Wrath, Revenge, and Religion: Olga of Kiev
Anyone who’s watched Game of Thrones is familiar with Cersei Lannister, the power-hungry, vengeful queen who unleashed her wrath on anyone who caused her even the slightest provocation. Her horrible deeds and unscrupulous exploits earned her the title of villain early on in the series, and as things progressed her quest for revenge took her to some seriously dark places. You’d be forgiven for thinking those plotlines could only happen in a fantasy show, but like Mark Twain once said, truth is stranger than fiction. Enter: Olga of Kiev.
In the beginning, Olga was your typical 10th-century princess. No one is sure when she was born, but historians place her birthdate somewhere around 890, give or take a decade. Not much is known about her life before her marriage but she must have been special in some way, because she became the wife of Prince Igor I of Kiev. Igor was the son of Rurik, founder of the Rurik dynasty, which ruled in Russia for twenty-one generations until the 1600s when the Romanovs took over. Olga was at the helm of one of Europe’s oldest royal houses.
Igor came to rule Kievan Rus’, a loose federation of tribes that settled over territories in the modern-day nations of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. Olga gave birth to a son, Svyatoslav, and all was well for a time.
Trouble in Paradise
Meanwhile, a neighboring tribe, the Drevlians, had stopped paying tribute Kievan Rus’, with whom they had a complex relationship. They were initially opposed to overlordship and had their own prince, although they later joined forces with Kievan Rus’ in military campaigns against the Byzantine Empire. When Igor’s predecessor Oleg died in 912, the Drevlians stopped paying tribute and gave it to a local warlord instead.
Affronted, Igor decided to pay them a little visit about thirty years after the fact in 945. He arrived at the Drevlian capital, Iskorosten, with a large army and demanded payment. Fearing his forces and deeply insulted, the Drevlians coughed it up and Igor went on his way. En route, he decided he should go back and make an example of them. Igor returned with a smaller retinue and demanded more. Seeing he had fewer men with him, the Drevlians killed him.
According to Leo the Deacon, a Byzantine historian and chronicler from the same era, Igor’s death was a gruesome affair. The Drevlians allegedly strung him up between bent birch trees and watched them tear him in two as they straightened out.
Olga of Kiev officially took the throne after Igor’s death in lieu of her son, who was only three years old at the time. The Drevlians seized their chance. If they could cajole this widowed noblewoman into marriage with their Prince Mal, they would have gone from paying Kievan Rus’ to running the show. They sent 20 ambassadors to request her hand in marriage and ensure her compliance. When they arrived in Kiev via boat and relayed the message, Olga greeted them warmly. She conceded that her husband couldn’t rise from the dead and she should remarry. If they could just wait in their boat until the next day, she would honor them in full view of her people.
She mentioned that when her servants came to fetch them, they should demand to be carried in their boat, rather than go on foot. This was an honor they were eager to have carried out. When the next day dawned, the Drevlian ambassadors did indeed tell the people of Kiev to carry them, and carry them they did — straight to a freshly-dug trench. They were dumped in and buried alive, and it’s said that Olga watched the burial and called down to ask whether the honor was to their tastes.
More Where That Came From
Olga then dispatched a message to the Drevlians. Pretending she had accepted the proposal, she asked the Prince to send his most distinguished chieftains to bring her to her new home. They obliged, and a retinue of Dereva’s best and brightest arrived. Apparently, they didn’t notice the mass grave or bother to look for the first diplomats. The people of Kiev drew a bath for the newcomers so that they could appear in front of Olga fresh and clean. When they entered the bathhouse, she set it on fire.
With the ruling class out of the way, Olga set her sights on the rest of the population. She sent a follow-up message with yet another request: might they prepare a ton of food and booze in the city where Igor died so she could weep over his grave and have a funeral feast? The answer was yes. After the preparations were made, she arrived with a small group of attendants and cried over Igor’s tomb. Then everybody feasted.
After drinking heavily, the soused Drevlians were at Olga’s mercy. She ordered her followers to kill them on the spot and egged the massacre on herself. When all was said and done, it’s thought that some five thousand Drevlians died that night in a drunken stupor.
Above and Beyond
This, one would think, would be enough revenge for one queen. But not Olga of Kiev. Now, with her position made clear, the real destruction could begin. A war between the two nations broke out, with Olga’s side too formidable to defeat in battle. After the initial conflict, her army drove the survivors back into their cities and marched on Iskorosten to lay siege to the city. After a year passed with no success, Olga hatched a plan that was as creative as it was devious.
She sent a message asking why the people in the capital wouldn’t surrender when their neighboring cities had done so and were back to farming and living in peace. They responded that they would be willing to pay her tribute and surrender, but they were scared she was still intent on vengeance. She answered that the slaughter at the feast had satisfied her. All she needed was three pigeons and three sparrows from every house and she’d call it even. The Drevlians rejoiced at the possibility of ending the siege for such a low price.
When Olga received her tribute, she had her army tie a bit of sulfur wrapped in a cloth to each bird. Once night fell, the soldiers set the cloth alight and released the birds, which would naturally return to their nests. The entire city went up in flames. As inhabitants fled the fire, Olga’s forces caught and killed most of them. The queen gave the rest to her supporters as slaves. Anyone remaining could live so long as they paid tribute and never crossed Olga again.
From Mass Murder to Sainthood
With the Drevlians sufficiently crushed, Olga went back to ruling her kingdom as regent. She evaded subsequent proposals and held onto her power so she could transfer it to her son. She made good use of her time, implementing the first legal reform in Eastern Europe when she overhauled the process of gathering tribute. And when the Siege of Kiev went down in 968, a year before she died, Olga helped protect her people.
After her bloodthirsty debut as Queen, Olga decided to embrace Christianity. In the 950s she traveled to Constantinople to visit Emperor Constantine VII. She arrived a pagan but left fully converted and baptized. The patriarchate taught her the rules of the Church, which included fasting, maintaining chastity, and almsgiving. She took Helena as her Christian name.
She returned home and tried to get her son Svyatoslav to convert as well, but he wasn’t having it. There was plenty of hostility towards Christianity in Kievan Rus’ at this time. To appease his mother, Svyatoslav said that while he would mock them, he wouldn’t persecute anyone who decided to convert. This turned out to be a turning point for Christianity in the region.
That was about as far as Olga got in getting her people to turn to Christianity during her lifetime. Her baptism didn’t seem to offend anyone, though, as it’s said that all of Kievan Rus’ wept when she died. Her mission came to fruition later, when her grandson Vladimir officially adopted the religion in 988.
Nearly 600 years later in 1547, the Russian Orthodox Church decided Olga’s efforts merited sainthood. They declared her “equal to the apostles,” and her feast day is July 11th. She is the patron saint of widows and converts, but sadly not of vengeful spouses.
Now please excuse us while we rewatch Game of Thrones to see if Cersei had any Olga of Kiev dolls in her bedroom.
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where can I buy the “fool me twice” painting. I can’t seem to find it anywhere. the one with the meaty brushstrokes and her holding a bird