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The Most Famous Vikings in History [by a Norwegian]

by Lisa Stentvedt
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As a proud Norwegian who basically grew up on stories about brave, notorious and famous Vikings I was excited to write this post.

Of course I also grew up hearing tales of trolls and huldras, but that’s a story for another day.

My childhood was all about these seafaring warriors, their incredible sagas fueling my imagination and perhaps inspiring my love for history. I remember spending a lot of time learning about both Vikings and Norse mythology in school, and I loved it.

Side note: I have covered Norse Goddesses and Viking Symbols on the blog as well!

Now I get to share these legendary tales with all of you, as I decided to write this post about the most famous Vikings ever.

I promise, I’m not just babbling; I’ve done my research, and I’m super excited to share my rich heritage with all of you.

Trust me, we’re about to embark on an amazing journey full of adventure, conquest, and loads of Viking courage!

In this post I will outline who the most famous Vikings of history were, and their accomplishments. Some of them, you will recognize from pop culture, and shows such as Vikings (does Ragnar Lothbrok ring a bell?).

Others might be new to you! Regardless, I hope you get a great idea of who these Vikings were after reading this post!

Who were the famous Vikings?

The Viking Age spanned from the 8th to the 11th century and was a time of exploration, conquest, and cultural exchange predominantly led by Nordic seafarers known as Vikings.

This era started around 850 and ended around 1100, and during these centuries, the Vikings set sail from their Scandinavian homelands, reaching as far as North America, and even Constantinople in the Mediterranean.

Known for their advanced seafaring skills and fearsome reputation as warriors, they were also traders, explorers, and settlers who had a significant impact on the regions they interacted with.

Their secret weapon was their skill in boat-building, and their advantage in battle was that they were seemingly fearless. Since they believed they would end in Valhalla if they died in battle, this possibility was something the famous Vikings welcomed.

Additionally, they had several Nordic symbols with various meaning to strengthen their beliefs.

Was everyone a Viking?

Interestingly, not every Nordic individual during this era was a Viking.

In fact, the majority of the people were farmers, living a relatively peaceful life, cultivating the land, and raising livestock.

The term ‘Viking’ was specifically used to denote individuals who embarked on overseas expeditions, usually for trading or raiding.

The perception of the Vikings as cruel raiders comes in part from their initial interaction with other cultures, but over time, they established trade routes, intermarried with local populations, and even adopted local customs and religions.

Thus, the Viking Age was not just about invasion and plunder, but also about exploration, trade, and cultural exchange.

An illustration of a famous Viking, ragnar lothbrok.
Perhaps the most illustrated and famous Viking; Ragnar Lothbrok. No one quite knows what he actually looked like, but it is believed to be something like this.

The 5 Most Famous Vikings in History

Let’s now turn our attention to the crème de la crème of the Viking world. The five most famous Vikings in history, each renowned in their own right, include Harald Fairhair, Leif Erikson, Ragnar Lothbrok, Gange-Rolv, and Erik the Red.

These legendary figures have gained fame not only for their historical significance but also for their vivid depictions in popular culture, including television series and literature.

Ragnar Lothbrok, for example, is on the list thanks to his Vikings fame. Leif Erikson, on the other hand, has always been one of the most famous Vikings in Scandinavia.

They are more than just historical characters; they are influential figures who have shaped our understanding of the Viking era, each contributing unique tales of bravery, exploration, and leadership.

Humble brag: I am proud to say that most of these guys were Norwegian Vikings.

Let’s dive in!

#1 Leif Erikson

Leif Erikson, also known as Leif the Lucky, hails from Iceland and was a game-changer when it came to exploration. Born around 970, Erikson was the son of Erik the Red, another formidable figure among the Vikings (and the first Viking to settle on Greenland).

But Leif Erikson’s claim to fame is not reliant on his father’s reputation. He made a significant mark in history as the first European to ever set foot on American soil, pre-dating Christopher Columbus by a few centuries.

Erikson’s monumental journey led him to establish a Norse settlement, famously referred to as Vinland, on North America’s coast.

I am not sure of the exact meaning in Old Norse, but in Norwegian today, Vinland translates to “Wine land”, which is a name I can get behind.

His exploits have made him a staple in Viking history and propelled him to become one of the most distinguished Vikings in Scandinavia and beyond.

Leif Erikson’s legacy of exploration and settlement paints a picture of the Vikings as not merely raiders but also enterprising explorers, significantly influencing our understanding of the Viking era.

#2 Harald Fairhair (Harald Hårfagre)

Harald Fairhair, or Harald Hårfagre as he is known in Norwegian, is another key figure in Viking history and perhaps the most famous Viking amongst Norwegians.

Born around 850, Fairhair is known for being the first king in Norway, implying he was king over parts of the country, a noteworthy distinction during fragmented times.

Fun fact: My friends and I once got into a really heated argument during a quiz, where the question related to who the first King of Norway was. We had 3 different answers, including Harald Fairhair, and each of us insisted we were correct. As always, semantics matter.

Harald Fairhair’s story brims with romance, bravery, and political intrigue. As legend has it, his journey to kingship began with a refusal. A woman he sought to marry, Princess Gyda, rebuked him, stating she would only marry him if he became king of all Norway.

Taking this challenge to heart, Harald vowed not to cut or comb his hair until he achieved this feat, earning him the nickname ‘Fairhair’.

And so, he embarked on a quest to unite Norway under a single crown, a task both monumental and fraught with danger. Through a combination of strategic marriages, alliances, and victories in battle, Fairhair gradually expanded his rule over various Norwegian Viking tribes.

Once he successfully united Norway, according to the saga, Harald finally had his long, tangled hair cut and combed, hence the name ‘Fairhair’.

However, Harald Fairhair’s legacy extends beyond his personal grooming habits. As the first king in Norway, he laid the groundwork for the nation-state’s existence, shaping its early political and cultural identity.

So there you have it. From explorers to kings, the Vikings were as diverse as they were dynamic, and figures like Harald Fairhair help us understand the richness of their history and their lasting impact on our world today.

#3 Erik the Red

Just as Harald Fairhair is a significant figure in Viking history, so too is Erik the Red, another contender for the title of ‘most famous Viking.’

But unlike the noble King Harald, Erik’s claim to fame was a little less orthodox.

Known as the founder of the first permanent European settlement in Greenland and the father of the famed explorer Leif Erikson, Erik’s life was one of adventure, controversy, and resilience.

Erik was born in Norway, but due to a series of violent disputes, he and his family were exiled from their home. They moved to Iceland, where unfortunately, Erik’s hot temper and flexibility with the law got him into trouble again, leading to another exile – this time from Iceland.

So where does a Viking with a knack for getting exiled go? Well, west, as it turns out. Erik sailed off into the unknown, landing in a place he gallantly named Greenland.

Though the name may seem misleading given the island’s icy landscape, it’s believed that Erik chose the name as a marketing ploy to encourage more settlers to join him.

Side note: it is not confirmed that Erik was the man who named Greenland (Grønland in Norse and Norwegian), but it is widely believed in Scandinavia.

Erik the Red didn’t earn his name because of any fondness for the color but rather due to his fiery red hair and beard. Some also suggest his nickname could reflect his fiery temper, which often got him into bloody battles and trouble.

His son, Leif Erikson, as mentioned above, was a chip off the old block. As we now know, he followed his father’s footsteps and becoming one of the first Europeans to set foot on North American soil.

Erik the Red’s life was as colorful as his nickname suggests. Despite the controversies that marked his existence, he was a true Viking, full of grit, determination, and an unwavering sense of adventure.

And so, his story continues to intrigue and inspire, painting a vivid picture of Viking life and exploration.

#4 Gange-Rolv (Gange-Rolf, Rollo of Normandy)

When it comes to famous Vikings, Gange-Rolv is a name that stirs up many myths and tales. Known to be the same person as Rollo of Normandy, he is shrouded in mystery, but his impact on Viking and medieval history is undeniable.

Gange-Rolv, aptly named for his size – so big his legs would still touch the ground when sitting on a horse – was a legendary Norseman whose presence commanded respect and perhaps a little fear.

His nickname Gange-Rolv literally translates to “Walk-Rolf” in Old Norse, highlighting his preference for walking over riding due to his tremendous size. Some say it is because his legs would still touch the ground when mounted on a horse, so even when he was riding he was still “walking”.

One oft-told tale about Gange-Rolv is of his encounter with Harald Fairhair, the first King of Norway. It is said that Harald had made a vow not to cut or comb his hair until he had conquered all of Norway, leaving his hair in a state of wild tangles. Gange-Rolv, being the Earl, took on the task of slicing through Harald’s unkempt locks.

It is believed that Gange-Rolv was Norwegian, from the northwestern area of Sunnmøre (around Ålesund).

But the most intriguing part of Gange-Rolv’s story is the belief that he was the same person as Rollo of Normandy.

Rollo was a Viking chieftain who became the first ruler of Normandy, a region in modern-day France.

The ties between Gange-Rolv and Rollo have been a subject of debate among historians, with some speculating they were the same person while others contend they were two distinct individuals. In Norway, however, we are often taught that they were indeed the same person.

Regardless of the myths and uncertainties that surround his life, Gange-Rolv’s legacy as a formidable Viking and leader continues to resonate today.

How tall was Gange-Rolv / Rollo of Normandie?

This is a tricky question that archeologists and scientists wanted to answer for years, before they were finally allowed to open the graves of Rollo’s grandchildren in 2016.

The goal of opening the grave and studying the remains of his family was to confirm using DNA testing whether he was indeed the same person as Gange-Rolv. They also wanted to confirm once and for all whether he was Danish or Norwegian. The Danes naturally believe he was from Denmark, whilst here in Norway we insist he was Norwegian.

Unfortunately, it turned out that the remains were even older than the grandchildren would have been (they were actually off by over 200 years). Thus, they were not the remains of Rollo’s kin.

However, whilst studying descriptions and tales of Rollo, it has been concluded that he was around 180cm tall (5 foot 11 inches).

#5 Ragnar Lodbrok (Lothbrok)

Ragnar Lodbrok is considered one of the most famous Vikings in history, much thanks to the show Vikings. However, even before the show, he was well-known amongst Viking enthusiasts and captured the imagination of readers and scholars alike.

Often depicted as a fearless Viking warrior and king, Ragnar is renowned for his daring exploits and adventures.

His name is closely associated with several major raids on Francia and Anglo-Saxon England during the Viking Age. His tales of bravery in battle and his thirst for exploration have become synonymous with the Vikings’ spirit.

However, the line between historical fact and folklore is somewhat blurry when it comes to Ragnar.

While his existence as a historical figure is a matter of some debate among historians, there’s no denying the influence of his legend.

His stories have inspired countless works of literature, drama, and even television series—most notably the History Channel’s popular show, ‘Vikings.’

His children, said to include renowned Vikings like Ivar the Boneless, Bjorn Ironside, and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, also play a significant role in Norse sagas, further solidifying the Lodbrok legacy.

Their exploits, like those of their father, are etched into the annals of Viking history.

Whether or not Ragnar Lodbrok was a real person, the stories about him and his kin continue to fascinate us. They offer a unique insight into the Viking era, a time of exploration, conquest, and cultural exchange.

And as long as the tales of Ragnar and his exploits continue to be told, his legacy lives on, a symbol of the Viking spirit of adventure and resilience.

Other notable Viking warriors and explorers

Below are a few more notable Vikings – I am sure you have heard their names already.

  • Ivar the Boneless – Known for his tactical acumen, Ivar the Boneless was a Viking leader who supposedly led the invasion of England with his brothers. He is believed to have suffered from brittle bone disease.
  • Bjorn Ironside – Also son of legendary Viking Ragnar Lodbrok, Bjorn Ironside is recognized for his successful raiding expeditions, particularly in France and Italy.
  • Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye – Sigurd, Ragnar’s third son on the list, earned his nickname from a distinctive, snake-shaped mark in his eye; he was a prominent figure in the invasions of England.
  • Harald Hardrada – Known as the last great Viking, Harald Hardrada’s adventurous life included serving as the king of Norway, a military commander in Constantinople, and an exile in Russia.
  • Svein/Sweyn Forkbeard – A king of Denmark and England, Sweyn Forkbeard’s rule marked the start of Danish dominance in England.
  • Gunnar Hamundarson – A central character in the Saga of Burnt Njal, Gunnar Hamundarson was a legendary hero known for his warrior skills and tragic fate.

Famous Vikings and General Viking FAQ

Below are a collection of frequently asked questions about the Vikings, from their average height to whether they had dreadlocks or not. I have done my best to answer them according to what I have learned growing up in Norway (and researched).

Where the Vikings tall?

Contrary to the popular image of towering, formidable figures, historical and archaeological evidence suggests that Vikings were not particularly tall by modern standards.

The average height for a Viking man was about 5 feet 7 inches, while Viking women averaged around 5 feet 2 inches.

These figures are based upon skeletal remains and statistical data from the Viking Age.

Although certain individuals, like the aforementioned Gange-Rolv, were reputed for their exceptional size, they were more the exception than the norm in Viking society.

So, while we often imagine Vikings as towering giants, most were of relatively average height compared to people today.

Average Height of Vikings

The average height of Vikings, as best as we can estimate from available historical and archaeological data, was not as tall as often depicted in popular culture.

As mentioned, Viking men are believed to have been around 5 feet 7 inches on average, while Viking women were slightly shorter with an average height of around 5 feet 2 inches.

These figures, derived from the analysis of skeletal remains and various statistical data from the Viking Age, indicate that most Vikings were not exceptionally tall by today’s standards. So, the image of the towering Viking is more myth than reality, with only a few exceptions to the norm.

Did Vikings have Dreadlocks?

The notion of Vikings sporting dreadlocks has been romanticized in popular culture, but lacks concrete historical evidence.

Hairstyles of the Viking Age are deduced from artifacts, such as figurines and comb fragments, as well as written texts. While these sources suggest that Vikings took great care in grooming their hair and beards, there’s no direct evidence to suggest that dreadlocks were a common or popular hairstyle among Vikings.

Therefore, it is safe to conclude that Vikings likely did not wear dreadlocks. Instead, they likely had various hairstyles that were functional and suited to their climate and lifestyle.

Braids are not unlikely that Vikings used, especially the women and men with longer hair. There are even books you can get that teaches you lots of fun (and cool) Viking braids!

Who is considered the most famous Viking?

The most famous Viking is undoubtedly the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok, a figure in Norse mythology who was said to have terrorized Europe during the 9th century. He’s described as a powerful and merciless ruler, but also a wise and generous one; he was often seen as an inspiration for Scandinavian kings. His story, which has been preserved in sagas and folk tales, is still remembered today.

Who was the deadliest Viking?

The Vikings were a formidable force of warriors and raiders, and their reputation was well-deserved. Among the most famous Vikings was Ragnar Lothbrok, a legendary Norse hero regarded as one of the greatest warriors in history. He is believed to have led many successful raids against foreign lands, killing thousands of enemies in battle.

Why are Vikings famous?

The Vikings were a seafaring people who traveled long distances, often to places that had never been explored before. They forged new routes and become renowned for their skill at navigating the seas. The Vikings are also famous for their raids on lands as far away as England, France, and Russia. This gave them a reputation of fierce warriors and earned them the title of “Viking Raiders” or “Vikings” for short. Additionally, they are remembered for their art, literature and traditions which have been preserved in various forms throughout history. Viking culture has remained alive in modern day Scandinavia where many customs live on today. Today we use the term “Viking” to refer to anyone from Norse descent or with connections to Scandinavian culture in general.

A Viking reenactor in Gudvangen, Norway holding a blunt sword to demonstrate how flexible it is. He is wearing fur and a long, green cape, and has a long grey beard.

Where to go to learn about the Vikings

Viking history is full of mystery and wonder, and there are plenty of places around the world where you can learn more about it.

One great place to visit is the Viking World Museum in Reykjavik, Iceland. This museum offers a unique opportunity to explore the remains of two original Viking ships, as well as an extensive collection of artifacts from that time period.

You can also view replicas of parts of Viking settlements, like houses and boats. The museum is amongst the best things to do in Iceland, and should be included in your Iceland road trip.

In Norway, there are of course several options.

Find the Lofotr Viking Museum located on the island of Vestvågøy one of the Lofoten islands. Personally, this is one of my favourite places to go in Lofoten.

The museum’s center piece is a reconstructed longhouse from the Iron Age, which was discovered during archaeological excavations in 1983. Here you can see how Vikings lived and worked during this time period with reconstructions of beds, tools, weapons and other daily objects used by Vikings.

Additionally, you know I love the Njardarheimr Viking Village in Gudvangen, western Norway. The Viking Village is filled with reenactors that live there year-round, and you can visit the village on an easy day trip from Bergen.

Moving on, the Jorvik Viking Center in York, England is another excellent destination for those interested in learning about Viking history. This interactive museum allows visitors to explore a recreated city street from 975 AD featuring authentic artifacts from that era.

Through audio-visual displays and costumed interpreters you will have a chance to understand what life was like for people living at that time. I remember visiting and being shocked that they had actually infused some of the exhibitions with smells resembling what the villages would have smelled like during the Viking age!

These are just some examples of great places to visit if you want to learn more about Viking history and culture. Visiting one or all four can make for an exciting holiday experience!

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