Don't try to deny it. Ragnar Lothbrok had you at Season 1. (Seriously, can someone please bring back that leather-bound ponytail hairstyle for men? K, thanks.) And that goes for whether you're a guy or girl, because if you don't want him you at least want to be him. Or Lagertha. Who doesn't want to be Lagertha?
Anyway, point is, the History Channel's Vikings series has ignited fascination with the incredible stories and fierce fighting spirit of the Vikings. But how much of the show is historically accurate?
One possibility is that women took up arms in defence or when necessity demanded it, but that they weren't dedicated warriors. However, one episode of Real Vikings, the History Channel's tie-in documentary series, corroborates the existence of shieldmaidens by presenting the bone analysis of a skeleton from a Birka grave. (1) According to bone specialist Anna Kjellström the skeleton was female. Buried with a horde of weapons and two horses, it seems that this woman at least would give Lagertha a run for her money.
So were shieldmaidens real, or the stuff of legend? It's difficult to say with complete certainty, but since all history depends largely on who writes it, we're happy to assume these kick-ass women existed.
Many of the recorded accounts of the Vikings were written by Christians during or after the Viking period, meaning their reports were often secondhand and tainted by religious subjectivity. The event depicted in the TV show where nine males of each kind of living creature were sacrificed every nine years was one such secondhand account. Nevertheless, the National Museum of Denmark cites archaeological finds of sacrificial sites, including five wells at Trelleborg containing five human sacrifices — four of them young children. (2) So yes: We can conclude that human sacrifice was eerily true.
Ragnar himself is considered a legend rather than a historical figure. He's a hero of Old Norse sagas; a product of mutated oral traditions that potentially amalgamated several different figures into one great folkloric legend.
A number of Ragnar's sons are considered true historical figures, however: Björn Ironside, Ivar the Boneless, Hvitserk, Ubba and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, all characters in the Vikings series, existed.
Time-wise, the series picks and chooses characters and events from a span of a few centuries and weaves them together into a decade or two of storyline. For example, the infamous raid on Lindisfarne took place in 793 A.D. Rollo — a real historical figure, albeit one who was not actually related to Ragnar — lived from about 836 to 930 A.D., hence he wasn't even born when the raid took place.
As for how Ragnar met his end (spoiler alert: If you haven't seen the latest episodes, skip this part), the series is true to legend, even if not to any verifiable history. Ragnar is said to have endured death by snake pit at the hand of King Ælla of Northumbria.
But now for the questions that's really been on your mind ever since you laid eyes on Ragnar's aforementioned ponytail: Did Vikings really wear those cool hairstyles?
Because of the lack of recorded sources, some creative license had to be taken by the show in designing the hair and makeup. However, the popularity of the reverse mullet style (longer at the front and shaved at the back, as seen on the young Björn) is backed up by several sources including a carved male head found at a ship burial site and an Old English letter by a man chiding his brother not to give in to the “Danish fashion with a shaved neck and blinded eyes.” (3)
The braids are a little more difficult to substantiate. Based on the mountain of information on the internet detailing murky translations of old texts and conflicting accounts about the appearance of the Vikings, I could write an entire book. Suffice to summarise thus: No one can say for sure.
What we do know from archeological finds is that combs were a common item, suggesting hair had some length and was well-kept. Some written accounts also attest to the Vikings being well-groomed, going so far as to reveal that English noble women found them rather irresistible. (4) Apparently, the fact that they took a bath every Saturday was an attractive trait. Ragnar-style ponytails or not… the Viking men were historically-certified hotties.
Images: Vikings promotional stills via fabzz.com and vikings.wikia.com; Lagertha and Ragnar via Peter Pham on Flickr; Björn still via Reddit.