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The legendary Norse shieldmaiden Lagertha is one of the strongest and most prominent examples of historical warrior women. Yet, the question persists – was Lagertha a real person or just a myth?
Some stories equate her with the Norse goddess Thorgerd. The main account we have of her story comes from a famous and renowned 12th century historian.
So, what do we really know of Ragnar Lothbrok’s famous shieldmaiden and wife? Here’s the real story of the legendary shieldmaiden.
Who was Lagertha Really?
Most of what we know – or think we know – of Lagertha’s story is told by the famous historian and scholar Saxo Grammaticus in his Gesta Danorum (Danish History) books. Saxo wrote those between the 12th and 13th centuries AD – several centuries after Lagertha’s supposed birth in 795 AD.
Additionally, much of what’s described about her life in Saxo’s work seems to be exaggerated. He even writes that she literally flies across the battlefield like a Valkyrie. So, with all other “sources” of Lagertha’s life being just myths and legends, everything we read and hear about her should be taken with a grain of salt.
Nevertheless, Saxo Grammaticus tells the story of not just Lagertha but also of some sixty other Danish kings, queens, and heroes too, with much of the description being considered a credible historical record. So, even if parts of Lagertha’s story are exaggerated, it feels safe to assume that she is based on a real person.
The basis of that person’s story seems to be that Lagertha was at some point married to the famous Viking king and hero Ragnar Lothbrok, and that she bore him a son and two daughters. She fought valiantly by his side in numerous battles and ruled his kingdom as his equal, and even ruled on her own for quite a while after that. Now, let’s get into some more detail (and possible semi-historical flourishes) below.
Forced Into a Brothel
Lagartha’s early life seems to have been fairly normal. As a young maiden, she lived in the house of King Siward who happened to be Ragnar Lothbrok’s grandfather. However, when King Frø of Sweden invaded their kingdom, he killed King Siward and threw all the women of his house into a brothel to humiliate them.
Ragnar Lothbrok led the resistance against King Frø and during that effort, he freed Lagertha and the rest of the captive women. Neither Lagertha nor the rest of the captives intended to run away and hide. Instead, they joined the fight. The story goes that Lagertha led the charge against the Swedish army and impressed Ragnar so much that he credited her with the victory.
A Date with A Bear
Smitten by Lagertha’s bravery and fighting prowess, Ragnar became quite interested in her romantically. His efforts didn’t really yield results at first but he kept pushing and trying to seduce her. Eventually, Lagertha decided to test him.
According to Saxo Grammaticus, Lagertha invited Ragnar into her home but welcomed him with her giant guard dog and a pet bear. She then set both animals on him at the same time to test his strength and conviction. When Ragnar stood, fought, and then killed both animals, Lagartha finally accepted his advances.
Eventually, the two married and had three children together – a son called Fridleif and two daughters whose names we don’t know. This wasn’t Ragnar’s first marriage, however, nor was it his last. After a few years, Ragnar reportedly fell in love with another woman – presumably called Thora. Aslaug was his first wife. He then decided to divorce Lagertha.
After the divorce, Ragnar left Norway and went to Denmark. Lagertha, on the other hand, stayed behind and ruled on her own as a queen. Yet, this wasn’t the last time the two saw each other.
Winning A Civil War with A Fleet Of 200 Ships
Not long after their divorce, Ragnar found himself in a civil war in Denmark. Backed into a corner, he was forced to beg his ex-wife for help. Fortunately for him, she agreed.
Lagertha didn’t just help Ragnar get out of his predicament – she arrived with a fleet of 200 ships and singlehandedly turned the tide of battle. According to Grammaticus, the two then returned to Norway and were remarried.
Killed Her Husband and Ruled On Her Own
In a confusing section of Grammaticus’ story of Lagertha, he says that she killed “her husband” soon after she returned to Norway. Allegedly, she stabbed him through the heart with a spearhead as they were fighting. As Grammaticus puts it Lagertha “thought it pleasanter to rule without her husband than to share the throne with him”.
Apparently, she liked the feeling of being an independent ruler. After all, clashes between two strong-willed partners are not uncommon. At the same time, however, many scholars claim that Lagertha didn’t actually remarry Ragnar after the civil war but simply married again to another Norwegian jarl or king. So, it could be that the husband she got into a spat with and stabbed through the heart was this second unknown man.
Importance of Lagertha in Modern Culture
Lagertha has been talked about multiple times in Norse myths and legends, but she doesn’t feature often in modern literature and pop culture. The couple most famous mentions of her up until recently were the 1789 historical drama Lagertha by Christen Pram and the 1801 ballet by the same name by Vincenzo Galeotti based on Pram’s work.
The TV show on the History Channel Vikings has been a highly popular recent portrayal of Lagertha that has made her name well-known. The show has been criticized for not being historically accurate, but the showrunners are pretty unapologetic about it, maintaining that their focus, first and foremost, was on writing a good story.
Portrayed by the Canadian actress Katheryn Winnick who now has a cult following for the role, Vikings’ Lagertha was Ragnar’s first wife and bore him one son. Other aspects of her story also circled around historical events without portraying them entirely accurately but the character overall was undoubtedly impressive with her strength, fighting abilities, honor, and ingenuity – all qualities for which she is beloved.
FAQs About Lagertha
Most likely. Granted, the only description of her life we have comes from the 12th-century scholar Saxo Grammaticus and large sections of it are probably exaggerated. However, most such historic and semi-historic records have at least some basis in reality. So, Grammaticus’ story of Lagertha is likely based on a real woman, warrior, and/or queen that was born in the end of the 8th century AD.
A: The Norse shieldmaidens are widely represented in Norse myths and legends as well as in later stories. However, we don’t have much archeological evidence on whether or not they existed. There are women’s bodies found on the sites of large-scale battles but it seems difficult to discern whether they were “shieldmaidens”, whether they fought out of necessity and desperation, or whether they were just innocent victims.
Unlike other ancient societies such as the Scythians (the likely basis of the Greek Amazonian myths) where we know women fought in battles alongside men thanks to historical and archeological evidence, with the Norse shieldmaidens this is still mostly just speculation. It seems highly unlikely that many women actively accompanied the Vikings on their raids of Britain and the rest of Europe. However, it’s also quite likely that women took an active part in defending their cities, towns, and villages in the absence of those same Viking men.
We can’t really know. Saxo Grammaticus gives no description of her death and all other “sources” we have are myths, legends, and stories.
The city of Kattegat from the Vikings TV show isn’t an actual historical city, so – no. Instead, the real Kattegat is an area of the sea between Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. Nevertheless, it is believed that Lagertha was a queen in Norway for a while and ruled both at Ragnar Lothbrok’s side and on her own after she assassinated her husband (whether that husband was Ragnar himself or her second husband isn’t clear).
The TV show Vikings portrays the famous Viking Bjorn Ironside as the firstborn child of Ragnar Lothbrok and the shieldmaiden Lagertha. As far as we can tell from history, however, Bjorn was actually Ragnar’s son from Queen Aslaug.
Whether a historical figure or just a fascinating myth, Lagertha remains a crucial part of Scandinavian culture, history, and heritage. With most Old Norse myths and historical events being passed on orally, almost all of them are surely exaggerated in some way or another.
However, even if Lagertha’s story is exaggerated or never even happened, we do know that Nordic women had to live harsh lives and were strong enough to survive and even prosper. So, real or not, Lagertha remains a fascinating and impressive symbol of the women of that era and part of the world.