Well, goddess would be a stretch. But close. She’s a patron saint, and she kicks ass. If there were any patron saints right now that I’d ascend from canonization to godhood, it would be her. And my spiritual little heart has to believe she’s watching over Ukraine.
It’s timely. Since needless bullshit is being waged in Ukraine by a country with nukes that can therefore annihilate us with a push of a button, we need some comfort in the darkness. The hope that St. Olga of Kyiv gives us is more of the grimdark variety, fueled by a relentless desire for revenge and then acting on it. Plus, “Puppet History” on YouTube did an episode about her, so…
Without further ado, here’s the tale of St. Olga, the mistress of vengeance who set out to conquer (or destroy) the entire tribe who killed her husband.
The Honeymoon Years (we presume)
As “Puppet History” points out, once upon a time, in the land of Kievan Rus (modern day Russia, Finland, and northern Ukraine) the Finns and Slavs couldn’t get along, so instead of killing each other, they enlisted the most powerful military in their region to do the ruling, negotiating, etc. for them. That powerhouse was the Vikings, who established their base in Kyiv (also spelled Kiev).
Their king’s name was Riurik and he had a son named Igor. Coincidentally, the leader of Kyiv named Oleg had a daughter name Olga. Since Riurik had a son and Oleg had a daughter, they joined their houses grimdark fantasy (medieval history) style, via marriage.
St. Olga was married off to her husband when she was a teenager, about fifteen when she was wed to Igor I. Think of her as a Daenerys Targaryen without the dragons. Although, to be fair, she didn’t need dragons to exact her revenge.
The Inciting Incident (or Always Listen to Your Wife)
In 945 AD, a tribe under Riurik, and later Igor’s rule, the Drevlians, refused to pay tribute. They had paid tribute to Oleg, Olga’s father, but when Igor became the head honcho, they stopped paying. To remedy this disrespect/breach of fealty, Igor marched there himself to demand his tribute. Now, first, he marched his army there and the sight of a bunch of guys with spears was enough to cow the Drevlians into paying, but then in 945, Igor got cocky. Whoops. He should’ve listened to Olga. (I think it’s safe to assume, given my own marital experience, Olga coulda/woulda/shoulda advised Igor take a couple of the “boys” with him, just in case.)
He thought he could collect extra tribute just by showing up himself to collect more. So, the Drevlians taught him a lesson. In true grizzly, grimdark fashion, the Drevlians didn’t just go, “Oh, gee, sorry we missed a few payments. Here ‘ya go. Here’s a few extra goats for the trouble…”
No. They brutally tortured Igor to death. Per one Byzantine chronicler, “They had bent down two birch trees to the prince’s feet and tied them to his legs. Then they let the trees straighten again, thus tearing the prince’s body apart.” They literally tore him in half with trees.
At the time, Olga was only 20 with a three-year-old son at home. The Drevlians probably thought she’d just be a helpless little girl crying at home because her husband was killed in battle. Well, that was their second (fatal) mistake. Since her son wasn’t old enough to rule, she was named Regent of Kievan Rus. And she had a thirst for vengeance. As Regent of Kievan Rus, she could make that happen.
Richly Deserved War Crimes
At the beginning of her trek to vengeance, the Drevlians gave her an opening. They assumed that the widow of the man they just killed would want to marry the Drevlian chief. Big mistake. You can imagine a few choice things she might have said, but…
Rather than telling them to drop dead, Olga laid a trap. She accepted the invitation of twenty ambassadors from the Drevlians. Before they arrived, she ordered her soldiers to dig a big ditch in anticipation of their visit.
She even told said ambassadors that she’d have a big, big party in their honor to announce whether she was going to marry their prince. Yay! Cake for everyone! Except… The cake was a lie. Instead, Olga’s men carried the ambassadors in their boats to the ditch they dug, threw the boat in, and buried the poor saps alive.
Was that the end? Nope! Thanks to the wonders of super-slow communication, The Drevlian prince had no clue that his ambassadors had been buried alive in their own boat. He actually thought the engagement was still on. So, he sent some men to escort Olga to him to marry him. Of course, this was at Olga’s behest so she could burn the best men alive in another ruse.
She didn’t stop there. She went to the Drevlian’s fortress, held a party for them, and slaughtered them all when they were too drunk to fight.
And you thought the Red Wedding was creative!
St. Olga was canonized about 500 years later by the Russian Orthodox Church as the Patron Saint of widows and converts. Why converts? She was pagan, but later, when she went to Constantinople to form alliances, she converted to Christianity.
Fact vs Legend
Granted, the boat story may have been exaggerated. What, do they have a bunch of Incredible Hulks waiting around to throw a bunch of Vikings in a ditch they dug the night before? Please. And I didn’t even mention the pigeons!
In order to “secure peace and show mercy,” St. Olga demanded a tribute of pigeons and doves as a so-called act of mercy. But when she received the fowl, she allegedly tied Sulphur to their feet, lit them on fire, and then released these homing pigeons into the Drevlian’s home base, torching the place to the ground. Did that happen either? Maybe, but probably not with pigeons that had literal fiery stones tied to their fucking feet—they’d have died before they got there. But it sounds sexy and terrifying.
However, the story of St. Olga made me think about a couple of things. Truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction, so getting creative with plot points as long as they’re technologically accurate to the time can make for some engaging storytelling.
It’s my considered opinion that we need dark heroes to inspire hope. St. Olga won with dark, brutal vengeance, but she also won within the scope of her talents, by using cunning and good rulership to achieve her goals. She also used a technological deficit, slow communication, to her advantage to pull all this off. It’s a good example of how you can have a character win but keep it in the realm of gritty realism that is grimdark.
I’m rooting for the spiritual descendent of St. Olga to rise up in Ukraine. 😈
Which historical event do you want to see recreated in grimdark fantasy? Have you seen one that made you gasp when you read it on the page? Ping me on your favorite social platform and give me your grimmest dark ideas.
If you find St. Olga fascinating in some way, you might like to meet the Raven Queen. Illyria di Alamar Forte will never be canonized as a saint, but she began her own bloody trek toward building her Temple of Vengeance in Raven Queen, Arise.