LAGERTHA IN SAXO GRAMMATICUS
Saxo Grammaticus, born around 1150 AD and dead by about 1220 AD, was a Danish contemporary to Snorri Sturluson and many other Icelandic authors of the 12th century who wrote in their own, Old Norse language.
Like his Icelandic contemporaries, Saxo set out to chronicle the pre-Christian legendary history of his people, the Danes. Unlike his Icelandic contemporaries, Saxo wrote his chronicle, Gesta Danorum (“The History of the Danes”), in Latin. Adding to his neglect of his native language, Saxo was not that much of a writer, partly because he was a zealous prude who did not actually like the culture whose history he was recording, and partly because he wrote in a language that was not his native language and which was hardly spoken by anyone, but only used by the clergy. Another negative influence was his obsessive need to interrupt his stories with preaching and laments about the immorality of pagans and especially about pagan women´s failure to be feminine enough for the new, Christian culture that was just about to be established.
Preaching laments aside, Saxo still appears to have recorded legendary material to the best of his ability, and provides in many way a good written source to ancient customs and beliefs, even when he morally denounces them, and even if his accounts were colored by his own interpretations. Had it not been for him, we would never have even heard of Lagertha.
There is also hardly a source to Old Norse times where the presence of warrior women is more prominent, for example, and today I want to provide you with one of his many stories about shield maidens, beginning with the now famous Lagertha, wife to Ragnarr Lóðbrok.
LAGERTHA – A NORWEGIAN SHIELD MAIDEN
The name Lagertha/Ladgerda is a Latinized version of the original Old Norse Hlaðgerð. The only source to her life is found in Saxo. The story begins with her future husband, Ragnarr Lóðbrok, in Gesta Danorum chapter 9.
Ragnarr is the heir of a king called Ring, by all other accounts this would be the once famed Sígurð Hring who ruled Denmark during the age of Charlemagne.
Sígurð Hring was an historical king, known to the Franks as Sigfred or Anulo (Latin for “ring”), who appears to have sought peace with his neighbors, entertaining both Charlemagne and Widukind at his court during the Saxon wars. Being pagan and also offering asylum to Saxons who fled from Frankish oppression and force baptisms, he still managed to ward off any Frankish aggression until his death in 804 AD.
After Ring´s death, his relative “Gotrik” (Gudröd/Godofrid/Gudfred) assumed power. The Frankish Annals describe how “Gudfred” began launching a Viking fleet against the Franks. But just as the Franks panicked, observing hundreds of Danish ships at their shores, the fleet turned back because Gudfred had been murdered in the night. Gudfred may be identical to the king of Vestfold at the time, Gudröd Hunter King, who was also murdered in the night, and whose Norwegian realm was closely associated with Danevelde (Empire of the Danes).
After Gudfred´s death in 810 AD, a son of Ring, Hemming, won the throne of Denmark, but the throne was also challenged by several surrounding men of power, and when Hemming died, the great Danevelde (Danelaw) of the time (pre-dating the Viking hold on Britain) was divided. We know from Frankish sources that Hemming died in 812 AD.
This is where our story begins.
Saxo explains how Ragnarr Lóðbrok, another son of Ring, was extremely young when he first proved his cleverness and wisdom to the Danish parliament. After Hemming´s death, he was elected king by the Zealanders, although Jutland had other noblemen to rule them. The Frankish Annals do not refer to Ragnarr at this time, but to other Danish chiefs fighting for power and seeking the Franks for alliances against their own. Since it is likely that Ragnarr was a historical person, it is more than likely that the Franks were simply not aware of him since they were dealing with Jutlanders, not Zealanders.
Whether the “real” Ragnarr was already engaged in foreign politics we do not know, but Saxo describes Ragnarr solely within a Scandinavian context, where he was a very young, democratically elected king from Zealand who, apparently, needed to start his career by proving his worth.
The opportunity to prove himself was raised when he heard of an outrage. Ragnar´s mother Alfhild was Norwegian, and Ragnar had relatives in Norway. At the time described, Norway had many different kingdoms and tribal lands, but Saxo gladly ignores that historical fact and speaks of “the king of Norway” as if there was only one. We do not know exactly what kingdom this king belonged to if he ever existed in real life, but in Saxos account, “the king of Norway” was called Siward. He was, apparently, a grandfather (or older relative) to Ragnarr on his maternal side.
Siward, the Norwegian king, was attacked by “Fro”, the king of the Swedes. Calling him Fro was probably a way of saying Freyr, since the kings of Sweden were supposedly descended from, and through inauguration they also became incarnations of the god Freyr.
This particular “Freyr” attacked Siward and slayed him (for unexplained reasons), and then proceeded to publicly humiliate and sexually abuse his kinswomen:
“(Freyr) put the wives of Siward´s kinsfolk in bonds in a brothel, and delivered them to public outrage. When Ragnar heard of this, he went to Norway to avenge his grandfather. As he came, many of the matrons, who had either suffered insult to their persons or feared imminent peril to their chastity, hastened eagerly to his camp in male attire, declaring that they would prefer death to outrage. Nor did Ragnar, who was to punish this reproach upon the women, scorn to use against the author of the infamy the help of those whose shame he had come to avenge. Among them was Ladgerda, 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, when he had justly cut down the murderer of his grandfather, asked many questions of his fellow soldiers concerning the maiden whom he had seen so forward in the fray, and declared that he had gained the victory by the might of one woman. Learning that she was of noble birth among the barbarians, he steadfastly wooed her by means of messengers. She spurned his mission in her heart, but feigned compliance. Giving false answers, she made her panting wooer confident that he would gain his desires; but ordered that a bear and a dog should be set at the porch of her dwelling, thinking to guard her own room against all the ardor of a lover by means of the beasts that blocked the way.
Ragnar, comforted by the good news, embarked, crossed the sea, and, telling his men to stop in Gaulardale, as the valley is called, went to the dwelling of the maiden alone. Here the beasts met him, and he thrust one through with a spear, and caught the other by the throat, wrung its neck, and choked it. Thus he had the maiden as the prize of the peril he had overcome. By this marriage he had two daughters, whose names have not come down to us, and a son Fríðleif. Then he lived three years at peace.
The Jutlanders, a presumptuous race, thinking that because of his recent marriage he would never return, took the Scanians into alliance, and tried to attack the Zealanders, who preserved the most zealous and affectionate loyalty towards Ragnar. He, when he heard of it, equipped thirty ships, and, the winds favoring his voyage, crushed the Scanians, who ventured to fight, near the stead of Whiteby, and when the winter was over he fought successfully with the Jutlanders who dwelt near the Liim-fjord in that region. A third and a fourth time he conquered the Scanians and the Hallanders triumphantly.”
According to Saxo, Ragnarr “changed his love; and desiring Thora, the daughter of king Herrauð, to wife, Ragnarr divorced himself from Ladgerda; for he thought ill of her trustworthiness, remembering that she had long ago set the most savage beasts to destroy him.”
(Speculations: In his assessment of their relationship, Saxo assumes that Ragnarr, like any good medieval Christian, must have felt humiliated and bitter because of his wife´s initial reluctance and aggressive response to his advances (after having been force-prostituted before), and perhaps also because she failed to be submissive and feminine. However, Saxo appears to forget that his own story proceeds by describing how Ragnarr has to go through equally severe trials against vicious beasts in order to win his new bride, Thora Borgarhjört, and seems perfectly happy about that, never blaming his new wife for this.
Unlike Snorri, Saxo does not seem to have any idea of the mythical/religious context where having to go through severe trials and prove his worth was essential for a young prince if he was ever to win a royal bride. Saxo also forgets (or willfully ignore) the fact that Norse kings would often marry several wives at once, because they practiced polygamy in cases where marriages were equal to tribal alliances. If he had to divorce Ladgerda in order to marry a Swedish princess, this may have been a term set by the royal father and could probably only happen because Ladgerda was a commoner, and the princess would not accept equal rank with another wife of common origins.)
Later on in the story, Ladgerda reappears, however. The Jutes (from Jutland) and the Scanians once more tried to overthrow Ragnarr from his seat of power in Zealand.
“Meanwhile, the Jutes and Skanians were kindled with an unquenchable fire of sedition; they disallowed the title of Ragnar, and gave a certain Harald the sovereign power. Ragnar sent envoys to Norway, and besought friendly assistance against these men; and Ladgerda, whose early love still flowed deep and steadfast, hastily sailed off with her husband and her son. She brought herself to offer a hundred and twenty ships to the man who had once put her away.
And he, thinking himself destitute of all resources, took to borrowing help from folk of every age, crowded the strong and the feeble all together, and was not ashamed to insert some old men and boys among the wedges of the strong. So he first tried to crush the power of the Scanians in the field which in Latin is called Laneus (Woolly); here he had a hard fight with the rebels. Here, too, Iwar, who was in his seventh year, fought splendidly, and showed the strength of a man in the body of a boy.
But Siward, while attacking the enemy face to face, fell forward upon the ground wounded. When his men saw this, it made them look round most anxiously for means of flight; and this brought low not only Siward, but almost the whole army on the side of Ragnar. But Ragnar by his manly deeds and exhortations comforted their amazed and sunken spirits, and, just when they were ready to be conquered, spurred them on to try and conquer.
“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. At last the lines of HARALD became slack, and HARALD himself was routed with a great slaughter of his men. LADGERDA, when she had gone home after the battle, murdered her husband…. in the night with a spear-head, which she had hid in her gown. Then she 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.”
This is the last we hear of Lagertha, and all we actually know about her from old sources.
According to some scholars, the Lagertha character, by being a resident of Gaulardale, is a fictional character based on the Follower goddess, Thorgerd Holgabrud, of whom there are many more sources and accounts.