Vikings have come to be known as a multitude of things in popular culture. Some depict Vikings as horned-hat wearing, constantly drunk Neanderthals, some as comic book characters like Marvel’s Thor; there is even an entire form of music dedicated to Vikings. Yet, for all of the stereotypes, the majority of people do not know that much about what a true Viking was.
Yes, Vikings were violent and Vikings raided and plundered coastal communities to earn a living, but, save for those Vikings who became kings, most of their time was actually spent farming to sustain their families. Perhaps consider Vikings as outcasts of their own societies who did what they felt they needed to do in order to survive and support a family.
Furthermore, Vikings were skilled in combat, but not barbarians. It was a Viking’s advanced and expert technology in seafaring and shipbuilding that allowed them to sail the coasts in the first place. Beyond this, Vikings also discovered large parts of the world for the first time; parts of Eastern Europe, Greenland and of course North America. So, while we may know Vikings as pirates or killers or caricatures of an entire culture above all else, they were also deft sailors, farmers, warriors and even poets.
The ten Vikings on this list are all well known for their exploits, primarily involving violence and plunder, but also for how they shaped the modern United Kingdom, Eastern Europe and North America. Here are ten of the most badass and important Vikings of all time.
10. Ragnar Lodbrok
Ragnar Lodbrok became known when, at 15 years old, he killed an entire brood of snakes in order to win the hand of a girl. He was successful in this endeavor and went on to not only kill the snakes and win the girl, but build a career raiding the coats of France. He was even paid by a French King to NOT sack his town, so feared Ragnar Lodbrok was. Unfortunately, for all of his snake killing and raiding, what once made Ragnor famous and seemingly indestructible became his eventual doom. After an unsuccessful raid on England, Ragnar Lodbrok was captured and executed by being thrown into a pit of poisonous snakes. In the above photo he is seen as represented by Travis Fimmel in the History Channel’s acclaimed series Vikings.
9. Freydis Eiriksdottir
While many may not be aware, there were female Vikings as well. Freydis Eiriksdottir was the ruthless daughter of Erik the Red and was kin to Leif Eriksson. She was also an intrepid traveller and explorer who found herself, along with her husband, on Vinland, where she gained her first notoriety by fighting off a band of native Vinlanders by herself, while pregnant. As greedy as she was vicious, on a further voyage to Vinland, Freydis Eiriksdottir convinced her husband that the raiders they had travelled with had stolen from them, and while her husband punished the men, he would not kill their families, so Freydis murdered them instead.
8. Bjorn Ironside
Nothing like a Viking with a badass name like Bjorn Ironside to continue this list. Bjorn was a career raider, plundering the coasts of North Africa, France, Sicily and Italy for his entire Viking career. During one raid, it is told that Bjorn and his men were unable to breach the town walls, so, in a throwback to Trojan horse mythology, Bjorn pretended to be dead and was placed in a coffin. His men carried him to the walls and asked the priests in the town to bury him at a church. Once through the walls, Bjorn fought his way back through town to open the gates for his men. Bjorn Ironside ultimately retired from raiding a wealthy man after a disastrous loss in which forty of his ships perished in the Strait of Gibraltar. Bjorn is portrayed by Alexander Ludwig on History’s Vikings.
7. Eric Bloodaxe
Here we have Eric Bloodaxe, an heir to the Norwegian throne. After cutting his teeth on raiding and murdering throughout the Baltic Sea during his teen years, Eric returned to Norway to seek the throne for himself. The problem was, Eric Bloodaxe had plenty of brothers also vying for their father’s crown, so he did what any Viking would do and murdered them. Unfortunately for Eric, he killed all but one of his brothers, and after a brief stint as king, Bloodaxe was forced to flee Norway. After raiding some more to build up his wealth, Eric Bloodaxe invaded Northumbria, where he ruled as king until his death in battle.
6. Gunnar Hamundarson
Gunnar Hamundarson was a hero in the Norse Sagas, and based on his abilities as a swordsman and bowman, it appears as though his prowess as a fighter was how he primarily built his reputation. Gunnar Hamundarson was renowned for being an equally deadly swordsman regardless of the hand he chose to wield the weapon with, giving him the ability to fight with both hands. Gunnar also purportedly never missed when aiming his bow at another mans chest. Raiding the Nordic coasts for his entire career, Gunnar Hamundarson ultimately suffered the same fate many Vikings and Norse men in general met. He was killed in a blood feud, which was a very common practice at the time. After Gunnar Hamundarson killed two members of the same family, the entire clan exacted their revenge, and though Gunnar fought well, he was overwhelmed and subsequently killed.
5. Harald Hardrada
One of the more famous Vikings on this list whose exploits the history books can actually support relatively thoroughly, Harald Hardrada, or Harald Sigurdsson as he was born, began warring at the young age of 15. After a loss in battle, he spent the next 15 years travelling through Eastern Europe, settling in Constantinople where he became the leader of the Emperor’s revered Varangian Guard. Ultimately, power of the throne and a longing for his harsher homeland called Harald, and he returned to Norway where he seized the throne. Upon the death of the King of England, Harald saw further opportunity to expand his kingdom and invaded the island, facing a formidable foe also vying for the throne of England; William the Conquerer. Harald Hardrada was killed in battle at Stamford Bridge when an arrow pierced his throat, allowing William to seize England, thus changing the course of history.
4. Sweyn Forkbeard
If anything, you have got to give credit to Viking naming practices. Sweyn Forkbeard rebelled against his father in 987, killing him and taking the throne of Denmark as his own. From there, England became his primary object of affection, raiding the English coasts for nearly a decade before deciding to turn a little more local when be began raiding rival Norway in 1000. As a result of his attacks on Norway, Sweyn Forkbeard killed the King of Norway and divided the country, repressing those Norwegians loyal to the former king. At roughly the same time his hold on Norway grew, the King of England massacred many Danish nobles on the island, including Sweyn’s sister. Forkbeard immediately turned his attention back on England and brutally terrorized the country until his death.
3. Egil Skallagrimsson
While far less known for their skills in poetry than their skills at raiding, surprisingly enough, poetry was a pastime of many Norse people a thousand years ago. For Egil Skallagrimsson both poetry and killing were favorite pastimes. The young Egil allegedly wrote his first poem at age three and killed his first person at age seven, beginning a life of both the written word and massive bloodshed. Egil Skallagrimsson terrorized Norway in between writing epic poems, and it is said he killed men in any manner possible, by sword, axe, ripping out throats with his bear hands and even gouging opponents’ eyes out. The King of Norway making him a genuine outlaw in his own country put a ransom on Egil’s head, but he was never captured. Egil Skallagrimsson plundered enough villages to secure himself considerable wealth and died a free man in his eighties.
2. Ivar the Boneless
A brutal conqueror, Ivar the Boneless did not let a genetic condition that made his bones more fragile, hence his name, stop him from reigning blood upon the United Kingdom. Often carried into battle on a shield where he would fight with a bow, Ivar the Boneless first conquered Dublin in the mid-800s before deciding to sack the English city of York. After sacking York, Ivar executed the king with the gruesome Blood Eagle technique, where among other things, a victim’s lungs are pulled through their broken rib cage and out of their back. From York it was off to Anglia, which met a similar fate. After the city was taken, Ivar had its king beheaded, but not before using his body as target practice with his bow. Following his conquests in England, Ivar the Boneless returned to Dublin where he lived and ruled until his death. In the above photo Ivar the Boneless is portrayed by Kirk Douglas in the 1958 film The Vikings.
1. Erik the Red
Potentially the most famous Viking of all time, Erik the Red was a murderer through and through. He began killing at an early age in Norway, and was exiled for this first offense. Erik the Red didn’t leave and instead decided to kill two more people before a second exile was decreed. He headed west to Iceland, where he attempted to settle, but old habits die-hard and Erik killed three more men there and was banished for three years. During his exile Erik sailed further west and found Greenland, where he set up a colony. After his ban from Iceland was over, he returned and gathered more men, ships and supplies in an attempt to firmly establish a community on Greenland where he would rule. While Erik the Red may not have been as notoriously vicious as others on this list, he is number one because he was still a ruthless murderer, and more importantly he fathered numerous children, one of which was Freydis Eriksdottir, also on this list, and Leif Eriksson, the first man to discover North America.