‘Vikings’: Who Was The Real Ivar The Boneless?

Season 4 of History Channel’s Vikings saw the introduction of the historical figure Ivar the Boneless. But who is this Viking and has the History Channel portrayed him accurately according to what is historically known about him?

SPOILER ALERT: This article contains information about Season 4 of History’s Vikings as well as historical information that could potentially provide spoilers for future episodes of this series. Please proceed with caution if you wish to avoid spoilers.

Ivar the Boneless is spoken of in the ninth book of the Gesta Danorum. This historical text was written by an English scholar about the stories told by the Vikings. In it, Ivar is one of Ragnar’s sons and leads the Great Heathen Army along with some of his other brothers as they seek revenge on King Aelle of Northumbria. As in the TV series, Ivar’s father, Ragnar Lothbrok, dies as a result of Aelle throwing him into a pit of venomous snakes.

Ragnar Lothbrok in the pit of snakes by Hugo Hamilton, Ivar the Boneless, Vikings

While Ivar and his brothers seek revenge on King Aelle, there are two interpretations of what happens. In the ninth book of the Gesta Danorum, King Aelle is captured by Ivar and his brothers and they perform the blood eagle sacrifice on him. However, another saga places Ivar brokering a deal with Aelle that sees him claiming ownership of all the land he can cover with an ox’s hide. Ivar, taking the hide, then slices it into one very long thong and circles an area of land that included a fortress. In return for this land, Ivar promised never to wage war against Aelle again.

In History Channel’s dramatic retelling of the Viking sagas, Ivar the Boneless (portrayed by Alex Hogh in the Vikings TV series) was also born to Ragnar Lothbrok and his wife Aslaug. In the video below, released by History Channel on the Blu-ray edition of Vikings Season 4, it is revealed that Ragnar was told by his wife that they could not consummate their marriage for three nights after their wedding otherwise their child would be born “without bones.” In the TV series, as in the sagas, Ragnar did not heed this prophecy and Ivar is born with a birth defect that renders his legs useless, hence the term, “boneless.” But, could a Viking with this sort of disability survive in a warrior-based culture?

According to the Icelandic sagas such as the Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok, Ivar was described as lacking in bones. Ehlers-Danlos syndrome or brittle bone disease are both considered as current-day explanations for this description. Even if Ivar did have this condition, it did not hinder his success. Historically, we know that Ivar the Boneless was one of three of Ragnar Lothbrok’s sons who led the Great Heathen Army in retaliation for King Aelle murdering their father. This great army weathered winter in Repton, England, as is recorded thanks to an archaeological dig. At this site, there is even speculation one of the bodies buried there could be that of Ivar the Boneless. However, this speculation then leads to the theory that Ivar wasn’t really “boneless” at all.

What Other Reasons Could Explain Ivar’s Name?

According to the old Norse poem “Háttalykill inn forni,” Ivar the Boneless was described as having amazing flexibility. This lead to the description of him being so flexible that he appeared “boneless.” Considering Ivar was known to be a great warrior and a tactical genius when it came to strategy and battle, this version of how Ivar got him name seems very plausible.

History's 'Vikings,' Season 4 Part 2, Ragnar Lothbrok and Ivar the Boneless

Another reason to explain why Ivar was known as “boneless” comes down to a mistake in translation. Ivar the Boneless, while known as being incredibly handsome, was also known as an extremely brutal Viking. The recent series produced on History Channel called Real Vikings explores this theory. Clare Downham from the University of Liverpool explains that when translated from Latin, Ivar could have been described as “despicable” and not “boneless” as the two Latin words are very similar.

Yet another reason for Ivar being labelled as “boneless” comes down to his perhaps being impotent. In History Channel’s Vikings, Ivar is described as boneless not only because of his leg defect, but because of his impotence. Therefore, perpetuating this theory. The fact Ivar was never recorded as marrying or fathering any children also supports this theory.

How Did Ivar The Boneless Die?

Ivar the Boneless still has his invasion of England with the Great Heathen Army to look forward to in History’s Vikings. But, how did he eventually die?

History's 'Vikings,' Season 4, Part 2, Floki and Ivar the Boneless

According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, Ivar the Boneless is listed as dying in 870. However, both historical sources, the Annals of Ulster and the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, lists his death as 873. Ivar reportedly died a very old man at 80-years-old.

The sagas speak of Ivar the Boneless as being buried in a place that was susceptible to regular attack. The reason being that his grave site would curse those who landed there and their mission would be ill-fated. This happened, according to the sagas, right up until his grave was broken into and Ivar’s undamaged bones were burned, thus breaking his curse.

Do you think the interpretation of Ivar the Boneless in History Channel’s Vikings is accurate? Let us know by commenting below.

Vikings is currently screening on the History Channel every Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET.

[Featured Image by History Channel]