Today I read a news article mentioning a historian’s initial puzzlement at an illustration in a 16th-century military manual by Franz Helm. It depicts a pigeon and a cat with seeming “jet packs” with flame exhaust strapped to their backs. Perhaps rockets?

The illustration did not puzzle me for a moment, nor would it puzzle anyone who has read the Russian Primary Chronicle and its account of the life of the very unsaintly Russian Orthodox saint Princess Olga of Kiev.

Here is a very Westernized icon showing the Evangelist John (Ioann) and Princess Olga. It was likely painted for a husband and wife who had those saints as their “name saints.” Look at Olga, all sweetness and light. But according to the Primary Chronicle, she could be absolutely vicious and completely unforgiving.

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

What did Olga do?

Well, first she married Prince Igor of the Rurik Dynasty. In 945, Igor went to obtain tribute from a tribe called the Derevlians, but he was very greedy and demanded a great deal, which he then violently took. Making matters worse, on his way home he turned back to demand even more. The Derevlians saw there was no satisfying his wolfish greed, so they came out of their city of Iskorosten and killed him.

That left Igor and Olga’s son Svyatoslav as heir to the rulership of Kiev. But Svyatoslav was only three, so Olga became regent, ruler in his place.

Meanwhile, the Derevlians, perhaps trying to make amends (the Chronicle ascribes another lesser motive), sent representatives — twenty of them, to Princess Olga asking her hand in marriage for their good Prince Mal, proposing a union that would have united the two factions. They came to Kiev by boat.

When Olga heard their proposal, she lied to them and told them she was pleased. But she asked them to return to their boat, saying that on the next day she would, to honor them, have them carried to her in their boat.

That seemed a flattering prospect, so the ambassadors left, and the next day they were carried, sitting richly dressed and still in their boat, to a hall where Olga sat. However, Olga had previously ordered a large hole to be dug in the hall, and when the Derevlians were carried in, they were dropped, boat and all, into the hole. Olga, peering in, asked them if the honor shown them was to their taste, then she had them buried alive.

Next, Olga sent a message to the Derevlian land, telling them that if they would send their most distinguished men, the people of Kiev would be impressed by them and would permit Olga to go with them to Prince Mal in honor. So the Derevlians sent their most important authorities. When they arrived, Olga told them she would give them an audience after they had gone to the bathhouse and had bathed. When they entered the bathhouse, Olga had the doors locked and the bathhouse set on fire. They all burned to death.

Then Olga sent a message back to the Derevlian land, saying that she was coming to them, but that they should prepare a great quantity of honey mead so that Olga might mourn at the grave of her husband. When Olga arrived among the Derevlians, she went to Igor’s tomb and lamented, then asked those in her retinue to prepare a funeral feast in which the Derevlians were invited to join. They were served mead by Olga’s followers, and when they were very drunk, she had her followers kill them, and she “went about herself egging on her retinue to the massacre of the Derevlians. So they cut down five thousand of them; but Olga returned to Kiev and prepared an army to attack the survivors.”

When Olga threatened them with her army, the Derevlians, now realizing the kind of person they were dealing with, offered her tributes of honey and furs. But Olga asked instead for something else:

Give me three pigeons,” she said, “and three sparrows from each house. I do not desire to impose a heavy tribute, like my husband, but I require only this small gift from you, for you are impoverished by the siege.

The Derevlians, relieved and encouraged by this, gladly took three pigeons and three sparrows from every house, and sent them to Olga to fulfill her request. Olga told them that they could go back to their city now that she was satisfied, and said that the following day she would return home. When the Derevlians returned to Iskorosten and reported this to the people, everyone was very happy.

Now, however, comes the horrible event that explains the “jet pack” on bird and cat in the 16th-century illustration:

Now Olga gave to each soldier in her army a pigeon or a sparrow, and ordered them to attach by thread to each pigeon and sparrow a piece of [incendiary] sulfur bound with small pieces of cloth. When night fell, Olga bade her soldiers release the pigeons and the sparrows. So the birds flew to their nests, the pigeons to the cotes, and the sparrows under the eaves. The dove-cotes, the coops, the porches, and the haymows were set on fire. There was not a house that was not consumed, and it was impossible to extinguish the flames, because all the houses caught on fire at once. The people fled from the city, and Olga ordered her soldiers to catch them. Thus she took the city and burned it, and captured the elders of the city. Some of the other captives she killed, while some she gave to others as slaves to her followers. The remnant she left to pay tribute.

Delightful lady, huh?

Sometime between 948-955, Olga went to Byzantium, to Constantinople, which the Russians called Tsargrad (“Emperor-City”). Constantine, the ruler at that time, was impressed with her cleverness, and wanted to make her his wife and Empress. Olga, still a pagan, requested to be baptized into Christianity by the Emperor himself. Constantine was willing to comply, so he baptized her and Olga became a Christian.

Then Constantine formally proposed marriage to her.

Her response, however, was “How can you marry me, after baptizing me yourself and calling me your daughter? For among Christians that is unlawful, as you yourself must know.

Constantine remarked, “Olga, you have outwitted me.” So he sent her back home loaded with gifts.

When Olga’s son Svyatoslav had grown and taken on rulership, Olga asked him to become a Christian, saying that if he did his subjects would convert as well. He, however, preferred to remain pagan.

The Primary Chronicle ends the tale of Olga by calling her “the precursor of the Christian land, even as the dayspring precedes the sun and as the dawn precedes the day. For she shone like the moon by night, and she was radiant among the infidels like a pearl in the mire, since the people were soiled, and not yet purified of their sin by holy baptism. But she herself was cleansed by this sacred purification. She put off the sinful garments of the old Adam, and was clad in the new Adam, which is Christ… She was the first from Rus to enter the kingdom of God, and the sons of Rus thus praise her as their leader, for since her death she has interceded with God in their behalf.

In 1547 Olga was officially “glorified” as a Russian Orthodox saint, and was given the title Ravnoapostolnaya — “Equal to the Apostles.”

Well, I doubt that Olga was any less of a tough customer after conversion. There seems little evidence of it. The illustration below is likely closer to representing her dark personality than the pious image in the icon shown earlier:


The inscription just to the right of Olga’s head reads SV[yataya] KN[yagina] Olga — “Holy Princess Olga.”

Though Olga failed to convert her son Svyatoslav, her grandson Vladimir became a Christian and ordered his subjects — under threat — to become Christian as well in 988 c.e., the date of the “conversion of Russia.”



Today I want to talk about icons of the Dormition, Uspenie in Slavic, Koimesis in Greek. It means “Falling Asleep.” The Dormition icon represents the death of Mary, mother of Jesus. We have already seen that many icons incorporate apocryphal elements. The Dormition type is based entirely on such “pseudepigraphal” writings, or to avoid the euphemism, writings forged under the names of noted figures in Christian history.
Here is an elaborate version of the Dormition:

(Courtesy of

In the center is Mary lying on a bier. In the sky above we see the Apostles arriving on clouds moved by angels, to be present at her death:


And then we see them after arrival, standing around her bier. So they are represented twice in the icon, to show two stages of time.

Directly above Mary stands Jesus, who holds Mary’s soul, depicted as an infant because she was just born into Heaven, on his left arm. Above Jesus is a red, winged angel of the cherubim rank.


The fellow whose head is visible at lower right in the image above is Dionysius the Areopagite. He wears the stole of a bishop, and often shown also are Timothy (the one known to the Apostle Paul) and Hierotheus. Some examples also include James, while other examples include saints of later periods.

In the clouds at the top, we see two angels waiting on the other side of the opened doors of Heaven. Their hands are covered with cloths, which is a sign of veneration for a sacred object or person:


Just below Mary’s bier is a man with his hands reaching upward. This, according to the old story, is Athonios (Iephonias in Greek examples), a Jew jealous of the honor shown Mary, who tried to push over the bier but was prevented from doing so by an angel with a sword, who cuts of Athonias’ hands. In this example his hands have not yet been cut off. In some examples, however, his hands are shown severed from his arms. This is an example of the anti-Semitism that one sometimes finds in Christian history and in Eastern Orthodoxy.


Those familiar with the New Testament will recognize that the story of the Dormition is nowhere found in it. It actually comes from extra-biblical spurious writings, primarily represented by the Account of St. John the Theologian of the Dormition of the Mother of God, a Greek text that is usually dated to the 6th century, though some would date it earlier (and which of course uses the name of the Apostle John to give a semblance of veracity). However Epiphanius of Salamis, who died c. 403, wrote in his Panarion 79:11, that nothing certain was known of the death of Mary, quite in contrast to the later, elaborate tale of the Dormition, in which we find the account of why and how the Apostles were brought to witness Mary’s death:

And she prayed, saying: My Lord Jesus Christ, who did deign through your supreme goodness to be born of me, hear my voice, and send me your apostle John, in order that, seeing him, I may partake of joy; and send me also the rest of Thy apostles, both those who have already gone to you, and those in the world that now is, in whatever country they may be, through your holy commandment, in order that, having beheld them, I may bless your name much to be praised; for I am confident that you hear your servant in everything.

And while she was praying, I John came, the Holy Spirit having snatched me up by a cloud from Ephesus, and set me in the place where the mother of my Lord was lying… And the three virgins came and worshipped… And the holy mother of God answered and said to me: The Jews have sworn that after I have died they will burn my body. And I answered and said to her: Your holy and precious body will by no means see corruption…

And the Holy Spirit said to the apostles: Let all of you together, having come by the clouds from the ends of the world, be assembled to holy Bethlehem by a whirlwind, on account of the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ; Peter from Rome, Paul from Tiberia, Thomas from hither India, James from Jerusalem. Andrew, Peter’s brother, and Philip, Luke, and Simon the Cananaean, and Thaddaeus who had fallen asleep, were raised by the Holy Spirit out of their tombs; to whom the Holy Spirit said: Do not think that it is now the resurrection; but on this account you have risen out of your tombs, that you may go to give greeting to the honour and wonder-working of the mother of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, because the day of her departure is at hand, of her going up into the heavens. And Mark likewise coming round, was present from Alexandria; he also with the rest, as has been said before, from each country. And Peter being lifted up by a cloud, stood between heaven and earth, the Holy Spirit keeping him steady. And at the same time, the rest of the apostles also, having been snatched up in clouds, were found along with Peter. And thus by the Holy Spirit, as has been said, they all came together.

Now obviously this is not an historical event. It is mythmaking, a part of the ever-increasing veneration of Mary that occurred in the Church after the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire under Constantine and the influx into the Church of large numbers of pagans, accustomed to a mother goddess, who found in Mary a replacement. The earliest written example of Marian veneration is found on a damaged papyrus that dates no earlier than the 4th century to the second half of the 3rd century, and comes, not surprisingly, from Egypt, where formerly the Goddess Isis was very prominent, whose worship also spread into Rome:


The emended Greek version of the prayer (I have added an interlinear translation) reads:

Ὑπὸ τὴν σὴν
Beneath your
We flee for refuge
Θεοτὸκε· τὰς ἡμῶν
O Birth-giver-of-God; our
ἱκεσίας μὴ παρ-
petitions do not
ίδῃς ἐν περιστάσει
despise in need
ἀλλ᾽ ἐκ κινδύνου
but from peril
λύτρωσαι ἡμᾶς
deliver us
μόνη ἁγνὴ
Only Pure [One]
μόνη εὐλογημένη.
Only Blessed [One]

There are generally two versions of the Dormition icon. The first, like that above, shows the Apostles arriving on clouds as well as the scene of the angel cutting off the hands of Athonias. The second simplifies the type by omitting those elements.

The Dormition of the Mother of God is one of the major festivals of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and is found both in icons of the major Church festivals and, as we have seen, as a separate icon type.

A widespread, popular apocryphal tale of Mary descending into Hades before she ascended to Heaven came into Russia from the Byzantine Greek world, via Bulgaria.  In it, Mary goes to the Mount of Olives and calls the Archangel Michael to take her down to Hades so she might see the torments sinful Christians were suffering there.  Michael then acts as her guide through Hades (“Hell”), and shows her its various regions and gruesome tortures, much as Dante is led through Hell by the Roman poet Virgil.  The difference is that Mary then beseeches God to be merciful, but he only relents to a certain degree, holding off the tortures of the condemned to give them a rest between Easter and All Saints Day (or Good Thursday through Pentecost– accounts vary)  Oddly, it is specifically mentioned that Mary refuses to intercede for “the unbelieving Jews” in Hades, which no doubt contributed to the unfortunate antisemitism that so often appears in Slavic countries.  It is likely that Dante got the idea for his guided tour through Purgatory, Hell, and Heaven via this apocryphal tale as brought to Italy by Bulgarian Manicheans.  The tale of Mary’s descent to Hades is mentioned in Dostoevskiy’s novel The Brothers Karamazov.