Ivar the Boneless stands as one of history’s most intimidating Vikings, even though he required assistance to remain upright. Typically, a Viking with such a condition would be euthanized at birth. Yet, due to his lineage as the offspring of a notable chief, he was spared this fate.
While his physique necessitated him being transported on a shield into combat, his cognitive abilities were unparalleled. Ivar was the strategic brain behind the formidable Viking Heathen Army that overran England.
During the end of the 9th century, under his leadership, the Vikings wreaked havoc across the land, seizing territories from Essex to Dublin. Ivar initiated a period of Viking supremacy in Britain, a reign that outlasted him.
Legend suggests he lacked any bones. Nowadays, many recognize Ivar the Boneless due to his portrayal in the television series “Vikings.”
However, the depicted character largely diverges from historical records. Beyond his mobility challenge, the show’s portrayal deviates significantly from the real Ivar. Piecing together the truth proves challenging.
Our insights into Ivar Ragnarsson, also called the Boneless, stem from British accounts, where he’s depicted as a monstrous pagan, or Viking tales that elevate him to a godly stature with otherworldly abilities.
Norse myths claim that Ivar the Boneless was literally boneless at birth. Born to a seer named Aslaug and the renowned warrior chieftain Ragnar Lothbrok, Aslaug prophesied that their child would be malformed if they consummated their union prematurely.
However, Ragnar, disregarding her warning, impregnated her, resulting in the birth of Ivar the Boneless. Nordic tales portray him as lacking bones but becoming tall, handsome, and surpassing his siblings in wisdom.
While the notion of a boneless human seems improbable, modern scholars offer plausible explanations for his moniker. The prevalent theory postulates he suffered from osteogenesis imperfecta, a disorder causing brittle bones.
Yet, another speculation arises from descriptions of his towering stature. A 17th-century account speaks of a farmer discovering Ivar’s remains, suggesting he was almost nine feet in height. If this holds true, he would rival Robert Wadlow, the tallest recorded man, who wore leg supports.
It’s also believed Ivar’s massive build made him appear unusually flexible, perhaps eerily so, lending credibility to his “boneless” nickname. Another interpretation hints at his lack of offspring and romantic relationships, leading to claims of him lacking “lust,” figuratively being “boneless.”
Contrary to his depiction in “Vikings,” Ivar was deeply loyal to his family and never murdered a sibling. When their father Ragnar Lothbrok met his end, his brothers naturally looked to Ivar for guidance. The manner of Ragnar Lothbrok’s death was pivotal for Ivar.
The Northumbrian king Ælla captured Ragnar during an English coastal raid and sentenced him to die by venomous snakes. Upon learning of his father’s tragic fate, Ivar sought every gruesome detail, yearning to fuel his vengeance.
In retaliation, Ivar mobilized the “Great Heathen Army” to challenge Northumbria. His innovative strategies earned him accolades, with peers stating, “It’s debatable if any have surpassed his wisdom.”
Supposing Ivar truly had mobility issues, his leadership prowess emanated from his intellect. Despite his physical limitations, Viking accounts assert that Ivar, bolstered on a shield, would audaciously lead from the frontline.
According to Norse tales, their initial engagement with Northumbria culminated in a pact between Ivar and Ælla. Ivar vowed to halt his invasions in exchange for land he could enclose with an ox’s hide. Ælla consented, unaware that Ivar would ingeniously slice the hide so finely, that it would encompass the entirety of York, Northumbria’s heartland.
While it may not have transpired exactly as told, there’s undeniable evidence that Ivar seized the city. In this conquest, he ensnared Ælla and subjected him to an excruciating form of punishment, if another lore is to be believed. Dubbed the “Blood Eagle” by the Vikings, they gruesomely split Ælla’s ribs from the back and splayed his lungs to resemble wings. To intensify the torment, they salted his raw injuries.
Ivar the Boneless’s ambitions didn’t cease with the fall of Ælla and the acquisition of Northumbria. He shifted his attention to conquering more of England. The kingdom of Mercia presented the most formidable challenge.
Renowned as the zenith of English power during that era, it was a behemoth. Ivar’s Great Heathen Army established a stronghold near Nottingham, a major Mercian city, and besieged it repeatedly over a year.
Ultimately, they breached its defenses and decimated its residents. With Mercia subdued, the Vikings found the rest of England easier to dominate. Their brutal march forward led to the death of countless men.
One notable victim was King Edmund of East Anglia. Ivar subjected him to such a prolonged and vicious execution that posthumously, the Christians canonized him as “Edmund the Martyr.”
Edmund was relentlessly bludgeoned, shackled in metal, tethered to a tree, and pierced by countless arrows, resembling a hedgehog. Ivar permitted his death only after this torture; Edmund’s severed head was discarded amongst thickets. By the year 870 AD, Ivar Ragnarsson’s reign encompassed territories reaching Dublin.
However, in an unexpected twist in 873, his life ended. It’s conjectured that the ailment responsible for Ivar’s frailty ultimately led to his demise. Our primary source of information is the Annals of Ireland, which states: “The monarch from Norway…succumbed to an abrupt vile ailment,” and concludes, “So willed the Almighty.”
Naturally, there was relief at the demise of this invading chieftain. There’s a tale that Ivar desired his final resting place to be in a vulnerable location. He assured his followers that as long as he rested there, they’d remain invincible.
Recent archaeological findings might provide a twist. A grave believed to be Ivar’s was discovered. It housed a distinguished Viking adorned with a Thor’s hammer pendant and gripping a Viking blade.
The grave also contained the remains of 248 warriors, including sacrificed children intended to join him in Valhalla. If this grave truly belongs to Ivar, then his end wasn’t tranquil.
The central skeleton had its innards removed and its reproductive organs severed. Nevertheless, the folklore surrounding Ivar Ragnarsson’s pledge seems to resonate with history. His Viking legions remained unassailable in Dublin until England’s William I exhumed and incinerated Ivar’s remains.