A Woman to Know: Olga of Kiev

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 … — Olga of Kiev

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 … — Olga of Kiev

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

Talk about living two lives in one.

In 945, a group from the Drevlian tribe rose up against Olga’s husband, Prince Igor I of Kiev. When Igor traveled to squash their rebellion, they tortured and assassinated him.

Following her husband’s death, Olga ascended to the throne, leading in her young son’s stead and becoming Russia’s first-ever female ruler. She tracked down the Drevlians responsible for Igor’s murder and extracted a particularly bloody revenge. The assassins originally proposed that Olga marry her husband’s murderer, Prince Mal. While feigning agreement to the marriage, she sent for a band of Drevlians, who arrived at the palace gates expecting to be honored. Instead, they fell into a deep grave Olga’s soldiers had dug for them — standing there, she ordered that they be buried alive, asking if “they found the honor to their taste.”

When another band of Drevlians appeared at court — presumably making sure their buried-alive comrades were alright — Olga offered them use of the imperial bathhouse. After the men disrobed and entered, Olga set the building on fire, boiling them alive.

According to The Russian Primary Chronicle, she then sent word to the remaining Drevlians that she’d cease her revenge quest if they prepared her an epic funeral feast at Igor’s tomb. The men did as she asked, then joined her there and toasted with mead. Once they got too drunk and passed out, Olga ordered them all murdered.

The next day, the surviving Drevlians declared war. Olga asked them to send three pigeons and three sparrows from each house, as a peace offering. The Drevlians gratefully agreed — but then Olga ordered her men to send the sparrows and pigeons back, this time carrying pieces of burning sulphuric cloth. The birds dropped the flames on the village, effectively raining fire.

All this happened between 945 and 957. Then, quite suddenly, Olga changed — she converted to Christianity, likely baptized at Constantinople around 957. She ruled for another decade, declaring it her life’s mission to spread the message of Orthodox Christianity and eradicate paganism. The Russian Primary Chronicle described her as “radiant among the infidels like a pearl in the mire, since the people were soiled, and not yet purified of their sin by holy baptism …”

While she had once supervised a four-part revenge quest, she now supervised thousands of baptisms (except that of her own son, who resented her rule as queen). In 1547, 600 years after her death, the Russian Orthodox Church named her the patron saint of widows and converts.

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