I is for Ivar the Boneless

This is my contribution to Round Twelve of ABC Wednesday and again I am focusing on people, some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten.
Ivan Kaye as Ivar the Boneless

Actor Ivan Kaye as Ivar the Boneless

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.

Martydom of St Edmund

Martydom of St Edmund

Ivar is attributed with the martyring 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.

Viking Age Dublin

Viking Age Dublin

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.

Kirk Douglas as Ivar in The Vikings

Kirk Douglas as Ivar in The Vikings

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.

In books Ivar can be found in Harry Harrison’s Hammer and Cross series, in The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer and as a minor character in Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom.

More recently, the upcoming film, Hammer of the Gods, to be released later this year, 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.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

11 comments… Add yours
  • Roger Green 13th March 2013

    What an INTERESTING designation!

    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  • rhymeswithplague 13th March 2013

    A truly fascinating post that shows me how very little I know about Vikings, English history before William the Conqueror, linguistics, motion picture films, osteogenesis perfecta, and several other topics. Well done!

    Over here the only time one encounters the word “boneless” is in the chicken and pork sections of the meat market.

    • Mr Parrot 13th March 2013

      I do like to give value for money, especially at the meat market.

      This post was indeed a fascinating journey that began when I saw the name Ivar the Boneless in a dry reference book, and I wondered why boneless?

      • Gattina 13th March 2013

        A very interesting post ! Didn’t know the story of Ivar the Boneless !
        ABC Team

  • Carol 13th March 2013

    Very creative and informative post for ABC ~ ^_^

  • Boner Pudding 15th March 2013

    Digested but unqualified to comment.

  • Trevor Rowley 15th March 2013

    This story of Ivar the Boneless reminds me of a work colleague from way back when. He was a delightful chap, a couple of years older than me and we, by chance, had attended the same senior school (you should know it well, Mr P) although I only vaguely recalled him from our schooldays. We then found ourselves working in the same “dead end” job. He betrayed his working class origins by talking with much enthusiasm and passion about his knowledge of Viking and Anglo-Saxon history and especially the burial ships found at Sooton Hoo. We laughed at those old Viking names, Ragnar Hairy Breeks is the main one that springs to mind. In the film, The Vikings, Ragnar is played by Ernest Borgnine and is the father of the character played by Kirk Douglas.

  • Reader Wil 16th March 2013

    Thanks for this very interesting post ! I am very much interested in everything connected with Vikings. They left many traces in Great Britain . William the Conqueror was a Norman . So he was a Viking, wasn’t he? If this is the case, Queen Elisabeth has Viking blood in her veins. Many words in the English language are from Viking origine. I only know the word “mail”( mål) which means speech. The Vikings and the Celts are very interesting people.

    • rhymeswithplague 17th March 2013

      Queen Elizabeth is not related to William the Conqueror. Her roots are in the House of Hanover (George I, II, III, etc.), that is, in Germany. Just as the House of Hanover is not related to the House of Orange and the House of Orange is not related to the House of Stuart, and so forth….

    • Mr Parrot 17th March 2013

      To answer you point about William the Conqueror, I haven’t looked it up, but I believe the Normans were originally Vikings who settled in what is now France, so yes there was a connection.

      I don’t think there are as many English words of Viking orgin as you might imagine, although my favourite is ‘sky’ which simply meant ‘clouds’. However, many UK place names come from Norse.

  • Richie 17th March 2013

    I always like learning some history I hadn’t known about before. I have been watching The Vikings on the History Channel and enjoying it.
    An Arkies Musings


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