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Fact vs Fiction: Ivar the Boneless

According to happyfamilies.com, family tradition is crucial for stability and well-being. But do pillaging, raiding and terrorizing count as positive family pastimes? The sons of Ragnar Lothbrok followed in their father’s footsteps as explorers, warriors and conquerors— furthering family tradition and honoring their father’s legacy. One of his sons, Ivar the Boneless, is perhaps the most interesting of the bunch, with an image shrouded in mystery and full of contradictions. In this week’s installment of Fact vs. Fiction, I return to the “Vikings” series and analyze another character: Ivar the Boneless. Was he as the show portrays- ruthless, cruel and “boneless,” or is he more fiction than fact?

As mentioned last week, Ivar the Boneless is the alleged son of Ragnar Lothbrok and his third wife, Aslaug. Aslaug warned Ragnar that if they did not wait three days to consummate their marriage, their son would be cursed. Ragnar, ever the risk-taker, ignored the prophecy and as a result, Aslaug gave birth to a “boneless” boy in 794. While there is little doubt as to Ivar’s existence, historians debate what Ivar’s epithet actually implies. Some tales, like “the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok,” imply that Ivar had a disability, noting that he was carried into battle on top of a shield. Others suggest that the he was actually impotent, as he was never known to love a woman or father a child. A handful of historians believe that this nickname could be ironic in nature, as Ivar more closely resembled a giant than a small, frail man. And other scholars point out that perhaps all of the previously stated theories are null, and the nickname was born out of a faulty Saxon translation rather than any physical characteristic.

As many tales will illustrate, “the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok” informs readers that personal ambition breeds enemies. After Lothbrok’s kingship was revoked and given to a man named Harald— the first documented King of Norway— Lothbrok gathered an army to defend his honor. His army consisted of people of all shapes and sizes, not excluding children and the elderly. Ivar himself answered his father’s cry, joining the fray at only seven years old and fighting with the strength and courage of a man. Though the rest of Ivar’s childhood remains shrouded in mystery, one thing is certain: though he may have been boneless, he wasn’t spineless.

The tale picks up with Ragnar’s sons sweeping into Sweden. Their mother Aslaug, under the pseudonym Randalin, led her sons and an army to avenge the death of Eirek and Agnar, Ragnar’s sons from a previous marriage. According to the tale, the two were killed by a magical cow named Sibilja, protector of the Swedish army, who proved to be a most fearsome foe for Randalin and her men. Ivar is accredited with shooting arrows into the cow’s eyes, which did little to stop the cattle’s craze. He then ordered his men to throw him on top of the creature, effectively crushing it and producing, quite literally, ground beef.

As I mentioned last week when detailing Ragnar Lothbrok, one account of Ragnar’s demise places him in the hands of the English King Ella. After being pushed into a snake pit where he was bitten to death, Ragnar’s sons landed on the eastern shores of East Anglia and began their quest for revenge. At the head of the Great Heathen Army was Ivar, who fought alongside his brothers Sigurd Snake in the Eye, Ubba, Halfdan Ragnarsson and Bjorn Ironside. While the brothers had amassed a considerable force, they were no match for Ella’s battalion and Ivar, attempting to conserve his resources, sought conditional surrender. Ivar told King Ella that he would give up his vendetta for a plot of land as big as an ox’s hide. Demonstrating his aptitude for trickery and folding, Ivar arranged the fabric in such a way that it managed to span the length of a small kingdom. He then used the land as a home base while his brothers amassed more forces, and when it came time for the final battle, Ivar’s cunning ensured their victory.

According to legend, Ivar killed King Ella through the rite of the blood eagle, a ritual in which an eagle is carved into a person’s back before their ribs are separated from the backbone and their lungs are pulled out. Though the existence of the rite is still debated, Ivar earned a reputation for being ruthless and formidable independent of the supposed practice. Ivar replaced Ella with a puppet king named Egbert I, who was more akin to a tax collector for the Vikings than a King, and settled down with the intention to rule.

After killing King Ella in 867, Ivar spent a brief year ruling England from York before heading South into Mercia in 868. The Viking’s arrival in Mercia was the first reported account of Viking activity in the region, and the Mercian King, King Burgred, desperately sought aid. The forces of Wessex, under the command of King Ethelred and Prince Alfred, heard Burgred’s cry and stopped Ivar in his tracks. They forced him to negotiate in an agreement called the treaty of Nottingham. But despite agreeing upon terms of peace, Ivar soon broke the treaty of Nottingham, killing King Edmund of East Anglia whose martyrdom earned him the title of Saint. Mercia was once again in his sights.

For unknown reasons, Ivar abruptly changed course. Perhaps the Mercians were’t his kind of people, or perhaps he stopped out of political consideration for his siblings. Regardless of his motives, he made Scotland his new vacation destination and returned to Ireland in 870 laden with Scottish loot. He died peacefully in Ireland two years later.

Like other characters in the show, Ivar’s “Vikings” persona is rooted in fact and fiction alike. While the show accurately portrays him as cunning and paints him with a disability similar to that described in “the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok,” it fails to shine light on some of his more benevolent characteristics. Evidence suggests that during brief times of peace, Ivar may have been a good ruler, demonstrating generosity to his subjects as well as religious and ethnic tolerance. Though he is commonly characterized by villainy and treachery, he is nonetheless admirable, especially if his disability was real and he still became one of the greatest Viking rulers of all time. And while Ivar’s lifetime was full of war, he helped build a kingdom that would allow his people to settle down and trade, helping the Vikings become some of the most successful merchants of their time.                         

Celine Butler is a third-year student majoring in psychology with minors in French and history. CB869017@wcupa.edu.

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