According to legend, Lagertha was a Viking shield-maiden and ruler from what is now Norway, and the onetime wife of the famous Viking Ragnar Lodbrok. Her tale was recorded by the chronicler Saxo in the 12th century. According to modern scholarship, it is likely that Lagertha was not a historical figure, but a reflection of tales about Viking warrior women or about the Norse deity Þorgerðr.
Her name as recorded by Saxo, Lathgertha, is likely a Latinisation of the Old Norse Hlaðgerðr (Hlathgerth). It is frequently rendered in English-language sources as "Lagertha", and has also been recorded as Ladgertha, Ladgerda or similar.
Lagertha's tale is recorded in passages in the ninth book of the Gesta Danorum, a twelfth-century work of Danish history by the Christian historian Saxo Grammaticus. According to the Gesta (¶ 9.4.1–9.4.11), Lagertha's career as a warrior began when Frø, king of Sweden, invaded Norway and killed the Norwegian king Siward. Frø put the women of the dead king's family into a brothel for public humiliation. Hearing of this, Ragnar Lodbrok came with an army to avenge his grandfather Siward. Many of the women Frø had ordered abused dressed themselves in men's clothing and fought on Ragnar's side. Chief among them, and key to Ragnar's victory, was Lagertha. Saxo recounts:
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 marvelled at her matchless deeds, for her locks flying down her back betrayed that she was a woman.
Impressed with her courage, Ragnar courted her from afar. Lagertha feigned interest and Ragnar arrived to seek her hand, bidding his companions wait in the Gaular valley. He was set upon by a bear and a great hound which Lagertha had guarding her home, but killed the bear with his spear and choked the hound to death. Thus he won the hand of Lagertha. According to Saxo, Ragnar had a son with her, Fridleif, as well as two daughters, whose names are not recorded.
After returning to Denmark to fight a civil war, Ragnar (who, according to Saxo, was still annoyed that Lagertha had set beasts against him) divorced Lagertha in order to marry Þóra Borgarhjǫrtr, daughter of King Herrauðr of Sweden. He won the hand of his new love after numerous adventures, but upon returning to Denmark was again faced with a civil war. Ragnar sent to Norway for support, and Lagertha, who still loved him, came to his aid with 120 ships, according to Saxo. When at the height of the battle, Ragnar's son Siward was wounded, Lagertha saved the day for Ragnar with a counter-attack:
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.
Upon returning to Norway, she quarrelled with her husband, and slew him with a spearhead she concealed in her gown. Saxo concludes that she then "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".
According to Judith Jesch, the rich variety of tales in the first nine books of Saxo's Gesta, which include the tale of Lagertha, are "generally considered to be largely fictional". In portraying the several warrior women in these tales, Saxo drew on the legend of the Amazons from classical antiquity, but also on a variety of Old Norse (particularly Icelandic) sources, which have not been clearly identified. Saxo's depiction of women warriors is also coloured by misogyny: Like most churchmen of the time, Saxo thought of women only as sexual beings. To him, the Viking shieldmaidens who refused this role were an example of the disorder in old heathen Denmark that was later cured by the Church and a stable monarchy.
A woman called Hlaðgerðr, who rules the Hlaðeyjar, also appears in the sagas of the 6th century Scylding king Halfdan. She gives him twenty ships to help defeat his enemies. Hilda Ellis Davidson, in her commentary on the Gesta, also notes suggestions in the literature that the name was used by the Franks, for instance by Luitgarde of Vermandois (c. 914–978), and that the tale of Lagertha could have originated in Frankish tradition.
When Saxo describes Lagertha as "flying round" (circumvolare) to the rear of the enemy, he ascribes to her the power of flight, according to Jesch, indicating a kinship with the valkyries. The tale notably recalls that of Kára, the valkyrie lover of Helgi Haddingjaskati, who flies above Helgi in battle as a swan, casting spells in his support.
Identity with Þorgerðr
Davidson deems it possible, as Nora K. Chadwick considered very probable, that Lagertha is identical with Þorgerðr, a goddess reflected in several stories.
Þorgerðr was worshipped by, and sometimes said to be wed to, the Norwegian ruler Haakon Sigurdsson (c. 937–995), who lived at Hlaðir (Lade). This may be the origin of the name Hlaðgerðr. Gaulardal, the Gaular valley – where Lagertha lived according to Saxo – lies nearby and was the centre of Þorgerðr's cult. It was also, according to Snorri Sturluson, the abode of Haakon's wife Þóra. Finally, the description of Lagertha coming to Ragnar's aid with flying hair is similar to how the Flateyjarbók describes Þorgerðr and her sister Irpa assisting Haakon.
Portrayals in fiction
Christen Pram's historical drama Lagertha (1789) is based on Saxo's account.
The choreographer Vincenzo Galeotti based his ballet Lagertha (1801), the first ballet to feature a Nordic theme, on Pram's work. Set to music by Claus Schall, the ballet was a significant success for Galeotti's Royal Theater. It was conceived as a Gesamtkunstwerk incorporating song, pantomime, dance, and originally also dialogue parts.
More recently, Lagertha (played by Katheryn Winnick) is a main character broadly based on Saxo's legend in the 2013 TV series Vikings. She is portrayed as a shieldmaiden and Ragnar's first wife.
|Heroes in Norse mythology|
|Angantýr Arngrímsson • Arngrímr • Áslaug • Bjǫrn Járnsíða • Bǫðvarr Bjarki • Brynhildr • Buðli • Egill • Erpr • Fjǫlnir • Gjúki • Guðmundr • Guðrún • Gunnarr • Hagbarðr • Haki • Hamðir • Hálfdan Ragnarsson • Heiðrekr • Helgi Haddingjaskati • Helgi Hundingsbane • Hervǫr Angantýsdóttir • Hervǫr Heiðreksdóttir • Hildólfr • Hjálmarr and Ingibjǫrg • Hjǫrdís • Hljóð • Hlǫðr • Hrólfr Kraki • Hvítserkr Ragnarsson • Hǫðbroddr • Ingjaldr • Ívarr hinn Beinlausi • Karl Hundason • Lagertha • Níðuðr • Palnatóki • Ragnarr Loðbrók • Ring II • Rerir • Sigi • Sigmundr • Signý • Sigurðr • Sigurðr Hjort • Sinfjǫtli • Starkaðr • Styrbjǫrn Sterki • Svafrlami • Svanhildr • Svipdagr • Sæmingr • Sǫrli • Ubbi • Vésteinn • Víkarr • Vikingr • Vǫlsungr • Yrsa • Þiðrekr af Bern • Þórr • Ǫrvar-Oddr|