My article about the amazing tenth-century Princess Ol’ga was published in the December 2017 issue of The Vigil, The Quarterly Newsletter of the Barony of the Middle Marches, a publication of the Society for Creative Anachronism. My SCA name is Lady Unnr Olafsdottir.
What an honor to be published in The Vigil!
But in being transferred to my blog, the article lost a lot its formatting, mostly at the very beginning and the very end. And the WordPress editor is not allowing me to correct that. Bah humbug!
Sorry, my dear reader. I hope you will hang in there and read it anyway!
THE AMAZING PRINCESS OL’GA
By Lady Unnr Olafsdottir
In the 900’s, in Kiev, Ukraine in Eastern Europe, there lived a beautiful
widowed Viking/Slav/Rus’ woman ruler who not only wreaked revenge on
another tribe of Slavs for killing her husband, the Prince Igor, in 945, but also
ruled Kiev as regent for her infant son Sviatoslav until 964, successfully
defending it from a siege, and outsmarted the Byzantine emperor, Constantine
VII. The Vikings came to be in Eastern Europe/Western Russia because the East
Slavs invited them to come rule them in 862. The people became known as the
Ol’ga was the first Rus’ ruler to be baptised and accept Orthodox Christianity,
even becoming a saint, although she may best be known for the acts she took
to revenge her husband’s murder and to safeguard the Kievan principality for
their three-year-old son, Sviatoslav.
Ol’ga was born circa 890 C.E. (although later dates, up to the 920’s are more
reasonable) in Pskov or Vyshgorod in modern-day northwest Russia to a family
of Varyag origin. The Varyags, or Varangians, were more commonly known to
the Greeks of Byzantium and the East Slavs as Vikings or Norsemen.
The Kievan Principality, where Igor and Ol’ga reigned, was located about
midway on the Dnieper River, which runs roughly north to south, starting
northeast of Smolensk and ending at the Black Sea. The Dnieper was a vital
communication, trade, and warfare route. And the lands they ruled, besides containing the vital Dnieper River, were comprised of the fertile black soil
known as chernozem, thus making Kiev rich in agriculture as well as an
important trading center for the valuable furs, honey and wood coming from
The Russian Primary Chronicle, written in the early 12th century by a
monk in the Kiev Caves Monastery named Nestor, is the main source for Ol’ga’s
The Primary Chronicle outlines the various East Slav tribes that the Vikings were called upon to rule. The most important for our story are Prince Igor and Princess Ol’ga’s city of Kiev and the tribe north of them, the Derevlians, called that because they lived in forests. They are also called the “tree people” in the Chronicle, whereas the Polyanians, who founded Kiev, were called the “plains people.” The Derevlians, according to the monk Nestor, were unclean and wild and war-loving, whereas the Polyanians of Kiev were peaceful and clean.
When the East Slavs called upon the Vikings to come rule them, the Vikings chose three brothers, Riurik, Sineus and Truvor. The land of Rus’ got its name from these Vikings. Aftertwo years, Sineus and Truvor died and Riurik became the sole sovereign. He built a city on the Volkhov River and called it Novgorod.
The Varangians were happy not only to have such a large territory annexed to their
Scandinavian holdings, but also to have a relatively clear route to the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, which they could access in their shallow-bottomed boats along the river systems in the interior of Eastern Europe, without having to sail around the Atlantic and through the Mediterranean. Constantinople was not only a destination city in its own right, but also a conduit to the entire Mediterranean and, to the East, to the Silk Road to China.
Novgorod, the first Rus’ city, is considered to be the Father city and Kiev to be the Mother city. In many depictions of Ol’ga, you will see her holding a miniature city, which stands for Kiev. She is considered to be the savior of Kiev, because she not only refused to marry other rulers who would have usurped the Kievan royal line, but she also successfully defended Kiev when it was under siege by the barbaric Pecheneg nomads who roamed to the south of Kiev.
Ol’ga had been brought to Kiev from the Rus’ city of Pskov around 903 to marry Prince Igor, the son of Prince Riurik, the surviving Viking brother who founded the Rus’ dynasty. But in 945, while Igor was collecting tribute from the Derevlians, the “tree people” tribe just north of Kiev, murdered him, leaving only his widow and infant son. Ol’ga ruled as her son Sviatoslav’s regent from 945 until 964, during which she was well-known for the acts of revenge she took against the Derevlians for murdering Igor by bending down two birch trees, tying his ankles to each one, and then letting them loose, tearing Igor in half.
The Derevlians wanted the Kievan principality and its beautiful, widowed ruler, so they sent 20 emissaries in two boats to Ol’ga with a proposal that she marry their leader, Prince Mal, which would have been tantamount to handing Kiev over to them. Ol’ga gave them an honorable welcome, asking them to wait until the next day, when, as the Derevlians commanded her, she would have her people carry them in their boats up the hill to the castle as a sign of honor.
During the night, Ol’ga had a deep ditch dug in front of the castle walls. The next morning, when the Derevlian ambassadors were carried up to the castle, they were thrown into the ditch in their boats and buried alive.
But Ol’ga was not yet done with the Derevlians. She insisted that they send better suitors for her hand in marriage to Mal. They agreed, apparently thinking that she would actually agree to the marriage. When the men came, she invited them to take their ease and clean themselves from their journey in a sauna. Once they were inside, she had them locked in and the sauna set on fire. Next she visited the Derevlians to hold a joint mourning feast for her husband. She got them all drunk on strong mead during the feast, while her men stayed sober, and the Derevlians were all slaughtered while they lay unconscious from the alcohol.
The fourth vengeance of Ol’ga, for which she is most famous, or infamous, was a sham attempt to collect tribute from the now-subdued Derevlians. She said that all she would ask as tribute was for each household to send three pigeons and three sparrows to her as a gift. When the birds arrived, she had burning papers tied to their tails and released them to return to their homes, where they set alight the entire town.
Amazingly, however, even after these bloodthirsty acts of revenge, Ol’ga became the first Rus’ saint. In 955 or 957, she went to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. There she met Constantine VII, who was impressed with her beauty and intelligence. The story goes that he wanted to marry her and that marriage would require her baptism and conversion to Christianity. In actuality, Constantine VII already had a wife and in any case, given Ol’ga’s birthdate in 890 C.E., she would have been 65 years old at this time.
Nonetheless, the legendary story is that he wanted to marry her, but couldn’t since she was a pagan. Therefore she offered to be baptized but demanded that Constantine take part in the ceremony, which he did. As soon as the ceremony was concluded, he wanted to marry her, but she pointed out that under Eastern Orthodox Church law, it would be incest and illegal for him, as her godfather, to marry her. He accused her of tricking him.
Still, she spent time with the emperor, who gave her many gifts. Finally, she was permitted to return to Kiev with the understanding that she would attempt to convert its inhabitants to the Christian faith. However, her son Sviatoslav would not convert, saying his warband would laugh at him. Ultimately, her grandson Vladimir did convert and made Orthodox Christianity the state religion of the Rus.’ Both Ol’ga and Vladimir were made saints for their efforts to spread Christianity.
In 968, Ol’ga’s son Sviatoslav, now the ruler, was away from Kiev fighting on the Danube,and the Pechenegs, dangerous, mounted nomads from the southern steppes, surrounded Kiev and laid it to siege. Ol’ga was living there at the time, caring for her grandsons Yarolpolk, Oleg, and Vladimir. The people of Kiev became weak with hunger and lack of water. Ol’ga inspired a young boy to escape the siege and bring relief. However, by this time Ol’ga had become ill herself and died on July 11, 969, having ordered that there be no funeral feast.
In 1547, notwithstanding her bloodthirsty nature, Ol’ga was made a saint in both the
Catholic and Orthodox Churches. In the Orthodox Church she was also given the honor of being “Equal to the Apostles.”
AUTHOR: Unnr Olafsdottir, Marche of Tirnewydd, Midrealm Kingdom, November, A.S. LII
(mka Timi Townsend, November 2017)
A big “thank you” to Dr. Daniel E. Collins, Professor of this Fall Semester 2017’s class
“Medieval Russia,” at The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio. Any and all mistakes
herein are mine alone.
Page 4: Detail. “The Fourth Vengeance of Ol’ga.” the_drevlian_s_gift_by_margotmid6zwc2tolga
Page 5: Full size map of the Eastern Slavic/Rus’ principalities. nl.wikipedia.org; commons.wikimedia.org. (A similar copy of which is attached, below.)
FOR FURTHER READING:
Butler, Francis. “A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol’ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe.” Slavic Review, vol.63, no.4, Winter 2004, pp. 771-793. Assoc. For Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1520420. Accessed Nov. 28, 2016.
Collins, Daniel E. Translator and annotator. The Primary Chronicle. Published on the
website of the Institute of Russian Literature of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Franklin, Simon. “Kievan Rus’ (1015-1125),” Chapter 4, Cambridge History of Russia, 2006. Pp. 73-97. https://www.cambridge.org/core/terms.
https://doi.org/101017.chol9780521812276.004 (hereafter cited as CHR)
Shaw, Denis J.B. “Russia’s geographical environment.” Chapter 2, CHR, pp. 19-43.
Shepard, Jonathon. “The origins of Rus’ (900-1015).” Chapter 3, CHR, pp. 47-72.
Now let’s see if I can put the map in here! This is actually a slightly different one, but better, in my opinion. It is the original work of SeikoEn [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons from Wikimedia Commons. Used under free license.