyr Brunhild. Her grandfather, or her foster father, Heimir, to protect her from the foes who would fain have taken her life, had hidden her in his hollow harp when she was but a babe. He had tenderly cared for her until he was treacherously murdered by peasants, who had found her in the hollow harp instead of the treasure they sought there.
"Let be—as ancient stories tell—
Full knowledge upon Ragnar fell
In lapse of time, that this was she
Begot in the felicity
Swift-fleeting of the wondrous twain,
Who afterwards through change and pain
Must live apart to meet in death."
WILLIAM MORRIS, The Fostering of Aslaug.
In proof of her assertion, Aslaug then produced a ring and a letter which had belonged to her illustrious mother, and foretold that her next child, a son, would bear the image of a dragon in his right eye, as a sign that he was a grandson of the Dragon Slayer, whose memory was honored by all.
Convinced of the truth of these statements, Ragnar no longer showed any desire to repudiate his wife; but, on the contrary, he besought her to remain with him, and bade his subjects call her Aslaug.
Shortly after this reconciliation the queen gave birth to a fifth son, who, as she had predicted, came into the world with a peculiar birthmark, to which he owed his name—Sigurd the Snake-eyed. As it was customary for kings to intrust their sons to some noted warrior to foster, this child was given to the celebrated Norman pirate, Hastings, who, as soon as his charge had attained a suitable age, taught him the art of viking warfare, and took him, with his four elder brothers, to raid the coasts of all the southern countries.
Ivar, the eldest of Ragnar and Aslaug's sons, although crippled from birth, and unable to walk a step, was always ready to join in the fray, into the midst of which he was borne on a shield. From this point of vantage he shot arrow after arrow, with fatal accuracy of aim. As he had employed much of his leisure time in learning runes and all kinds of magic arts, he was often of great assistance to his brothers, who generally chose him leader of their expeditions. [See Guerber's Myths of Northern Lands, p. 39.]
While Ragnar's five sons were engaged in fighting the English at Whitaby to punish them for plundering and setting fire to some Danish ships, Rogenwald fell to rise no more.
Eystein, the Swedish king, now assembled a large army and declared war against the Danes, because their monarch had failed to return at the appointed time and claim the bride for whom he had sued. Ragnar would fain have gone forth to meet the enemy in person, but Agnar and Erik, his two eldest sons, craved permission to go in his stead. They met the Swedish king, but in spite of their valor they soon succumbed to an attack made by an enchanted cow.
"'We smote with swords; at dawn of day
Hundred spearmen gasping lay,
Bent beneath the arrowy strife.
Egill reft my son of life;
Too soon my Agnar's youth was spent,
The scabbard thorn his bosom rent.'"
Death Song of Regner Lodbrock (Herbert's tr.).
Ragnar was about to sally forth to avenge them, when Hastings and the other sons returned. Then Aslaug prevailed upon her husband to linger by her side and delegate the duty of revenge to his sons. In this battle Ivar made use of his magic to slay Eystein's cow, which could make more havoc than an army of warriors. His brothers, having slain Eystein and raided the country, then sailed off to renew their depredations elsewhere.
This band of vikings visited the coasts of England, Ireland, France, Italy, Greece, and the Greek isles, plundering, murdering, and burning wherever they went. Assisted by Hastings, the brothers took Wiflisburg (probably the Roman Aventicum), and even besieged Luna in Etruria.
As this city was too strongly fortified and too well garrisoned to yield to an assault, the Normans (as all the northern pirates were indiscriminately called in the South) resolved to secure it by stratagem. They therefore pretended that Hastings, their leader, was desperately ill, and induced a bishop to come out of the town to baptize him, so that he might die in the Christian faith. Three days later they again sent a herald to say that Hastings had died, and that his last wish had been to be buried in a Christian church. They therefore asked permission to enter the city unarmed, and bear their leader to his last resting place, promising not only to receive baptism, but also to endow with great wealth the church where Hastings was buried.
The inhabitants of Luna, won by these specious promises, immediately opened their gates, and the funeral procession filed solemnly into the city. But, in the midst of the mass, the coffin lid flew open, and Hastings sprang out, sword in hand, and killed the officiating bishop and priests. This example was followed by his soldiers, who produced the weapons they had concealed upon their persons, and slew all the inhabitants of the town.
These lawless invaders were about to proceed to Romaburg (Rome), and sack that city also, but were deterred by a pilgrim whom they met. He told them that the city was so far away that he had worn out two pairs of iron-soled shoes in coming from thence. The Normans, believing this tale, which was only a stratagem devised by the quick-witted pilgrim, spared the Eternal City, and, reembarking in their vessels, sailed home.
Ragnar Lodbrok, in the mean while, had not been inactive, but had continued his adventurous career, winning numerous battles, and bringing home much plunder to enrich his kingdom and subjects.
"'I have fought battles
Fifty and one
Which were famous;
I have wounded many men.'"
Ragnar's Sons' Saga.
The hero's last expedition was against Ella, King of Northumberland. From the very outset the gods seemed to have decided that Ragnar should not prove as successful as usual. The poets tell us that they even sent the Valkyrs (battle maidens of northern mythology) to warn him of his coming defeat, and to tell him of the bliss awaiting him in Valhalla.
"'Regner! tell thy fair-hair'd bride
She must slumber at thy side!
Tell the brother of thy breast
Even for him thy grave hath rest!
Tell the raven steed which bore thee
When the wild wolf fled before thee,
He too with his lord must fall,—
There is room in Odin's Hall!'"
MRS. HEMANS, Valkyriur Song.
In spite of this warning, Ragnar went on. Owing to the magic shirt he wore, he stood unharmed in the midst of the slain long after all his brave followers had perished; and it was only after a whole day's fighting that the enemy finally succeeded in making him a prisoner. Then the followers of Ella vainly besought Ragnar to speak and tell his name. As he remained obstinately silent they finally flung him into a den of snakes, where the reptiles crawled all over him, vainly trying to pierce the magic shirt with their venomous fangs. Ella perceived at last that it was this garment which preserved his captive from death, and had it forcibly removed. Ragnar was then thrust back amid the writhing, hissing snakes, which bit him many times. Now that death was near, the hero's tongue was loosened, not to give vent to weak complaints, but to chant a triumphant death song, in which he recounted his manifold battles, and foretold that his brave sons would avenge his cruel death.
"'Grim stings the adder's forked dart;
The vipers nestle in my heart.
But soon, I wot, shall Vider's wand,
Fixed in Ella's bosom stand.
My youthful sons with rage will swell,
Listening how their father fell;
Those gallant boys in peace unbroken
Will never rest, till I be wroken [avenged].'"
Death Song of Regner Lodbrock (Herbert's tr.).
This heroic strain has been immortalized by ancient scalds and modern poets. They have all felt the same admiration for the dauntless old viking, who, even amid the pangs of death, gloried in his past achievements, and looked ardently forward to his sojourn in Valhalla. There, he fancied, he would still be able to indulge in warfare, his favorite pastime, and would lead the einheriar (spirits of dead warriors) to their daily battles.
"'Cease, my strain! I hear a voice
From realms where martial souls rejoice;
I hear the maids of slaughter call,
Who bid me hence to Odin's hall:
High seated in their blest abodes
I soon shall quaff the drink of gods.
The hours of life have glided by;
I fall, but smiling shall I die.'"
Death Song of Regner Lodbrock (Herbert's tr.).
Ragnar Lodbrok's sons had reached home, and were peacefully occupied in playing chess, when a messenger came to announce their father's sad end. In their impatience to avenge him they started out without waiting to collect a large force, and in spite of many inauspicious omens. Ella, who expected them, met them with a great host, composed not only of all his own subjects but also of many allies, among whom was King Alfred. In spite of their valor the Normans were completely defeated by the superior forces of the enemy, and only a few of them survived. Ivar and his remaining followers consented to surrender at last, provided that Ella would atone for their losses by giving them as much land as an oxhide would inclose. This seemingly trifling request was granted without demur, nor could the king retract his promise when he saw that the oxhide, cut into tiny strips, inclosed a vast space of land, upon which the Normans now proceeded to construct an almost impregnable fortress, called Lunduna Burg (London).
Here Ivar took up his permanent abode, while his brothers returned to Hledra. Little by little he alienated the affections of Ella's subjects, and won them over to him by rich gifts and artful flattery. When sure of their allegiance, he incited them to revolt against the king; and as he had solemnly sworn never to bear arms against Ella, he kept the letter of his promise by sending for his brothers to act as their leaders.
As a result of this revolution Ella was made prisoner. Then the fierce vikings stretched him out upon one of those rude stone altars which can still be seen in England, and ruthlessly avenged their father's cruel death by cutting the bloody eagle upon him. After Ella's death, Ivar became even more powerful than before, while his younger brothers continued their viking expeditions, took an active part in all the piratical incursions of the time, and even, we are told, besieged Paris in the reign of Louis the Fat. [See Guerber's Myths of Northern Lands, p. 85.]
Other Danish and Scandinavian vikings were equally venturesome and successful, and many eventually settled in the lands which they had conquered. Among these was the famous Rollo (Rolf Ganger), who, too gigantic in stature to ride horseback, always went on foot. He settled with his followers in a fertile province in northern France, which owes to them its name of Normandy.
The rude independence of the Northmen is well illustrated by their behavior when called to court to do homage for this new fief. Rollo was directed to place both his hands between those of the king, and take his vow of allegiance; so he submitted with indifferent grace. But when he was told that he must conclude the ceremony by kissing the monarch's foot, he obstinately refused to do so. A proxy was finally suggested, and Rollo, calling one of his Berserkers, bade him take his place. The stalwart giant strode forward, but instead of kneeling, he grasped the king's foot and raised it to his lips. As the king did not expect such a jerk, he lost his balance and fell heavily backward. All the Frenchmen present were, of course, scandalized; but the barbarian refused to make any apology, and strode haughtily out of the place, vowing he would never come to court again.
All the northern pirates were, as we have seen, called Normans. They did not all settle in the North, however, for many of them found their way into Italy, and even to Constantinople. There they formed the celebrated Varangian Guard, and faithfully watched over the safety of the emperor. It was probably one of these soldiers who traced the runes upon the stone lion which was subsequently transferred to Venice, where it now adorns the Piazza of St. Mark's.
"Rose the Norseman chief Hardrada, like a lion from his lair;
His the fearless soul to conquer, his the willing soul to dare.
Gathered Skald and wild Varingar, where the raven banner shone,
And the dread steeds of the ocean, left the Northland's frozen zone."
VAIL, Marri's Vision.
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