Although an excellent series in many ways, Vikings brought with it a pretty romanticized portrait of some of the key names found in the Norse Sagas and the lives they might have lived.
Although these figures surely existed in some form, the reality was probably far less romantic and more brutal than the fiction. This list tries to look to the true stories behind the now well known characters in Viking history.
Viking movie screenshot. ( Vimeo)
Harald “Blåtand” Gormsson was a King of Denmark and Norway who lived during the 10th century AD. He was responsible for the unification of Denmark. Although the majority of his subjects were followers of paganism, Harald did what he could to promote Christianity within his kingdom.
When the Germans were successful in their campaign against the Danes, Harald was forced to accept baptism and to spread Christianity in Norway . About a decade later, the Germans were militarily occupied in Italy and Harald seized the opportunity to attack them, expelling them from Denmark. Shortly after this success, however, Harald’s son, Svein Forkbeard, revolted, and Harald died in a battle against his son in 985/986 AD.
According to some scholars, Harald was nicknamed ‘Blåtand’ i.e. ‘Bluetooth’ as he had a dead tooth that looked blue, or dark. Today this nickname is known the world over as it is also the name of a wireless technology standard. The name was chosen due to Swedish telecommunication company Ericsson’s Viking heritage. The founders felt that Harald Bluetooth’s ability to unite people in peaceful negotiations would be appropriate for a telecommunications technology.
A Viking warrior with an axe. Eric Bloodaxe raided around Britain before settling into a kingship there. ( lassedesignen /Adobe Stock)
Eric Haraldsson is said to have been a 10th century ruler of Norway and Northumbria. Although both monarchs are generally regarded to be the same person, there are some doubts because the Norse and Anglo-Saxon sources do not always match up.
He is believed to have been a son of Harald Fairhair, a polygamous King of Norway. According to the sagas, Eric was Harald’s favourite and when he was 12, he was given five longships and began his Viking career. He first sailed eastwards, raiding the coasts of Denmark, Friesland, and Saxland, then he sailed to the west and raided Scotland and the area around the Irish Sea. The sagas also mention that Eric was married to Gunnhild, who is said to have been an evil witch with a strong influence over her husband.
Eric was appointed high king and ruled over his siblings, but he killed his brothers because he wanted to be the sole ruler of Norway. The Ágrip states that Eric is nicknamed ‘Bloodaxe’ for murdering five of his brothers. An alternative explanation from the Fagrskinna suggests Eric gained the nickname for his Viking raids .
Although Eric allegedly killed many of his male siblings, one of his half-brothers survived – Haakon, who was raised in English King Athelstan’s court. Eric’s rule was so brutal and unpopular the Norwegian nobles replaced him with Haakon. Eric fled to England and was welcomed by King Athelstan, who made him sub-king of Northumbria.
After just one year the Northumbrians expelled Eric. But he returned, overthrew the king who had taken his place, and ruled Northumbria for another two years before he was ousted for good. Anglo Saxon sources write that Eric dies at a place called Stainmore. According to local legend, the Rey Cross at Stainmore marks Eric’s burial spot, but a 1989 excavation did not uncover any bones.
Artist’s depiction of Ragnar Lothbrok (Nejron Photo / Adobe Stock)
Stories say Ragnar Lothbrok (Lodbrok) ransacked England and France and fathered the Great Heathen Army. However, as with the legendary King Arthur , Ragnar appears as an amalgamation of a number of historical personages and minor characters of legend.
He most likely was a warlord and king of Denmark and Sweden and the first Scandinavian to invade Britain. He is mentioned in several sagas, most significantly The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok and the Gesta Danorum . The Anglo Saxon Chronicle also refers to ‘Ragnall’ and ‘Reginherus’ as a powerful and prominent Viking raider from 840 AD, these names could be two variations of Ragnar.
Both the name Ragnar and the nickname Lothbrok had many variations. “Lothbrok” could mean “hairy breeches” or “shaggy breeches” because he is said to have crafted the breeches to fight a dragon or giant serpent and stop it from biting him.
Ragnar is believed to have been the scourge of both early Medieval England and France, raiding the Anglian kingdoms of Northumbria and Wessex on many occasions, along with the Kingdom of West Francia , concluding in the siege of Paris in 845.
Ragnar’s sons invaded England to avenge their father’s murder at the hands of King Ælla of Northumbria, who, according to legend, sentenced him to death by casting him into a pit full of snakes. Stories say Lothbrok’s sons captured King Ælla and performed the blood-eagle on him. But many scholars doubt the story, suggesting Ragnar died somewhere along the Irish Sea between 852 and 856.
Representative image of Viking Bjorn Ironside. (Fxquadro / Adobe Stock )
Bjorn Ironside was a famous Viking leader who legends say ruled Sweden as the first king from the House of Munsö. He lived during the 9th century AD and his father was the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok. The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok and His Sons states that Bjorn and his brothers continued their father’s raiding activities and terrorized the areas of England, Normandy, France, and Lombardy.
It is written that the furthest that the brothers got to was Luni, an Italian town on the border of Liguria and Tuscany. The story says Vikings heard of the Eternal City’s wealth and decided to raid it. Bjorn and another Viking leader, Hastein, launched an expedition into the Mediterranean.
At Luni, Bjorn (or Hastein) sent messengers to the bishop to inform him of their leader’s death. They said that on his deathbed he had converted to Christianity and his dying wish was to be buried on consecrated ground. The bishop allowed several Vikings to bring the leader’s body into the town. Once they entered Luni, Bjorn jumped out of his coffin, fought his way to the town’s gates, and allowed the rest of the Vikings in.
Then Bjorn and his Vikings continued inland, sailing up the River Arno and laying waste to Pisa and Fiesole. The Vikings allegedly sailed to the Eastern Mediterranean next. They were later defeated by a Muslim force while heading back home.
Finally, the saga mentions that “Bjorn Ironside got Uppsala and central Sweden and all the lands that belong to that,” During the 18th century, a barrow was discovered on the island of Munsö and antiquarians claimed that it belonged to Bjorn, thus naming his dynasty after this island.
The character Hvitserk, probably a nickname for Halfdan Ragnarsson, in the series Vikings. ( CC BY SA )
Halfdan Ragnarsson was a Viking who lived during the 9th century. Generally speaking, Halfdan is considered to have been a historical figure, though he is known by different names depending on the source consulted.
He and his brothers were the commanders of the Great Heathen Army , which was a coalition of Viking warriors from Denmark and Scandinavia that launched several military campaigns against the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms during the latter half of the 9th century.
Halfdan’s army invaded the lands of the Picts and the Kingdom of Strathclyde after defeating the Northumbrians. Certain Irish sources suggest Halfdan felt he had a claim to the throne of Dublin after his brother Ivar died while ruling that kingdom. But Halfdan lost the throne when he went to York. When he returned to Ireland he was defeated and killed during a skirmish at Loch Cuan (known also as Strangford Lough).
The Norse saga The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons suggests a different story. It includes a character by the name of Hvitserk, which translates as ‘White Shirt’ – possibly Halfdan’s nickname. In the saga, Hvitserk is not linked to Ireland; instead, he is said to have raided France.
Viking warrior (trionis / Adobe Stock)
Ivar the Boneless is another of Ragnar Lodbrok’s sons. He likely had a condition called osteogenesis imperfecta, indicating that his body could bend beyond what the average human is capable. Rather than enhancing his performance however, this condition would damage his body over time, gradually weakening him physically.
Ivar’s “strange state” was unusual enough that its origins were tacked on to his mythological bio: his bone deficiency was attributed to Ragnar succumbing to his overwhelming lust for Ivar’s mother, Aslaug, before the agreed upon time. In other words, it was a curse.
As Ivar the Boneless’ parentage is under the umbrella of “legendary”, there are other theories who the historical figure may be. One predominate suggestion is that he is Ímar, a Norse-born 9th century leader of the Viking settlement, Dublin. Ímar is recorded in the Irish Annals.
Ímar’s life and battle against the king of Ulster coincide chronologically with Ivar the Boneless’ time. If Ivar and Ímar were the same individual with alternate names, giving Ímar/Ivar Ragnar Lodbrok as a father would have made his role in various battles and settlements far more pertinent mythologically as well as historically. Imperfect as Ivar might have been by Viking standards, his “bonelessness” seemingly did little to affect his performance as a warrior and leader. History paints him as a durable, determined Viking warrior .
Vikings on a ship. (anotherwanderer/ Deviant Art )
Described as “fierce, mightily cruel, and savage, pestilent, hostile, sombre, truculent, given to outrage, pestilent and untrustworthy, fickle and lawless” by his contemporaries, Hastein was one of the most successful, and infamous, Vikings of all time. When his name was whispered in medieval towns , it was one to be feared.
Hastein was a Viking chieftain in the late 9th century. Little is known about his early life aside from his participation in raids. He was supposedly the son of Ragnar Lothbrok, however, it is more likely that he just claimed this for prestige. Latin chroniclers called him Hastein. He is most famous for sacking Luni with Björn Ironside.
A man by the name of Hastein also set foot on English soil in 892. This may be a different Hastein (as the man would have been 71 years old by then), but it is also possible they’re the same person. This Hastein wanted to raid Mercia. However the fort they were staying in was defeated by the Eastern Wessex militia and the ships, cargo, women, and children were taken.
Hastein called for aid, got it, and then asked Alfred the Great to release his family. His two sons were returned, though Alfred had them baptized. Soon after, Hastein launched another series of attacks, with some success. In 893 he moved his men from East Anglia to a Roman fortress in Chester. However, the Mercians laid siege.
In autumn of 893, Hastein’s army left Chester, and devastated the kingdoms along their way down to the south of Wales. From there they returned to Mersea Island and towed their ships up the Thames to a new fort on the River Lea. In 895, Alfred caught up with them. The Danes abandoned their camp and sent their women back home to East Anglia, where they followed in 896 – the same year Hastein disappears from history.
Representative image of a Viking King. (muratgul/ Deviant Art )
In 871 AD, King Herlaug of the Namdalen district in Central Norway fulfilled his last wish: instead of surrendering to King Harald Fairhair, he and 11 of his men chose to be buried alive inside a large burial mound on the island of Leka. Herlaug’s brother King Rollaug chose instead to obey King Harald as the sole ruler of Norway and he was appointed Earl of the Namdalen district.
At the end of the 1700’s, three tunnels were dug into King Herlaug’s burial mound . Among other discoveries, excavators found a skeleton of a person who was leaning against a wall – a man who was believed to be King Herlaug himself. There were also remains of a sword and many animal bones. In the early 19th century the skeleton was exhibited.
King Herlaug’s burial mound is larger than most other Viking Age graves found in Norway and it is presumed that it also contains one or more longships. Surveys with georadar back in 2012 did not give any new concrete answers to what might still be hidden inside the mound.
The somewhat bizarre grave documents both Viking honor and extreme willpower – and that there also were people (including close relatives) in the Viking Age who literally were willing to walk on people’s graves to get powerful positions and wealth.
From Olafir Thick-Legged to Ragnar Fur-Pants, Viking nicknames were colorful, descriptive and fascinating
An American scholar did both his master’s thesis and his doctoral dissertation on old Norse nicknames as recorded in medieval literature to reveal a world of people with monikers like Wise of Dreams, Harm-Fart, Autumn Darkness, Toil-Skull, Grimacer and The Ridiculer. A nickname in Scandinavia during Viking times could be insulting or laudatory, derived from body parts or mythology, from places or accomplishments or from a number of other inspirations.
Aside from boxing’s Ray Boom Boom Mancini, Carl The Truth Williams, and Smokin Joe Frazier, modern nicknames such as Al or Annie seem prosaic compared to some of the monikers Vikings came up with to describe their contemporaries.
While modern people may use nicknames out of affection, in the Middle Ages in Scandinavia that wasn’t always the case. Take Eysteinn Harm-Fart, Hergils Button Ass Thrándarson, or Authun Coward, for example. One might wonder if Mr. Eysteinn, a settler in Iceland, was given to drinking copious amounts of beer.
A woodcut of Erik the Red from a 1688 book ( Wikimedia Commons )
“Nicknames are universal, every human society has had or has them,” Paul Peterson, an expert on Scandinavia, wrote to Ancient Origins in e-mail. “Most other medieval societies had, or recorded, fewer nicknames, even though the practice of adopting family names or surnames is a bit late in the game (late medieval continental practice),” Dr. Peterson wrote. “Nicknames must have been everywhere, but only a tiny sample of them survives in writing.”
A table of Norse nickname sources from Dr. Peterson’s doctoral dissertation
Though some nicknames were insulting, there are many examples of poetic or laudatory nicknames in old Norse literature. There are The Fair or The Handsome, Snowdrift, The Wise of Dreams or Dream Interpreter, Little Bear, The Learned and Autumn Darkness. Other poetic nicknames include Widow of the Heath, Traveler to Limerick, Sun of the Islands, The Quiet, The Amorous.
While world monarchs often had an informal appellation applied to them, such as “the Good,” “the Great,” “the Terrible” or “the Short,” some of the most expressive Norse nicknames were reserved for non-royalty.
Dr. Peterson did his master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation, which is available to read in its entirety here, specifically on old Norse nicknames. He received his doctorate in Medieval Germanic Studies from the University of Minnesota and is now a teaching fellow in Scandinavian and German at Augustana College in Illinois. He is a member of the International Council of Onomastic Sciences. Onomastics is the study of names.
In the 11 th century, King Olaf II of Norway was known as The Holy; this image is from Trondheim Cathedral. (Wikimedia Commons )
Dr. Peterson wrote in his thesis:
Nicknames, which occur in all cultures and across all time periods, play a vital role in understanding and highlighting identity. They also provide a unique window into slang and popular culture less accessible through personal names alone. Their study encompasses wide-ranging interdisciplinary scholarship, including onomastics (name studies), historical linguistics, anthropology, history, and narratology. Old Norse nicknames themselves represent diverse forms of cultural expression from the lower levels of discourse, history, religion, and popular entertainment. They have left remnants across Northern Europe in place names, runic inscriptions, and the names of individuals in the saga corpus.
One of the best sources for Icelandic settlers’ nicknames is the 12th century Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements ). Many of the nicknames listed in this article (but not all) are from this source.
Ivan the Terrible, an 1897 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov; other cultures had nicknames, but American scholar Paul Peterson says they are not as well-recorded as old Norse nicknames. ( Wikimedia Commons )
Nicknames that Dr. Peterson recorded in his master’s thesis and his doctoral dissertation include King Eirkr Blood-Ax, Olafir Thick-Legged, Ragnar Fur-Pants or Hairy Breeches and Bjorn the Wealthy. Still others include Thorbjorn Sour-Drink and Ketill the Silent or Ketill Creaking Noise.
Those nicknames were not necessarily insulting, but many old Norse nicknames were scathing.
“Negative nicknames are rather common, ranging from sexually-charged insults to unflattering physical characteristics, and several nicknames referring to private parts, perhaps the most sensitive areas in terms of insults and otherwise, are found in the corpus. Finnur Jónsson provides a list of these in the second section of his nickname list under the categories ‘penis, cunnus”’ and ‘anus,”’ Dr. Peterson wrote in this thesis. These nicknames include:
- Arni Harm-Penis
- Kolbeinn Butter-Penis
- Herjolfr Shriveled-Testicle
- Sperm Bjalfi
- Butt-[Copulate] Bjarni
- Helgi Seal’s Testicle
- Ivarr Procreation Member
- Jon Silky [Vulva]
- Asni Ship Chest
- Ass Bersi
- Herjolfr Squatted Ass
Other nicknames that Dr. Peterson identified in his thesis that weren’t necessarily sexual but some of which were still insulting included:
- Prince Fortress
- Little Wolf
- Little Blackbird
- Halfdan Sigurdsonn Hook Nose
- King Magnus Barefoot
- Sigurd “Sow”
- King Haraldr Sigurrdson Hard Rule
- King Ólafr Tryggvason Thin-Legged ( krakabein)
“The nickname krakabein, most famously held by King Ólafr Tryggvason, appears to have had some currency among earlier Scandinavians who raided and settled the British Isles where it is found in Old English as Cracabam, and it also appears in a 15th century Irish source called The Annals of Ulster as Graggabai. It is unlikely that the nickname refers to Óláfr Tryggvason,” Dr. Peterson wrote. Others include Iron-Knee, Wild Dog and Black Head.
“The use of the nicknames in the literature and how it shaped narratives or demonstrated medieval customs or values is also something that I am fascinated by,” Dr Peterson told Ancient Origins. “Quite a large number of the linguistic forms are rare and ‘frozen’ from older forms of the language, and that is interesting in and of itself, but the meaning of the words also gives modern people a window into the mindset of a medieval Scandinavian. Nicknames are often formed in a familiar context, that is, a small community of people who know each other well, so the references of nicknames are mostly local and personal. A huge number of them must go back to an inside joke or reference to an event lost to us, and because we cannot always know the origin of a nickname, it gives a modern reader room to speculate or guess the real origin.”