The world of the Vikings is brought to life through the journey of Ragnar Lothbrok, the first Viking to emerge from Norse legend and onto the pages of history, a man on the edge of myth. Our story begins in 8th century Scandinavia where Ragnar Lothbrok is a warrior and a farmer who dreams of finding riches by bucking the tradition of raiding to the east. Ragnar has been working in secret on a project that will turn the Viking world on its head. But first, Ragnar must convince the leader of his community, the powerful Earl Haraldson, who is none too happy to share in the renown that this journey could bring to Ragnar if it’s successful.
A lightning hits a tree on a rainy hill. A grimfaced man stares onto a battle field. The year is 793 A.D., Ragnar Lothbrok and his older brother Rollo are fighting a battle with Baltic tribesmen. After killing their opponents, Rollo rests while Ragnar looks over the battle field as ravens decend to feast on the flesh of the slain. Ragnar sees a mysterious man with a spear and a broad hat on the horizion, but when he rubs his eyes the man is gone. Suddenly he sees the same man on another part of the battle field, with ravens on his shoulder and pointing at corpses with his spear. In his thoughts Ragnar identifies the man as Odin. Valkyries decend from the clouds and bring with them several of the fallen. Rollo calls for his brother and Ragnar looks away. When he looks back, Odin and his valkyries are gone, leaving Ragnar and the audience to question if the scene was real or not.
In Ragnar's home and farm in Scandinavia, Ragnar is honing the fighting skills of his son, Bjorn. Meanwhile, his wife Lagertha, and daughter, Gyda, have just come home from fishing. When Lagertha finds Ragnar preparing their son for the Thing in Kattegat, Lagertha tries to convince Ragnar to delay making a man out of their young, twelve-year-old son. Lagertha is not able to change her husband's mind.
After the men of the house leave, two men appear, hoping to rape Lagertha. Lagertha displays her prowess as a shield-maiden and effortlessly kills them with a fire iron.
Meanwhile, Ragnar is lecturing his son, preparing him for his manhood. He tells him how he earned his mother's hand in marriage. When asked by Bjorn, he tells him that a man fights and protects his family.
Later, Ragnar meets with Rollo and shows him what he calls a "sun-board," shown to him by a wanderer whom he met some time ago, telling him that it is indeed possible to travel to the West. Ragnar explains how the device would help guide them on the trip, but Rollo is still skeptical and disbelieving.
At the Thing, Earl Haraldson is presiding over problems of his people and some criminal offenses. Later, his speaker, Svein, introduces to the crowd Eric Trygvasson, a man accused of murdering Sigvald Strut. He pleads to have only killed the man in self-defense, but since he had not followed the normal procedure of declaring the death to the first person he sees, Haraldson proclaimed him guilty after a unanimous decision from the spectators. Upon his request, his execution the following day will be by beheading.
The next day, the man walks to his death with a smile, wanting to die well and without fear. The crowd then watches as the man is beheaded. Haraldson curses him to never enter Valhalla, the glorious afterlife of warriors. Ragnar tells Bjorn that he did not need to do it, but Haraldson had wanted the land Trygvasson had claim to, suggesting that the verdict Haraldson had cast upon the man was personal.
Later at the great feast, Haraldson officially recognizes Bjorn and another boy as men by giving them their arm rings, and both receive a kiss from the Earl's wife, Siggy. Delaying the discussion of the summer raids for the feast, Ragnar interrupts and asks him to discuss it first. Ragnar uses the opportunity to again talk about his plan to plunder the potentially more fruitful lands of the West, but Haraldson denies this, saying he shall not risk his ships or his reputation on a potentially fruitless and dangerous endeavor.
He later summons Ragnar to his private quarters and chastises him for daring to speak out against him in his own halls. He warns Ragnar that as a farmer, he should be content with his lot, as his land is valuable and there are many who would take it from him, likely referring to how he executed Eric Trygavsson to possess his land.
Haraldson then has a bad dream of his worst memory: finding the dismembered corpses of his sons barely buried in a shallow grave, their faces against each other's backside. Waking up, Siggy tries to comfort him.
Elsewhere, Ragnar and Bjorn meet with the Seer. Ragnar asks the Seer what the gods have in store for him. The Seer gives him good news, saying the gods desire him to have a great future, but that they can withdraw their goodwill anytime. When Ragnar asks if he should challenge the law, the Seer gives him vague answers, leaving a dissatisfied Ragnar to ponder the Seer's words.
Ragnar then takes Bjorn to see his eccentric ship-building friend Floki, who Ragnar commissions to making the boat he will be taking to the West.
Soon, Ragnar and Bjorn come home. While Ragnar and Lagertha make love, Rollo arrives and is greeted by Bjorn. At dinner, Rollo asks Gyda if she is learning to use a shield, like her shield-maiden mother. Lagertha then orders the children to bed to give the brothers some time alone, much to Bjorn's frustration, who claims to be a man that should no longer be ordered around. Ragnar and Rollo discuss their voyage to the west, and Rollo insists that he will not agree to being a subordinate to him. Ragnar asserts that, as brothers, they are equals. They decide to form their crew next. As soon as Ragnar steps out of the house, Rollo shows his affections for Lagertha, unsuccessfully trying to seduce her, much to her disgust; Lagertha calls him a great warrior who is not as good a man.
Outside, Ragnar sees the raven again, which he takes as a sign about his confusion regarding the Seer's advice. Ragnar comes in to tell his brother the good news, and he does not notice the tension in the room that he has interrupted.
Floki, Ragnar, and Rollo are then seen testing the boat Floki has made. While initially, Floki does not think the boat will be capable of surviving the trip, he is proven wrong and celebrates.
- Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok
- Katheryn Winnick as Lagertha
- Clive Standen as Rollo
- Jessalyn Gilsig as Siggy Haraldson
- Gustaf Skarsgård as Floki
- Gabriel Byrne as Earl Haraldson
- Eddie Drew as Odin
- Ruby O'Leary as Gyda Ragnarsdóttir
- Gerard McCarthy as Brondsted
- Billy Gibson as Ulf
- Eddie Elks as Olafur
- David Wilmot as Olaf Andwend
- Conor Madden as Eric Trygvasson
- Donna Dent as Rafarta
- Cian Quinn as Olaf Ingolfsson
- Daniel Aherne as Viking Warrior
- Christopher Dane as Condemned Man
- Stav Dvorkin as Baltic Warrior
- Thorbjørn Harr as Jarl Borg
- Eric Higgins as Knut
- Robert MacDomhnail as Viking Warrior
- Riku Rokkanen as Viking
- When discussing the future raids, Earl Haraldson refers to Russia, which did not yet exist as a geographic term. The contemporary name for Russia, Belarussia, and the Ukraine in Old Norse was Gardariki, meaning "the realm of towns" in reference to the number of towns and way-stations erected in the wake of the Swedish Varangians colonization of the country. Haraldson probably used this term (Gardariki) in his original language of Old Norse, but the show translated it to "Russia" for the best understanding of modern viewers in Modern English and several another languages. The name "Russia" originates from what these Swedish Vikings were called in the east; the Rus.
- Haraldson's title of Earl would be rendered as Jarl in Old Norse. The word "earl" originated as an Anglicization of "jarl."
- Kattegatt is actually a Dutch name for a sea strait between Denmark and Sweden, though writers of the series have given it to the fictitious Norse settlement of an unknown location in Scandinavia. Two likely locations may be either Bohuslan in western-most Sweden or Ostfold in Norway. Bohuslan has the only fjord in Sweden, but Ostfold has more. And Ostfold, during the Viking Age, was part of a petty Norwegian kingdom called Vingulmark. Vingulmark was a vassal to Denmark during the 9th century.
- Donna Dent's role as the sister of Sigvard Strut was originally credited as "Woman" in this episode. The role was later expanded into the character Rafarta. In A Simple Story, Rafarta recounts the murder of her brother in a land dispute, the exact same circumstance as in Rites of Passage.