Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Saint Olga of Kiev

Saint Olga was the wife of the prince of Kiev, Igor. Igor was the son of King Oleg, the second leader of Viking descent who ruled Novgorod, one of the largest cities in what we now know of as present-day Russia.

As prince, Igor was methodically subduing the various surrounding tribes, expanding his lands and receiving tribute from the tribes that proved too difficult to control completely. Among the conquered people was the tribe known as The Drevlians. They had tried to rebel several times in the past, and once again were refusing to pay their annual tribute to Igor.

With a large army, Igor went to the Drevlians' largest town and threatened them with violence. This caused the Drevlians to back down and pay Igor what they owed him. It seemed that everyone would go home happy. However, halfway to Novgorod, Igor instructed his men to carry on with the tribute, and went back to Drevlian territory alone with the intent of forcing further payment out of the Drevlians for all the trouble they had caused him.

Without his army to back him up, Prince Igor didn't have quite the clout he thought he had. The Drevlians murdered him and dumped his body in a shallow grave. The Chief of the Drevlians, Mal, then came up with a brilliant plan. If he could get Igor's widow, Olga, to marry him, he would be the prince of all the other tribes in that corner of Russia. He summoned 20 of his men and sent them to bring the "good" news to Olga and inform her of Igor's untimely demise.

When the Drevlian ambassadors arrived and told Olga that Igor was dead, she welcomed them graciously and spared no hospitality. Encouraged by what seemed to be a grand welcome, the Drevlians decided to be honest with Olga. They admitted to her that thier people had killed Igor, and that he had deserved it, then offered her the proposal from thier king, Mal, for her hand in marriage.

Amazingly suppressing her rage, Olga replied that the Drevlian's proposal was pleasing to her, admitting that Igor cannot rise from the dead. She suggested that they return the next day because she needed some time to think it over. As soon as the Drevlians had left, Olga instructed her servants to dig a deep ditch.

The following day, the Drevlians returned, dressed in their finest and expecting to hear Olga accept and become their princess. Instead, Olga had them seized by her guard and thrown into the pit. She stood at the edge of the pit and called down to the ambassadors, asking them how they liked their visit to Kiev. They replied "Our case is worse than Igors!" as she turned and commanded the pit to be filled. She had buried the 20 Drevlians alive.

Before word of their fate could reach the Drevlian king, Olga sent a messenger to Prince Mal. She told him that she accepted his proposal of marriage but if he wanted her to come, he must send his most distinguished men to serve as her escort. Imagining his plan to be going well, Mal sent the escort at once.

Once again, Olga played the part of a exemplary hostess. She welcomed the Drevlians and offered them the use of her private bathhouse to clean up after the ride. Once they were all inside, Olga had her guards seal the doors and set fire to the building. Everyone inside was burnt alive.

Olga sent another message to Prince Mal, saying she was coming at last. But she wanted to mourn at Igor's grave site and give him a proper memorial with the traditional banquet. She asked Mal and his favored men to be her guests, and to bring plenty of mead. Once finding Igor's grave, Olga's men got busy building a proper burial mound while she wept like a dutiful wife. When the funeral rites were complete, she went with Mal to the hall for the feast. Mal inquired about the escorts that he had sent her, and Olga told him that they were on the way accompanied by her personal bodyguards.

Olga and her people hosted the Drevlians and kept the mead flowing. Prince Mal and his men were so happy that everything seemed to be going their way that they never noticed how little drink was being consumed by Olga and her companions. When the Drevlians were finally incapacitated by mead, Olga's men went about with swords and killed every single Drevlian in the hall. It is estimated by historians that several hundred men were killed that night alone.

Princess Olga was still not satisfied. She returned to Kiev, massed her army and marched to Iskorosten, the main town of the Drevlians. By this time, word had gotten around, and the Drevlians were scared. They offered her anything she wanted, but Olga did not want to be bought off. Her soldiers set fire to the city, and as the townspeople ran out the gates into the field, they were slaughtered by Olga's troops. Those who managed to survive were sold into slavery. Finally, Igor's death was avenged.

In 954, approximately 9 years later, Olga went to Constantinople to form an alliance with the Emperor Constantine. While there, she converted to Christianity. There is no historical evidence to suggest why she was so willing to give up her pagan ways, but she returned to Kiev determined to bring her people to the Church. She was largely unsuccessful. She even invited missionaries from Germany to come to her lands and convert her people, but they were murdered by the tribes of Rus in the Ukraine for their efforts. Her own family even rejected her new found faith. When she died, her attempts to convert the people appeared to be a failure. It would be her grandson, Vladimir, who would see her vision of a christian Russia come to pass.

Olga is titled "Equal to the Apostles" because of her efforts. Her feast day is July 11.

5 comments:

Burton said...

So why is she a saint? She converted, yes, but most of this story is the awesome tale of carefully crafted revenge. Her Christian conversion seems almost an afterthought, especially as she seems to have been most successful after that at inviting missionaries to their doom.

Anonymous said...

Because she spread the word to her people and it was her that influenced her grandson Vladimir to be baptized and thus the Rus became christianized. She introduced christianity to Eastern Europe. Is not Paul a Saint and Apostle despite of his past as Saul? In any case, this woman was amazing in that she ruled such a barbaric part of the world so skillfully even the Roman Emperor Constantine admitted that she was fit to rule Rome

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Anonymous said...

I don't see how this is in any way admirable. The Drevilians were forced into paying tribute and were bullied by Igor. Yes, their plan to marry Olga was stupid, but really their only crime was not wanting to be subjugated, bullied around, and enslaved. Too bad it happened anyway.

This is way beyond revenge. It's just foul.

Anonymous said...

St. Olga of Kiev is my great grandmother 20 generations back. I find her fascinating and am proud to be one of her descendents.