Vikings depicts the life of the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok and the adventures of his numerous sons. They became key figures of kingdom-making in medieval England, France and Ireland. With their superior ships and their thirst for exploring, Northmen from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, spread from Russia to Canada, and altered the course of history. But what is real in the TV show? Let’s explore it with Ragnar’s curiosity and open-mindedness.

On the contrary, if you wish to read what Vikings got wrong, click here.

1# Arm-rings

There’s a very significant scene on the first episode, when Ragnar, Rollo and Bjorn travel to Kattegat, to attend the Thing, an assembly of free men. There, the Earl Haraldson gives Bjorn and another kiddo their first arm-ring, after swearing allegiance to him. We know Jarls and chieftains were called Ring-givers precisely because of giving such rewards to their household. On top of that, arm-rings were also a sign of wealth, ergo, of social status. Although we ignore the details of the ceremony to award arm-rings, it was a good choice of the scriptwriters to pull a scene.

Golden arm ring with two worn-out heads shaped at each end.
Bracelets like this one, are amongst the most common items found in hoards of the Viking Age. Source

2# The Viking ship

In the last moments of the first episode Ragnar and Floki test the latter’s ship, which is implied to be the instrument that allows Ragnar to fulfil his dream of travelling west. The Viking ships were the key to understand their potential to travel to distant shores, and their overwhelming speed when attacking. The vessels were extremely well-built, shallow (they could navigate within barely meter-deep waters), narrow, and slender. On top of that, their lightness allowed men to drag them ashore and portage. In few words, they were years ahead of the naval technology of most of their European neighbours.

The Oseberg ship, found in Norway. It was the final resting place of two women, and is thought to had been built previous to 800. Author: Petter Ulleland. Source

And although the Vikings knew about Britain, and had already travelled west prior to Lindisfarne (793), the scene just attempts to explain the advantages of their ships to a modern audience, so I wouldn’t understand it a blunder.

3# Sailing to Lindisfarne

The Lindisfarne raid in 793 marked the beginning of what we call Viking age, lasting until 1066 with the conquest of England, by William of Normandy, the descendant of the historical Rollo. Although there is no source mentioning Ragnar as the author of the Lindisfarne raid, in fact the Christian chronicles only dwell in the viciousness of the heathen demons, the TV show does a great job in portraying the attack.

Relatively undefended and isolated monasteries were an occurrence during the Middle Ages, and quickly became one of the Vikings preferred targets. Unabashed due to their heathen beliefs, the Northmen had no compunction in plundering the Church treasures and take monks as captives to sell. Although we only know because of chronicles written by churchmen (and thus biased), it’s easy to imagine these heathen warriors killing the pious (and rich) servants of god without fear of divine retribution.

4# How to fight like a Viking

Although not invented and neither solely used by them, shield wall tactics were a must in their arsenal. It consisted in a wall of shields, rims overlapped together, the second rank protecting the front rank’s exposed heads with their shields in turn. The shield wall worked as one man pushing against the enemy, who often adopted the same tactic. 1 vs 1 battles seldom took place, and the victor was decided through the shield wall. The first to break, was the first to run and likely die.

A very interesting detail the TV show highlights, is how the Vikings used their axes to hook and pull their opponents. A tactic now believed to have been genuine, and very deadly.

5# Target for archery

In several scenes the Vikings are shown as, not only slaughtering priests in very creative ways, but also taking immense pleasure from it. One of the most foretelling scenes, although probably unnoticed to many, is the particular way in which they kill a bishop during the third episode of second season. King Horik, then Ragnar’s ally, strips and ties the naked bishop to a column, and he and his men use him as target for archery. This peculiar execution technique was allegedly used by Ragnar’s sons in 869, to finish off King Edmund of East Anglia (later revered as Saint Edmund the Martyr), when he refused Ivar the Boneless and Ubba’s demand to renounce Christ.

Although this scene belongs to the The Last Kingdom (another great TV show about the Vikings), it depicts the death of Edmund at the hands of Ubba

Killing priests for sport might also have a less banal explanation, which is that Charlemagne, Emperor of the Carolingian Empire, forced conversion on many pagans upon penalty of death. This bloody encroachment on their beliefs, might have incited the Northmen to be especially brutal against Christian priests.

6# Human sacrifices

Uppsala was said to be the location of a great heathen temple, the Temple of Uppsala. In the end of the first season, Ragnar, his family, and followers, travel to Uppsala, to a festivity happening every nine years. The temple and the ceremonies that were performed there are detailed in some Christian Chronicles (of course), especially the gore details related to human sacrifice.

Be as it might be, the TV show makes an excellent job in detailing the divine character that sacrifices had for the Vikings, and masterminds one of the darkest, yet mesmerising scenes, that a show about the intrepid Northmen has ever gave us. But if you want to learn more about Uppsala Temple you should read this article which deals specifically with it, here.

7# Sons of Ragnar

The strong Bjorn, the handsome Ubba, the lost Hvitserk, and the ruthless and crazy Ivar. It seems they were real, or at least they are mentioned in more than one historical source. Amongst many other offspring with several different wives (Ragnar had a hell of a time when not raiding), our legendary hero fathered several famous Vikings who would surpass his exploits. His offspring are his biggest legacy, and the show latest seasons nails it by highlighting Bjorn and Ivar’s deeds.

8# Great Heathen Army

In 865, a great army of Danes, led by Ivar, Ubba, Hvitserk and Bjorn, invaded Saxon Britain. According to legend, they sought the death of King Ælla of Northumbria, who had killed their father, and they assembled the biggest Viking army ever to humiliate the bastard.

However, it is doubtless that thousands of Danes crossed the sea exclusively in a mission of noble filial duty. Taking lands and plunder must have been in their immediate agenda too. But could Ragnar’s death had been the catalyst? We will never know, but the show limited itself to depict the general belief, and it seems the Vikings were indeed lead by Ragnar’s sons, so why not?  

A triangular shaped banner depicting a raven flying upwards
The Anglo-Saxon chronicle mentions the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok carrying the Raven Banner. Could it had been their family symbol? Their main god, Odin, was associated with ravens after all. Author: Skydrake. Source

9# Iceland and Floki

The crazy, giggling Floki, who after his wife’s death become a sort of spiritual guru and accidentally discovered Iceland, in the fifth season. He proceeds to trick honest, hard-working folk, with promises of rich and fertile land. His silver tongue earns him the gang’s loyalty, until they reach Iceland, and see that indeed, there’s plenty of ice. But how true is this tale of Iceland’s discovery? Actually, quite a lot.

The true Floki was called Flóki Vilgerðarson, also known as Hrafna-Flóki (Raven-Floki).He was a Norseman who went in search of Iceland. The mysterious island had been previously discovered, and partially explored by two other Norsemen, but it was Flóki who overwintered there, and after observing drift ice in the fjord, named the new land Ísland (Iceland).

He and his pals returned to Norway and when asked about it, Flóki used to reply: nah, not the holidays I expected. One of five stars. Ironically enough, he returned to live and die there. The sour disappointment of Vikings Floki after his failed experiment on Paradise Island, resonates well with the real Flóki.     

10# Ragnar’s death

The death of a main character always comes as a shock for everybody (except in Game of Thrones), and when our favourite Viking was (SPOILERS COMING!) thrown into a pit of somewhat hostile snakes, by King Ælla, tears were shed and vows of revenge were made by the heartbroken fans.

The real Ragnar was allegedly killed by such a pioneering execution method, so of course Vikings only followed the script. However, many sensible historians question why Ælla would scour the whole Britain, to find its few poisonous snakes and chuck them in a hole, just to kill a single man? I mean, didn’t he have more important stuff to do, a kingdom to rule, for example?

The adder looking with threatening intent to the camera
The Vipera Berus, or common European Adder, is the only native species of poisonous snake in the UK. Probably one of the little bastards that killed Ragnar. Author: Thomas Brown. Source
And don’t forget to watch the last season of Vikings, featuring the Rus’, the forefathers of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus! It features Prince Oleg, one of the main characters of my upcoming novel about the Rus’, a tale about the Swedish Vikings who established their own kingdom far from their native Scandinavia. More information coming soon!