The Unsettling Way Ivar The Boneless Became The Most Feared Viking Of All Time

The name Ivar the Boneless was one that struck terror into the hearts of Britons 13 centuries ago. He was a marauding Viking leader from Denmark whose ruthless cruelty was legendary. With his ferocious band of warriors he attacked and occupied several of the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that comprised 9th-century Britain; he’s also said to have conquered parts of Ireland. But why was he known as Ivar the boneless? Some 1,300 years after the Viking lived it’s not entirely clear, but perhaps the most plausible theory is that he had a medical condition which weakened his legs.

Icelandic Sagas

Ivar’s physical state might have been weak, but his mastery of military tactics saw him wreak havoc in the Anglo-Saxon world of 9th-century Britain. And if we can believe the legends recorded in various Icelandic sagas, he was an exceptionally successful leader.

Much of what we believe about Ivar comes from a version of the sagas written in Latin by a scholar called Saxo Grammaticus. He penned a work called Gesta Danorum — “Deeds of the Danes” — more than 300 years after Ivar’s death, which was probably in 870 or 873.

An intriguing and powerful set of tales

Previously these Icelandic sagas chronicling the legends of the Vikings had been unwritten traditions which had been passed on orally from generation to generation. Or at least that’s what some historians believe: there is still controversy about how exactly the stories were created.

Putting academic debate to one side, what we certainly have is an intriguing and powerful set of tales that describe the life of Ivar the Boneless. It seems likely that his father was another legendary figure in Viking history, Ragnar Lothbrok.

A curse

Ragnar’s third wife was called Aslaug and it was she who gave birth to Ivar. One tale has it that her son’s physical disability was the result of a curse. It’s said that when Aslaug married Ragnar, she asked that the marriage should not be consummated until three days after the ceremony. She was a seer and foresaw a terrible curse, but also how to counteract it.

But Ragnar didn’t wait, impregnating her on the night of the wedding. That meant that the curse was fulfilled, and as a result of Ragnar’s impatience Ivar was born with his physical disability.

Heroic deeds and mayhem

Ragnar was a Danish King who at one point had fought against Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor and the most powerful man in Europe. Ragnar had five sons with Aslaug and it’s hard to imagine a more colorful and probably terrifying bunch. Their names alone hint at a world of heroic deeds and mayhem.

As well as Ivar the Boneless there was Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, Ubbe, Björn Ironside, and Hvitserk. Although all the intriguingly named brothers became accomplished warriors, it’s said that the outstanding character was Ivar.