Take a trip with us into world history in this first installment of our new weekly series about badass women of history. Whether they overcame an enemy on the battlefield or solved perplexing mysteries, women have been making their mark on history. This series aims to celebrate those women that shaped the world through their sheer force of will.
Olga of Kyiv (Saint Olga of Kiev) was a regent of the Kievan Rus from 945 to 960 CE. She was born in the city of Pskov sometime between 890 CE and 925 CE. The exact date and details of her early life are unknown. Olga was born into the Viking culture known as Varangians. The chronicle of Olga's achievements begins with her marriage to Igor I of Kiev.
Igor I - Son of a Conqueror
Igor I of Kyiv was the son and heir of Rurik. His father is considered to be the founder of the aptly named Rurik dynasty (Rurikids). Following the death of Rurik, Igor was placed in the guardianship of Oleg of Novgorod. Oleg continued consolidating the power of the Rurik dynasty by conquering many of their nearby neighbors before establishing a capital in Kiev. This federation of tribes was known as the Kievan Rus and would pay protection money to Kiev.
Igor took over from Oleg in the year 914CE. He would rule until 945CE when he would meet his untimely death at the hands of the Drevlian tribe.
Keen to follow in both his father's and guardian's footsteps, he set out on many raids throughout his reign. Igor's final campaign was to collect protection money from the tribes previously conquered by Oleg. The Drevlians were happy to pay the toll the first time that Igor swung by. He was accompanied by the full force of his army and little was made of it.
The son of Rurik was greedy though, and on his return from his tax collecting campaign, he decided to swing by the Drevlians once again. The Drevlians were less than pleased at the prospect of paying a double tax. Igor had sent most of his army home as he wasn't expecting any resistance. Having none of it, the Drevlians captured the prince and executed him in 945CE.
Death of Igor - Olga's Fury
Igor of Kyiv died a spectacularly gruesome death. According to the Byzantine historian, Leo the Deacon, "They had bent down two birch trees to the prince's feet and tied them to his legs; then they let the trees straighten again, thus tearing the prince's body apart." No death is fun, but this is some Vlad Dracula level cruelty. The Drevlians must have really hated the man to concoct such an elaborate death.
Igor and Olga's son, three-year-old Prince Svyatoslav, was still too young to rule. Olga took over the regency of the Kievan Rus. She was determined to see the kingdom pass to her son and would tolerate no opposition.
The leader of the Drevlians, Lord Mal, sent twenty of his best emissaries to Kiev. They arrived by boat, and sent word to Olga that Lord Mal had proposed marriage to her. They were counting on Olga's weakness as a woman, a serious misjudgment.
Olga sent the following message to the men on the boat:
"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 in our boat.’ And you shall be carried in your boat."
The men were ecstatic that the princess had capitulated so easily. They arrived at the city a day later and repeated what Olga had told them to say. The Kievan people lifted their boat and proceeded to carry them into the city.
Unbeknownst to them, Olga had ordered a trench to be dug the day before. The Kievan people dropped the boat into the trench, Drevlian and all. Olga then ordered that the men and their boat were to be buried. Her followers began filling in the soon-to-be grave as she stood watching.
The men's horror only grew when Olga asked them if theyhusband found this honor to be to their liking. They didn't.
Lady Olga's revenge wasn't complete. The death of only a few Drevlians wouldn't do. Rivers of blood were yet to be shed.
Lord Mal would soon receive word that Olga was pleased by his offer. Not for one second did he think that her enthusiasm was suspicious. She asked him to gather his best men and send “their distinguished men to her in Kiev, so that she might go to their Prince with due honor.”
Excited at the prospect of marrying princess Olga and taking over the kingdom, Mal complied. Never questioning what happened to his original set of diplomats Mal gathered and sent “the best men who governed the land of Dereva."
This second set of representatives rode hard and soon they were making their way into Kiev. Olga sent word that they were to bathe before being granted an audience.
The men were herded into bathhouses where they set about bathing. Their celebration of cleanliness was to be a short one. Olga commanded her people to burn the bathhouses down with the Drevlians inside.
The Drevlians had proven easy prey for a second time. Soon their society would pay the price for murdering her husband.
The Bloody Funeral
Olga sent another messenger to the Drevlians. This time she assured Mal that she was coming to marry him. First she would have to bury her dead husband though. She requested that the Drevlians “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.”
Lord Mal was overjoyed. Not only had he successfully avoided paying his taxes, he had also fooled his enemy's widow into marrying him.
Soon Olga arrived at the tomb of her dead husband. Olga was accompanied by only a few servants. She wept for Igor and there was a feast.
The Drevlians joined the feast. Their cups kept full by Olga's servants. Once they were good and drunk she ordered her people to kill the Drevlians.
According to the Primary Chronicle, Olga moved among the slaughter. Encouraging her servants and egging them on. By the end of it 5000 Drevlians lay dead at her feet.
By no means was she done.
Olga returned to Kiev to amass her army. Soon they would meet the Drevlian army in a clash of steel and blood.
The Kievan army defeated the Drevlians handily. Sending the survivors scurrying back to their cities. But there was no escaping Olga's wrath.
Olga led her army to Iskorosten (modern-day Korosten). Iskorosten was a fitting location for Olga's final vengeance because it was the place where Igor was killed. Her army laid siege to the city for a year with little success.
That is until Olga came up with an idea. She would end the siege in a single blow. Who could say it better than Olga herself, “Why do you persist in holding out? All your cities have surrendered to me and submitted to tribute, so that the inhabitants now cultivate their fields and their lands in peace. But you had rather tide of hunger, without submitting to tribute.”
By this time the Drevlians had learned to fear the mighty Olga. They replied that they were open to submitting to tribute, but that they were afraid that her wrath had not passed. She calmed them by saying that the murder of their messengers, along with the slaughter at the funeral had been enough for her.
The Drevlians waited for the details of the tribute they would have to pay. They must have been fearful that the price would be too high to meet. Olga's message simply asked “Give me three pigeons...and three sparrows from each house.”
The Drevlians were over the moon that Olga had requested so little. They complied happily and went about gathering the birds.
Not quite done with her revenge, Olga ordered her soldiers to tie a piece of sulfur bound by cloth to the birds' legs. That night she commanded the sulfur to be lit and for the birds to be released.
The sky sparkled as thousands of stars descended upon the sleeping city. The Primary Chronicle describes the scene like this: “There was not a house that was not consumed, and it was impossible to extinguish the flames, because all the houses caught fire at once.”
The Drevlians that hadn't succumbed to the flames, fled the city. Olga's soldiers were waiting and slaughtered some of the panicked citizens. Taking many more as slaves and leaving only a few people to pay tribute.
This final act sated her thirst for blood. She must have smiled as she watched her final victory unfold.
Olga' s Conversion to Christianity
Olga not saintly enough for you? The pagan ruler of the Rus would convert to Christianity in the 950's CE when she traveled to Constantinople. There she met Emperor Constantine VII.
The Emperor fell for Olga's charms. This is how the Primary Chronicle describes it: "The reigning Emperor was named Constantine, son of Leo. Olga came before him, and when he saw that she was very fair of countenance and wise as well, the Emperor wondered at her intellect. He conversed with her and remarked that she was worthy to reign with him in his city. When Olga heard his words, she replied that she was still a pagan, and that if he desired to baptize her, he should perform this function himself; otherwise, she was unwilling to accept baptism. The Emperor, with the assistance of the Patriarch, accordingly baptized her. When Olga was enlightened, she rejoiced in soul and body. The Patriarch, who instructed her in the faith, said to her, ‘Blessed art thou among the women of Rus’, for thou hast loved the light, and quit the darkness. The sons of Rus’ shall bless thee to the last generation of thy descendants.’ He taught her the doctrine of the Church, and instructed her in prayer and fasting, in almsgiving, and in the maintenance of chastity. She bowed her head, and like a sponge absorbing water, she eagerly drank in his teachings. The Princess bowed before the Patriarch, saying, ‘Through thy prayers, Holy Father, may I be preserved from the crafts and assaults of the devil!’ At her baptism, she was christened Helena, after the ancient Empress, mother of Constantine the Great. The Patriarch then blessed her and dismissed her."
Now free to marry a dashing Christian Emperor, Olga met with Constantine VII again. This time she rebuffed his advances by reminding him that his baptismal sponsorship had bound them together as spiritually related. Any union of the two would be akin to spiritual incest, and that was a no-no.
Once again the Primary Chronicle provides us with a window into the past: "After her baptism, the Emperor summoned Olga and made known to her that he wished her to become his wife. But she replied, ‘How can you marry me, after yourself baptizing me and calling me your daughter? For among Christians that is unlawful, as you yourself must know.’ Then the Emperor said, ‘Olga, you have outwitted me.’ He gave her many gifts of gold, silver, silks, and various vases, and dismissed her, still calling her his daughter."
Olga of Kiev would tie her lands to no man through marriage. She was determined to pass her dominion to her sons exactly as it had been left.
Following her conversion in Constantinople Olga returned to Kiev. There she would undertake the monumental task of converting the Rus from their pagan beliefs to Christianity.
Saint Olga of Kiev
Olga of Kiev would spend the rest of her days attempting to convert her people to Christianity. Starting with her son, Svyatoslav. He had taken over the regency by now.
Svyatoslav refused his mother's pressure in a classic display of the parent-child dynamic. He told her that if he were to convert to Christianity, his men would laugh at him. He was embarrassed.
Olga was insistent and told him his men would follow his lead. He was obstinate like his mother and would not be swayed. Svyatoslav did promise that no one would be persecuted for converting in his kingdom.
Olga built churches in many cities, despite the fact that there were very few Christians. She was made a Saint for her efforts to convert the Rus.
Death of the Great Queen
Olga of Kiev died in 969CE of illness. Her death would come just three days after Svyatoslav announced his intention to move the capital of his kingdom to Peryaslavets on the Danube.
The Primary Chronicle describes rather poetically: "Svyatoslav announced to his mother and his boyars, ‘I do not care to remain in Kiev, but should prefer to live in Perya-slavets on the Danube, since that is the centre of my realm, where all riches are concentrated; gold, silks, wine, and various fruits from Greece, silver and horses from Hungary and Bohemia, and from Rus’ furs, wax, honey, and slaves.’ But Olga made reply, ‘You behold me in my weakness. Why do you desire to depart from me?’ For she was already in precarious health. She thus remonstrated with him and begged him first to bury her and then to go wheresoever he would. Three days later Olga died. Her son wept for her with great mourning, as did likewise her grandsons and all the people. They thus carried her out, and buried her in her tomb. Olga had given command not to hold a funeral feast for her, for she had a priest who performed the last rites over the sainted Princess."
It's almost like Olga chose to die at that time. Unable to consider life without the boy whose kingdom she had murdered to preserve. That's the tale of Saint Olga of Kiev, princess of the Varangians, queen of the Rus and slayer of the Drevlians.