Olga of Kiev: The One Saint You Don’t Want to Mess With

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

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Against my better instincts, I’m going to start this with a tired old bromide: “Hell hath no fury like a woman whose husband got ripped in half by birch trees.”

I know, I know—the saying is so trite at this point that its wisdom often feels lost. But there’s a true story behind this chestnut.

See, in 945 CE a princess named Olga suffered this very scenario and made it her motherf*cking mission to prove this maxim by killing more people than I’ve even heard of. And for her bloody efforts, she was ultimately . . . sainted? 1

Huh. I guess it was a different time.

Birch Trees, You Say?

Aye, that I did, gentle reader. But first, let’s back it up, just a little.

This story takes place in Kievan Rus’, in the 10th century (or the 900s, if you like). Kievan Rus’, for simplicity’s sake, was an area covering what is now Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. It was a loose tribal federation with some shared, pagan culture, ruled by the Rurik dynasty—named after Olga’s father in law. Some historians think these people descended from Nordic tribes, others think Slavic. And hey, it could be both.

Olga of Kiev and her boy, Svyatoslav.

Princess Olga was born around 900 CE, give or take a decade. Aside from the bit about her being a princess, history doesn’t pay much attention to Olga for the first 45ish years of her life.

Here’s a quick rundown of Olga’s life, pre-revenge porn: She was pagan, born in Pskov, maybe (a city that still exists, by the way). Then she married Igor I, Prince of Kiev. They had a son. See? Quick rundown.

Kievan Rus’ was a growing empire in the mid-10th century, but you don’t grow an empire without putting the squeeze on all your neighbors, and you don’t squeeze your neighbors without making them resent you so bad they can’t even sleep at night.

The Drevlians were a neighboring tribe that had a complicated relationship with Kievan Rus’. They’d done some work together, mostly in military campaigns against the Byzantine Empire, and they’d paid tribute to Kievan Rus’.

Tribute is, functionally, protection money. You pay it to a more powerful warlord so that they “protect” you, mainly from their own forces, and I guess sometimes from a third party. It was seen as a “respect” thing—granted, not a sincere respect, but the kind you might have for the violent mafia don who’s extorting your business.2

The Drevlians had paid tribute to Igor’s predecessors, but they quit in 912 after the last prince died. Rather than pay out to Big Kievan Rus’, they started shopping local and paid tribute to a nearby warlord.

Igor needed to get his tribute back, not just for the furs, but for respect. A prince who loses tribute is a prince who’s lost his perceived legitimacy, and that sort of prince doesn’t last too long. So, in 945, Prince Igor checked his privilege and realized it wasn’t high enough. He decided to pay a visit to the Drevlian capital, Iskorosten (modern-day Northern Ukraine), to reassert his entitlement.

Prince Igor, trying to get that tribute and soon to be birched.

It turns out that was the wrong move. The Drevlians saw this Kievan Rus’ bastard riding into town to demand tribute after 33 years of not getting it. To Drevlian eyes, that looked like some bullsh*t.

So, they did what I’d like to call the “human hammock” to Igor. The Drevlians bent two birch trees to the ground, and tied them to each of Igor’s legs. Then, they let the trees go. The trees straightened out, but Igor didn’t—the poor bastard was torn apart.3

Oh, Shit! Was Olga Pissed?

Yeah, but she didn’t let on to the Drevlians that she was—and don’t ask me why they didn’t assume she would be. Instead, they figured they’d take over Kievan Rus’ in Igor’s place, so they sent 20 of their best and brightest (well, maybe not their brightest) to Olga to convince her to marry the Drevlian Prince Mal, which would give the Drevlians control over Kievan Rus’.4

Meanwhile, Olga was acting as regent for her son, who was too young to take over just yet, and she had the full might of the Kievan Rus’ at her disposal. And she must have really liked Igor because, well, she put together a four-stage magnum opus of revenge.

Stage 1: Vivisepulture

Olga, playing nice, welcomed the 20 Drevlian ambassadors who had been sent to negotiate her next marriage.

Olga sent messengers to summon the Drevlians to her hall, but the pompous ambassadors demanded that they—along with their boats—be carried to Olga’s court. The Kievan Rus’ response: “Sure, no prob!” They carried the finely robed Drevlians in their boats to Olga’s hall.

What the Drevlians didn’t know was that, before they arrived, Olga had ordered her men to dig a great trench. Her men carried the boats filled with Drevlian divas over to the trench and dumped them in, boats and all.

The Drevlian burial.

Olga peered into the trench and asked if this “honor” was to the Drevlians’ taste. The Drevlians, who I assume saw the writing on the wall at this point, said that this was worse than Igor’s death by birch tree. Olga rubbed her index finger and thumb together to play the world’s tiniest slavic lute, then ordered her men to bury the Drevlians alive.5

Oh, by the way: “vivisepulture” is the act of burying someone alive.

Step 2: Immolation

Olga wasn’t finished. Shockingly, the buried-alive Drevlian ambassadors never sent word back to Prince Mal, but Olga did. She would marry him, but she wanted an escort: Mal would need to send some of his most important people to travel with her to Iskorosten. It would serve as an act of goodwill that would acknowledge the importance of a union with the Kievan Rus’.

Mal was thirsty to be king, so he obliged and sent a group of Drevlian chieftains to Olga. She rolled out the red carpet and took her guests in, offering them some bathhouse time to clean up after their journey. If you can’t guess what happened next, here’s a hint: the bathhouse doors locked from the outside.

Olga’s burning of the bathhouse chieftains.

You gettin’ it? She locked those poor bastards in the bathhouse, then set it on fire, burning all the chieftains alive. It just wouldn’t be a Russian revenge story without any bathhouse murders.6

Step 3: Party Foul

After the bathhouse burning, Olga sent Mal a request: marriage still sounded good, but she’d like to visit Iskorosten to hold a funeral feast and proper burial for her deceased husband, Igor. Mal still didn’t know what happened to his last two diplomatic parties, so he figured why not? Whatever greased Olga’s wheels and got him on the Kievan Rus’ throne.

Olga and her soldiers arrived for the funeral feast and the mead was flowing. But, while the Drevlians were blacking out, Olga’s men had been ordered to teetotal and keep their wits. When the time was right and the Drevlians were good and sloshed, Olga brought down the hammer, killing 5,000 of the Drevlians. Well, 5,000 might be a bit of hyperbole, to tell the truth, but she killed a bunch of Drevlian revelers.7 8

Step 4: Bird Fyrd

This final step was truly Olga’s crowning achievement.

Olga had gathered an army to wipe the Drevlians out, once and for all. The surviving Drevlians—those whom Olga hadn’t buried, burned, or put to the sword at the funeral feast—begged for mercy. “Please, Olga, we’ll give you so many furs you’ll be sweating your ass off in February,” they (probably) said.

“You know what,” Olga said, “fine. But I don’t sweat sh*t. So instead of furs, I’m going to let you Drevvies off easy. We’ve impoverished you with our siegin’ and a-killin’, so all I ask of you are three pigeons and three sparrows from each house.”

Olga of Kiev: animal lover.

Olga of Kiev: animal lover.

“Lady,” the Drevlians said, thinking they were getting off easy, “you got it.”

The Drevlians made good, but Olga didn’t. The birds were given to Olga, and she gave each of her soldiers a pigeon or sparrow, along with an order: tie a thread to each bird’s feet. On the end of that thread, tie some cloth-bound sulfur.

Once it was dark, Olga’s soldiers released the pigeons and sparrows, who naturally flew back to their nests in the houses, coops, and haystacks of Iskorosten. The whole city was set aflame at once and the Drevlians fled. Olga’s army captured the survivors. Some she killed, some she kept as slaves, and the rest she left to pay tribute.

Now, this might be a myth from the Kievan Rus’ Primary Chronicle (the Russian equivalent of the Norse Sagas, if you will). It does seem to be an outlandish tactic. That said, the United States Army tested a similar tactic in World War II, where they would send flaming bats to burn down Japanese cities. The tests went so well that the testing base was burned down. So Olga’s army of fire birds? Not impossible.9

Sainthood, Somehow

Now that you know what Olga may have done in her quest for vengeance against the Drevlians, you might be asking, “How’d she get sainted, and why?”

It’s a good question. Christianity is, in theory, not quite as into revenge as some of the pagan religions were. You might even say Christianity was supposed to be about forgiveness—revenge’s great enemy.

But Christianity, especially during the medieval period, had another priority: conversion. While Olga of Kiev was a pagan for much of her life, and particularly in her approach to epic poem-style revenge, she later converted to Christianity—receiving baptism between 945 and 957—and encouraged her people to do the same.

Saint Olga. Sure, why not?

While her son, Svyatoslav, stuck with paganism, her grandson later adopted Olga’s Christian mantle and declared Kievan Rus’ a Christian empire. In 969, Olga died as she lived: not a saint. But nearly 600 years later, the church recognized her efforts to make Kievan Rus’ a Christian nation. In 1547, she was given the title “Isapostolos,” meaning “equal to the apostles.”10

So what’s the lesson here? Perhaps it’s this: medieval Christianity’s capacity for forgiveness was boundless, especially if you could boost membership.

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. Hoare, James. (2015, January 6). Olga of Kiev: One saint you do not want to mess with. Retrieved from https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/medieval-renaissance/olga-of-kiev-one-saint-you-do-not-want-to-mess-with/
  2. Hoare, James. (2015, January 6). Olga of Kiev: One saint you do not want to mess with. Retrieved from https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/medieval-renaissance/olga-of-kiev-one-saint-you-do-not-want-to-mess-with/
  3. Hoare, James. (2015, January 6). Olga of Kiev: One saint you do not want to mess with. Retrieved from https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/medieval-renaissance/olga-of-kiev-one-saint-you-do-not-want-to-mess-with/
  4. Upton, Emily. (2014, January 27). The Saint Who Buried People Alive and Burned Down a City in Revenge. Retrieved from http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/01/saint-buried-people-alive-burned-city-revenge/
  5. Upton, Emily. (2014, January 27). The Saint Who Buried People Alive and Burned Down a City in Revenge. Retrieved from http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/01/saint-buried-people-alive-burned-city-revenge/
  6. Hoare, James. (2015, January 6). Olga of Kiev: One saint you do not want to mess with. Retrieved from https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/medieval-renaissance/olga-of-kiev-one-saint-you-do-not-want-to-mess-with/
  7. Hoare, James. (2015, January 6). Olga of Kiev: One saint you do not want to mess with. Retrieved from https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/medieval-renaissance/olga-of-kiev-one-saint-you-do-not-want-to-mess-with/
  8. Upton, Emily. (2014, January 27). The Saint Who Buried People Alive and Burned Down a City in Revenge. Retrieved from http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/01/saint-buried-people-alive-burned-city-revenge/
  9. Upton, Emily. (2014, January 27). The Saint Who Buried People Alive and Burned Down a City in Revenge. Retrieved from http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/01/saint-buried-people-alive-burned-city-revenge/
  10. Upton, Emily. (2014, January 27). The Saint Who Buried People Alive and Burned Down a City in Revenge. Retrieved from http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/01/saint-buried-people-alive-burned-city-revenge/

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Accessed May 12, 2018). St. Olga: Russian Saint and Regent. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Olga
  • Hoare, James. (2015, January 6). Olga of Kiev: One saint you do not want to mess with. Retrieved from https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/medieval-renaissance/olga-of-kiev-one-saint-you-do-not-want-to-mess-with/
  • Upton, Emily. (2014, January 27). The Saint Who Buried People Alive and Burned Down a City in Revenge. Retrieved from http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/01/saint-buried-people-alive-burned-city-revenge/

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