Wow, my 31st great grandmother was not only the ruler of Kiev, but also a saint in the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic faiths. Quite an accomplishment.
Not much is known about her early life, not even the actual year of her birth. She was from the Viking tribe of the Rus, she had married the son of the founder of the Kievan Rus, and she was steeped in their pagan religion. Her husband Igor, my 31st great grandfather, was a great leader and he had used his military skill to exact tribute from the various tribal neighbors. Basically, “pay us gold and we won’t attack you”. Things were going well for him, he had a son from Olga, the gold was flowing, he was very successful.
Igor paid a visit to a troubling neighbor tribe in northern Ukraine, the Drevlians. The had decided to pay their gold to a different warlord. Igor convinced them to change their minds. The gold was paid, and Igor went away. A few miles down the road Igor got to thinking, “That was an insult to pay those thugs on the other side of the river instead of me!” He thought perhaps they should pay an additional premium, so he turned back, with only a small retinue, not with his whole army.
When he got back to the Drevlian capital it did not go well. The Drevlians took him prisoner, did not pay the premium, and took back the tribute. Then they tied Igor to two bent over pine trees, let the trees go and ripped Igor in half. So ended my 31st great grandfather.
But the story goes on… Olga stepped up as leader of the Rus, her son was not old enough to take charge. She rallied her troops to respond to this outrage. Amazingly the Drevlians had sent a boat with twenty ambassadors to Olga’s court. They said that they murdered Olga’s husband, and that it might be prudent for her to marry the Drevlian leader now that she was single. Olga told the ambassadors to remain in their boat, she would have her troops carry them in the boat to the city to honor them, and their request.
The next morning the Rus carried the boat, and the ambassadors, to the gates of Kiev. A large trench had been dug and the boat, with it’s passengers, were placed in the pit. Then, while Olga watched, the ambassadors were buried alive. Don’t mess with Olga!
Olga sent a message to the Drevlians in the capital city to send another delegation to discuss the future marriage. They were thrilled, and sent another group of the most powerful men of their tribe. Olga invited them to the local bath house to get refreshed, then she bolted the doors and burnt it down.
It was at this point that she took her army to the Drevlian capital city and lay siege to it. The Drevlians had by now realized their mistake, and were fearful of Olga’s temper and would not surrender. Olga told them not worry, she was over it, “forget this year’s tribute, just sent me three pigeons from each household in order for me to sacrifice them to our gods”. The Drevlians were thrilled to get off so easy, so the birds went sent.
Olga had her men tie strips of sulfur impregnated cloth to the birds. They then sent them on fire and released them. They flew back to their nests in the city, and the entire city caught fire all at once, and it burned down. Olga was waiting at the gates for anyone who tried to leave. Don’t mess with Olga!
As you can tell, Olga’s actions were talked about and the Kievan Rus were now feared far and wide. But these actions did not lead to sainthood.
Olga made a trip to Constantinople to see the Emperor, he found her to be beautiful and very wise. He invited her to consider being his empress. She replied that she was a pagan, so she could not marry him. But, if the Emperor himself would baptize her, then she would be willing. She was instructed by the Patriarch and the Emperor baptized her.
When the Emperor asked when the wedding would take place, Olga responded that it would not be fitting for a godfather to marry his goddaughter. Incest!
She returned to Kiev and apparently had completely been changed by the baptism. Her son was now old enough to be in charge, and she asked him to convert all his men to Christianity. He said no, but he said he would not prohibit converts, he just suggested that they would be laughed at. It was the first step, Olga’s grandson would convert the entire Kievan Rus to Christianity.
Olga, Warrior Princess, feared leader, Christian missionary and my 31st great grandmother. And as it turns out, she was my 29th great grandmother on my father’s side.
Churches and monuments
• Cathedral of St. Olga, Kiev (inaugurated 2010)
• Church of Volodymyr and Olha, Khodoriv
• Church of Saints Volodymyr and Olha, Birky, Yavoriv Raion
• Church of Saints Volodymyr and Olha, Horodok, Lviv Oblast
• Saints Vladimir and Olga Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral and Parish Hall, Winnipeg, Manitoba
• Saints Vladimir and Olga Ukrainian Catholic Church, Dauphin, Manitoba
• Saints Vladimir and Olga Ukrainian Catholic Church, Windsor, Ontario
• Saints Volodymyr and Olha Church, Woodville, South Australia