One of the breakout characters from "Vikings" — a History Channel drama that ended its six-season run in 2020 — is Ivar the Boneless. Played by Alex Høgh Andersen, he's an antihero fans love to loathe. The series depicts Ivar as a master tactician, a ruthless killer and a formidable foe on any battlefield.
All very impressive for a Viking who can barely walk. Andersen's Ivar has a lifelong medical condition that's rendered his legs useless. To get around, Ivar crawls, rides in chariots or hobbles on crutches. Despite this, he leads the "Great Heathen Army" in seasons four and five.
No one knows why folks called him "Ivar the Boneless." Maybe he was disabled, and maybe he wasn't. Like a lot of period dramas, the "Vikings" television show uses speculation and fantasy to plug gaps in our historical knowledge.
Vikings: Real and Imagined
"It's OK to enjoy the fiction, but it's important to remember that popular TV is not research," Teva Vidal, a historian who specializes in medieval studies and the Viking world, says via email. Vikings are a group we tend to misremember; Vidal points out that their modern reputation as "bloodthirsty maniacs" is deeply misleading.
The heyday of the Vikings began in the late 700s C.E. — as did the earliest known Viking raids. "The rapid Scandinavian expansion into Europe and beyond, starting in the 8th century but most pronounced as of the 9th century, was certainly violent," Vidal notes.
"Raids happened. Stuff was stolen. Buildings were burnt and destroyed. People were killed," he says. "The Vikings did have a particular ability to inflict damage in their hit-and-run raids, at least at first. But the people they attacked adapted and responded in kind.
"You see, the Vikings were violent ... but no more violent than anyone else at the time. They were a product of the early medieval world, and no more, no less violent than anyone else they had dealings with."
Points of View
But as Anders Winroth observed in his 2016 book, "The Age of the Vikings," we don't have any surviving accounts written by the victims of that incident.
On the other hand, there were plenty of literate Europeans who saw Viking attacks firsthand — and then live to tell future generations.
"The image of the Vikings as godless barbarians is one that was given to them by some of the first victims of their raids — unprotected Christian monks — who weren't likely to view the Vikings complexly with an objective cultural lens," Vidal says. "We can allow them that. But we have to do better, and not just gobble up wholesale an easy and convenient, one-sided image."
The Great Heathen Army
Late in the ninth century C.E., the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" came into being. A collection of records about English history, this important text would be revised and updated by later scholars for more than 200 years.
Inside, we find a description of what's sometimes called "the Great Heathen Army," or just "the Great Army." Made up of Scandinavian invaders, this huge Viking force originally landed on the British Isles in 865 C.E. It conquered three of England's resident kingdoms before Alfred the Great, the King of Wessex, defeated the army at the Battle of Edington in 878. Thereafter, the Scandinavians agreed to a peace treaty and settled parts of the English countryside.
Other documents reaffirm the Great Army's existence. Just as we'd expect, it left archaeological evidence (like Viking grave sites) behind as well.
Even so, Clare Downham — a historian at the University of Liverpool — cites the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" as our "main source" of info about this large-scale Viking invasion.
"The Chronicle tells us about the arrival and movement of the army and its different components (it was an amalgamation of armies) from 865 to 878," Downham explains in an email.
She adds that the Chronicle also mentions a "brother of Ívarr." ("Ívarr" being the Old Norse spelling of "Ivar.")
Ivar himself has been identified as a major player in the Great Heathen Army. Vidal says our "portrait" of this man is "a composite derived from several sources. Some of them, such as the historical annals, allow us to attest, with decent reliability, to the presence of a leader of the Great Army who was called Ivar."
Written accounts also say Ubbi and Halfdan, two of the Great Army's fellow higher-ups, were Ivar's siblings.
And that's not all. Irish written records (specifically the "Annals of Ulster") reveal that a Viking known as Ivar or Ímar had become "king of the Northmen in all Britain and Ireland" by the time he died in 873 C.E.
Was this the same guy? "We can't be 100 [percent] certain," Vidal cautions. "There is no absolutely certain, positive evidence that they were the same person. But there's nothing telling us they weren't the same, either."
"I think it very likely that the Ivarr active in England is the same as the one in Ireland," opines Downham. Most of her colleagues tend to concur.
Boneless, Or Just Frustrated?
None of this explains where the "Boneless" nickname came from. Experts can find no reference to it in the annals and chronicles written during Ivar's lifetime.
"The contemporary... sources do not give Ivarr this nickname, it is later Norse sources which do and that may reflect the development of legends around him," Downham says.
Enter the Icelandic Sagas. Transcribed in the 13th and 14th centuries C.E., these are a series of epic prose narratives. They've been compared to historical novels: Although the sagas were inspired — to some degree — by real events, we can't necessarily take them at their word.
The sagas peg Ivar, Halfdan and Ubbi as the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, a legendary Viking ruler. "Literary" texts like these are the reason why Ivar is remembered as "the Boneless."
And there's no telling how he earned that bizarre title.
"The Old Norse/Scandinavian word ben or bein can mean either bone or leg: Ivar's nickname can therefore mean 'Boneless' or 'Legless,'" notes Vidal. "This definitely conjures up the image of someone with a bone-related ailment."
Unfortunately, it's doubtful that a severely disabled Viking — or one with a skeletal disorder — could have risen to military prominence the way Ivar did. At the very least, there's no compelling evidence to back up the History Channel's portrayal.
But we have other explanations to work with. Downham says medieval writers might've confused the Latin words "exos" and "exosus," which mean "boneless" and "detestable," respectively. So maybe Ivar was just a fearsome Viking with a reputation to match.
"Another possibility is that the 'bonelessness' is figurative and refers to male impotence," says Vidal. "Poor chap."