It’s never too late to repent! Even some of the most venerated saints have had a naughty past. Explore the fine line between sin and sanctity in this original OZY series — Before They Were Holy: Saints Gone Wild.
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The Drevlian people of medieval Ukraine were happy and optimistic. They had just murdered Prince Igor of Kiev, regent of one of their enemies, the Kievan Rus, and had done so in grand fashion — by ripping him in half while still alive. The technique? Bend two birch trees to the ground, tie the victim’s legs to the trunks and then release the trees, which spring back to their original positions.
The Drevlians knew that Igor’s son, born just three years earlier, in 942, was too young to take the crown and that his beautiful mother, Princess Olga, was a demure noblewoman who would gladly marry their Prince Mal, thus expanding Drevlian territory.
The latter assumption turned out to be fatal.
If any saint [was] bad to the bone, it was Olga, princess of Kiev.
Thomas Craughwell, author, Saints Behaving Badly
Twenty overly confident Drevlian negotiators boated down the Dnieper River to Kiev to begin proceedings to cement the union of the two East Slavs. The following morning, the visiting dignitaries, resplendent in their best robes, waited outside the court of Olga, having been told that the princess had prepared a great honor for them. The men were seized and thrown into a deep trench that Olga had ordered dug the previous day. As her men began burying the dignitaries alive, Olga peered over the edge and asked the envoys if they “found the honor to their taste.” They shouted up at her that the slow, agonizing suffocation was “worse than the death of Igor.”
But Olga, who by a bizarre turn of events would one day become St. Olga of Kiev in the Orthodox Church, was just getting started.
According to The Russian Primary Chronicle, Olga was born around 890 in Pskov, in what’s now northwestern Russia, near Estonia. Her people were Varyags — aka Vikings. Little is known about her life before her marriage to Igor, but based on her interment of the Drevlian delegation, it seems possible that her parents had instilled in her the Viking warrior spirit — and a spirit of vengeance.
While Olga would one day follow Christ’s philosophy of “turning the other cheek,” this notion appears to have been a foreign concept to the Viking princess in 945. “If any saint [was] bad to the bone, it was Olga, princess of Kiev,” says Thomas Craughwell, author of Saints Behaving Badly and This Saint Will Change Your Life. “[She] took viciousness to a new level.”
Olga’s plan for vengeance against the Drevlians was four-pronged. With the negotiators out of the way, she sent word to Prince Mal, who was not yet aware of his envoys’ fates, asking him to send a company of his best men to escort her to Dereva, the land of the Drevlians. When the men arrived in Kiev, the princess suggested they freshen up in her bathhouse before their audience with her. Once her guests were inside, she locked the doors and set the building on fire, burning the men alive.
Next, Olga set her sights on the mighty warriors of Dereva. This time she brought the fight to their doorstep, traveling to Dereva’s capital, Iskorosten (today’s Korosten, near Ukraine’s northern border with Belarus), under the pretense of arranging a funeral for her late husband. While there, she threw a lavish banquet for the Drevlian soldiers, waited until they were all drunk and, à la the “red wedding” scene in Game of Thrones, commanded her men to slaughter them all. Some 5,000 Drevlians were killed that night.
All-out war followed, with Olga emerging as the winner after laying siege to Iskorosten. The starving civilians surrendered, but since Olga’s army had laid waste to Dereva, the locals had nothing with which to appease their conquerors. So, Olga began part four of her vengeful plot, asking each Drevlian household to give her three sparrows and three pigeons. She then ordered her army to tie burning wicks to the ankles of each bird, which flew back to their nests, setting fire to the Drevlian homes and incinerating the remaining inhabitants, who were mostly women and children.
Twelve years later, in 957, Olga visited Emperor Constantine VII in Constantinople, today’s Istanbul and then the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Smitten, Constantine asked her to convert to Christianity and rule with him as his queen. Olga agreed to convert, but apparently she wasn’t that into Constantine and resorted to her old wiles, asking him to stand as her godfather in baptism, which made the marriage indecent and therefore null and void. Nevertheless, Constantine continued to lavish Olga with gifts upon her return to Kiev.
Once home, Olga tried to convert her son, who was now king of Kievan Rus, but he refused. However, he agreed not to persecute those in his kingdom who did convert, which marked a crucial turning point for Christianity in Russia and its neighboring lands. In 1547, nearly 600 years after her death in 969, the Russian Orthodox Church named Olga a saint and equal to the apostles. She is one of only five women to be honored in this way.
St. Olga also seems to be one of the few bad girls who went everywhere — including heaven.