Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Terror of Dereva

Today is the memorial of St. Olga of Kiev, particularly celebrated in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Olga was a Varangian, which means she was of Scandinavian descent (she is known in Scandinavian countries as St. Helga), and she married Prince Igor of Kiev. Kievan Rus was a pretty wild place at the time, and there were a number of loosely allied tribes around it who paid some kind of tribute or other for one reason or another. The Drevlians, called so because they dwelt in the land of Dereva, were one of these. They stopped paying it, and Igor went to make them continue the payment; he got the payment, but then decided that perhaps they should be paying more. In response, they killed him. The son of Olga and Igor, Svyatoslav, was only three years old, so Olga took the throne as queen regent. And the Drevlians had the chutzpah to send a delegation to inform her that they had killed her husband and to propose that she should marry their prince, Prince Mal. Olga convinced them that it would be necessary to do things with more ceremony, so she told them to return to their boat, and the next day, they would be sent for; they should refuse to come by horse or by foot, and she would have the people carry their entire boat to her as an honor. This they did, and Olga had the people carry the boat to a trench she had ordered dug overnight; they dropped the boat in, and buried the Drevlians alive. Remember, she was of Viking stock, it was a Viking custom for people to be honored by burial in a boat.

She sent messengers the Drevlians, agreeing to their proposal, but said that she would only come if they sent their noblemen to escort her. This they did. After their long journey, she had them taken to a bathhouse, with instructions for them to appear before her when she was done. While they were bathing, she had the bathhouse set on fire, starting with the doors so that they could not escape.

She then set out, but sent messengers beforehand saying that before she could marry Prince Mal, she needed to grieve at the grave of her husband, who had been buried in the city where he had been killed, Iskorosten. She asked them to gather all the mead they could for the funeral feast. This was done, and the funeral feast held. When the Drevlians were drunk from the mead, she had them slaughtered. Then she went home. But she was not done.

The preliminaries having been accomplished, having paid her respects to her husband in that inimitable, old-fashioned, high Varangian style, events had now passed to the inevitable next phase: the actual vengeance. You didn't think that she had even started on her revenge yet? Everything up to this point was just part of the funeral honors for her husband. Now she could begin the revenge war. The Kievans, of course, were much better organized and trained as an army, and also had greater numbers, so the revenge war went quite well for them. The Drevlians were driven back.

And again Olga returned to Iskorosten, and laid siege to the city. It was difficult to get a tight seal on the city, though, and the siege lasted a whole year without success. So Olga tried a different tack. She sent a message to the people of Iskorosten, pointing out that other Drevlian cities had submitted and, when they had paid tribute, she had left them alone. They responded that they were willing to pay the tribute, but, given the involvement of their city with the killing of her husband, did not trust her to leave them alone afterward. She replied that enough people had died for her husband's death, but acknowledged that their fear was a reasonable and legitimate one, so she proposed that instead of ordinary tribute, they should just send her three pigeons and three sparrows for each house in the city. This they did, a very large number of pigeons and sparrows. Then Olga had her soldiers tie oily strips of cloth to the legs of the birds, light the ends of the strips on fire, and release the birds. The birds, of course, returned to their nests in the city. The city became a blazing inferno. Many were burned alive. The citizens who could, fled, but as they did so, Olga had them caught and divided into three groups: one group was killed, the second enslaved, and the third -- she left behind to pay tribute.

So the story goes.

Olga, it turned out, had an extraordinary mind for organizing and planning, whether it was organizing and planning a war of vengeance or organizing and planning a kingdom. She established laws, built trading posts and towns, and reorganized the government, making Kievan Rus one of the best-run kingdoms of the day. Having received a barbarian kingdom with warlord status among a number of other tribes, she turned over to her son an incipient empire.

In 950 or so, however, she went on a visit to Constantinople and was baptized into the Church. We don't know why she went, and we don't know what led her to become Christian. There has long been a story that the Emperor Constantine VII was pestering her to marry him, and she took baptism, designating him to be her sponsor, because she realized that it would then make the marriage impossible. Since the Emperor would have already been married, it's probably not true. It is even possible that she may have converted to Christianity in Kiev and thus journeyed to Constantinople as a pilgrimage. She returned to Kiev, and tried to convince her son to convert, as well, but he refused, saying that his men would no longer respect him, a common problem of Christian nobles throughout the realms dominated by the Scandinavians. But because his mother was now a Christian, Svyatoslav became a protector of Christians, and Olga built a number of churches throughout the land. The old-style Varangians grumbled -- but grumble is all they did.

When she died, her pagan son made sure she had a Christian funeral. And Olga's foundation would be the basis by means of which her grandson, St. Vladimir, would Christianize Kievan Rus.

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