Friday, February 28, 2014

Revenge is best served by a woman!

 A woman outwits an opposing army, and reeks revenge on those who wish to conquer her kingdom.

An interesting account of a true warrior woman in history is The Deeds of Princess Olga. Olga lived in the tenth century. According to modern scholar Judith Jesch, Olga is the Russian translation of Helga, a Norse name. Although the Vikings did reach into Russia during their raids and some settled there, historians disagree over Helga’s true origins. It is unclear as to whether she was of Slavic or Norse descent, but compelling evidence suggests Norse origins as her parents were said to speak the ‘Varangian’ tongue.[1]  In the tenth century, Helga/Olga, was brought to the city of Pskov as a wife for Igor, prince of Kiev. When Prince Igor is killed in 945 CE by the neighboring Derevlians, they demand that Olga marry their Prince, Mal, to create an alliance. This would technically give the Derevlians power over Kiev and over her young son by Igor, who was destined be the future prince of Kiev. 
Olga plots to avenge the death of her husband in good old fashioned Norse/Viking tradition. First, she tricks the Derevlian ambassadors who come by river to secure her hand in marriage for their prince. She specifies that they must come to the palace from the river carried in a boat. Anxious to please her and secure the alliance, they comply. When they arrive in their boat/carriage, the boat, with the ambassadors inside it, is dropped into a deep ditch and the envoys are buried alive.
Another group arrives, unaware of the plight of the first. Olga instructs them to ceremonially bathe before meeting her at the palace. They comply, are locked in the bath house, and the bath house is set fire with the men inside.
She invites the next wave of Derevlians to attend a feast at her husband’s grave as a sort of peace offering before she will agree to marry their prince. She instructs them to prepare vast quantities of mead and meet her for a funeral feast at the grave site. When the ambassadors are drunk, she orders her followers to kill them. She then leads her troops in the attack against Derevlian cities in the ensuing war, using her young son (Igor, who will be the future prince) as a figurehead for the troops. When the city of Iskorosten held out against her siege, she demands tribute and submission before she will leave. The tribute, (according to The Russian Primary Chronicle) was to be three pigeons and three sparrows from each household. When the strange tribute was paid, Olga ordered her soldiers to attach a small piece of cloth filled with sulfur to each bird’s foot with a thread. At sunset they released the birds. The birds then flew to their respective nesting places beneath the eaves of the houses, in haymows and outbuildings within the city, and the city was set on fire.[2]  The entire city went up in flames.
The chronicle goes on to record that Olga converted to Christianity in 955 CE. Her son did not convert, but grandson Vladmir I (r. 998-1015) also converted and is considered the first Christian ruler in Russia. The woman in this tale sounds suspiciously like a valkyrie.  Scholar Judith Jesch believes Olga’s Norse lineage is responsible for her ferocity in seeking vengeance for the death of her spouse.

[1] Judith Jesch. Women in the Viking Age. (Woodbridge; The Boydell Press, 1991)  111-113. Chapter VI, 
Warrior Woman to Nun.
[2] We aren’t told how this feat happened, if the soldiers fired flaming arrows at the birds as they flew or if they just spontaneously combusted in unison!

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