c. 865: Ragnar Lodbrok, Viking raider

On an unknown date in (perhaps) the 860s, Norse raider Ragnar Lodbrok (or Ragnar Lothbrok) was allegedly put to death in the Indiana Jones-esque manner of being cast into a pit of snakes.

Ragnar is a half-legendary character who plundered France and Britain in the mid-ninth century, the heyday of Viking marauders; he’s also the lead character of the cable TV series Vikings.

He’s known from Scandinavian sagas, like the Ragnarssona Þattr, which describes Ragnar’s final battle after shipwrecking in Northumbria.

At that time, there was a king called Ælla ruling over Northumbria in England. And when he learns that raiders have come to his kingdom, he musters a mighty force and marches against Ragnar with an overwhelming host, and hard and terrible battle ensues. King Ragnar was clad in the silken jacket Aslaug had given him at their parting. But as the defending army was so big that nothing could withstand them, so almost all his men were killed, but he himself charged four times through the ranks of King Aella, and iron just glanced off his silk shirt. Finally he was taken captive and put in a snake-pit, but the snakes wouldn’t come near him. King Aella had seen during the day, as they fought, that iron didn’t bite him, and now the snakes won’t harm him. So he had him stripped of the clothes that he’d been wearing on the day, and at once snakes were hanging off him on all sides, and he left his life there with much courage.

Here’s Ernest Borgnine as Ragnar in the 1958 film The Vikings, dying in a pit full of wild dogs, not snakes. Well, it’s the same animal kingdom.

“How the little pigs would grunt if they knew how the old boar suffers!” he’s supposed to have exclaimed, keeping to the nature theme.

Although Vikings didn’t really seem to need a casus belli to pillage England, the little pigs would in fact do some serious grunting when they found out about the boar: Ragnar’s sons punitive sorties against England martyred the Christian king St. Edmund.

Update: When this post was first written in 2011, information about this distant Viking captain was not all that plentiful. Ragnar’s starring turn in a TV serial since that time has somewhat broadened his cultural footprint.

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