Theme, Week 3 (Jan. 15-23): “Tough Woman”
“Tough” sums up my 32nd Great-Grandmother St. Olga of Kiev (ca 890-July 11, 969 A.D. Kiev) as surely as it does, oh, Al Capone? Bugs Moran? Dillinger?
“….a cruel and barbarous woman [who] scalded her husband’s murderers to death in 945 and murdered hundreds of their followers…,” Catholics Online succinctly describes her in the second line of her bio.
Olga’s husband, Grand Prince of Kiev Igor, was killed in 945 by a Slavic people called the Derevlians from whom the greedy Igor had tried to collect triple the amount of tribute owed. The Derevlians then traveled to Kiev to attempt to persuade the widowed Olga to marry their prince, Mal. Olga’s revenge upon them is detailed in this account from the Russian Primary Chronicle:
“Olga was informed that the Derevlians had arrived, and summoned them to her presence with a gracious welcome. The Derevlians announced that their tribe had sent them to report that they had slain her husband, because he was like a wolf, crafty and ravening, but that their princes, who had thus preserved the land of Dereva, were good, and that Olga should come and marry their Prince Mal. …
“Olga made this reply: ‘Your proposal is pleasing to me; indeed, my husband cannot rise again from the dead. But I desire to honor you tomorrow in the presence of my people. Return now to your boat, and remain there with an aspect of arrogance. I shall send for you on the morrow, and you shall say, “We will not ride on horses nor go on foot; carry us [on your shoulders] in our boat.” And You shall be carried in your boat.’
“Thus she dismissed them to their vessel.
“Now Olga gave command that a large deep ditch should be dug in the castle. Thus on the morrow, Olga as she sat in the hall sent for the strangers, and her messengers approached them and said, ‘Olga summons you to great honor.’
“But they replied, ‘We will not ride on horseback nor in wagons, nor go on foot; carry us in our boat.’
“The people of Kiev then lamented: ‘Slavery is our lot. Our prince is killed, and our princess intends to marry their prince.’
“So they carried the Derevlians in their boat. The latter sat on the cross-benches in great robes, puffed up with pride. They thus were borne into the court before Olga, and when the men had brought the Derevlians in, they dropped them into the trench along with the boat. Olga bent over and inquired whether they found the honor to their taste. They answered that it was worse than the death of Igor. She then commanded that they should be buried alive, and they were thus buried.
“Olga then sent to the Derevlians the following message: ‘I am now coming to you, so prepare great quantities of mead in the city where you killed my husband, that I may weep over his grave and hold a funeral feast for him.’
“When they heard these words, they gathered great quantities of honey, and brewed mead. Taking a small escort, Olga made the journey with ease, and upon her arrival at Igor’s tomb, she wept for her husband. She bade her followers pile up a great mound, and when they had piled it up, she also gave command that a funeral feast should be held. Thereupon the Derevlians sat down to drink, and Olga bade her followers wait upon them.
“The Derevlians inquired of Olga where the retinue was which they had sent to meet her. She replied that they were following with her husband’s bodyguard. When the Derevlians were drunk, she bade her followers fall upon them, and [went] about herself egging on her retinue to the Massacre of the Derevlians. So they cut down five thousand of them; but Olga returned to Kiev and prepared an army to attack the survivors.”
Bad enough. But, Great-Grandmama Olga did not stop there.
“The Old Russian annals describe four types of vengeance organized by Olga,” Russiapedia tells us. First, the preceding capture and, burial alive of the 20 matchmakers.
Second, Olga “asked the Drevlyans to send better ambassadors to her, but as soon as they arrived, they were burned in a bathhouse.
“Soon after that Olga went to the land of the Drevlyans, supposedly to have a funeral feast in memory of her murdered husband. Having made her enemies drunk during the feast, the governess then ordered them all killed. The annals report about five thousand victims in this third act of revenge.”
The 4th and “last vengeance took place in the year 946 when Olga traveled around the land of the Drevlyans in order to gather tributes. She besieged the town of Iskorosten, which refused to pay her. According to legend, the Princess asked that each household present her with a dove as a gift. Then she tied burning papers to the legs of the doves and let them fly back to their homes. As a result, the entire town was destroyed by fire.”
HOW did this viciously vengeful woman come to be canonized a SAINT!, you may be wondering.
Converting to Christianity ca 957 — she was baptized at Constantinople — Olga worked to spread Christianity in her country and, in light of her proselytizing influence, the Orthodox Church calls St. Olga by the Greek honorific, “Isapóstolos,” or, “Equal to the Apostles.”
“It is a strange historical twist that the first ‘Russian’ woman to be canonized in the Orthodox Church was a Viking warrior princess who spent much of her life as a pagan,” writes Heidi Sherman in “Grand Princess Olga: Pagan Vengeance and Sainthood in Kievan Rus.” (No kidding.)
“Olga earned her sainthood,” Sherman continues, “by becoming the first member of the house of Riurik…to convert to Christianity. But the role of this battle maid in the spread of Christendom to the eastern Slavs is only part of her remarkable contribution to the history of Eastern Europe. … ….it took the will and perspicacity of a barbarian widow to begin the transformation of the Rus lands from a loosely knit pagan chieftaincy into a more stable and centralized Christian kingdom.”
Great-grandmum St. Olga Regent of Kiev is included in the book, “Saints Behaving Badly: The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil-Worshippers Who Became Saints,” by Thomas J. Craughwell, hardcover 2006, which I may just check out for the amusing title alone. 😉
1 Catholic.org, “St. Olga,” at http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=427 , accessed Jan., 2015.
2 The Primary Chronicle of Rus’, traditionally ascribed to the Saint, Nestor; now looked upon as likely a composite work by various Rus’ monks. Sourced here via Stetson University (Florida, U.S.A.) online at http://www2.stetson.edu/~psteeves/classes/rusprimaryolga.html , accessed Jan., 2015.
3 “RUSSIAPEDIA (Get to know Russia better),” at http://russiapedia.rt.com/prominent-russians/history-and-mythology/princess-olga-of-kiev/ , accessed Jan., 2015.
4 “Grand Princess Olga: Pagan Vengeance and Sainthood in Kievan Rus,” Heidi Sherman, World History Connected (“published by the University of Illinois Press, and its institutional home [of] Hawaii Pacific University”), at http://worldhistoryconnected.press.illinois.edu/7.1/sherman.html , accessed Jan., 2015.
Images, all, public domain online.