Why is Saint Olga not a feminist icon?
By Jay Brodell
The big question is why have not feminists in their battle to empower women promoted the image of Olga.
The second ruler of the earliest Slavic state hardly gets a mention these days. Yet there are few who can compare. Although sometimes called the warrior princess, Olga of Kiev was at least a world-class politician, a successful military leader, a single mother and ruthless, vengeful widow. Not only that, she is a saint of the Orthodox faith.
Her resume is more than ample for a woman whose gender generally is assumed today to be second class before the turn of the second millennium. About all we know of her comes mainly from the propagandistic Primary Chronicle, the summary in Old East Slavic of events in Kievian Rus from about 850 to 1100 A.D. That’s the present day Ukraine and the nursery of the other great Slavic nations of today, Russia and Belarus.
The woman was of Viking descent, and she quick showed that she was no shrinking violet. She is said to have been about 15 when she married the grandson of the fabled warrior Rurik, who had pillaged most of the way south from the Baltic. Her husband was Igor I, the prince of Kiev, and the couple welcomed a child, Svyatoslav. The boy was about 3 in the year 945 when the prince went off on another of his looting raids. His target was the nearby people called the Drevlyans, whose principal city was Iskorosten, the present day Korosten.
Rulers years ago were more obvious in their quests for riches than the politicians of today. They operated what were criminal gangs looting and pillaging wherever they could. The Vikings mostly are known today for their many raids of European cities, some even in the far reaches of the Mediterranean. Rurik, himself, spent most of his life pillaging and robbing his way from the Baltic through what is today western Russia. So when Igor felt he needed plunder, he simply marched west with a small army to get it.
The Chronicle calls this tribute and reports he was not satisfied with what he could exact from the Drevlyans. So on his way back home, he decided to send much of his soldiers on but decided to return to Izkorosten to demand more. The pillaged Drevlyans were having none of this.
“If a wolf comes among the sheep, he will take away the whole flock one by one unless he is killed,” the Chronicle says the Drevlyans decided. “If we do not thus kill him now, he will destroy us all.”
So when Igor showed up again with a small group of soldiers, the intended victims “came forth from the city of Izkorosten, and slew Igor and his company, for the numbers were few,” said the Chronicle, without saying exactly how. Some legends say the prince was tied to two hefty bent ash trees and was torn apart when the trees were set free of their bindings. The Chronicle does say that the Drevlyans did bury the dead prince nearby.
Then they had an idea. Why not marry the prince’s widow to their ruler and unite the two lands into one. That seemed like such a good idea that the ruler, called Mel, sent a delegation to Olga to announce the death of her husband and suggest marriage.
To say that the neighbors badly underestimated Olga would be very much an understatement.
When a delegation arrived by boat, Olga welcomed them and heard their invitation, the Chronicle reports. Instead of an immediate answer, she said “Your proposal is pleasing to me, indeed, my husband cannot rise from the dead. But I desire to honor you tomorrow in the presence of my people,” the Chronicle reports. She asked them to return being carried by her people in their boat. The Drevlyans interpreted this as some kind of honor, so the next day they did so, sitting proudly in their boat while being carried by Olga’s subjects.
When the boat came before Olga, she commanded that it be dropped into a newly dug pit. “Olga bent over and inquired whether they found the honor to their taste,” according to the Chronicle. “They answered that it was worse than the death of Igor. She then commanded that they be buried alive, and they were thus buried.”
Olga’s vengeance had not been saited. She sent messages to the Drevlyans asking that they send distinguished men to escort her to Prince Mel. They did so, and when the citizen escorts arrived, she offered them a bath after their journey, then had them locked up in the bathhouse, which was then set on fire.
Still, the Drevlyans appeared to be unaware of all this slaughter. She sent a letter ahead: “I am now coming to you so prepare great quantities of mead in the city where you killed my husband, thus I may weep over his grave and hold a funeral feast for him.”
At the funeral feast Olga’s bodyguards waited table and did not drink themselves. So when the guests at the wedding feast were adequately drunk, the Kievians killed them all and returned home. The Chronicle puts this death toll at an improbable 5,000.
Much of the story had been questioned by modern historians, who wonder if the events ever could happen in this way. Still most agree that the following year, as the Chronicle says, Olga with her young son set out with a large army to ravage the Drevlyan lands. The war climaxed in a year-long siege of Izkorosten, which Olga broke in an unusual way.
“I do not desire further revenge, but I am anxious to receive a small tribute. After I have made peace with you, I shall return home,” Olga told the embattled foes, according to the Chronicle. She asked each Drevlyan for three pigeons and three sparrows. When these were delivered, she distributed the birds among her soldiers and instructed them on how to attach flammable material to the birds. The Chronicle said that when night came, the soldiers released the birds, which then flew to their nests in the city and set multiple fires. As the people fled, Olga’s soldiers cut them down. Some who survived became slaves, and the remainder were ordered to continue to pay tribute to Kiev.
The long war must have made an impression on the young Svyatoslav because as he grew, he did what Vikings do, that is raid and pillage, even challenging the Eastern Roman Empire. Meanwhile, Olga ran the administration of the country.
So how did a blood thirsty pagan autocrat become an Orthodox saint?
Olga’s journey to sainthood started when she began exploring the Christian faith. Then she took a trip to Rome and was welcomed by the then-emperor Constantine VII. The tribes of Rus had a love-hate relationship with the Eastern Roman Empire. Sometimes they were at war. At other times the Kievians and others served as mercenaries fighting for Constantinople. They still looked upon the empire as an impressive political and cultural force. The Eastern Romans, of course, adhered to the Orthodox faith.
The Chronicle says Olga was baptized in Constantinople by the emperor himself, took Helena as her Christian name and invited Constantine to send missionaries to her land. Historians are divided whether adopting the Christian faith was a political move or motivated by sincere beliefs. There also are suggestions that the emperor was fascinated by the striking princess.
Christian missionaries, both from Constantinople and from Germany, had a tough time in the Kievian lands, and some were expelled. Svyatoslav rejected his mother’s urgings to be baptized, in part because of local politics. But he seems to have agreed to allow Christians to practice their religion, while his mother built churches. It was Olga’s grandson, Vladimir, who officially adopted Christianity for the country in 988.
The Russian Orthodox Church venerated her as a saint in the 16th century. Other denominations, including segments of the Roman Catholic Church, followed suit.
Putting ancient history aside, even the descendants of the Drevlyans now venerate Olga. A tourist website about Ukraine reports that that Korosten erected what it called The Bath of Princess Olga as the main natural attraction of the town. “This is a beautiful scattering of granite boulders along a relatively shallow river Uzh,” says the website. A statue of Olga overlooks the river pool. The Ukrainian government also honors successful women with an Order of Olga medal.
One can only speculate why this successful strong woman has not been adopted by modern feminists as an icon. Olga seems to have all the right characteristics. She used deception to exact wholesale revenge for her husband’s murder. She successfully administered a country in the uncertain 10th century. She out maneuvered the Eastern Roman emperor who might have been making amorous moves. She tried to bring her people into a more civilized era. Heck, she even was a single mother.
The story of Olga might repel some feminists because she was actually married and became involved with the patriarchal Orthodox faith. They seem to prefer the less aggressive neoplatonic Hypatia of Alexander.
Note: The Primary Chronicle was read in translation from “Medieval Russia, a Source Book, 850–1700,” Third Edition, edited by Basil Dmytryshyn, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1990. The Olga text there was reprinted by permission from “The Russian Primary Chronicle,” Harvard Stiudies and Notes in Philology and Literature, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1930.