Ivar the Boneless


Ivar Ragnarsson († 873 in Dublin), called Ivar the Boneless (Old Norse: Ívarr inn beinlausi), was a Viking leader who participated in the conquest of the Danelaw and was also active in Ireland. He is a heroic figure in saga literature.

Life of Ivar the Boneless

Ivar Ragnarsson was a son of the legendary Viking leader Ragnar Lothbrok (whose historicity is disputed, see also Reginheri), and his mother is said to have been Aslaug (who is also mentioned as Kraka).

Both Ragnar and his son Ivar appear in saga literature as heroic figures, but this source genre was written with a clear time lag from the reported events.

In the early medieval sources (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Irish annals such as the Annals of Ulster), on the other hand, the warlike actions are described quite close in time.

Ivar is first mentioned in Irish annals in connection with a victory in 857 over other Scandinavian invaders, where he is named Imhar.

The following years he was in alliance with other Viking leaders (so with Olaf the White) in Ireland.

Together with his brothers Halfdan and Ubbe, Ivar was the leader of the Great Heathen Army of the Danes in 865. Ivar is mentioned by name only once in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but his prominent role in the Viking invasion is undisputed.

In other sources he is also called Hingwar or Igwar. The Vikings captured the important city of York in Northumbria in 866 and repelled an attempted reconquest in early 867.

From York, they attacked Mercia in 867 and East Anglia (East Anglia) in 869; in the course of subsequent campaigns, Edmund of East Anglia was captured and executed in 869.

The Vikings attempted to subjugate all of England in the 870s, but failed because of the defensive efforts of Alfred of Wessex. However, Ivar does not seem to have taken part in these undertakings.

Accounts in the Irish annals rather indicate that he became active again in Ireland together with the above-mentioned Olaf. The Ulster Annals report the death of Ivar, "king of the Northmen in all Ireland and Britain" (apparently indicating his position of power), in 873.

If the identification often assumed in the Irish and British sources is correct, then this Ivar was also the founder of the Scandinavian ruling dynasty of Dublin (Uí Imair).

Ivar's Nickname

Among historians, the background for the nickname of the Boneless is disputed. The following theories exist:

  • In 1949, the Dane Knud Stakemann Seedorff published a dissertation on osteogenesis imperfecta (colloquially known as brittle bone disease), in which he names Ivar as the only historical figure to have suffered from this disease. Seedorff points out that Ivar is reported to have had legs so weak that he had to be carried on a shield. 
  • Rory McTurk points out in connection with the nickname that Ivar's epithet is wrongly associated. In some Norwegian stories, "boneless" is a name for the wind, so that Ivar's abilities as a navigator could be meant.

Ivar the Boneless in popular culture 

Bernard Cornwell used the story about the Ragnar sons Halfdan, Ubba and Ivar and the Danish attempt to subjugate England in his book series "The Saxon Stories".

Further, Harry Harrison uses the story about the Ragnarsson brothers in his trilogy "Hammer and the Cross".

Nancy Farmer's children's novel The Sea of Trolls describes a King Ivar who is only referred to as "Ivar the Boneless" behind his back.

In the 1958 film The Vikings, Kirk Douglas embodies the role of Einar, who is modeled after Ivar, and in the 1989 comedy Erik the Viking, John Gordon Sinclair embodies the role of an Ivar the Boneless.

In the TV series Vikings, Ivar, played by Alex Høgh Andersen, also appears and plays an important role from the 4th season.

Two songs by the Danish folk group Danheim, Ivar's Revenge and Ivar's Wrath, are dedicated to Ívarr Ragnarsson.

In the video game Assassin's Creed Valhalla, Ivar Ragnarsson appears several times in the main plot along with Ubba. In the video game, Ivar walks on his own legs and fights with the use of two short axes. Also in the video game, Ivar tells how his nickname was given to him by the Saxons because of his fluid way of fighting. Ivar is depicted as very impulsive, averse to diplomacy, cruel to his enemies, and short-tempered.