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.
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 Kyiv. 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 Kyiv 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 Kyiv 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.”