An essay by Andrei for Russian History.
How do Princess Olga's methods of vengeance act as moral tales?
In the Epistle to the Galatians, Paul of Tarsus composes a moral warning against things such as “impurity... jealousy, drunkenness, envy” and others that he finds to be against the light of God. He calls these “the fruits of sin” or, alternatively, “acts of the flesh” dependent on translation. (Galatians) The Bible is full of stories that can at times be seen as metaphorical warnings against certain behaviors – this, too, is the case with many pseudo-historical chronicles such as the Viking Sagas and even the chronicle of Princess Olga. (Short) Despite having been a pagan at the time of her vengeance against the Derevlians, she turns their arrogance against them in four incidents of slaughtering. Olga displays extreme cleverness throughout the entirety of the Russian Primary Chronicle's account of her – both as a pagan, and later as a Christian.
Once the Derevlians murder her husband, Igor, power fell to his and Olga's son, Syvatoslav. As he was merely a boy, Olga instead exercised her power over Kievan Russia. Twenty matchmakers arrive in Kiev by boat, boastfully proclaiming the death of Igor and beckoning for Olga to marry Prince Mal. They mock Igor's memory and claim that their princes are far better, but in reality they had plotted to “work their will upon” Olga's son, Syatoslav. She makes a seeming pleasing arrangement with them that they will be carried by Kievans in their boat, the matchmakers described as being “puffed up with pride” – lest, until their boat was dropped into the ditch that Olga ordered dug. (“Olga”) Here, Olga has them buried alive; their first sin is pride – considered by many Orthodox Christians to be the root of sin itself. (Morelli)
After this, Olga demands that the Derevelians send only their best if they truly wish to converse with her. It is not stated whether the Derevelians realize Olga's slaughter of their messengers – nevertheless, they acquiesce, and send forth another wave. Olga prepares forth a bath for them. This was a typical Slavic custom, witnessed as early as 440 BCE by Herodotus. The bath was known as a banya. Early Christians found the custom amusing at times, and vulgar at others. According to the Russian primary Chronicle, St. Andrew described an almost violent ritual, stating that “They make of the act not a mere washing but a veritable torment.” (Chorazy) Regardless of the objective truth of the matter, Olga orders the doors closed, and a fire set from the inside. Thus, the second act of vengeance is complete as the Derevelians burn to death – punished for their vanity, and perhaps for their Slavic custom.
Olga contacts the Derevelians again, with still no obvious telling of if they had insight as to the fate of their messengers. She demands an enormous feast be held so that she may mourn Igor's passing, telling them to prepare great quantities of mead. (“Olga”) Mead is a sort of wine brewed from honey, and was a staple in various forms including Medovukha up until the late 19th century in Russia, long after its abandonment by Western Europe. (“History of Mead”) Here, the Derevlians engage in feast with Olga, only to feast and drink to the point of drunkenness – as aforementioned, considered a sin by Paul. Olga, having brought the bodyguards of her dead husband, orders them to massacre the Derevelians. The Chronicle states that five-thousand die, before she returns to Kiev to form an army.
The Derevelians offer further tribute to Olga, having been thoroughly humiliated and wishing to avoid further warfare. Instead of accepting their offer of honey and furs, she requests three pigeons and three sparrows from every house. The Derevelians comply, only to have those birds return with sulphur or burning paper tied to the legs of the birds. This set fire to the entirety of the Derevelian nation, and Olga's army routed the fleeing survivors, either killing them or enslaving them, while leaving a remnant to pay tribute. (“Olga”) This perhaps is the hardest act of vengeance to make a comparison with a punishment for sin, but sparrows play an important part in early Christian symbolism in a variety of different roles. Perhaps ironically, they tend to symbolize peace. (“Divine Birds”)
It is written that after these acts of vengeance and conquering the remaining land of the Derevelians with her son, Olga was convinced by Emperor Constantine VII to convert to Christianity, who in turn baptized her – per her request. Once more she displays her clever nature by lecturing the Emperor on Christian law, saving herself from marriage with him. Her son, with whom she would partially share power with for a time, by no means approved of her decision, though it is said that he respected her will and gave her a Christian funeral upon her death. It is doubtful that the chronicle is entirely accurate, having been written from the perspective of later Christians. It is more legend than history as we would define it today, as so many accounts of ancient peoples tend to be. Nevertheless, Princess Olga remains a deeply important figure in Russian culture and history. She is seen as a champion of Christianity in the pagan Kievan Rus society, and was even proclaimed to be a saint, equal to the Apostles, by the Orthodox Church in 1547 – one of only five females to be granted such a status. (“Prominent Russians”)
Chorazy, Vlad. “Rituals of the Russian Banya.” The Global Dispatches. [http://www.theglobaldispatches.com/articles/rituals-of-the-russian-banya], accessed August 30th, 2012.
“Divine Birds.” Squidoo. [http://www.squidoo.com/divine-birds#module26640932], accessed August 30th, 2012.
Galatians 5:19-21.The Bible (NIV).
“History of Mead.” Beer100.com. [http://www.beer100.com/history/meadhistory.htm], accessed August 30th, 2012.
Morelli, George. “Pride: The Source of All Evil.” Orthodoxy Today. [http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/view/pride-the-source-of-all-evil], accessed August 30th, 2012.
“Princess Olga.” Russian Primary Chronicle. [http://www2.stetson.edu/~psteeves/classes/olgachronicle.html], accessed August 30th, 2012.
“Prominent Russians: Princess Olga of Kiev.” Russiapedia, RT – Russia Today. [http://russiapedia.rt.com/prominent-russians/history-and-mythology/princess-olga-of-kiev], accessed August 30th, 2012.
Short, William R. “Hurstwic: Honor, Dueling, and Drengskaper in the Viking Age.” Hurstwic. [http://www.hurstwic.org/history/articles/society/text/drengur.htm], accessed August 30th, 2012.