Biography26 May 2010 08:49 am
A new edition of The Intellectual Devotional, this time with a focus on Biographies, will be available online and in stores on May 11. (Click here to pre-order your copy.) As the release date approaches, “The Devoted Intellect” blog will introduce and expand on material from that book. Today’s entry on “Ivar the Boneless” draws from the “Leaders” section of the Biographies edition.
Ivarr Ragnarsson, nicknamed Ivar the Boneless, was a Danish or Swedish Viking chieftain and by reputation also a berserker (Norse warriors who reportedly fought in a nearly uncontrollable, possibly drug induced, trance-like fury). Unsurprisingly, every Viking historian worth his or her salt has a theory about the origins of Ivar’s unusual nickname. Some have suggested “boneless” was a euphemism for impotence (doubtful) or even a snake metaphor (he had a brother named Snake-Eye). However, it seems unlikely that the famous Ivar earned his epithet from his less illustrious brother, thank you very much. Still others have opined that his moniker might have referred his impressive physical flexibility, and that his “limberness” might have given rise to the popular notion that he was “boneless.”
A few historians have enlivened this debate with their convincing theory that the signs and symptoms of Ivar’s condition, as described in the Scandinavian sagas, are consistent with the etiology of osteogenesis imperfecta (OI). More commonly known as “brittle bone disease,” osteogenesis imperfecta is a dominant congenital disorder that causes extremely fragile bones, and is most frequently caused by defect in the gene that produces type 1 collagen, an important building block of bone. Thus, people with OI are extremely susceptible to fractures.
In 1949, the Dane Knud Seedorf published “Osteogenesis imperfecta: A study of clinical features and heredity based on 55 Danish families,” where he wrote:
“Of historical personages the author knows of only one of whom we have a vague suspicion that he suffered from osteogenesis imperfecta, namely Ivar Benløs, eldest son of the Danish legendary king Regnar Lodbrog. He is reported to have had legs as soft as cartilage (‘he lacked bones’), so that he was unable to walk and had to be carried about on a shield.”
In 2003 Nabil Shaban, a disability rights advocate with osteogenesis imperfecta, made the documentary “The Strangest Viking” for British television, in which he explored the possibility that Ivar the Boneless may have had the same condition as himself. It also demonstrated that someone with the condition was quite capable of using a longbow, and so could have taken part in battle, a prerequisite for a leader in the notoriously bellicose Viking society.
As fascinating as the osteogenesis imperfecta theory is, one glaring question still remains unanswered; how did Ivar achieve such widespread fame as a warrior in Viking society if he could not even walk unassisted?
Even if he possessed a rare talent for the crossbow, the fierce Viking people valued prowess on the battlefield above all else, and it seems highly unlikely that they would allow a physically disabled person to act as chieftain. Thus, a simpler explanation for Ivar’s sobriquet seems more likely. It has been plausibly suggested that the origin of Ivar’s nickname comes from the English word “bone,” which is cognate with the German word “Bein”, meaning “leg”. The Scandinavian sagas mention that Ivar the Boneless was carried off the battlefield on a shield by his warriors, a common practice in those days. Thus, Ivar may earned the nicknamed “boneless” simply because he was frequently observed being carried off the battlefield after his many victories.
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