The Real Truth Behind The Viking Culture

Ancient Norse seafarers who were inhumanly large, brutish, and killed everything in their path: these were the Vikings. At least, that’s what popular culture wants us to believe. In reality, the Vikings weren’t the barbarians that we have branded them. They were a group of greatly intelligent, civilized, and hard-working people. Their unique culture and belief system was misunderstood by other cultures, which helped contribute to a false reputation that is still upheld today. Read on to learn about the reality of the Viking way of life. You’ll find out what is actually true and what is just legend.

Vikings Cared About Personal Hygiene

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Photo credit: Twitter
Photo credit: Twitter

If you picture Vikings as a long-haired and bearded group of warmongers, you wouldn’t be wrong. However, you would be mistaken if you assumed that they were dirty, stinky, and careless people. In reality, the Vikings cared greatly about their personal hygiene. Although they may have lived in harsh conditions and were known to have bushy beards and long hair, they took care of themselves.

Many different Viking grooming tools and equipment have been discovered that were used by both men and women. These include things such as combs, razors, and even ear swabs. Although they couldn’t avoid ever getting dirty, it is clear that they made more of an effort than is ever depicted in popular culture.

They Never Wore Horned Helmets

Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

One of the biggest misconceptions about the Vikings was that they wore horned helmets into battle. However, this has been proven to be completely false. If they wore helmets at all in combat, they certainly didn’t have horns on them because there have been no artifact discovered to suggest this was something that Vikings wore.

The idea behind the horned helmets came from the Victorian era to romanticize the image of the Vikings. They were described as wearing these scary-looking helmets in order to make them seem as savage and horrifying as possible.

The Days Of The Week Are Named After Viking Gods

Photo: DeAgostini/Getty Images
Photo: DeAgostini/Getty Images

Unknown to many people, the Norse gods worshipped by the Vikings are a part of our everyday lives. The days of the week are actually references to the names of specific gods. The great raven god Odin, also known as Woden, is now Wednesday, which literally means Woden’s Day. Tuesday and Friday are named after Tyr and Frigg, the god and goddess of war and marriage.

The most famous, is Thor, the god of thunder and strength, for Thursday. While much of Viking culture may be lost, it’s interesting that something as fundamental as the days of our modern week can be directly traced back to their belief system.

Vikings Weren’t As Giant As They Are Depicted

Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Vikings are commonly depicted as being giant, muscular men with the ability to kill their enemies with one swing of an ax, however, that’s an over-exaggeration. They didn’t look like Rollo from the History Channel show Vikings or Chris Hemsworth in Thor. They were typically around 5 feet 7 inches and were leaner than they were burly.

Their size has been explained by their summer seasons being exceptionally short, leading to fewer resources and therefore less food. This lack of good weather is also what led the Vikings to go on raids in order to take other’s resources. Much like with the horned helmets, the description of the Vikings as being large was a way to make them seem much scarier than they were and paint them as almost inhuman.

The Viking Afterlife

Photo: DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images
Photo: DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images

Though many modern religions believe in some form of heaven and hell, the Vikings had a totally different view of the afterlife. They thought that the way you lived life would dictate which of several afterlife realms you would go to after death. For the Vikings, the best place you could hope to go to was Valhalla.

This place was reserved for warriors that fought bravely and died bravely in battle. Next was Helgafjell, another place for admirable people that lived a fulfilling life. Hellheim, on the other hand, was a place for dishonorable people who didn’t die well, this could even mean dying comfortably of old age.

The Vikings Reached North America Before Columbus

Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus ever sailed the ocean blue, the first Europeans to ever step foot in North America was a group of Vikings led by Leif Eriksson. Lief Eriksson’s own father, Erik the Red was a famous traveler before his son, establishing the first European settlement of Greenland. Supposedly, Erik the Red had also sailed from Iceland to Canada and encouraged his son Leif to explore new lands as well.

This led to Leif eventually discovering North America although he made no moves to take over the land or attack the Native Americans. For the most part, the Viking discovering of North America remained unknown long after Christopher Columbus took the credit as the first European.

Vikings Preferred Having Blonde Hair

Photo: Pinterest
Photo: Pinterest

While most of the popular culture surrounding Vikings depicts them with blonde hair, that is something that they got right. For whatever reason, Vikings preferred the look of blonde hair and even based their definition of beauty around having it.

So, those who were born without blonde hair created a process in order to achieve the beloved color. They would use a strong soap that had a high lye concentrate in order to bleach their hair. On occasion, some Viking men would even bleach their beards to in order to have as much blonde visible as possible.

Viking Women Had Basic Rights

Photo: History Channel
Photo: History Channel

Although Viking women may not have been treated as equals with men, they certainly had more rights than some other women around the world. While they often were married around 12 and expected to carry out motherly and wifely duties, they did have some basic rights and freedoms. These included having the right to inherit property, file for divorce, and even reclaim settlements if the marriage failed.

Although Viking males were the “men of the house,” women controlled the entire domestic sphere. If her husband died, she inherited all of the responsibilities and roles that were once her husband’s. Although it wasn’t all that common, there are also stories and legends of female warriors, known as “shieldmaidens,” that fought alongside Viking men.

Vikings May Not Have Had Tattoos

Photo: Pinterest
Photo: Pinterest

Tattooing has been proven to have existed well before the Vikings,yet that doesn’t necessarily mean that Vikings had tattoos. Although people today demonstrate their Viking heritage by getting “traditional” Viking tattoos, it’s still not clear if real Vikings had these tattoos or if they are just ancient Norse symbols.

While in television and movies Vikings are often depicted as covered in tattoos, there still is no physical evidence that they practiced the art. Furthermore, considering that the Viking’s took pride in their cleanliness and were even a little obsessive about it, it may seem likely that they didn’t want to cover their skin with permanent markings.

Vikings Had A Unique Justice System

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Photo: History Channel
Photo: History Channel

Contrary to popular belief, Vikings didn’t just go around settling things on their own. In reality, they had an established justice system in order to resolve any disputes or crimes that came up. Norse culture knew this system as “Althing,” translated to mean “The Thing.”

Regularly, “The Thing” was held and a law speaker would hear people’s disputes. They would then settle these disputes either through peaceful means, usually done with the help of an objective third party, much like our court system today. However, in some cases, justice was decided through violence and occasional execution.

Vikings Had An Interesting Method For Starting Their Fires

Photo: CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

While for the most part, Vikings were very concerned with their hygiene and overall cleanliness, they seemed to put that all aside when it came to lighting fires. Their process would begin with collecting touchwood fungus from tree bark and then boiling it for several days in human urine. They would then pound the soaked bark it into a felt-like substance that was easy to transport and durable.

They had discovered that the sodium nitrate in urine would allow the material smolder and not just burn, allowing them to travel vast distances and start a new fire on the go. Not the first thing that comes to mind when starting a fire but the Vikings figured it out.

They Buried Their Dead In Boats

Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Considering that the majority of life revolved around the ocean whether it be seafaring, raiding, or fishing, it was only appropriate that their burials would involve a boat. In the Norse religion, it was believed that great warriors would need a vessel to cross over into the afterlife and reach Valhalla. So, prominent Vikings and exceptional women would have the honor of being laid to rest in a traditional Viking ship.

Along with the body, the ship would be filled with weapons, food, treasure, and anything else they may need in the afterlife. In some occasions, slaves were even sacrificed and put on the boat as well to serve their masters in the afterlife.

Vikings Spent More Time Farming Than Raiding

Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images
Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Vikings may be best remembered for their reputation for being fierce warriors and ruthless raiders, but that wasn’t their full-time profession. They wouldn’t be able to establish such a complex society if they were always sailing around looking for treasure and a fight. For the most part, Vikings spent much more time farming and maintaining their settlements than anything else.

Some of the most famous Vikings in history such as Ragnar Lothbrok started out as full-time farmers until they came into a position of power. In Viking culture, being a farmer was a respected position in the community although many of the men also doubled as raiders when the time came.

Vikings Were Not A Unified Group

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Photo: History Channel
Photo: History Channel

Although Vikings settlements were communities of unified people, the Viking culture as a whole did not associate with one another. Chances are, many of the people that lived in the area didn’t even consider themselves to be Vikings. The term Viking simply referred to all Scandinavians that were ever involved in overseas expeditions, essentially grouping them all into one category.

However, during the height of the Viking culture, what is now Norway, Denmark, and Sweden was one land sprinkled with chieftain-led tribes that were far from united and were constantly warring with one another. However, seldom would they ever raid together since they weren’t big on sharing with one another.

Vikings Were Avid Skiers

Photo: Knud Birchslegs
Photo: Knud Birchslegs

In the Scandinavian Penninsula, the earliest evidence of skiing dates back almost 6,000 years ago. During the Viking Age, skiing was a means of transportation during the winter when the majority of the land was covered in snow and ice. However, it was later discovered that Vikings might not have used skiing strictly for transportation, but also for recreation.

In Norse mythology, there is even a god for skiing named Ullr. It has also been assumed that skiing was also used in warfare as a means to scout through the wilderness and as a way to move vast armies across terrain that would otherwise be unpassable.

Vikings Were Involved In The Slave Trade

Photo: The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
Photo: The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Vikings typically acquired slaves on their raiding expeditions to Eastern Europe and the British Isles. On the other hand, becoming a slave could also be a punishment in Viking society as a form of justice. Slave trading was one of the most significant commodities traded among Vikings and was incredibly lucrative. Slaves would be traded for goods or other slaves depending on a Vikings needs.

They could use slaves to help them tend to their farm, work in the household, or a variety of other needs in the community. They were essentially treated as livestock, lived without rights, and were at the will of their owners. However, slaves could also be set free by their owners if they earned their freedom, or others could buy their freedom.

They Used Onion Soup To Gauge The Severity Of Wounds

Photo: Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Photo: Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Although a little disgusting, wounded Vikings returning from battle with abdominal wounds were fed a very potent onion soup along with other spices. After a few minutes, someone would come to smell their wounds. If they could smell the onions from inside of the wound, it meant that there were severe abdominal injuries.

Usually, this meant that the stomach had been cut and that death was therefore inevitable. Even today, there is still a small chance of surviving a wound of that nature, so back in the days of the Vikings, there was no way that anyone could survive.

The Vikings Helped Inspire The Name For Bluetooth

Photo: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Photo: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Harald Bluetooth was a legendary Viking king of Denmark and Norway. During his reign, he managed to unite many of the surrounding Viking tribes together and create an extremely elaborate and stable infrastructure for them all to co-exist in. So, when Jim Kardach, the founder of Bluetooth was naming his invention, he named it after King Bluetooth.

He felt it was only appropriate to name it after him in hopes of bringing people together as Bluetooth did. Furthermore, ever wonder what the symbol for Bluetooth is? the symbol is a blend of the Nordic Runes for “B” and “H,” the initials of Harald Bluetooth. If only King Bluetooth knew that his actions as an ancient king would resonate so much in our modern society.

They Abandoned Weak Children

Photo: PHAS/UIG via Getty Images
Photo: PHAS/UIG via Getty Images

Much like the Spartans of Greece, strength and health were necessary qualities for Viking children. If a child was born sickly and weak, unable able to fight or contribute to society, they were considered to be a burden and useless. As a means of saving resources and their own time, these children were either abandoned in the forest or thrown into the ocean.

This was seen as a better alternative or even a mercy. Viking life was hard, so there was no room to coddle a child. Only around 80% of Viking children lived to the age of five and at that time were expected to work, learn to fight, and contribute just like any other person.

Viking Culture Inspired The Lord of The Rings Trilogy

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Photo: Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Photo: Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Believe it or not, Viking mythology helped to inspire author J.R.R. Tolkien’s iconic fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings. In Viking mythology, there is the story of Andvari’s Ring, which is a Norse legend of a ring that curses any man that wears it.

If that isn’t convincing enough, the legend takes place in a universe that goes by the name of Midgard, which is translated to mean “Middle-Earth.” Although not everything in Tolkien’s novels was based on Norse legends, it’s clear that he was initially inspired by a story told by the Norsemen thousands of years ago.

Comic Books Are Heavily Influenced By Viking Culture

Photo Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Thanks to the prominence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you’ve probably figured this one out already but modern day comic books owe a lot to Viking Culture. Characters like Thor, Odin, Loki, and Freyja are essentially Vikings thrown into modern day scenarios.

In the comics, Thor has to travel away from his homeland of Asgard to save the Earth and its people. Video games love adapting Viking storylines too to bring the past alive in the present day.

They Didn’t Have Tattoos But They Did Have “Grills”

Photo Credit: J Mitchell/Getty Images
Photo Credit: J Mitchell/Getty Images

If you thought “grills” were only something rappers and athletes wore on the teeth to show rich they are, you’d be dead wrong. In 2009, and archaeological dig uncovered decapitated Viking skulls with filing carved into the teeth.

Archaeologists aren’t sure exactly what the filings mean yet, but they have theories. The most prominent theory is that the modifications were used as a status symbol. The more carved your teeth were, the more riches you had, we suppose? Whatever the reason, we’re glad “grill” technology isn’t the same as it used to be.

They Loved Board Games

Photo Credit: PHAS/UIG via Getty Images
Photo Credit: PHAS/UIG via Getty Images

When Vikings had downtime from pillaging and farming, one of their favorite things to do was play board games. The most popular board game was called Hnefatafl. The game sees players choose either the role of king or attacker.

If you’re the king, you use your “defender” pieces to protect yourself at all costs. If you’re an attacker, you want to overthrow the king by getting to the opposite corner of the board you started on. We’re sure the game never ended in fistfights. Probably.

Vikings Didn’t Perform Their Most Storied Form Of Execution

Photo Credit: Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

One of the biggest Viking myths that has pervaded our culture is the idea of their “Blood Eagle” execution. During the entirely made-up act, Vikings supposedly would break a person’s rib, open their back, and pour salt inside their body.

The horrifying sounding execution was luckily made up. We’re not sure why someone would make up this awful myth, but rest assured the Vikings weren’t the brutal and ruthless culture so commonly portrayed. Norse culture did come up with the idea of the execution, but it was only ever depicted in their literature.

Vikings Loved Taking “Magic Mushrooms” Before Battles

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Photo Credit: ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Before a big battle, Vikings would eat mushrooms and begin going crazy. They believed that they were being possessed by an otherworldly force that would provide them with incredible powers during the long battle. The reality is they were getting high “magic mushrooms.”

Supposedly Vikings loved this feeling. Some historians, sadly, believe that mushrooms weren’t the only cause of Vikings going “berserk.” They believe several Viking suffered from PTSD and would find themselves suffering episodes before battles.

Martha Stewart And The Vikings Would Have Been Best Friends

Photo Credit: CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images
Photo Credit: CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images

Vikings loved their weapons. They loved their weapons so much they would decorate their swords, shields, and ships. Instead of carving macho pictures of death and fighting into their equipment, though, they would bedazzle everything. Someone call Martha Stewart, Ragthor needs to know if this jewel matches his hilt!

Some of their favorites things to bedazzle into their stuff was pictures of animals like snakes, horses, and wolves. They also had an affinity for carving mythological creatures such as dragons into their handles.

Skulls Were Not Used For Drinking Ale

Photo Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Here’s a myth to bust; Viking didn’t drink from the skulls of their fallen enemies. And they definitely didn’t drink the blood of those enemies. At this point it should be clear the Viking were fairly civilized, so just throw every gross idea you’ve seen about them out the window.

Viking drank out of glasses called horns. They were called horns because they looked like, well, horns. And like their weapons, they loved bedazzling their horns with gold and other precious metals.

Vikings Invented Rap Battles

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Photo credit: CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images
Photo credit: CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

If you thought Grandmaster Flash was responsible for inventing insult-trading rap battles then this should be a shock. Centuries before traditional rap battles started happening, Vikings participated in “flyting,” and verbal battle using poetry where they would sling insults at each other.

Just like rap battles today, no subject was off limit when it came to insulting their Viking brothers. Flyting most commonly happened in Viking dining halls, where the winner was whoever got the biggest reaction from the crowd.

Fashion Wasn’t Their Top Priority

Photo Credit: CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images
Photo Credit: CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images

Vikings didn’t care much for fashion. If they existed today, there is no way stores like Hollister and Express would ever stay in business. Instead of having someone make their clothes for them, Viking made all their garments. The most important function of their clothes was that it was practical.

They learned from a young age how to hem all their garments. From their slim layers for warm weather to heavier garments for the cold and snow, Vikings knew how to make it all. When was the last time you made your own clothes to wear?

Viking Weddings Lasted One Week

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Photo credit: OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
Photo credit: OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images

The Vikings knew how to throw a party. Viking weddings were one of the most extravagant events held in the culture. Before a couple could get married, their engagement was required to last for three years. After those long years were over, the wedding lasted an entire week.

Imagine having to plan for a week-long wedding. You would need to make sure there was enough food and drink for your guests, as well as fun activities. We’re going to say it again and not feel guilty about it; Vikings knew how to party!

Wedding Vows Were Not What You’d Expect

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Photo Credit: OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
Photo Credit: OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images

Vikings didn’t use traditional wedding vows to proclaim their love for each other. Instead the male and female had specific rituals they needed to go through. The bride was required to strip away any evidence of being single (clothes, jewelry, etc…) and store it away, leaving her old life behind.

The groom would walk through a grave, re-emerging with a sword. This was meant to symbolize death and rebirth. After both rituals were over the bride and groom were required to binge drink before being led upstairs to their wedding chamber.

They Could Sail The Roughest Waters

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Photo Credit: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
Photo Credit: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

The Vikings were expert sailors who could likely sail through even the roughest waters to get to their destination. The trick to always making it to the party on time was their uncanny ability to track the sun.

Using sunstones, the Viking could find the sun to keep their path true. Sunstone is more commonly known today as Icelandic spar and “reacts” when held up to the sun. This useful effect is known as “Haidenger’s Brush.”

Another Sailing Trick Was Magnetite

Photo Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Aside from Icelandic spar, the Vikings had another incredible trick to help them cut through the fog. While trading with China, they came into possession of magnetite, a mineral that is used in the production of compasses. Yep, the Viking figured out how to make their own compasses.

Using the earth magnetic pull to their advantage, Vikings were able to sail through the soupiest fog. Essentially, if they ever said they were coming to get you heck or high water, they weren’t lying!

Viking Homes Were Built To Stand The Test Of Time

Photo Credit: Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

If you’re a carpenter today, there’s a good chance you were a Viking in a past life. Not only were they masters seamstresses, they were also master builders. Viking homes consisted of intertwining sticks covered in mud and other materials. Inside they had one big room with a fire pit in the middle for cooking.

The homes weren’t lavish or extravagant, but privacy wasn’t a big concern in those days. We’re sure mom and dad still found a way to have private time while raising their children, cooking dinner, and sewing their clothes.

Vikings Kept Their History Verbal Instead Of Written

Photo Credit: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
Photo Credit: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

We don’t know if the Viking were illiterate or just were too busy to write things down, but the history of their culture was largely passed down verbally generation to generation. This oral history has also led to the violent reputation of the culture.

A lot of what we do know about Vikings is from written accounts by their enemies. We know how they acted in times of war, but very little is known about how they acted in times of peace. What all this really means is when you’re watching Vikings on History Channel and they’re spending time with their families, take it all with a grain of salt.

They Didn’t Only Eat Meat

Photo Credit: OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
Photo Credit: OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images

No one here is denying that a Viking’s diet included a lot of meat but you might not have realized it didn’t consist solely of meat. Remember, they were farmers and had access to any grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables they could grow. This means they likely had an incredibly balanced diet.

They also had animals that could provide milk for cheeses and other things. Just because you raise a cow doesn’t mean you send it to slaughter right away! For all we know, they still could have eaten with their hands and no napkins.

They Had A Different Name For Themselves

Photo Credit: Kean Collection/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Kean Collection/Getty Images

Thanks to pop culture, it’s easy to think Vikings referred to themselves as Vikings. They did not. The actual word “Viking” is a reference to any Scandinavian who participated in overseas voyages.

So what did Vikings call themselves? Our best guess is “Ostmen” or “Astmen.” The words roughly translate to “East-men.” The Ostmen setting on the eastern coast of Ireland, so the work makes much more sense than “Viking” which just an easy generalization.

They Had “Power Couples”

Siegfried and Br�nnhilde. Private Collection. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Siegfried and Br�nnhilde. Private Collection. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Power couples aren’t just famous celebrities. Back in Viking times, high-status pairings were considered “power couples.” One such couple was discovered in a Viking tomb in 2012 in Harup, Denmark.

On the bodies, they found a pair of keys on the woman, which marked her as a noble. On the man was the deadliest Axe the Vikings made, signaling his high status in their society. Together, these two really knew how to make waves!

The Viking Race Wasn’t Pure

Photo Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

You already know the Vikings discovered America before Christopher Columbus, but that’s apparently not the whole story. Doing a DNA analysis of a Viking family that lived in Iceland something incredible was discovered.

There was Native American DNA mixed in the Scandinavian DNA. And the DNA marker discovered was over three centuries old. This not only means at least one Viking wasn’t into blonded like his brothers, but he brought his new love back to Iceland with him to create his family.

Breakfast Was The Biggest Meal Of The Day

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Amy Brothers/ The Denver Post
Amy Brothers/ The Denver Post

Being an adult in the Viking world meant that breakfast was the biggest meal of the day. You needed every ounce of energy your food had to get through the strenuous day. While kids ate porridge, adults starting the day ate large portions of leftover stew, fruit, and bread.

We don’t know how they had room for dessert, but that was included in breakfast as well. Dessert was usually ale, buttermilk, bread, and dried fruit with honey. Not your typical present-day dessert, but it sounds oddly tasty nonetheless!

He Had Many Wives And Sons

He Had Many Wives And Sons
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According to the legends, over the course of Ragnar’s life, he had three wives which included a noblewoman named Thora Borgarhjotr, the Norse queen Aslaug, and Lagertha. With his various wives, Ragnar fathered numerous sons such as Ivar the Boneless, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, Bjorn Ironside, Ubbe, and possibly others.

While history has proven that many of these men did exist, historians are unsure who their fathers may actually be if Ragnar himself is considered to be more of a myth than a man.

He Was Betrayed By One Of His Sons

He Was Betrayed By One Of His Sons
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Although Ragnar had three different wives, not all of his sons came out of marriage. At one point, he had an affair with the young daughter of a fellow Viking named Esbjørn who gave birth to their son named Ubbe.

According to legend, when Ubbe was a man, he and Esbjørn rose up in rebellion against Ragnar, and Ragnar was forced to fight against his own son’s forces to bring an end to the uprising. Nonetheless, Ubbe was a real person and was one of the Vikings that led the Great Heathen Army against England.

Not The Greatest Of Fathers

Not The Greatest Of Fathers
Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Although many of Ragnar Lothbrok’s sons gained reputations of their own that almost rivaled their father’s, that doesn’t mean that Ragnar was the most loving of fathers. One of the oldest surviving texts about Ragnar comes from William of Jumieges, of Normandy.

William explains that many Danish kings would exile their sons away to ensure they wouldn’t attempt to overthrow them. He describes how he did this to his son Bjorn. Upon leaving his father’s kingdom, Bjorn set off raiding across Europe on his own, even making his way to the Mediterranean.

The Immortal Man

The Immortal Man
The Print Collector via Getty Images
The Print Collector via Getty Images

Considering that so many ancient texts and legends about Ragnar claim that he was immortal, modern historians believe that he could be the combination of multiple men.

This is most likely because the man that was supposedly Ragnar suffered terrible fates on more than one occasion, and it’s unlikely that he survived any of them. In one tale, Ragnar sailed a fleet of 120 ships to Paris where there was an outbreak of dysentery that killed him. However, this is unlikely.

The Myth Of The Second Wife

The Myth Of The Second Wife
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When Lothbrok took his second wife, something that wasn’t uncommon in Danish culture, it was a bit of an odd situation. While sailing on the coasts of Norway, his men reported that they had spotted the beautiful peasant of a daughter. Instead of taking her in normal Viking fashion, he sent a message to the girl named Kráka to meet him in the form of a riddle.

He instructed her to come undressed nor clothes fed nor hungry, and neither alone nor with someone else. Kráka appeared on the ship was a fishing net and her own hair covering her body, a bite of food in her out, and a dog at her side. It was love at first sight for Ragnar.

Not Who She Appeared To Be

Not Whom She Appeared To Be
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

While Ragnar’s men claimed that Kráka was the daughter of a peasant, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Upon marrying Kráka, Ragnar learned that she was an Aslaug, and was the daughter of a legendary dragon slayer named Sigurd the Volsung.

Apparently, Aslaug also had the gift of “sight” and could foresee the future. At one point, she predicted that their son would be born with the mark of a dragon’s eyes, that he would be deformed, and that Ragnar’s invasion of England would result in defeat.

How He Might Have Actually Died

How He Might Have Actually Died
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In the text, the Gesta Danorum, written by the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus in 1185, Ragnar was a 9th-century Danish king. He eventually went to war with the Holy Roman emperor at the time, Charlemagne.

However, according to the story, he was eventually captured by the Ango-Saxon king Aella of North Umbria and thrown into a pit of poisonous snakes. The same account was recorded in the Icelandic works Ragnars saga loðbrókar and Þáttr af Ragnarssonum.

It’s Unlikely He Ever Met Rollo

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Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images
Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images

Although in the popular History Channel show Vikings, Ragnar Lothbrok is brothers to another Viking named Rollo, this is likely highly historically inaccurate, and while Ragnar is considered more of a legend than a man, Rollo is based in history.

Rollo was born in Scandinavia around 845, participated in raids in the Kingdom of West Francia, and eventually became the first ruler of Normandy. However, it’s almost sure he wasn’t related to Ragnar, and the two likely never even met as Ragnar was most likely 25 years older than Rollo.

He Commanded The Great Heathen Army

He Commanded The Great Heathen Army
Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images
Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images

In his prime, Ragnar Lothbrok was the commander of the Great Heathen Army, a coalition of Scandinavian warriors, although the majority of them were Danish. Aside from the typical raiding and pillaging they did, Ragnar set his sights on other, more distant parts of Europe for wealth and glory.

In 845, Ragnar and his army lay siege on Paris, where they demanded thousands of pounds of gold and silver as ransom. With no other choice, King Charles the Bald was forced to pay the ransom to get the army to leave his lands.

The Meaning Behind The Nickname “Lothbrok”

The Meaning Behind The Nickname Lothbrok
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Legend has it that the name “Lothbrok” wasn’t one that he was born with but earned when trying to win over the heart of his first wife, Thora. A powerful earl, when Thora was a little girl, her father gave her a snake as a gift. Yet, the snake turned into a large and poisonous serpent.

So, her father swore he would give his daughter’s hand in marriage to any man that could kill the beast. Ragnar volunteered and coated his breeches with tar to make them still and impenetrable to the serpent. His plan worked; he killed the serpent, married Thora, and was given the name Lothbrok which means “shaggy breeches”.

His Sons Avenged His Death

His Sons Avenged His Death
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ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

It is reported that moments before his death, Ragnar uttered, “How the little piglets will grunt when they hear the old boar suffers,” and he was right. Ragnar’s sons returned to England with the Great Heathen Army with a vengeance. They ensured the death of the East Anglian king Edmund the Martyr and began heavily raiding the East Anglia, eventually torturing King Aella to death, the man that killed their father.

The Heathen Army made its way through England, and eventually parts of France. There’s little doubt that the Viking presence during this time had an impact on European culture that we know today.

He’s A Common Name In Modern Popular Culture

He's A Common Name In Modern Popular Culture
BBC
BBC

Considering Ragnar’s legendary and often embellished life, it’s not surprising that many have written about his ambition and actions. He has been the center of countless novels such as Sea Kings by Edward Atherstone and Sword of Ganelon by Richard Parker.

Films have also been made about his accomplishments such as The Vikings, 1958, with BBC also devoting almost an entire show to his life Vikings, which follows his rise from a farmer to a king, as well as the accomplishments of his sons.

He Was Possibly Swedish

He Was Possibly Swedish
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Although many accounts and historians claim that Ragnar if he was real, was a Norseman, it’s possible that he may not have just been Swedish, but the son of the Swedish King Sigmund Hering.

However, it is also noted that he may have had some Danish blood and was also related to the Danish King Gudfred. Yet, this topic is still highly debated about Ragnar’s bloodline as well as his existence even though his sons have been accepted as historical figures.

Ragnar Was Not The First To Explore Many Territories

Ragnar Was Not The First To Explore Many Territories
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Although stories like to portray Ragnar as a man ahead of his time, exploring new locations like the North Sea and England, this is far from the truth. While he did make a name for himself, Scandinavian seamen and others had been sailing to the west and both raiding and trading with the British Isles since the Roman era.

So, more likely than not, Ragnar was well aware of what laid west and was aware of all of the plunder that was there for the taking.

Was He Even A Man?

man
Nawrocki/ClassicStock/Getty Images
Nawrocki/ClassicStock/Getty Images

When it comes to the image of Ragnar Lothrbrok, it’s almost impossible to differentiate what is fact from fiction. For example, some scholars even debate whether he was a man at all, and possibly a woman.

In one runic inscription carved in Orkney in the 12th-century inscription referring to Ragnar, it reads, “This howe was built a long time before Lobrok’s. Her sons, they were bold; scarcely ever were there such tall men of their heads.” For some, this proves that not only was Lothbrok real but was indeed a mother.

He Was A Cunning Warrior

He Was A Cunning Warrior
Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images
Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images

One of the tactics that made Vikings such successful and fearsome raiders, especially those supposedly serving under Ragnar was their element of surprise. Nobody could tell where or when the Vikings would be coming to raid until they could see their formidable sails on the horizon.

For example, during the famous Siege of Paris in 845, Ragnar and his men were successful despite being on the offensive because they attacked on Easter Sunday when the majority of the city was attending mass.

He Didn’t Take Kindly To Being Resisted

He Didn't Take Kindly To Being Resisted
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adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images

Although at one point, King Charles the Bald of France had awarded Ragner land, he eventually lost it, along with the king’s support. This resulted in the Siege of Paris. During the battle, Charles made the tactical error of splitting his forces on either side of the Seine, leading Ragnar to focus his attention on one of the armies.

After decimating the Frankish soldiers, Ragnar left over one hundred of them alive and publicly hanged them on an island on the Seine as a sacrifice to Odin and a warning to Charles.

Writings About Him Were Slightly Biased

Writings About Him Were Slightly Biased
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Saxo Grammaticus is a historian that was known for his particular interest in Ragnar Lothbrok and detailed his adventures and accomplishments. However, when it came to Ragnar’s death, Grammaticus essentially agreed that he had it coming.

His reasoning? Grammaticus was Christian writing in a time when Christianity ruled over everything. As a Christian, Grammaticus could be impressed by everything that Ragnar may have done, but he couldn’t condone all of the crimes that Ragnar had committed against Christianity and its followers.

He’s The Subject Of A Popular Poem

He's The Subject Of A Popular Poem
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The Old Norse poem Krákumál became incredibly popular after a Danish scholar translated it in 1636. It translates in English to mean The Death Song of Ragnar. The poem tells the story of the heroic Ragnar that was loved by his people, his passion for love, and his fearlessness in battle.

It also describes his devotion to reach Valhalla to sit and feast next to the gods that he admired. The poem also goes into detail about his final encounter with King Aella.

Legend Or Not, The Vikings Invaded England

Legend Or Not, The Vikings Invaded England
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Whether Ivar the Boneless and his brothers were the son of the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok and avenged his death or not, the Great Heathen Army’s conquest over England is historically verified.

Several sources site that Ivar the Boneless along with other Vikings led a massive army into England in which they defeated kings Osberht, Edmund, and Ælle in battle. Ivar would then go on to rule over a kingdom that stretched across Dublin and York, changing the country’s history forever.