Ivar the Boneless, youngest son of Ragnar Lothbrok and Princess Aslaug, was a powerful Viking leader.  He was considered to be the wisest, strongest and most skillful of warriors; in fact, despite an inability to walk, he led raiding conquests across Northern Europe… The mind of Ivar was considered a much stronger weapon than those swords and shields carried by other Vikings. Bakhtawar Jamil explains.

 A 12th-century illustration depicting Danes invading England.

A 12th-century illustration depicting Danes invading England.

The saga behind his name

The origin of the nickname ‘boneless’ is uncertain and historians have long been arguing over what it actually means. The Danish historian Knud Seedorf enlivened this debate with the convincing theory that the signs and symptoms of Ivar’s condition, as described in the Scandinavian sagas, are consistent with ‘brittle bone disease’. The disease is a dominant congenital disorder that causes the bones to become extremely fragile and is most frequently caused by a defect in the gene that produces collagen, an important building block of bone. Knud Seedorf wrote of his theory:

Of historical personages the author knows of only one of whom we have a vague suspicion that he (Ivar) suffered from osteogenesis imperfecta. He is reported to have had legs as soft as cartilage (lacking bones), so that he was unable to walk and had to be carried about on a shield. There are less extreme forms of this disease where the person affected can lack use of their legs, but be otherwise normal, as was probably the case for Ivar the Boneless. (1)

 

Another theory by Celtic lecturer Clare Downham from the University of Liverpool explains when translated from Latin, Ivar’s sobriquet could have been described as ‘despicable’ and not ‘boneless’ as the two Latin words are very similar. But, another theory suggests that the epithet is interpreted as ‘the hated’, which when translated into Latin would mean ‘exosus’. When this word is further simplified syllable by syllable it is deciphered as ‘ex’ meaning without and ‘os’ meaning bone, thus ‘without bones’.

However, more prosaic explanations that account for Ivar's nickname can be found in Nordic legends and traditions. To further emphasize, some traditions narrate that the Vikings were well-known in giving ironic names to their warriors. In much the same way as we may, cynically, would call a short man ‘gigantic’ or a tall man ‘tiny’, a larger than average person - say seven-feet with a huge bone structure - might be called ‘boneless’. (2)

A mid-twelfth-century poem called Hattalykill explains he was actually without bones and it also narrates that Ivar was a skilled warrior with a physical form as flexible as a snake. (3) Keeping these two interpretations of Hattalykill in mind, one can say Ivar gave the impression that he lacked bones. Yet according to sources Ivar died childless, so perhaps he was impotent — that is, unable to have an erection — therefore, ‘boneless.’ According to a different legend, it was believed that Ivar’s epithet was the result of a curse foreseen by his mother who had the power of foresight. It is written that Aslaug warned Ragnar to wait three days before consummating their marriage, disclosing that the gods would be displeased and their child born would be cursed: 

Three nights together, but yet apart,

Shall we bide, nor worship the gods as yet

From my son this would save a lasting harm,

For boneless is he thou wouldst now beget (4)

 

Ragnar refused to believe in the curse and immediately made love to his new wife; hence, Ivar was born bearing legs without a bone structure. Ivar grew up unable to walk and had to be carried everywhere on poles or on the back of a shield. Consequently, during his childhood he was often ridiculed by his own brothers for his disability. His siblings were Bjorn, Halfdan, Ubba, Hvitserk and Siggurd. Aslaug was known to be over protective of him while Ragnar always saw the true warrior that Ivar was. Ragnar favored him just as he did his other sons, and he always believed that Ivar’s greatest weakness could be turned into his greatest strength. The lore narrates his crippled condition, but in battle Ivar was cunning and strategic – in a way unlike any other Viking of his era.


A berserker among Vikings

Berserkers were Viking warriors who went into a state of fury when they fought and Ivar was known for transforming into such a state. One could argue that his rage originated from his childhood when people mocked him for his crippled body, and he would respond with sheer anger and violence.
Norse sources mention Ivar being carried on a shield by his army, leading to speculation that he was lame. This however is unlikely considering Ivar was a renowned warrior; other sources from the period mention chieftains being ceremonially borne on the shields of enemies following victory. (5)

In 865 AD the mighty Viking army appeared out of the mists of the North Sea from Scandinavia and landed on the East Anglian coast in England. Their aim was nothing less than the total conquest of Anglo-Saxon England and the British Isles. Numbering some 10,000 to 15,000 men the Great Heathen Army was the largest invasion force since Roman Legions had landed on the shores of Britannia back in 43 AD. During a fourteen year reign of terror they left a brutal trail of destruction in their wake. At its head the army was led by the vengeful sons of Viking adventurer, Ragnar Lothbrok. The mastermind behind the invasion became one of the most feared and cruel generals of the Viking age - none other than Ivar. His stature was such that he dwarfed all his contemporaries and in battle he was always in the vanguard. So strong were his arms that the bow and arrows he used in battle had to be made heavier and more durable than those of his companions. His shadow cast a dark cloud over the British Isles that ultimately led to the unification and creation of the state of England. The Norsemen were well aware of the civil war that had weakened the great northern kingdom in England and as warriors they were extremely opportunistic.

While the East Anglians made peace with the invaders and provided them with horses, the Norse consolidated their forces as they came in and wintered in East Anglia. To protect their realm and as an opportunity to see their rivals in Northumbria attacked, East Anglia made a peace agreement with the Norse army. They allowed the Norsemen to use their land to prepare their army and provided them with horses. The Norsemen, then, used it as a staging point for their invasion into Northumbria. (6)

The legend in the sagas of Ragnar claims the attention towards England by Ivar was because of the death of his father, who was killed by King Aelle of Northumbria. During a raid Ragnar was taken prisoner and thrown into a snake pit and in his dying breath, the Viking declared ‘the little pigs would grunt now if they knew how it fares with the old boar’. (7) His words prophesied the violent revenge that would be exacted by his children. Bloody retribution was, indeed, forthcoming.

On March 21, 867 the Vikings stormed the city walls of York and gained entry to the city. They then slaughtered those in the city and routed those who were outside. Upon capture, King Aelle was subjected to the agonizing death of the Blood Eagle, a gruesome Viking method of torture; mentioned in the Nordic sagas. (8) It was performed by breaking his ribs, so they resembled blood-stained wings and pulled the lungs out through his back. Salt was sprinkled in the wounds and in the end the Northumbrian king suffered till his dying breath. What was left of the Northumbrian court fled north, and Ivar installed Egbert as the puppet king.

 

Marching forward

The Great Heathen Army progressed into Mercia fixing their winter-quarters at Nottingham. Burgred, the King of Mercia, sought aid from Ethelred the King ofWessex and his brother Alfred, who had led an army into Mercia and besieged Nottingham. However the Vikings, who were heavily outnumbered, refused to fight. Henry of Huntingdon, wrote almost 250 years later regarding the situation at Nottingham:

Ivar then, seeing that the whole force of England was gathered, and that his host was the weaker, and was there shut in, betook himself to smooth words — cunning fox that he was — and won peace and troth from the English. Then he went back to York and abode there one year with all cruelty. (9)

The Mercians settled on paying the Vikings off, who agreed to leave and returned to Northumbria in the autumn of 868. They spent the winter in York and then returned to East Anglia. When King Edmund of East Anglia led resistance against the Norse he was captured and brutally executed in the village of Hoxne. Viking religious beliefs encouraged cruelty towards the followers of the 'White Christ' who they saw as cowards. King Edmund bravely refused to become the vassal of pagans or renounce his religion, declaring that his religion was dearer to him than his life. He was beaten with clubs as he called upon the name of Jesus, and then tied to a tree where the Vikings shot arrows into him until he died. It is narrated in the 10th-century Passio Sancti Eadmundi that Edmund’s body was thoroughly scourged and then used for target practice by Danish archers ‘until he was all covered with their missiles as with bristles of a hedgehog’. (10)

The warriors left Edmund's corpse unburied and his head was thrown into deep brambles. Monasteries were razed to the ground, monks slaughtered and plundering took place on a massive scale. 

 

Fury from within

One of the reasons for Ivar’s infamous status is the brutal way in which he led his attacks. He is described by many as a merciless, cruel and unconquerable leader with his army using brutality to force their victims into submission. The religion of the Anglo-Saxons was a complete culture clash with that of the Vikings too. The belief in ideas such as ‘help for one’s neighbor’ contrasted with the worship of a war god. For the Vikings, the sacrificing of prisoners was needed to please their god. This can be seen when looking at Ivar’s revenge on King Aelle. However, it is not just the barbarity for which Ivar is known. Many of his battles used innovative strategies that did not rely on sheer force. In many instances, Ivar is said to have employed concepts such as using half of his armed forces in upfront battle. To the competitors, this would make the army seem small - an easy defeat. But, little did they know that the other half of the soldiery would sneak up and attack them from behind. (11) Historians have contrasting views about whether Ivar’s tactics should be seen as a good reason for him becoming a commander of the Viking army because many believed his disability rendered him unable to do so. What can be concluded, however, is that Ivar the Boneless was indeed one of the greatest Viking warriors to have ever lived and whose tales are told to this day…

 

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References

1.     Knud Seedorf , Osteogenesis Imperfecta: A study of clinical features and heredity based on 55 Danish families.

2.     http://www.timelessmyths.com/norse/sagas.html

3.     http://shootingparrots.co.uk/2013/03/13/i-is-for-ivar-the-boneless

4.     https://www.timelessmyths.com/norse/volsunga.html

5.     Benjamin James Baillie,The Great Heathen Army: Ivar the Boneless and the Viking Invasion of Britain.

6.     Jan Kallberg , Leadership Principles of the Vikings

7.     Schlauch, The Saga of the Volsungs: The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok together with the Lay of Kraka, 1978

8.     http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/saga.htm

9.     Huntingdon, The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon

10.  Hervey,  Corolla Sancti Eadmundi ‘The Garland of Saint Edmund, King and Martyr’, 1907

11.  Ferguson, The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings. London, 2009

12.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivar_the_Boneless