Opinion is split on whether the legendary Viking warrior king Ragnar Lodbrok ever existed. But when English screenwriter Michael Hirst was looking for a hero, king, and ladies’ man for his new historical drama based on the ancient Norsemen, Lodbrok was a natural choice.
As a young man, Ragnar worked on the bleak farmlands of his native Sweden before rising to prominence after showing fearlessness during raids of Norway, France, and England. According to historical sources, he was married three times to Lagertha, Thora, and Aslög.
Michael Hirst’s TV series Vikings was inspired by the life of Ragnar Lodbrok. It tells the story of Ragnar’s rise to power and wealth, the dynamics of his relationship with his brother Rollo, son Björn Ironside, and the relationship with his wives. So too does it tell the tale of his sons’ infighting and the jealousies and territorial wars that occupied much of the ancient Viking arena.
Vikings stars include Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok, Katheryn Winnick as Lagertha, and Clive Standen as Rollo. It received mix reviews, but mostly by comparison with Game of Thrones. However, it’s a far simpler premise and much more sympathetic to history than Game of Thrones. As Nancy Smith of The Wall Street Journal notes, “[Vikings] is not a celebration of sex and violence, but a study of character, stamina, power and … of social, emotional, and even intellectual awakening.” Let’s take a look at 15 revealing facts about the hit TV show that even die-hard fans don’t know.
15. Ravens Make A Lot Of Appearances
Norse accounts tell of the raven being an important symbol in both wartime and peacetime. Often, the Norse god Odin (who gave his name to “Wednesday”) is seen in pictures surrounded by ravens, of which two — Huginn and Muninn — were his favorite. Historians think these two birds represented Odin’s eyes and ears. Ancient stories tell us that when the birds showed up in battle, the Vikings believed their god was watching over them.
In the TV show, Ragnar carries a flag with a raven emblem which he takes with him on his sieges of Europe. It would be held aloft before a battle began for the king to watch — if the flag dropped, this would signify that the course of the battle would not run in his favor, but if it fluttered and was held up by the wind, victory was guaranteed.
14. Crowd Scenes Sound Real
One of Michael Hirst’s aims for Vikings was to create a show that was authentic in as many ways as possible. This task he charged mostly to the directors Johan Renck, Ciarán Donnelly, and Ken Girotti, who worked with what little historical evidence there was to bring the Viking world to life. Although some of the cast were Scandinavian born, many were English or Irish. So, authenticity would have to be achieved by other means.
Working with language scholars and historians, Hirst and his directors decided that scenes depicting crowds of Vikings could be made more authentic by having the extras speak a modern language such as Danish or Swedish. With battle scenes between Vikings and Saxons, the Saxon army would also be given Scandinavian words to shout (since the sound of it isn’t too far removed from Old English).
13. A Boat Gets Dragged Up A Cliff
In one episode, Ragnar and his army march to Paris as their ambitions to conquer Europe reach new heights. Once they arrived on the Northern coast of France, the Vikings’ route to Paris would be shorter over land. In Hirst’s version, they pulled their long ships through mountains to reach the river Seine and then sailed into the city.
True fact: In 885 AD, the Viking’s final siege of Paris began, but was in fact unsuccessful. However, because the city was already at a breaking point, the governor of the city offered the Vikings money and free passage to attack a neighboring town instead. This they did, but were eventually barred from sailing further along the Seine. The Vikings were left with no choice but to dismantle their boats and continue their journey overland to the Marne River.
12. It’s Inspired By Real Life
Hirst based much of the plot for Vikings on real historical accounts. Three major works written years after the Viking age were used. The sagas included “Ragnars,” “Loðbrókar,” and “Ragnarssona þáttr,” as well as a book by someone called Saxo Grammaticus. Sagas were like long diaries of Viking life but were often made more elaborate with fables and legends. Most of the sagas were also written in pictures rather than the sort of writing we’re used to today.
The TV series begins in the 793 AD with the Viking attack on the English monastery at Lindisfarne. Lindisfarne was an important center of Christian worship, but it was also very wealthy. The Vikings at the time didn’t believe in the Christian god, so it didn’t matter to them that they plundered the very seat of what was to be the most widespread religion in the world.
11. Colors Inspired By Norway
In the TV series, Harald “Finehair” was a rival of Ragnar, and it was his burning desire to become the next king of the Vikings. His battle colors are red and yellow, chosen deliberately from the royal coat of arms of Norway. While Vikings themselves are generally thought of as having come from Norway, they held territory all over Europe and the Middle East. They even landed in the Americas, long before Christopher Columbus.
Vikings depicts the Vikings culture, as well as how they fared as a fighting race. Victorian historians of the Romantic period painted the race as consisting of ruthless warriors who were nothing but bloodthirsty and amoral. Yet, while they certainly were a formidable fighting force, they were also very spiritual. The Saxons who already landed when the Vikings raided England were often far more cruel in their tortures and executions.
10. It’s Based On Real Leaders
In the Vikings series, Rollo Sigurdsson (played by Clive Standen) is the older brother of Ragnar, and is considered to be more fearless and intense. In fact, Rollo (based on the Viking Hrolf) was written about by Norse and Saxon diarists. Hrolf was known for his relentless energy and strength in battle and eventually becomes a king of a territory called Lejre. He’s even reckoned to be the great-great-great-grandfather of William the Conqueror.
Viking men were also far more respectful of their womenfolk than Saxons were. Female Vikings were able to engage in combat, hold court, and advise kings and landowners in times of war. In the series, after her divorce from King Ragnar, Lagertha rises in status to Earl of Hedeby (an area in northern Germany). She then becomes Queen of Kattegat and a powerful woman in her own right.
9. Warrior Bishops Were Around In The Day
Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers arrives in Vikings as a “warrior bishop,” a fanatical priest who also fights hard in battle. Meyers’s warrior bishop is Anglo Saxon and thus fighting against the Norsemen. In 2017, Michael Hirst explained to Entertainment Weekly what he meant by the term:
“I was looking at the history books, and I came across these warrior bishops. The antecedents of the Knights Templar: these are people who were absolutely religious, yet they put on armor and they fought. Don’t let their priestly status fool you, either. They were crazy! They believed totally in Christianity and the message, and yet, on the battlefield, they were totally berserk.”
8. Vikings And Their Makeup
Although Vikings have for a long time been thought of as a barbaric race with no real aim to their onslaughts other than to feed, clothe, and pillage, unearthed evidence over the centuries has proved them to be anything but. The idea of a Viking as a blunt instrument of a marauding tribe’s will is dashed by today’s view of them as a highly-civilized and cultured people.
If their clothing (much of which is found at burial sites) is anything to go by, they were highly-skilled embroiders and weavers with a taste for including jewels and precious metals in their fabric . They were also a race with a skill for face and body painting. Most of the warriors depicted in Vikings have some tattoo (actually a dark blue dye) on their faces and arms just as the Vikings of the ancient world would have done.
7. The Show Is Almost Entirely Filmed In Ireland
Although the Vikings successfully landed in southern Ireland and build settlements, their time there was never a happy one and they ended up besieged of most of their territories on the Emerald Isle. By 866 AD, the Irish kings had managed to rout the Vikings, and within a few years, the Norsemen abandoned all of their strongholds. It seems appropriate that Hirst and his team of directors and producers should have chosen Ireland as the perfect replica for Norway.
Vikings was filmed almost exclusively in Wicklow Mountains National Park found just a few miles south of Dublin. The park comprises dramatic mountains and lakes and deep within the historic valley of Glendalough is a popular tourist destination. It was a first choice for the production team because its features are almost identical to the landscape of the Norwegian fjords. It was also a lot easier for the cast and crew to get to.
6. The Battle Scenes Are As Real As Can Be
Vikings includes some of the best battle scenes of any current historical drama. The skirmishes themselves are well-choreographed with an awesome attention to detail, but it’s in the post-production of the show that the viewer is treated to stylish violence. The editing and the music bring the ancient Norse legends alive. Vikings is admired both for its realism and its ability to make the viewer feel as though they’re actually on the battlefield.
The fight scenes in the show are choreographed by experts in ancient combat and training can last weeks before filming. There are, in fact, dozens of Viking reenactment groups in Britain and Ireland that equip themselves with handmade armor and weapons authentic in their designs and material. Organizers of these sorts of groups sometimes offer advice to the fight coordinators.
5. Viking Punishments
The Vikings may have been more cultured than we have been led to believe over the years, but there is truth to the rumor that they found particularly brutal ways to punish and execute their enemies. Their lack of the sort of moral code we know today allowed Vikings to live by the rule of the sword and for the most part, violence was their preferred option to resolving quarrels, even with their neighbors.
A chronicled execution of a Saxon soldier takes place in an episode of Vikings. This was called the “Blood Eagle” and involved the victim lying on his front and tied to the ground. His ribs were then separated from his spine (while he was still alive) with a sharp blade and his lungs were removed so that they hung by his side like wings. He was then crucified. Aside from the cool name, it’s pretty brutal.
4. Title Sequence Has A Hidden Meaning
The number “9” was important to the Vikings and is often found in texts, drawings, and artifacts found in burial sites. There were nine branches to the world tree which was known to the Vikings as a mythical ash reputedly at the center of the cosmos. It played a majorly important part in their spirituality. The gods visit the world tree (known as Yggdrasil) and the branches of Yggdrasil extended far into the heavens.
In the opening credits of Vikings, we see nine women under the surface of the sea. In Norse mythology, the goddess Ran was thought to signify the dangers of travelling on the sea. She was said to catch those who journeyed over the horizon in a net. She has nine daughters who embody the waves of the sea. The first season of Vikings was made of nine episodes.
3. Katheryn Winnick (Lagertha) Is A Trained Fighter
Canadian-born Katheryn Winnick began her acting career in 1999 and secured a role in the zombie-ful Biohazardous two years later. She has since appeared in around 30 films including 50 First Dates, Love & Other Drugs, and The Art of the Steal and countless TV productions. She is also an accomplished martial arts fighter, having achieved her first black belt by the time she was 13.
That background gives her a distinct advantage in her fight scenes. Lagertha is a respected warrior and reigning queen of Denmark. She was known to historians as a fearsome ally to the men whom she fought with. With such grounding in martial arts, we think learning her choreographed battle moves would have been easy for Winnick.
2. Historic Languages Are Used
In some parts of the script, Hirst chose to use genuine ancient languages to enable viewers to hear what the Vikings and their contemporaries sounded like — adding another dimension of authenticity to the show. The English actors were trained in the pronunciation of the Old English and Old Norse words many of which used sounds that aren’t in English anymore like the tight “oo” sound in the word “knut.”
Unlike Old Norse, which was similar to modern-day Scandinavian, Old-English would not be understood by modern English speakers today. Old Norse, on the other hand, was a language spoken by Scandinavians up until the Middle Ages, and its modern ancestral tongue retains many of its sounds. It’s said that Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish people can understand each other’s language.
1. The Names Have A Meaning
In Viking times, names were as important as they are today, but their meanings were a lot more descriptive. For instance, according to IMDB, the name Ragnar means “keeper of the fort” — appropriate for the king of the Vikings — and Lodbrok means “hairy trousers,” which referred to the animal-skin pants they wore during winter months. Vikings were often called names that revealed to others how wealthy they were or what their job was, or even how well they fought in battle.
But the descriptive names didn’t stop at the Vikings. In an age when personal identity was important, weird names are found all over Europe. When the Viking tribes arrived in Paris, they were met by various kings such as Charles the Fat and Charles the Bald. In England, there was Aethelred the Unready and Edward the Confessor, and in the south of France was Louis the Pious.
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