Ivar Ragnussson was one of the Vikings leaders who with his brothers led the Great Heathen Army that invaded the East Anglia region of England in 865AD, but it is how he got the nickname Ivar the Boneless that is the mystery.
But first the history lesson. Ivar was the son of Ragnar Lodbrok who ruled large parts of what is today Denmark and Sweden. The young Ivar is portrayed as a warrior and had a reputation as a berserker.
As mentioned above, Ivar and his brothers Halfdene and Hubba successfully invaded East Anglia in 865AD intent on conquest rather than pillage.
The following year Ivar led his army north to capture York from the Northumbrians who were preoccupied with their own civil war. Ivar successfully held the city in 867AD when the Northumbrians attempted to retake it.
Ivar is attributed with the martyring of Saint Edmund of East Anglia in 869AD when he refused to become a vassal of a pagan.
He is reputed to have slain Edmund in much the same way as Saint Sebastian was killed, by tying him to a tree and shooting him with arrows, although later accounts say that he was shot while in a church.
Ivar then left the command of the Great Heathen Army and the Danes in England to his brothers and traveled to Dublin in Ireland. It is not certain when he died, but in the Annals of Ulster it is recorded that: ‘Ímar, king of the Norsemen of all Ireland and Britain, ended his life’ in 873AD.
It is likely that Ivar and Ímar were one and the same person. The latter is named as the founder of the House of Ímar which came to dominate the Irish Sea region from the Kingdom of Dublin.
But the question is how did be become known as Ivar the Boneless? The poem ‘Háttalykill inn forni’ describes Ivar as being ‘without any bones at all’ which seems oddly inappropriate for a great Viking warrior.
Various theories have been put forward, one that it may have referred to his impotence, although it seems unlikely that anyone would have said so to his face, let alone commit it to parchment. And if he was, how did he found the House of Ímar?
Some think it may have been a snake reference – Ivar’s brother Sigurd was known as Snake-in-the-Eye – while others believe it simply described his physical flexibility and limberness.
Linguistically, the English word ‘bone’ has the same derivation as the German ‘bein’ meaning leg, so it might have meant that Ivar was legless. That may sound odd for a warrior, but a successful Viking commander would have been carried aloft on the shields on his enemies after a battle, so ‘boneless’ or ‘legless’ may have signified that Ivar was always victorious.
But the more outlandish explanation is that Ivar suffered from osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease. In 1949, the Dane Knud Seedorf wrote:
Of historical personages the author knows of only one of whom we have a vague suspicion that he suffered from osteogenesis imperfecta, namely Ivar Benløs, eldest son of the Danish legendary king Regnar Lodbrog. He is reported to have had legs as soft as cartilage (‘he lacked bones’), so that he was unable to walk and had to be carried about on a shield.
In less extreme cases of the disease, the sufferer may lose the the use of their legs but otherwise be unaffected and in 2003 the disability activist, Nabil Shaban, made a documentary called The Strangest Viking which explored the idea that Ivar may have had the same condition as Shaban himself.
Meanwhile, Ivar has made several appearances in modern culture, most famously in the 1958 film The Vikings (with its well-known theme music) when his character was played by Kirk Douglas, even if Ivar’s name was changed to Einar. And in the Amazon Vikings series.
More recently, the film, Hammer of the Gods, released in 2013, features the actor Ivan Kaye playing Ivar, as shown at the top of the page.
But was Ivar truly boneless? Even partially? Below is the Nabil Shaban documentary, originally shown on the History Channel, to help you make up your mind.