LIX: The Patron Saint of Revenge

As I’m sure you’re all aware, the 10th century C.E. was not exactly the greatest time to be a woman, especially if you were a woman who really didn’t like taking orders from men. If you were a woman who liked to stand up for herself, you were promptly suppressed and probably married off to someone old and nasty, but if you were a woman who insisted upon standing up for herself in the most epic, no-nonsense way possible, you got to be a saint.

Holy Equal-to-Apostale Olga, also known as Princess Olga of Kiev, was most certainly one of the latter. Born circa 890 (although possibly later), Olga was from Pskov in modern-day Russia and was married to Igor of Kiev sometime around 903. Igor ascended to the throne of Kievan Rus’, a loose federation of Eastern Slavic states, in either 914 or 941. It’s really difficult to keep track of this sort of stuff when there’s only one book that covers a full 300+ years of Slavic history.

Either way, Olga and Igor’s son, Sviatoslav, was born in 942, which puts the date of Olga’s birth into serious question. But who knows, maybe she was just a supermom and gave birth at age 52. Sviatoslav didn’t get to spend much time with his father, who was killed by the Drevlians in 945 while gathering monetary tributes. The Drevlians had some real nerve, because after tying each of Igor’s legs to a separate bent birch tree and then allowing the trees to straighten and rip his body in half, they immediately sent a message to Olga, now Princess Regent of Kiev on behalf of her young son, telling her she need to marry the Drevlian Prince Mal and make him king of Kievan Rus’.

Obviously that was not going to happen.

Olga was more than a little upset about the behavior of the Drevlians, but she was a reasonable queen, so she asked for 20 Drevlians to come before her and present their case for her marriage to Mal. She had trenches dug in their path so that their carriages fell into them, and all 20 were buried alive before they could even lay eyes on Olga. She assured that the Drevlians would not know of her revenge scheme and instead sent a message that she had agreed to marry Mal but needed the most distinguished Drevlians men to accompany her to Mal’s home to assure her safety. When they arrived in Kiev, she offered them a bathhouse in which to clean themselves and relax. When they were all inside, Olga had the bathhouse set on fire.

Determined to destroy every last one of the people who murdered her husband and tried to steal her throne, Olga invited the remaining Drevlians to her husband’s funeral feast as a show of good faith. When they were too drunk to defend themselves, the 5,000 Drevlian men were murdered by Olga’s soldiers. She then besieged the Drevlian city until the remaining villagers begged for mercy. She asked them to send her a token of surrender in the form of all the pigeons and sparrows residing in the Drevlian homes. Her soldiers tied live coals to the legs of each bird and released them, whereupon they promptly returned to their nests in the buildings of the Drevlian village and burned the whole place to the ground. Any survivors were scooped up by her soldiers and sold as slaves to other villages that respected Olga’s authority. When she was all done destroying the Drevlians, she also carried out Eastern Europe’s first recorded legal reform by completely changing the way monetary tributes were gathered to be extra sure what happened to her husband would never happen again.

Years later, Olga became the first Rus’ ruler to convert to Christianity and was baptized in Constantinople. For her efforts to spread Christianity in her own kingdom, the Orthodox Church sainted her and named her Equal-to-Apostle, but an equally fitting title would be Equal-to-Badass.

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