There are rare times in history when the ingenuity and courage of leaders are captured in such a way as to inspire generations behind them, but Milieux has discovered another such leader in Princess Olga of Kiev.
Princess Olga, also known as Saint Olga, was born sometime in the 10th century to a royal family. She was married to Prince Igor I of Kiev, heir of Oleg and ruler of the Keivan Rus, who lived in the area that is now known today as Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, to whom she bore a son, Svyatoslav.
The Keivan Rus had a complicated relationship with neighboring tribes, the Drevlians. The pagan tribes had allied in their battles against the Byzantine Empire, from which a tithing was developed to be paid from the Drevlians to the Keivan Rus. When the Drevlians refused to pay in 912, Igor rode with his army to “encourage” them to pay, and when he decided they did not give enough and returned to impose more tithings, the Drevlian Prince Mal killed him.
History does not give a good account of how this affected Princess Olga but, but as regent to the throne, she was soon courted by the Drevlians to marry the murderer of her husband, Prince Mal. The Drevlians sent a boat of ambassadors to convince the princess to agree to marriage, and, either fearing that revenge would be taken upon them, or beguiled by instructions from Olga herself, demanded they be carried in their boat to discuss the matter directly with the Princess.
The Drevlians obviously underestimated the Princess and her ingenuity and/or desire for revenge for when they arrived to her castle in their boat, she had already dug a grave for them the size of a boat, and commanded her men to drop the boat unto it and buried them alive. Before the grave was even refilled, she sent for more ambassadors from the Drevlians, feigning delight at the first party of suitors. Unaware of the murders she had just committed, they sent more representatives and upon their arrival, she encouraged them to bathe and relax. They went willingly and without knowing it, Princess Olga had them locked inside and set fire to the bathhouse, burning the Drevlian ambassadors alive.
This began Princess Olga’s year-long siege on the Drevlians, conquering their cities and farms. Legend has it that when the capital refused to submit to her rule, she called a truce and asked for pigeons and sparrows from all of the homes of the Drevlians, as a show of good faith. The Drevlians were grateful. When the birds arrived, she had her men tie paper firebombs to the birds’ legs, knowing that the birds would return to their homes- let them loose and set fire to the Drevelian capital. Over 5000 Drevlians died in her war against them.
Princess Olga was a pagan at birth but grew an interest in Christianity in her adult years. Her sainthood is rooted in her ambition to bring Christianity to the people of Kiev, though she was unsuccessful in convincing her son to convert once he was of age. In her travels to Constantinople, and a visit to Emperor Constantine VII, the Emperor conversed with her and determined her to be worthy to “reign with him”. Olga pointed out that she was pagan, and that she required instruction and baptism and insisted that the Emperor be her instructor. He taught her and shared the Christain way with her and upon her baptism, in which she accepted the Christian name “Helena” after the Emperor’s mother, she once again outwitted her suitor and pointed out that he was now her godfather, eliminating the possibility of matrimony. Emperor Constantine was impressed with her cunning and historical references validate that he respected her for her wit, making the Keivan-Rus and Byzantine kingdom an alliance.
While the princess ruled only for the years her son, Sviatoslav, was growing up, her success as a regent and ruler are irrefutable. She was the first female ruler of Keiv and the first Christian ruler. And her duality of a bloodthirsty widow set on revenge and a Christian woman destined to change a culture make her a very interesting figure to study. Someone who was as ruthless and cunning as the princess is memorialized and celebrated by her people. I think there is a lesson in this for girls today. Not that they must be killers and ruthless, but that girls must live life as best as they can, without thinking about how their actions will be perceived. A lot of pressure is put on girls to be demure and quiet – intentionally or not – for fear of ruining their reputation or status. Having a figure like Princess Olga to reminds us that we are all destined to deal with some complication in life – and being quiet and demure about it may not be the best way to approach it.
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