Ivar Ragnarsson


Ivar Ragnarsson (Old Norse: Īvarr; died possibly 873) nicknamed the Boneless (inn beinlausi), was a Viking leader and by reputation also a berserker. By the late 11th century he was known as a son of the powerful Ragnar Lodbrok, ruler of an area probably comprising parts of modern-day Denmark and Sweden.

Invader

In the autumn of AD 865, with his brothers Halfdan Ragnarsson (Halfdene) and Ubbe Ragnarsson (Hubba), Ivar led the Great Heathen Army in the invasion of the East Anglian region of England. An accommodation was quickly reached with the East Anglians. The following year, Ivar led his forces north on horseback and easily captured York (which the Danes called Jorvik) from the Northumbrians who were at that time engaged in a civil war.

Ivar and the Danes succeeded in holding York against a vain attempt to relieve the city in AD 867.

Ivar is also attributed with the slaying of St. Edmund of East Anglia in AD 869. The story is first known from Abbo of Fleury’s Latin Passion of King Edmund and Ælfric’s Old English adaptation thereof. By their accounts, when Edmund refused to become the vassal of a pagan, he was killed in much the same way as St Sebastian was martyred. Ivar had Edmund bound to a tree, whereupon Vikings shot arrows into him until he died. According to later accounts, Edmund was shot in the nave of a church.

Sometime after 869 Ivar left command of the Great Heathen Army and of the Danes in England to his brothers Halfdan Ragnarsson and Ubbe. He appears to have emigrated to Dublin (or, according to some, returned to resume a previous lordship).

Uí Ímair

Ivar is widely believed to be identical with the founder of the Uí Ímair or House of Ivar, a dynasty which at various times from the mid-9th through the 10th century ruled Northumbria from the capital of York, and dominated the Irish Sea region from the Kingdom of Dublin.

Their apparent descendants, the House of Godred Crovan, ruled as Kings of Mann and the Isles from the 11th well into the 13th century, although they were vassals of the Kings of Norway for most of this time.

Death

Ivar disappears from the historic record sometime after 870. His ultimate fate is uncertain.

It is possible that Ivar may be identical to the Ímar, apparent ancestor of the Uí Ímair dynasty, whose death appears in the Annals of Ulster in 873:

Ímar, king of the Norsemen of all Ireland and Britain, ended his life.

The death of Ímar is also recorded in the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland under the year 873:

The king of Lochlainn, i.e. Gothfraid, died of a sudden hideous disease. Thus it pleased God.

The identification of the king of Lochlainn as Gothfraid (i.e. Ímar’s father) was added by a copyist in the 17th century. In the original 11th-century manuscript the subject of the entry was simply called righ Lochlann (“the king of Lochlainn”), which more than likely referred to Ímar, whose death is not otherwise noted in the Fragmentary Annals. The cause of death – a sudden and horrible disease – is not mentioned in any other source, but it raises the interesting possibility that the true provenance of Ivar’s Old Norse sobriquet lay in the crippling effects of an unidentified disease that struck him down at the end of his life; though “sudden and horrible” death by any number of diseases was a common cause of mortality in the 9th century.

Scandinavian sources

According to the saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, Ivar Boneless was the eldest son of Ragnar and Aslaug. It is said he was fair, big, strong, and one of the wisest men who has ever lived. He was consequently the advisor of his brothers Björn Ironside, Ubbe, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye and Hvitserk.

The story has it that when king Ælla of Northumbria had murdered their father, by throwing him into a snake-pit, Ivar’s brothers tried to avenge their father, but were beaten. Ivar then went to king Ælla and said that he sought reconciliation. He only asked for as much land as he could cover with an ox’s hide and swore never to wage war against Ælla. Then Ivar cut the ox’s hide into so fine strands that he could envelope a large fortress (in an older saga it was York and according to a younger saga it was London) which he could take as his own. (Compare the similar legendary ploy of Dido, Queen of Carthage.)

As Ivar was the most generous of men, he attracted a great many warriors, whom he subsequently kept from Ælla when this king was attacked by Ivar’s brothers for the second time.

Ælla was captured and, when the brothers were to decide how to give Ælla his just punishment, Ivar suggested that they carve the “blood eagle” on his back. According to popular belief, this meant that Ælla’s back was cut open, the ribs pulled from his spine, and his lungs pulled out to form ‘wings’.

In Ragnar Lodbrok’s saga, there is an interesting prequel to the Battle of Hastings: it is told that before Ivar died in England, he ordered that his body be buried in a mound on the English Shore, saying that so long as his bones guarded that section of the coast, no enemy could invade there successfully. This prophecy held true, says the saga, until “when Vilhjalm bastard (William the Conqueror) came ashore[,] he went [to the burial site] and broke Ivar’s mound and saw that [Ivar’s] body had not decayed. Then [Vilhjalm] had a large pyre made [upon which Ivar’s body was] burned… Thereupon, [Vilhjalm proceeded with the landing invasion and achieved] the victory.”

Nickname

There is some disagreement as to the meaning of Ivar’s epithet “the Boneless” (inn Beinlausi) in the sagas. Some have suggested it was a euphemism for impotence or even a snake metaphor (he had a brother named Snake-in-the-Eye). It may have referred to an incredible physical flexibility; Ivar was a renowned warrior, and perhaps this limberness gave rise to the popular notion that he was “boneless”. The poem “Háttalykill inn forni” describes Ivar as being “without any bones at all”.

Alternatively, the English word “bone” is cognate with the German word “Bein”, meaning “leg”. Scandinavian sources mention Ivar the Boneless as being borne on a shield by his warriors. Some have speculated that this was because he could not walk and perhaps his epithet simply meant “legless”—perhaps literally or perhaps simply because he was lame. However other sources from this period in history mention chieftains being carried on the shields of enemies after victory, not because of any infirmity.

Genetic disease

Still another interpretation of the nickname involves Scandinavian sources as describing a condition that is sometimes understood as similar to a form of osteogenesis imperfecta. The disease is more commonly known as “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.

There are less extreme forms of this disease where the person affected can lack use of their legs, but be otherwise normal, as may have been the case for Ivar the Boneless.

In 2003 Nabil Shaban, a disability rights advocate with osteogenesis imperfecta, made the documentary The Strangest Viking for Channel 4’s Secret History, in which he explored the possibility that Ivar the Boneless may have had the same condition as himself. It also demonstrated that someone with the condition was quite capable of using a longbow, and so could have taken part in battle, as Viking society would have expected a leader to do. However, it is highly unlikely that a boy with such a debilitating disease could have grown to manhood and achieved fame as a warrior and leader of warriors in the harsh conditions of the 9th century; and a simpler explanation for Ivar’s sobriquet seems more likely.

In popular culture

  • Ivar The Boneless appears in Harry Harrison’s Hammer and Cross series which begins with the death of Ragnar and the invasion of the Heathen Army but then departs from historical events through the actions of the imaginary character Shef Sigvarthsson who eventually defeats Ivar in single combat. Different characters offer different explanations for the appellation “the boneless”; some claim it refers to impotence, while others assert that it is because godar in shamanic trances see Ivar in the otherworld as a giant serpent.
  • In the 1958 film The Vikings, Ivar has his name changed to Einar and is played by Kirk Douglas
  • In the 1989 film Erik the Viking, a character named Ivar the Boneless is portrayed by John Gordon Sinclair. In the film, Ivar is portrayed as a rather weedy, cowardly Viking with a high pitched voice and a tendency to get seasick.
  • In The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer, Ivar is a king who was formerly a famous berserker, called Ivar the Boneless only behind his back. He was called Ivar the Valiant until he married the cruel, powerful and beautiful shapeshifter Frith HalfTroll.
  • Ivar is a minor character in Bernard Cornwell’s historical fiction novel, The Last Kingdom. The earl Ragnar the Elder explains that Ivar’s sobriquet originated because he was so thin that it appeared that one could use him to string a bow. This joke might also be a play on his name, as the name Ivar is derived from yrr ar, meaning “yew warrior”. (Yew was a wood commonly used for making bows.)

 

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