She was beautiful and a warrior. Many thought she was too good to be true. Was Lagertha real?
Lagertha is one of the most popular characters in Scandinavian legend. She was not a real person and she was thought to be inspired by the Amazons in Greek mythology. However, her story still made a massive impact in Scandinavian lore.
Let’s get to know this Viking shieldmaiden.
A Legendary Viking Shieldmaiden
Lagertha, sometimes spelled as Lathgertha or Ladgerda, is a legendary Scandinavian warrior. Her story is tied with Ragnar Lothbrok, one of the most famous Vikings in the world.
Her story has been retold many times, but Lagertha was really a figment of Danish theologian and historian Saxo Grammaticus’s imagination. Grammaticus wrote Gesta Danorum, presumably between the 12th and 13th centuries. The work contains 16 books:
- Books 1 to 9: Norse mythology and some legendary Danish history
- Books 10 to 13: Medieval history
- Books 14 to 16: Danish conquests
Ragnar is the star of Book 9 of Gesta Danorum, which is also where readers are introduced to Lagertha.
Swedish King Frø killed Norwegian King Siward, who was Ragnar’s grandfather. Not satisfied with slaying the Norwegian leader, Frø punished the female Norwegians to work in a brothel. Lagertha was one of them.
But these women were fighters. Ragnar ascended to the throne in Denmark after Siward’s death. He then rallied the troops and went to Norway to avenge his father.
In Norway, some of the women escaped the brothel and, dressed in male garb, met Ragnar in his camp. They also provided their services in battle.
Ragnar was so impressed by Lagertha that he attributed Norwegian’s win to the woman warrior. In his book, Grammaticus wrote: “A skilled Amazon, who, though a maiden, had the courage of a man, and fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders. All marveled at her matchless deeds, for her locks flying down her back betrayed that she was a woman.”
Ragnar and Lagertha: Warriors in Love
The romantic relationship between Ragnar and Lagertha is more pronounced and drawn out in the TV series Vikings than in the book on which it was based.
In Gesta Danorum, Ragnar courted Lagertha from afar, sending messages to her home. Lagertha had a bear and hound guard her home to prevent suitors from pursuing her.
But as a true warrior, Ragnar killed both beasts: the bear with a spear and the hound with a chokehold. That impressed Lagertha, who then agreed to marry him.
The two had a son named Fridleif and two daughters who remained unnamed in the book.
Ragnar had to leave Norway and his home with Lagertha three years after their marriage. There was unrest in Denmark, where Ragnar was still king.
While they seemed like a perfect match, Ragnar divorced Lagertha to marry Thora Borgarhjört. She was the daughter of the Earl of Götaland (King Herod of Sweden).
Ragnar had to kill a serpent to ask for Thora’s hand in marriage. Ironically, Ragnar separated from Lagertha because he was still furious that she had a bear and a hound set out to him.
At this point in the book, Lagertha was no longer a main character but made a minor appearance later. Lagertha remarried and ruled Norway with her new husband after the divorce from Ragnar.
Ragnar and Lagertha maintained a deep respect for each other as warriors even after their divorce. Ragnar also continued to be impressed with Lagertha as a Viking.
After much difficulty taking control of his homelands, Denmark and Sweden, Ragnar asked Lagertha for help. She sent 120 ships with warriors to aid Ragnar, whom Grammaticus described at this point as “the man who had once put her away.”
Lagertha played a significant role in Ragnar’s win. As Grammaticus wrote: “Ladgerda, who had a matchless spirit though a delicate frame, covered by her splendid bravery the inclination of the soldiers to waver. For she made a sally about, and flew round to the rear of the enemy, taking them unawares, and thus turned the panic of her friends into the camp of the enemy.”
Lagertha the Ruler
In Grammaticus’s ending of Lagertha’s character arc in Gesta Danorum, he wrote that the shield-maiden returned to Norway and met with a hostile husband. After all, she was away for a long time trying to help her ex-husband win a war her homeland was not involved in.
So, they fought. One day, Lagertha hid a spearhead under her dress and murdered her husband. She then used her husband’s name and started ruling the country herself.
Grammaticus ended Lagertha’s story with this line: “…usurped the whole of his name and sovereignty; for this most presumptuous dame thought it pleasanter to rule without her husband than to share the throne with him.”
Lagertha in Media
Even as a supporting character in Ragnar’s story, no one can deny Lagertha’s rich characterization. It is no surprise that Lagertha has become a compelling female lead in various adaptations of her story.
TV Series: ‘Vikings’
Vikings is a TV series that ran for six series from 2013 to 2020. Lagertha was the second lead and survived through all six seasons. In the show, she was portrayed by Canadian actress Katheryn Winnick.
Just like in the source material, Vikings portrayed Lagertha as Ragnar’s first wife. She left Ragnar after learning that he cheated on her with Aslaug, who became pregnant with Ragnar’s child. She settled in Hedeby and became the Earl, calling herself Earl Ingstad.
Historical Drama: ‘Lagertha’
Christen Henriksen Pram was a Norwegian-Danish writer and was often referred to as the first Norwegian novelist. He wrote the historical novel Lagertha, based on Grammaticus’s writing. It was published in 1801.
Vincenzo Galeotti was an Italian-Danish dancer, choreographer, and ballet master. He had created around 30 ballets for Copenhagen, one of which was Lagertha (1801), based on Pram’s work. It was the first ballet to feature a Nordic theme and was a success for Galeotti’s Royal Theater.
Fans of the Vikings TV series are very familiar with Lagertha, the beautiful and brave Viking shieldmaiden played by Katheryn Winnick.
The characterization of Lagertha in the fictional TV show is very close to the source material. It showcases the woman Viking as brave and unafraid to go toe-to-toe with the men.