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Ivar the Boneless – A Famous Infamous Viking


by Christofer French
Rain Dancer Associates, LLC


Ivar the Boneless.  The first thing I thought when I saw this nickname in history was that Ivar was Impotent.  However, since this was a name he was called by his subjects and cohorts, it was hard to envision this name as being something that you would hang on your Viking, kick-butt Leader.   After all, he was conquering English and Irish towns and generally becoming enshrined as a “Berserker”;  Viking warriors who fought in a nearly uncontrollable, trance-like fury.  Some think they ate drugged foods before battle.  So, for centuries Ivar, the Boneless (inn beinlausi), has been the subject of historical speculation because of that nick name.  Nick names can create mysteries for a number of reasons.   After all Nick Names do not come with a history.

If a Nick Name Sticks, You Have to Wear It – “Frenchy” Stuck

Ivar the Boneless.  Nicknames are funny.  It is easy to think they are simply descriptive:   “SLIM”, as an appellation for think or skinny; and yet.   There are nicknames that are intended to be ironic or a flip side of a characteristic.   “Slim” in this way would be given to a portly, giant or chubby person.   The same with “Shorty”.  Sometimes a “Shorty” is big and tall and outsized.  I had a friend from San Angelo who is still thus named as a tall Texan with big workers hands and a pair of shoulders that could pull a plow if he were so instructed; but alas, his wife and relatives still call him “Shorty”.

There is some kind of strange power that certain nick names have.  It they have that “zing”, if the name just seems to fit and concretize around a person’s identity, it can be more powerful than mother’s given name —- the one that she thought about for months.   A nick name that sticks can be all powerful and claim you like super glue.

“Frenchy”was just such a name for me.   People loved to call me that.   And of course, the French have gotten well deserved ethnic names over the centuries.   “French Kiss” was my favorite, and I loved it when girls would joke about my name.   There are other insults and acts that go along with the word “French”.   When my name was employed in reference to these other acts and deeds of the Gallic people, it was from the boys, and I was supposed to laugh.  And of course, I did.  My nick name had an easy friendliness to it.  It was most of all affectionate.   I had it all my life.  In college the use of “Frenchy” dropped in frequency.  A name that did pick up with a group of guys was “Christo Five”  because they thought I was a little more evolved than the average “Christofer”.  One ingenious fellow noted that my name was not spelled with a —  PH, but rather with an “F”.  He was the genius who came up with “Christo Five”.  That name ended with college.
The boneless appellation does last into legend and history.  In fact the Nick Name caused more history in Ivar than probably was deserved.  This may be one of the most legendary Nick Names in history.  ”Frenchy” is a name from an entire people.  Boneless however was derived, from a mysterious origin.

Ivar – “No Love Lust” in Him

Ivar the Boneless has a real story,  It is shrouded in  ancient lore that there are genuine disputes over his condition.   Did Ivar have offspring?   The first thing that most think up is his possible impotence.  It was said that he had “no love lust in him”.  This would tend to cut off the idea of lineage.  On the one hand because he had “no love lust in him…” how could he have children? And yet, there is evidence to the contrary.  According to the Annals of Ulster, various subsequent kings of Dublin are allegedly directly descended from him.  When someone becomes this legendary, he tends to attract potential “descendants”, and yet there is an obvious contradiction if he was impotent.

“Osteogenesis Imperfecta”?  A long term to relate to Ivar the Boneless

So whence goeth our speculation as to this highly successful warrior who had to be carried around on shields?

So, next on our list is this genetic malady:  “Osteogenesis Imperfecta”.  Now there’s something to really CAUSE a nickname.  Historians tried to find relatives, ancestors or descendants of Ivar’s family with a record of this disease, but found none.

All people with Osteogenesis Imperfecta  have weak bones, which makes them susceptible to fractures. Persons with OI are usually below average height (short stature).  However, the severity of the disease varies greatly.

The classic symptoms include:

·         Blue tint to the whites of their eyes (blue sclera)

·         Multiplebone fractures

·         Early hearing loss (deafness)

“Hairy Breeches” Resisting Snakes – Cause Nick Name

To court his second wife, the Swedish princess Thora, Ragnar traveled to Sweden and quelled an infestation of venomous snakes, famously wearing the hairy breeches whereby he gained his nickname.   Supposedly, the breeches were made from bearskin dipped in pitch and sand, making them fireproof.   Legends are so much fun.   They all have the weighty ponderance of truth and divine power and magic and of course — history.   Whether they are to be believed at all, or understood to be partially true, the fact of the Nick Name seemed to multiply the myth-making machine of the progenitors of their Ancient Lore.

Ivar the Boneless’s Career

Ivar Ragnarsson (Old Norse): Ivarr; died possibly 873  nicknamed the Boneless (inn beinlausi), was   He was a son of the powerful  Ragnar Lodbrok.   He was a ruler of an area probably comprising parts of modern-day Denmark and Sweden.

In the autumn of AD 865, with his brothers (Halfdene) and (Hubba), Ivar led what the English called “The Great Heathen Army”, because those roaring Vikings had not yet been converted to the grace of Christianity.  So, East Anglia was invaded.  They were so furious and intimidating that accommodation was quickly reached with the East Anglians.  The following year, Ivar led his forces north on horseback and easily captured York.

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

Ivar is also attributed with the slaying of St. Edmund of East Anglia in 869.   By their accounts, when Edmund refused to become the vassal of a pagan, he was killed (martyred). Ivar had Edmund bound to a tree, whereupon the Vikings shot arrows into him until he died.

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

Ragnar, Ivor’s father ensured his son’s career with an assist.   Ivar, with “cartilages where bones should have been”, could not walk on his legs, and he was carried around on shields or bars. Yet his stature was such that he dwarfed all his contemporaries, and his wisdom was such that ‘it is doubtful if anyone has ever been wiser than he.’  This, an example of the grandiosity of Hero worship as time passes.   In battle, it was said, he was always in the van, determining its issue.

It was also said of him that his arms were “so strong that his bow was more powerful and his arrows heavier than those of his companions, bending his bow as if it were an elm branch and twanging his bowstring to an unheard-of pitch.”

This kind of account does more to muddle the picture of what his true condition was.   A Dr. Hatteland claims that Ivar’s is the earliest known record of osteogenesis imperfecta in Scandinavian countries. Although he researched ths issue, he could find no record of this disease in any of Ivar family’s descendents.

The sagas built up around Ivar are richer in poetic flights of the imagination than in sober descriptions of his physical handicap, so the Doctor has found it difficult to weigh the evidence for and against the diagnosis of osteogenesis imperfecta and possible alternative diagnoses. 

Ivar the “Boneless’s” Protective Legacy Stopped by William the Conqueror

Further studies on his bones were allegedly prevented by William the Conqueror who, after his conquest, dug up Ivar’s bones and burnt them.

Although Ivar the Boneless vanished from history around the later part of the 9th century, it is believed that it was some mysterious disease that ended his life – as he could not be bested in combat.   A burial mound was placed on the English Shore for Ivar the Boneless to guard the coast.  No enemy could invade that area successfully, so long as his remains protected that region.   This kind of legend tends to be self perpetuating unless you do something particularly powerful to offset it.

William the Conqueror violated Ivar the Boneless’ resting place- only to discover that his body had not suffered any decay and was perfectly preserved, according to legend.  So, William wishing to be done with this issue that was empowering the local populace, ordered a funeral pyre to be built, so that Ivar’s body could be consumed by fire.  This had the right mojo, and put an end to this local belief in this “protective legacy”.

Again, the Nick Name – Ivar the Boneless somehow conferred greater “magic”, giving a successful warrior a luster he might not otherwise have had.   Of course, the mystery as to the ACTUAL CONDITION, also added to the whole miasma of myth, spinning off theories into the present day.




13 Responses to “Ivar the Boneless – A Famous Infamous Viking”

  1. Compliments for this post, I am glad I noticed this website on yahoo.

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  3. karen carr biehl says:

    According to my geneology I am a descendant of Ivar as are some of my friends who have been diagnosed with a rare disease most doctors have never heard of.. It is called andersen tawil syndrome.. it is a type of periodic paralysis,, it is a paralysis that comes and goes as potassium and sodium levels vary in our bodies,,, and it can partially or fully paralyse an individual for hours days or months at a time,, there are now known interventions including high potassium diets with low carbs and low salt.. There may have been times when grandpa Ivar could have functioned fairly well in his younger years but after many years he would possibly have suffered from permanent muscle weakness… my line is down through the baldwin kings britain ireland and spain,, Im not going to mention anymore names but there are many many people that if documentation is correct are possibly related to Ivar,, just thought I would share.. other possibles with same syndrome include habsburgs of close family ties fame and known genetic disease,, I thought Id throw that in..kcb

    • Thanks so much for your comment. This is the kind of thing a blogger relishes. It is fascinating to see how close marriages affected these royal lines. Refreshing the genetic pool with aspiring non royal high achievers might not have been a bad approach, but history is history. Thanks again.

  4. Bonjour! I have been working on the Montgomery family history for years. Ivar is part of my line, so I am a direct decedent. I have taken my line back to 0090 AD. Now I am going back and really researching the people in my line. Looking into the boneless I doubted I would ever find something as awesome, and amazing as this page.
    I thank you so much for this awesome post, and would so love to talk to you more about this.

  5. Norbert Hoffmann says:

    In the end when pertaining to Saxons ,Normans ,Even Britons the bloodlines run right to Germania !,That once vast forested massive swath of black oak and cedars that swallowed up the entire northern coast of Europe was home to the Suebi ,Allamani .Teutones ,Danes ,Saxons etc etc . These Germanic tribes were Pagan Warlords so very much so that the Romans called them Germans meaning War Man !This was the world Ivar was borne of and i feel his name from a Northmans perspective here mean,t that Ivar inspired so much fear in his enemies that his nature was that of a fury or of a great flame? So inhuman among mortal men that he would become a ghost of no bones no flesh a mass of advancing spiritual pagan destruction and so fulled with pagan rage that to encounter him would surely mean your mortality for he was imbued with bonelessness a power so consuming and great that it defied explanation ?

  6. carlos pitts says:

    Many thanks for this informative piece. Per some lineages, I can count Ragnar Lodbrok as one of many great grandfathers. I’m a wee bit cautious about categorically endorsing these lineages, though. However, basic D.N.A. testing revealed my predominant terminal y D.N.A. haplogroup is very solidly “Viking”. Much food for thought!! I’m looking forward to the 2014 season of “Vikings” on History Channel — “that’s my grandpa” & etc. Fortunately, I don’t appear to suffer any of the maladies attributed to Ivar.

  7. I’m not a descendent of Ivar the Boneless, but of his brother, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye (at least according to the Kluge/Ausvoll Redbook). I have wondered about “the Boneless” appellation and have considered the incredible strength and agility possessed by many of my relations and ancestors, two of my brothers among them (I seem to have missed out on that particular gene). I could give many examples. Some of them do appear to be “boneless,” in their feats of agility. I was once witness to my father, put out with one too many practical jokes – dealing with three U.S. marines (all sober – and larger than my father), subduing them, and dragging all three of them about an acre before throwing them, one by one, into a lake. First, they wanted to fight. Then, they just wanted to get away. He was just too quick. Then there was the time with the bears. At age 70 he was building a church and knocking extension nailers off the top chord of the gable truss. Always in a hurry, at the last moment he realized he was standing on the wrong side of the truss and fell. As he went by the bottom chord, he stuck out his arms behind him, and caught it. He scrambled up onto the bottom chord and saved himself from a bad fall. He broke two ribs, but neglected to mention it to anyone until a month later as he was in a hurry to finish the church before the snow flew. There are also numerous ancestors in this line who were very long lived. My grandfather lived to 100. My father is now 89 and has slowed up a bit.

  8. Just go on the internet and ask for DNA test.

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