Catherine the Great. Richard the Lion-Hearted. Ivan the Terrible. By their names alone, these leaders commanded respect, perhaps fear. How would you feel about marching into battle behind a war lord named Ivar the Boneless? I would always be thinking of Gary Larsen’s cartoon, The Boneless Chicken Ranch–chickens are lying fried-egg-flat on the ground or draped limply over the fence like Salvador Dali watches.
Therefore it may be surprising that Ivar the Boneless was a Viking commander known for his cunning and fierce, battle-savvy leadership. The Viking sagas describe Ivar as having “only cartilage where bone should have been.” They also say that Ivar was taller and stronger than other men, an excellent archer, and extremely flexible—like a snake.
Ivar invaded what is now England in 865 to avenge his father’s death. Once Ivar captured the perpetrator, he executed him by removing his ribs from the back and pulling out his lungs. To me, this does not sync with somebody named Boneless. This ritualized means of execution, however, may have never existed. Rather it may have only been a product of a vivid imagination or faulty translation. His minions may have actually called him Ivar the Hated, which in Latin is “exosus”. If a medieval scribe spaced the letters just so, it could have been read as “ex osus”—without bone. Since he never married or had children, another theory is that Ivar was impotent.
My best guess is that Ivar had normal bones, otherwise he would not have been tall and strong. Instead of no bones, I suspect that he had hypermobile joints, which allowed him snake-like movements. Until X-rays were discovered over 1000 years later, nobody could tell the difference between flexible bones and lax joint capsules. To get the idea, have a look at a contemporary rubber man’s joint hypermobility on YouTube. He can place his ankles behind his head while sitting, and while lying face down he can lean back and touch his feet to his ears.
Although the name Ivar the Boneless may not the most fearsome moniker for a war lord, it wins out over Ivar the Rubber Man. If peace had broken out, Ivar might have laid down his bow and arrows and found a following as Ivar the Yoga Master.
If you have not done so already, please SUBSCRIBE to receive a short email announcing each new post.
Scroll to the bottom of this page to leave a comment, questions, or suggestion for future topic.