I is for Ivar the Boneless

Round 20 of ABC Wednesday is billed as The Farewell Tour so this may be my last trip through the alphabet of the famous, the infamous and the forgotten. I is another difficult letter in the ABC Wednesday alphabet so I am reprising one of my favourites.
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 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.

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 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.

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.

7 comments… Add yours
  • Roger Green 8th March 2017

    INTERESTING as always!

  • Melody Steenkamp 8th March 2017

    And …. in addition to what Roger said, very impressive, also as always

    Have a nice ABC-day / -week
    ♫ M e l ☺ d y ♫ (abc-w-team)

  • Trevor Rowley 8th March 2017

    My limited knowledge of Viking history is condensed into knowing that Ernest Borgnine played the part of Ragnar Lodbrok (the father of the character played by KIrk Douglas, in the film, “The Vikings”). A work colleague, who was much more knowledgable on the subject, would often refer to him by his everyday name, Ragnar Hairybreeks.

    PS I think we touched on this same subject about two years or so back, if memory serves me well.

    • Trevor Rowley 10th March 2017

      13th March 2013 and 23rd july 2013, to be exact. Is something repeating on me? It must be that cucumber.

      • Mr Parrot 11th March 2017

        It is a repeat Trevor as I mention at the top of the post. Sometimes I struggle to find suitable subjects to fit the letter so I reprise some of my favourites.

        • Trevor Rowley 11th March 2017

          Sorry about that, Mr P. Just never saw it – a bit like the small print at the bottom of an insurance policy.

          PS As for letter I, you could do worse than featuring the late Ivor Emmanuel – the popular Welsh baritone who, as Private Owens, leads the singing of “Men of Harlech” in the 1964 film, Zulu. Sadly, during WW2, a stray German bomb destroyed the family home in south Wales and, at the age of fourteen, he lost his mother, father, sister and grandfather in one fell swoop.

  • leslie 8th March 2017

    INCREDIBLY INTERESTING, as are all your posts!

    abcw team


Your email will not be published on this site, but note that this and any other personal data you choose to share is stored here. Please see the Privacy Policy for more information.

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: