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The 10 Most Famous and Influential Vikings in History

The Viking Age, which lasted from the 8th to 11th centuries AD, was a time when Norse warriors raided, traded, and settled across wide areas of Europe, Asia, and the North Atlantic islands. These seafaring Scandinavians left their mark on history and continue to capture our imagination to this day.

While the Vikings engaged in many raids and were often depicted as ruthless invaders, they were also intrepid explorers, skilled traders, innovative shipbuilders, and even farmers who established colonies in new lands. Not all Vikings were bloodthirsty warriors either – many were actually quite peaceful.

Still, it‘s the fierce Viking warriors and sea kings who tend to be the most famous. Here are 10 of the most renowned and influential Vikings from history:

1. Ragnar Lothbrok

Ragnar Lothbrok, or Ragnar "Shaggy-Breeches", was a legendary Viking hero and ruler who achieved semi-mythical status in Old Norse poetry and sagas. According to tradition, Ragnar was the scourge of France and England in the 9th century and the father of many renowned sons, including Ivar the Boneless, Bjorn Ironside, and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye.

While his historicity is debated, he may be based on one or more real figures like the Danish king Reginheri. Ragnar‘s larger-than-life adventures, fearsome sons, and heroic death in a snake pit at the hands of King Aella of Northumbria have cemented him as an iconic Viking figure in popular imagination.

2. Leif Erikson

Five centuries before Christopher Columbus "discovered" the New World, Viking explorer Leif Erikson reached the shores of North America and founded the short-lived settlement of Vinland around the year 1000.

The son of Erik the Red, Leif sailed off course on his way back to Greenland and landed at an unknown shore he called Vinland. He built some huts and wintered there before returning home. Later attempts to colonize Vinland were made but abandoned within a few years.

Still, Leif goes down in history for leading the first Europeans known to set foot on the North American continent, which is why Leif Erikson Day is still celebrated on October 9th in the U.S. and Scandinavia.

3. Erik the Red

Erik Thorvaldson, better known as Erik the Red due to his red hair and fiery temper, founded the first Norse settlement in Greenland after being exiled from Iceland around 985 AD. He gave the frozen landmass its name, possibly to attract settlers, and its Norse colonies survived for centuries.

But before all that, Erik had quite the brutal reputation in Iceland, where he was repeatedly exiled for murder and escaped one feud after another. He remains a captivating if bloodthirsty example of the enterprising Viking spirit.

4. Freydis Eiriksdottir

The daughter of Erik the Red and sister or half-sister of Leif Erikson, Freydis was an early explorer of North America in her own right. According to Nordic sagas, she joined an expedition to Vinland led by Thorfinn Karlsefni around 1010 AD.

While there, she is said to have bravely fended off attacking Native Americans with a sword – while pregnant no less! Though her story is only preserved in later Icelandic sagas, Freydis stands out as a formidable woman in a male-dominated world.

5. Bjorn Ironside

Bjorn Ironside was one of Ragnar Lothbrok‘s sons who became a renowned king of Sweden. He led many raids across Europe, from France to Italy, and even sailed into the Mediterranean, sacking cities like Pisa and Luna (believed to have been Rome).

Whether by diplomacy or force, Bjorn also extracted tributes from many of the places he raided. Though his life is entwined with legend, Bjorn exemplifies the far-reaching and enterprising voyages for which the Vikings were known.

6. Ivar the Boneless

Another of Ragnar‘s sons, Ivar the Boneless was a fearsome warrior-king who invaded England in 865 AD along with his brothers Halfdan and Ubba. Despite his nickname suggesting a physical handicap, Ivar was a highly capable military commander.

He led the Great Heathen Army that conquered York, East Anglia, and Mercia, and he avenged his father‘s death by blood-eagling King Aella of Northumbria. His life is entangled with myth and his story has evolved over the centuries, but Ivar remains emblematic of the relentless Viking vengeance for which they were known and feared.

7. Harald Hardrada

Often considered the last of the great Viking kings, Harald Hardrada ("hard ruler") had an eventful life. After being exiled from Norway as a teenager, he became a military commander in the Byzantine Empire and amassed a fortune raiding in the Mediterranean.

Returning home, he took the Norwegian throne and waged decades of war to unite Norway and Denmark. His attempt to claim the English throne ended when he fell at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. Still, Harald exemplified the Vikings‘ penchant for far-flung adventure, ambition, and warcraft.

8. Cnut the Great

Ruling over a North Sea Empire comprising Denmark, Norway, and England in the early 11th century, Cnut the Great was perhaps the most successful and wide-reaching of all Viking kings. Though Danish, Cnut claimed the English throne after leading an invasion in 1015.

He then inherited Denmark in 1018 and seized Norway in 1028, ruling his kingdoms wisely and largely peacefully. For a time, Cnut was the most powerful ruler in western Europe, and his reign marked the height of Viking civilization.

9. Rollo

The founder and first ruler of the French region of Normandy ("land of the Northmen") in the early 10th century, Rollo was a Viking leader who emerged as an influential figure in French history. After raiding France for years, Rollo agreed to swear fealty to the French king and converted to Christianity in exchange for land.

This pact is considered the beginning of Normandy as a distinct cultural region heavily shaped by its Viking roots. Rollo‘s descendants, including William the Conqueror, would go on to have a huge impact on medieval Europe.

10. Egil Skallagrimsson

More than just a warrior, Egil Skallagrimsson was a legendary Viking poet and an early anti-hero in world literature. His life is recorded in Egil‘s Saga, which details his exploits as a raider, mercenary, and skald (court poet), as well as his confrontations with kings and rivals.

Possessed of a violent temper but also a poetic soul, Egil composed famed works of verse such as Sonatorrek (Irreparable Loss of Sons) and Hofudlausn (Head Ransom). His verses reveal the emotional depths beneath the Vikings‘ tough exteriors and their poetic sense of honor.

From fierce warriors and enterprising explorers to poets and kings, these famous Vikings represent the many facets of the Norse people. Indomitable voyagers and raiders on the one hand, the Vikings also changed the course of European history through their conquests, colonies, and cultural innovations on the other. Their compelling stories and oversized personalities ensure their status as some of history‘s most legendary figures.