Ivar the Boneless was the son of Ragnar Lodbrok and Aslaug.
He, along with his brothers, Björn Ironside, Halfdan Ragnarsson, Hvitserk, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye and Ubba, had all grown up and set out to prove themselves as equals to their father, the Legendary Ragnar Lothbrok, the scourge of England and France.
Ivar the Boneless is best known as being one of the leaders of the Great Heathen Army that invaded the lands now known as the UK and reaped vengeance on King Ælla for killing their father Ragnar Lothbrok.
We know his legend, but what we don’t know is what exactly does “Boneless” mean?
Let us look closely at his name and title. His name is Ívarr Ragnarsson, which means: Ivar, Son of Ragnar. He is also recorded in history as being called (in Old Norse): Ívarr hinn Beinlausi.
Ívarr hinn Beinlausi is commonly translated as Ivar the Boneless (Ívarr anglicized as Ivar).
In Old English, his name is recorded as: Hyngwar or Hyngvar. (Identified as meaning Ivar)
The record of his name was written this way by Æthelweard (also Ethelward), who descended from the Anglo-Saxon King Æthelred I of Wessex, the elder brother of Alfred the Great, was an ealdorman and the author of a version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle known as the Chronicon Æthelweardi, which was written in the hermeneutic style of Latin.
I believe the translation as being Hyngwar is incorrect. I don’t think it reads, “Hyngwar”, but instead reads as, “HyngIbar” or more accurately “Hyng Ibar” – i.e. “King Ivar”.
Let us look closer.
When you look at the first four letters of his name recorded, you see H–y–n–g. We can compare this to the rest of the text from the exact same page.
We can tell the first part of the name is Hyng (King) when we compare it to the last line on the document when the writer refers to Hyng Edmund (King Edmund).
See “image III” below – click to enlarge
The next letter after H-y-n-g is generally translated as being W. We can see how they came to this when we compare another W on the same page on the 5th line where it reads, “with him”.
See “image V” below – click to enlarge.
This comparison shows how it’s seen as being a W and sometimes as a V. With this comparison, we see how it is seen as being written as “Hyngvar.”
We get another example of the writer’s W’s on the next page of the manuscript:
With these example to compare, one can clearly see the W that the translators seen when they wrote it as: Hyngwar or Hyngvar. However, this may be incorrect because one can also see the entirely different letters of I and B instead of W.
When you look on the ‘second paragraph’ on the 3rd and 4th lines, you can compare the writer’s b‘s in Ubba with the b instead of a w in Hyngwar.
With this comparison, one can see it reading as: “HyngIbar”.
See “image V” below – click to enlarge
We can see the lower case i‘s in image IV to see how the author writes his lower case i‘s, but there aren’t any upper case I‘s to compare.
After this closer examination, we can see how it most likely doesn’t read as Hyngwar or Hyngvar, but as HyngIbar (missing the space between Hyng and Ibar, making it Hyng Ibar or anglicized as King Ivar.
King Ivar (Hyng Ibar) is probably a more accurate reading than it being read as Hyngwar and making the assumption that Hyngwar was just a weird Anglo-Saxon way to write Ivar in the hermeneutic style of Latin.
Eitherway, especially with the presence of Ubba and regardless of how it was written, we know it’s Ivar the boneless anyways.
The Irish Annals (Old Irish) recorded his name as being Ímar and as being the founder of the Uí Ímair (The Dynasty of Ivar the Boneless). The Annals of Ireland are a Middle Irish combination of chronicles from various Irish annals and narrative histories. They were compiled in the Irish kingdom of Osraige. The writer was in the neighboring kingdom and had only heard Ivar’s name third hand – to explain the different variations of spelling, they spelled it as they heard it using the Latin letters they knew.
**The Irish Annals recorded Ivar as having heirs and as having founded a ruling dynasty. Obviously, boneless did not mean impotent.
– read more in: Ivar the Not-So-Boneless <here>
These recordings in history are indubitably the same individual and we translate them all as being Ivar the Boneless.
There is no doubt to his personal given name as being, Ívarr.
What about the rest of his name, especially “the Boneless” part?
We’ve already clearly established that “the Boneless” part of his nickname does NOT mean that he was impotent, because he had heirs. You can read about it in detail here: <Ivar the Not-So-Boneless>
What about his legs, Lt Dan? Does the “Boneless” part refer to his legs?
The argument for Ivar the Boneless having bad or crippled legs comes from later Scandinavian sagas which describe Ivar as ‘lacking bones’.
One source comes from the poem Hattalykill which was written in the 12th century. This source was written approximately 300 years after Ivar had died and says that he’s born ‘without any bones at all’. The writing was done by someone who’d only heard the legend or perhaps even just made it up – the translation is fragmentary as well.
sóknfúss enn beinlaudi
However, in Ragnars saga, Ivar’s nickname is explained in great detail, and though the explanation clearly has its roots in folklore. The fiction was possibly constructed to explain a disability which could not then be logically understood.
According to Ragnar’s saga, Ivar’s ‘bonelessness‘ was the result of a curse. His mother, Aslaug, was Ragnar’s second wife and had powers of sorcery and foresight. She warned her new husband that they must wait for three nights before consummating their marriage:
Three nights together, but yet apart,
Shall we bide, nor worship the gods as yet;
From my son this would save a lasting harm,
For boneless is he thou wouldst now beget.
Ragnar refused to believe in the curse and immediately made love to his new wife. The result of the untimely union was Ivar, who was indeed born without bones, having instead ‘only the like of gristle where his bones should have been’. In fact, it is possible, but unlikely, that he was suffering from a genetic disease. According to the sagas, Ivar grew up unable to walk and had to be carried everywhere on poles or on the back of a shield.
According to Geoffrey of Wells, Ivarr’s brother, Ubbi, was imbued with devilish powers, which enabled him to gain a victory when he was raised high [on a shield perhaps?] to gaze at the forces of the enemy before a battle. Is this a possible source of confusion? Both brothers credited with sorcery and both having a tradition of being raised high? Perhaps there was nothing supernatural about the victories. A wise and tactical genius would obviously wish to survey the enemy positions before deploying his forces. (Geoffrey of Wells (Galfridius Fontibus) was a mid-twelfth-century English hagiographer.)
But yet again, we must consider the source of the story. It was written in the 13th century after being verbally told 10th party about someone who lived during the 9th century.
So, as you can see, these were written centuries afterwards (300 to 400 years in most cases) and were very bias. We have to take them with a serious grain of salt. We’re not entirely sure Ragnar Lothbrok really even existed.
He’s a character of legend similar to that of Beowulf.
We DO, however, know Ivar existed because of records written at the time they happened.
The records written while Ivar was alive, mentioned him as a conqueror (and evil sea person). None of them refer to him as “Ivar the Boneless”, only as Ivarr, Hyngwar (King Ibar), and Imar. “The Boneless” didn’t come until 3-400 years later in sagas that were highly embellished.
The fact Ivar was born with legs physically disabled in any way was most probably nothing more than a myth as there is no mentioning of him being disabled anywhere else. Don’t forget, in these poems, Ragnar fought a poisonous dragon earning him the nick name “Lothbrok.”
<Read: The Story of Ragnar Lothbrok>
There are, however, other possibilities as well.
Possibilities that deal with inaccurate translations.
Let’s take a closer look at his name Ívarr hinn Beinlausi and the possibility of an erroneous translations.
There is a chance that Ívarr hinn Beinlausi doesn’t necessarily translate into Ivar the Boneless and may very well translate as meaning: Ivar the Vengeance-Bringer or as Ivar the Avenger. After all, we’ve just looked at where his name had been written in a variety of ways.
We’ve already established that his name was definitely Ivarr, so let’s look at the rest of his name.
The second part in Ívarr hinn Beinlausi is hinn.
hinn translates from Old Norse into English as meaning a definite article: this one; that; the
– It is also noted the suffix -inn at the end which usually denotes a male in Old Norse, but not always.
So, from “Ívarr hinn“ we get “Ivar the“
The third part in Ívarr hinn Beinlausi is Beinlausi.
In Old Norse, we read the word “beinlauss” as translating into English as being: “bone-less” or “without bones”
The Old Norse word for bone or ivory is: bein
The word for bones (as in ‘a heap of bones’) is beinahrúga
With the Old Norse words bein and beina translating into bone or bones, it is understood that part of Ivar’s title would mean bone or bones, assuming it meant his leg bones. Except the Old Norse word often used for “leg bone” is “leggr“.
– Ívarr hinn Leggrlausi?
We then translate the Old Norse suffix of -lauss as meaning the English suffix -less.
Take, for example, an Old Norse word huglausi that is sometimes used to mean cowardly. In this case, the root word comes from the word hug used to mean courage (also spirit, mind, soul, thinking, thought, etc..) and lausi meaning less. I.e. hug+lausi is Courage+less = courage-less or coward, one without courage.
Note: As you can see, many Old Norse translations are very questionable.
With lauss being commonly translated as the English suffix -less and Bein as meaning bone, we get Bone-less.
Bein = Bone + -lauss = -less
Beinlauss = Boneless
But that is the root and suffix translation for bein-lauss, not bein-lausi, which is what he was called Ívarr hinn Beinlausi.
There is another term and contextual use for the word bein in Old Norse often overlooked.
The Old Norse word bein is also used for the word bone, with bone contextually meaning ‘the very core of something’. The Old Norse term; láta með beini ganga, means to deal blows to the very bone. It is a term also used to imply to “give no quarter” to the enemy. To hit them in the very bone, or core, and destroy them. Or as in an 80’s song, “When the bullet hits the bone (by Golden Earring).”
“Hit them where it hurts.” “Drive it home.” – would be some common English example terms.
The Old Norse word beina is also used to mean ‘to stretch out and put into motion.’ Such as the phrase beina flug, to stretch the wings for flight, such as a bird. The term beina skrið sinn means to creep, as a serpent does. And the Old Norse term beina raustina, means “to raise the voice, speak aloud.”
This gives us more alternative meanings to the root words bein and beina, used in context to mean ‘to stretch out or to reach out to move’. This is how it is used to express a bird taking flight or a snake moving forward. (see here)
The Old Norse words bein and beinn are also used to indicate straight, steadfast, or direct. The term bein rás is used to indicate a straight course and beinstr vegr to indicate the straightest (shortest) way.
This also gives us many variations to the meaning of the Old Norse word Bein.
Let us look at the second part of the word, the suffix -lauss.
The Old Norse word lauss is also used in examples to mean loose or free. (see here)
- verða laus, to get loose;
- vera laus, be free;
- eldr varð laus, fire broke out or fire got loose;
- láta e-t laust, to let loose or let free, yield up;
- liggja laust fyrir, to be easy to seize upon.
These uses in Old Norse as a suffix would be to “set loose,” especially in context.
Translating Bein as to imply something moving forward or set out in motion and the laus meaning loose, freed, or set loose; we get an alternative meaning to Bein–lausi as meaning “set loose and in motion” or “set loose and steadfast” Alternatively this could also mean unconstrained, released, or ‘sicced.’
tr. verb (used with object), sicked or sicced [sikt], sicking or siccing.
1 Chase, attack —usually used as a command especially to a dog <sic ’em>
2 To incite or urge to an attack, pursuit, or harassment : set <sicced their lawyers on me>
This would make the translation of Ívarr hinn Beinlausi as meaning: Ivar the Sicced (Sic ’em Ivar!)
From these often overlooked alternative word meanings, we get “bein” used contextually as it would be in the phrase “láta með beini ganga” to mean to “hit to the bone.” This would be used in the extent of being used in vengeance. As certainly to strike someone so hard to the very core of them or bone, would certainly be a vengeful strike. This allows us to bein was used as vengeance.
However, an Old Norse word for vengeance is hefnd, which is used to mean revenge or vengeance
Nevertheless, this does not eliminate bein as being used to imply vengeance, such as bein being used in context to “hit or strike to the bone or core.” If we used Bein as a noun, as it is being used in his name, it would be the person or thing that hits or strikes to the very bone.
Bein as a noun in this context would be “One who strikes to the bone”.
When we add the suffix –lausi used in context to mean “set loose”.
Together with the definite article hinn, we get hinn Bein, which would mean “The – Bonestriker” Adding the final suffix -lausi, “hinn Bein-lausi” meaning “The Bonestriker-Loose” or “The Bonestriker-Freed”.
With the Old Norse word Bein being used in this context, it is quite possible that he was called, “Ivar the Vengeance-Bringer.”
Ívarr hinn Beinlausi. Ivar the Avenger.
Víðarr hinn Beinlausi, Víðarr the Avenger.
These are just some possibilities, It is most probable that he wasn’t known as Ivar the Boneless and that nickname was only a fabricated legend written three to four hundred years after he died. The only thing we really know for sure was that his name was Ivar. Even “Ivar Ragnarsson” is questionable because of the questionable existence of Ragnar Lothbrok.
In other thoughts, there is the possibility that “boneless” could have been a medieval term used for “snake.” A term which was used to describe someone dangerous and crafty, such as with the Old Spanish Synonym: La desosada (i.e., Old Boneless).
Sources (I know, there’s many – I dug deep):
- Farmer, John Stephen, Henley, William Ernest. Slang and its analogues past and present. A dictionary, historical and comparative of the heterodox speech of all classes of society for more than three hundred years. With synonyms in English, French, German, Italian, etc.. Published 1890.
- Perseus Hopper 4.0. Old Norse Word Study Tool. Tufts University.
- Bestiarius (Animal Fighter) – Bestiary of Anne Walsh. (Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, Folio 57r – National Library of Denmark).
- Giles, J. A., (ed.). Six Old English Chronicles: Ethelwerd’s Chronicle, Asser’s Life Of Alfred, Geoffrey Of Monmouth’s British History, Gildas, Nennius And Richard Of Cirencester. Kessinger Publishing, 2010. ISBN: 9781163125991.
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle by J. A. Giles and J. Ingram – Project Gutenberg
- Kane, Njord. The Vikings : The Story of a People. 2nd ed. Yukon: Spangenhelm, 2015. ISBN 978-1943066018.
- Radner, Joan N. Fragmentary Annals of Ireland (English and Irish Edition). Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1978. ISBN: 978-1855001046.
- Downham, Clare. Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland: The Dynasty of Ívarr to A.D. 1014. Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press, 2008. ISBN 978-1906716066.
- O’Croinin, Daibhi. Early Medieval Ireland, 400-1200. Longman, 2013. ISBN 978-0582015654.
- Woolf, Alex. From Pictland to Alba: 789 – 1070. Edinburgh University Press. 2007. ISBN 978-0-748612345.
- “The Annals of Ulster”. Corpus of Electronic Texts (15 August 2012 ed.). University College Cork. 2012.
- William Mac Hennessy. Annals of Ulster, Vol. 1: Otherwise, Annals of Senat; A Chronicale of Irish Affirs From A. D. 431, to A. D. 1540. Forgotten Books, 2015. ISBN: 978-1331935636.
- Holman, Katherine. The Northern Conquest: Vikings in Britain and Ireland. Signal Books Ltd., 2007. ISBN 9781904955344.
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- Forte, Angelo; Oram, Richard; Pedersen, Frederik. Viking Empires. Cambridge University Press, 2005. ISBN 9780521829922.
- Swanton, Michael J., ed.. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Routledge, 1998. ISBN 9780415921299.
- Giles, J. A., ed.. Six Old English Chronicles: Ethelwerd’s Chronicle, Asser’s Life Of Alfred, Geoffrey Of Monmouth’s British History, Gildas, Nennius And Richard Of Cirencester. Kessinger Publishing, LLC., 2010. ISBN 9781163125991.
- Collingwood, M. A. and Powell, F. Y. Scandinavian Britain. BiblioLife, 2008. ISBN: 978-0559467295
- David Dumville (Ed), Michael Lapidge (Ed). Anglo-Saxon Chronicle 17: The annals of St Neots with Vita Prima Sancti Neoti. D.S.Brewer, 1996. ISBN: 978-0859911177
- Mick Baker, Geoffrey van Leeuwen, Anglo-Saxon Britain. In the Footsteps of Ivarr the Boneless. History Files, 30 November 2003.
- Sagas of Ragnar’s Sons (Ragnarssona þáttr)
- Ragnars saga Loðbrókar (Ragnar’s Saga)
- Harley MS 2278 (online) from Hervey, F, ed.. Corolla Sancti Eadmundi: The Garland of Saint Edmund King and Martyr. London: John Murray, 1907 (2010 republishing).
by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing
Related Articles about Ivar the Boneless:
- Ivar “The Boneless” had heirs.
⇒ <Ivar the not so Boneless>
- Ivar the Boneless and the Great Heathen Army.
⇒ <Ivar the Boneless and the Great Viking Army>
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