Olga Of Kiev: The Murderous Medieval Tale You've Never Heard Of

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"The Exiled Queen" by u/decart
"The Exiled Queen" by u/decart

TL;DL (Too Long; Didn’t Listen):

Olga of Kiev executed one of the most bone-chilling revenge tours in history after her husband, Igor, was murdered. Then, with a burning city in her wake, she converted to Christianity and became a saint.

Reddit Links: 
-Gorod's album A Perfect Absolution explained in connection with Olga of Kiev
-A "Today I Learned" post about Olga of Kiev
Other Links:

-Listen to Gorod's A Perfect Absolution in full

Thanks to u/dec-art for this week's artwork, "The Exiled Queen." You can find more of his work on Instagram and his website.

Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text. 

Amory: Ben, do you know the phrase, history is written by the conquerors?

Ben: I wrote it!

Amory: Okay, how about the phrase, history is written by the technical death metal bands?

Ben: I actually think we’d live in a better world if history was written by the technical death metal bands.

Amory: I concur.

Ben: But I think for today’s story, the most appropriate phrase might be history of the conqueror is written by the technical death metal band.

Amory: Not quite as catchy, but also not wrong. Meet Julien. Who is in Toulouse, France.

Julien Deyres: So we are here. 

Ben: Great! 

Ben: This is a guy with a pretty killer combination of vocations.

Julien: So my name is Julien, Julien Deyres more exactly. And I am as the singing in a band, which is named GOROD. And also I'm an art historian. And nowadays I'm also a tour guide.

Amory: Art historian? Pretty straight forward. Tour guide? Sure. Technical death metal band?

Ben: Maybe we should just play you some. Because it is impressive.

(GOROD plays)

Julien: No one cares about the lyrics because you just hear a singer that is growling or grunting or something like this and talking about death and horror.  I wanted to change it a bit and to make it a bit more attractive because first of all this is a music which is attractive for musicians. 

Ben: So Julien wanted to make his lyrics more attractive. But not like, too attractive.

Julien: That's the challenge of this music because this is a very extreme and brutal music and that's not easy always to find texts that can fits with it.

Amory: Back when Julien had just joined the band, he was also working on his masters thesis, on imagery of murderous women in Czech art. And one day, he was taking a break in the library from thesising and listening to band demos, and he wandered from the Czech literature section into the Russian literature section. And he found a translation of something called the Primary Chronicle.

Ben: And in this book, which covers early Russian medieval history, Julien found a muse. A woman. A queen. A warrior princess. Whose legend came surging out of the primordial mists of a chaotic time in Ukrainian and Russian history. When history was barely written down at all.

Amory: This queen's story is really more like a tangle of rumors, from witnesses who glimpsed and fled from some brutal, epic, massacres. Her name was Olga of Kiev.

Ben: Her life was the perfect material for a concept album about revenge. Olga was a woman who, a long time ago, was wronged. And her reaction defied gender norms, societal norms, most norms. Her reaction was total carnage.

Ben: I’m Ben Brock Johnson

Amory: I’m Amory Sivertson, and you’re listening to Endless Thread, the show featuring stories found in the vast ecosystem of online communities, called Reddit.

Ben: During the month of October we’re bringing you some chilling stories, so really, right now, here by popular demand of many Redditors who wrote us with this suggestion, we’re calling the show Endless Dread. And we’re coming to you from WBUR, Boston’s NPR station. Today’s episode…

Ben and Amory: Olga of Kiev.

Amory: So Julien had been looking for something to sing about on the new Gorod album. And he had found a series of stories that perfectly matched his band’s death metal genre and his yearning for an attractive tale. This queen from the 10th century, Olga of Kiev, had carved a path of destruction that was truly the stuff of legend.

Ben: While she was still a young queen, her husband, a new ruler in the region that is now Ukraine, was murdered by a neighboring tribe.

Amory: Olga vowed to meet this act of murder in kind. But like, tenfold. And the way she went about it, was kind of poetic.

Julien: She was using the four elements, that’s the thing. In order to kill her enemies she was using fire, air, earth and water, in a way. This is what I found, but this is my discovery I think. 

Amory: Olga of Kiev is not very well known, especially in the United States. But she does get posted about a lot on Reddit.

Ben: To Julien, she was an unsung hero. Until he sang her story to death metal music. But there are people who have built their whole careers exploring stories like Olga’s. Still, these people were a little shocked to hear from us.

Professor Ines Garcia De La Puente: I was really surprised, like when I got the email, like how does someone want to know, like why does someone want to know about Olga of Kiev? It's so random. 

Amory: This is Ines Garcia De La Puente. She’s a professor of Russian and comparative literature at Boston University.

Ines: I am basically I'm a medievalist. I have done research on pre-Mongol Rus. And Rus was a territory where today we see Western Russia, Ukraine, Belarus — even Western Poland was part of it. 

Amory: Ines is translating some of the early texts in Slavic languages into Spanish. Because she wants more historical story cross pollination.

Ben: Another person we reached out to to help us understand Olga, is someone who has been nerding out about medieval history for a very long time.

Professor Christian Raffensperger: I was a little kid who played with knights and castles, read adventure books and things like that. I actually just took my kids to the Renaissance Fair here on Sunday.

Amory: Oh my god. 

Ben: You and me will be good friends, Christian.

Christian: My name is Christian Raffensperger, I'm an associate professor of history at Wittenberg University and I'm a medieval historian who works on, particularly, trying to connect Eastern Europe into the larger world of medieval Europe.

Amory: Both Christian and Ines have spent a lot of time, with that same text, the one that Julien discovered in the library. Think of it like the earliest stories we know about this part of the world.

Christian: The English translation is called the Russian Primary Chronicle. In the original it's called Pověstĭ vremęnĭnyxŭ lětŭ, The Tale of Bygone Years. 

Amory: To understand Olga’s story, we should understand a little bit about 10th century Rus. Rus, as it’s called, is really a loose political organization. It’s not a country, it’s not a nation, it’s a bunch of different tribes and settlements that have started to establish normal behaviors of interaction. Which is tricky, because it’s a real melting pot.

Ben: Controlled in some ways by the most war-like people around, the Vikings. Who were sailing down the deep rivers of Eastern Europe, attacking and controlling and establishing footholds in the region. And casting themselves as the enforcers of this melting pot.

Ines: There were Balts, there were Finns, the Slavic peoples. There were Ugric people, so a whole mix of people live there but they did not have a political organization. And these Vikings had a lot of military power. 

Ben: Olga is a Slavic ruler, but her origins are supposedly Viking. Either way, this time period is pretty grim for everybody. Very hard for us to imagine in 2019.

Ben: Which era of Air Jordans is this? Like what are people wearing? I just picture everything covered in mud?

Christian: Well there's no telephone wires to like throw sneakers over so they didn't invent sneakers yet. But they have leather shoes, typically, if you're rich. Otherwise, in Eastern Europe you wore what were called bast shoes, which are bark shoes. 

Ben: Christian says there’s actually a story in that Primary Chronicle document about how a marauding group of people beat up another group, and then are about to enslave them, but then discover the losing group had leather shoes, so they don’t enslave them.

Christian: So everybody is like oh they wear leather shoes of course. Yeah. Let's stick to attacking the people that wear the bark shoes.

Amory: Times have really changed. Psyche! The weapons have changed though.

Ben: What kind of weaponry are we talking about? Is this the iron age, the steel age, what are we talking about?

Christian: So we've got pretty nice swords for the most part. They're nice steel. There are stories about the characteristic famous smith from the Rhine valley named Ulfberht. Ulfberht would sign his blades and so he would use runes and he would sign his blades Ulfberht. But of course somebody realized you know, a blade signed by Ulfberht is worth a lot more money than a blade not signed by Ulfberht. So they started writing Ulfberht on their swords too.

Ben: That’s amazing!

Amory: Oh my God. 

Christian: That’s right. So you have knock-offs, knock-off Ulfberht.

Ben: Knock-off Ulfberht Jordans.

Christian: That’s right.

Ben: OK. Melting pot. Check. Brutal enslavement of neighboring tribes with the wrong footwear. Check. Swords being valuable enough to generate knockoffs. Check. This is definitely the dark ages. And out of these dark ages, comes the legend of Olga, who may be a Viking queen or princess.

Amory: What do we know about what she looked like? 

Ines: Absolutely nothing. We don’t know anything. She was of a Viking background. So she was probably of a very Scandinavian look but we don't know for sure.

Amory: Whatever she looked like, Olga’s story really pushes back against assumptions that people make about the time.

Ines: Because she debunks the cliché of female rulers being nicer, as softer than male rulers. She is a woman in a world of men, so she had reasons to be even more bloodthirsty than men.

Amory: Here’s what happens. Before she ruled in her own right, Olga had been married to this guy, Igor. Igor’s the ruler in this region of Rus. And in this environment of pillaging war bands and an intense cultural melting pot, rulers are essentially mafia bosses. You want protection? You gotta pay.

Ben: You would pay through tribute! Which is kinda like taxes before anyone beyond the big boss could have influence on how those taxes were used. And Igor, Olga’s husband, actually goes out with his warriors and collects those taxes. And one day, he starts getting some guff from his soldiers.

Christian: His war band, this loyal group of soldiers who surround any kind of powerful figure, say to him, “We're not getting enough money,” you know, “So-and-so's war band, they've got silver spoons. They are really, really getting paid. And so we need more money.” And so Igor makes the decision, fateful it turns out, to go collect a second tribute from one of their subject groups, a group known as the Drevlians. And so he takes them, they go to collect a second tribute, and the Drevlians say, “We've already paid!” And so they fight back. And that's how Igor dies.

 Amory: This shakeup leaves Olga in a tough spot. She has a son. But he’s just a kid.

Christian: And he's not old enough to rule and so Olga has to rule in his stead. And yet the Drevlians feel uniquely empowered by killing Igor. And so their king, whose name is Mal, and it has the connotations that you would expect with Mal.

Ben: Like bad.

Christian: Like bad, exactly. 

Ben: OK.

Christian: So he proposes marriage to Olga, which then sets up the story of Olga and her revenge.

Ben: Her reaction by the way is a little bit understandable. Like Amory, would you marry the head of a tribe who just killed your husband?

Amory: No. Definitely more likely that I would go on a rampage.

Ben: Which is exactly what Olga did.

Amory: And this is how we get Olga’s four epic tales of revenge against this tribe, the Drevlians, whose existence lasts from the Sixth Century, to right about the time they cross Olga, by killing her husband.

Christian: And Olga, thinking furiously I have to imagine, is despondent but then deals with the situation. And knowing that she is going to take a subordinate position if that ever happens says, “Well, my people really won't go for that. I'm not opposed, but my people really won't go for that. And so you need to demonstrate to them how wealthy you are and how powerful. So what you should do is you should go back to your boat and you should prepare yourself with wealth. You should dress in fancy clothes. And tomorrow I will send emissaries to you. And when I do you will demand to be carried, not on horseback, not in a carriage, but your boat carried to me to demonstrate your wealth.” And they agree. 

Ben: While the Drevlians are preparing to show their superiority by demanding to be carried in a boat, Olga tells her people to dig a massive hole in the middle of the courtyard of the city’s fort.

Amory: The next day the Drevlians sail back down the river. They pull up to the docks of Olga’s city. And they say we won’t go up the hill to the fort unless you carry us in our boat. Olga’s people say OK.

Christian: So they pick up the boat with the people in it and they trudge up the hill to the castle. And when they get up to the castle they dump it into the hole that Olga had dug. And she stands over them while they are in the hole and says, “This is what I think of your proposal.” And then she has them buried alive.

Amory: For those following along from home, this is Olga’s use of the earth and water elements, in her death-metal-record worthy revenge.

Christian: Alright, story two. Another set of messengers arrives saying, “Our king would like to marry you.” And there's no mention here of like, oh by the way where are the other messengers? And she says, “You're dirty from the road and you've traveled all this way and you come right into my throne room and you see me like this. No! Go clean yourselves off. Alright, I'll have a bath prepared for you.” And so this is an Eastern European kind of sauna steam bath, imagine this. They're like OK fine you know we'll go through that. And so they go to the sauna and she's got it warmed up for them and they go inside. And she has the doors boarded up and she burns the sauna down around them killing them.

Amory: Check off elemental revenge involving fire and maybe water once again, just for good measure. 

Ben: The next story involves Olga supposedly finally agreeing to the Drevlian King Mal’s proposal.

Christian: Alright, so story three, she has to finally go along. And so she gathers up her ladies in waiting, she gathers up the men of Kiev, and they march to the Drevlian lands. And outside of the city, she says, “We have to have a proper wedding feast in commemoration of my dead husband because this is where he was killed. And so we should have a feast to honor his memory before we go forward with this wedding.” And so the Drevlians agree and they supply mead and they supply ale and they drink. 

Ben: Can you tell us more about what a feast might look like in the 10th century?

Christian: We'll have boar probably on the menu. We might have fish on the menu at this time as well as bread. Bread is ubiquitous.

Ben: It's like a surf and turf almost.

Christian: It would be a little bit like a surf and turf. I can see it. 

Amory: Vengeful Olga, and her ladies in waiting, a feast where people might get a little tipsy. You can probably see where this is going.

Christian: She has her servants go around continually refilling whatever people are drinking from until the Drevlians are passed out drunk. At which time she and her ladies in waiting wander among them slitting all of their throats.

Ben and Amory: Woahhhh.

Christian: The Chronicle tells us she does it herself too. I mean this is like her getting her hands dirty.

Ben: Chalk this up to elemental revenge, surf & turf? It seems Olga went off her element revenge script here. Also like, shouldn’t the Drevlians be a little faster on the pick-up?

Amory: But the last story, and really the end of Olga’s revenge, as well as the end of the Drevlians, is maybe the most brutal of all.

Ben: Her last form of elemental revenge, air. And we’ll tell you that chilling tale in a minute.

[Sponsor Break]

Ben: So Olga of Kiev has really gone after this neighboring tribe who murdered her husband. And at this point in the legend of Olga, she’s got ‘em on the run.

Christian: So story number four comes when Olga decides they're not going to fall for anything else. So let's just make war.  And so she gathers her husband's forces. She gathers other forces and she is a woman and can't lead the military forces. And so her son does. And he's a minor. They have him on a horse with a spear and he has to cast the first spear to signal the start of the battle.

Amory: How old is he at this point?

Christian: Well we don't really know, but I'm going to guess about 10. And he throws that first spear and it tells us it barely clears his own horses head. And they rout the Drevlian army and very quickly they are trapped in the city and they are under siege. And they're under siege for quite a long time. And finally Olga proposes peace. And the people in the city say, you know, “We don't really trust you.” Why, I can imagine. And she says, “No no really. I'm not going to kill you. I don't want any money from you. You don't have any money. 

Ines: I know that you don't have much to give me, you've been suffering, my troops surrounding your town for quite a while. You don’t have furs probably, you don't have honey. Why then you give me a sparrow and a dove from each house. So the Drevlians are thinking, oh this Princess Olga or this Queen Olga is so nice to us. So they give her the tribute. And what she does is she attaches a burning piece of wood on each of the birds and then they set them free. And when they set them free the birds fly back to their nests. And of course they set the city on fire. And then the Derevlians try to run away and Olga has her people kill some of their people, the elderly probably. Others she enslaves and sells to other peoples. And the rest she just lets rebuild the city basically, paying her a very expensive tribute. So she's a very cruel ruler.  

Ben: Olga’s story really is Metal AF.

Amory: True. But I think we need to come clean, Ben. It’s time for a reality check.

Ben: So something we’ve been dancing around here is that Olga’s story isn’t really just Olga’s story. There start to be questions about the legend.

Amory: And Christian says, that’s because really these are popular stories that get told about a lot of different rulers.

Christian: And there's no concept of plagiarism in medieval sources. If something awesome happened to somebody, why shouldn't that have happened to your protagonist?

Amory: Christian says that the person who wrote this early document, The Russian Primary Chronicle, which was actually written about a century after Olga lived, he she or they really kind of threw all these stories in there. Olga’s legend is almost a reflection of the very real cultural melting pot happening in this place at this time.

Christian: Well there might be some germ of truth to certainly all of these things and I really do think she was crafty and I do think she did these things and I've got evidence for that because she appears in multiple different sources. And so we know a person existed with this name who was the ruler in Kiev who did have power in her own right.

Ben: The truth is, we still know very little about Olga.

Amory: How do you square, you know, very limited historical knowledge and legend and package it into Olga of Kiev, into something that we can pass down to people? 

Ines: First thing is you have to live knowing that nothing that you're saying you know is 100 percent sure. There is a lot of maybes. There is a lot of perhaps in anything you do with Rus, so that's something you just have to digest. You just have to understand. Otherwise it makes it impossible to work on it.

Ben: For people like Ines and Christian, this reaching back through history to conjure something close to the truth is what is really interesting. The brutal legends? They’re nice. But a more contextual understanding of the time that Olga lived in is maybe even more valuable.

Amory: We should read this one Reddit Today I Learned post. And a comment. The post says Today I learned that Olga of Kiev murdered over 5 thousand people in revenge for the murder of her husband, converted to Christianity and became a saint, which is true. She was sainted after her death.

Ben: Top comment says, 5 thousand kill streak achievement unlocked, saint. Which is a video game reference but it’s kindof funny too, right?

Amory: Yeah because the supreme irony of all of this is that in the end, Olga is seen as a unifier, through religion. Forget the violence stuff. Olga helped move this part of the world from chaos to order.

Ines: Olga probably realized that Christianity was better for organizing a state than, you know, having a God from here, God from there, which is what was probably the case at that time. They had different beliefs, they had their own deities, their own divinities that they prayed to. It could have also been that she genuinely wanted to become a believer. We don't know. But there was definitely a lot of political intention in that 

Amory: Yeah it's almost an act of diplomacy. 

Ines: Definitely, it is. That's what it is. 

Ben: And here comes Olga’s final trick. She goes to Constantinople, to be baptized. And the emperor, Constantine, supposedly wants to marry her.

Amory: But Olga’s done her homework. So she knows that if he baptizes her, as her godfather, he can’t marry her. So she gets Constantine to do it.

Christian: And afterwards the Emperor says, “Alright now you're a Christian, let's get married.” And she says, “Well, by your own laws you have stood baptismal sponsor for me. That makes you my godfather. And certainly I can't marry my own godfather!” And he says, “Oh. Oh Olga. You've tricked me.” It's almost that simple in the text. 

Ben: Part of why Olga might be lesser known in the West, is this sort of confusing ancient history. This swirling mist where legend meets literature meets what we think is historical fact.

Ines: What we probably have in the Chronicle is a conflation of two Olgas: one Olga was a historical Olga that we know she existed. But then there is another Olga who is a legendary Olga, who is this trickster figure, who is this warrior type of woman, this very intelligent and cunning queen or princess who gets what she wants. So it's important that we don't have a preconception of what a female ruler is like and that we actually look at what we have in the sources.

Amory: And maybe the lesson here if there is one, is that we don’t actually know a lot about this time period, and maybe we simplify it a little too much.

Christian: And so on places on the internet in particular, we see a medieval world that is white and male and about violence and power. And that's really not the medieval world that I know and that I study. We see a medieval world in the scholarship that is diverse in terms of religions and languages and skin colors and ethnicities. And we also see a medieval world where women exercise power along side of men. 

Amory: In other words, if this vision of a medieval society in which women can rule and there’s diversity of ethnicities and religions doesn’t sound like what you’ve seen in the movies, you can probably thank the patriarchy.

Ben: One other lesson, Amory?

Amory: Yeah.

Ben: If you murder someone’s partner and then they invite you to a banquet. Send them a polite no thank you?

Amory: Yeah. And then run.

Ben: Run!

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Josh Crane Producer, Podcasts & New Programs
Josh is a producer for podcasts and new programs at WBUR.



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