In the Snake Pit

Ragnar Lodbrók died in a snake pit, laughing. At least, that is what the sagas tell us. The Danish antiquarian Thomas Bartholin the Younger (1659-90) presented Ragnar’s remarkable demise as a prime example of the contempt for death that he deemed typical of the people he called the ‘ancient Danes’, but whom we would now generally call Vikings. After all, the Viking belief-system dictated that a violent death guaranteed a place in Valhalla, whereas any other way of dying made you wind up in Hell – in such circumstances, a volley of venomous snake bites would naturally be greeted with joy.

In 1689, just a year before his own early and tragic death after a years-long sickbed, Bartholin published a treatise (in Latin) with the fitting title ‘On the contempt for death of the ancient Danes’. The work was picked up by antiquarians in later centuries and contributed greatly to turning Ragnar into the archetypical Viking and his curious death into a favoured subject for artistic emulation for centuries to come, all the way up to the television series Vikings (2013-present).

Did Ragnar Really Die in a Snake Pit?

No, probably not. According to the various sagas, Ragnar was thrown into the snake pit by king Ælla of Northumbria. There is no archaeological evidence to suggest that snake pits were really constructed on the British Isles in this period and no other historical sources make mention of such pits being used to execute capital punishment. We have in all likelihood a literary motif on our hands here, which reoccurs in other sagas. Two poems from the Poetic Edda for instance (Oddrúnargrátr and Atlakviða) tell of Atilla the Hun killing the Burgundian king Gunnar by throwing him into a snake pit. There, Gunnar played his harp before a bite to the heart meant the death of him.

August Malmström, King Ælla’s messenger before Ragnar Lodbrok’s sons (1857)

The Little Piggies Go Oink!

The dubious nature of his death ties into the general doubts that exist concerning Ragnar Lodbrók’s historicity. Most scholars today agree with Katherine Holman, who wrote in 2003 that “there is no evidence that Ragnar himself ever lived and he seems to be an amalgam of historical figures and literary invention.” Paradoxically enough, Ragnar’s alleged sons – who bore such wonderful names as Ivar the BonelessHalfdan RagnarssonBjörn IronsideUbbe and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye – were in fact historical figures. According to legend, they took the helm of the Great Heathen Army and initiated the large-scale Viking invasions of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (865-878) in retaliation for their father’s death. Whether this truly was the direct cause for this great historic event is questionable, but the story is at least is a nice one. According to the twelfth-century skaldic poem Krákumál – the main literary source on Ragnar’s death – Ragnar prophesied the following while lying in his bed of serpents (in the witty translation by Tom Shippey):

“The little piggies would go oink if they knew
how the old boar died”

Ragnar’s prophesy, in the Danish variant, also stands carved on the base of Skeibrok’s sculpture. The words would become reality. To quote Stefan Thomas Hall: “[Ragnar’s] sons, Ivar the Boneless, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, and the rest did indeed ‘go oink’ all over the English, killing Ælla (…) by carving a blood-eagle on his back and eventually conquering most of England.”

Fiction and History

Two things fascinate me about this whole story. Firstly, it is intriguing to detect how literary invention (the fictional death of the fictional Ragnar Lodbrók in a fictional snake pit) here almost seamlessly flows over in historical fact (the historical landing of the historical Great Heathen Army on the British shores). And secondly, it intrigues me that our present image of the Vikings is vitally affected by this literary concoction of a man, whose colourful death was made a hallmark event in Viking history thanks to a Latin treatise from 1689.

Sources

Stefan Thomas Hall, “Last Laughs: Torture in Medieval Icelandic Literature” (2011).

Katherine Holman, Historical dictionary of the Vikings. (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2003). 

Tom Shippey, “‘Grim Wordplay’: Folly and Wisdom in Anglo-Saxon
Humor, ” in: Jonathan Wilcox (ed.), Humor in Anglo-Saxon Literature. (Cambridge: Brewer, 2000), pp. 33-48.

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