Saint Olga of Kiev is the Best Warrior Princess You Never Knew

Saint Olga of Kiev is the Best Warrior Princess You Never Knew

Natasha sheldon - February 11, 2018

Olga of Kiev lived a life of extremes. The descendant of Viking mercenaries and traders, she married Igor, the Rus Prince of Kiev. When client tribe slew her husband, Olga’s Viking blood shone through. Not only did she exact elaborate, ruthless and bloody revenge against Igor’s killers but she showed her countrymen that a woman could rule with strength and decision.

Princess Olga remained the regent of Kiev during her son’s minority, consolidating the city-state’s power and ensuring the stability of her dynasty for generations to come. Somehow, this determined woman, whose decisions caused thousands of people to lose their lives, became an icon of the Russian Orthodox Church who canonized her in 1547. So how exactly did Olga of Kiev make the journey from ruthless pagan warrior and ruler to “Isapostolos”- the “Equal to the Apostles.”?

Saint Olga of Kiev is the Best Warrior Princess You Never Knew
Kiev. Google Images

The Descendants of the Vikings

Princess Olga of Kiev was born in Pskov, a city in northwestern Russia, close to the Estonian border. Pskov was a trade nexus between Russia and Scandinavia. Many Scandinavians settled there and grew wealthy from the passage of goods between east and west. Their graves remain, along with the evidence of the high status they acquired in Pskov’s society. These people were known to the indigenous peoples as Varyags or Varangians. The primary textual evidence for Olga’s life, The Russian Primary Chronicle’ refers to the Princess herself as of Varyag origin- meaning Olga of Kiev was a descendant of Vikings.

According to the Chronicle, in 912 Olga married, Igor, the heir to the throne of Kiev. Igor was also a Viking descendant. His father, Rurik was a Varangian chieftain who moved east and made his seat of power at Novgorod on the Volkhov River. On his death in 879, Rurik bequeathed his land to his kinsman, Oleg to hold in trust for Igor who was too young to rule. On Rurik’s death, Oleg and Igor moved the capital of the Rus to Kiev, founding the kingdom of the Kievan Rus.

Igor ascended the throne in 913, according to the Chronicle. He was immediately forced to subdue a rebellion of the Drevlyans’s, one of Kiev’s eastern Slavic clients who now refused to pay tribute. Igor successfully overcame them. Peace reigned until, in 945, the Chronicle records the Drevlyans reneged again. This dating of the Chronicle is controversial, because it leaves an unconvincing thirty-year gap in activity in Igor’s reign, especially as it states his son by Olga was only three in 945. It seems likely the Chronicle was confused by the original Byzantine sources, and that only three years had passed, (also meaning Igor came to power in 941). Either way, Igor set out from Kiev to deal with the Drevlyans’s leaving his wife and son, behind.

Saint Olga of Kiev is the Best Warrior Princess You Never Knew
The Death of Igor. Google Images

Once more, Igor subdued the Drevlyans and as punishment extracted a higher tribute. However, once he was part of the way home, he decided to go back for more. Sending his main army home with the tribute, Igor backtracked with a smaller force. The Drevlyans, fearful and perplexed by Igor’s return, sent emissaries to find out what he wanted. When Igor refused to say, the panicked Drevlyans snapped. They overcame Kiev’s forces and captured Igor. The Drevlyans took the Prince to a place just outside the city of Iskorosten where they tied two birch trees to his legs. “Then they [the Drevlyans] let the trees straighten, ” said the Byzantine chronicler Leo the Deacon, “thus tearing the Prince’s body apart.”

The Drevlyans had gone from being the defeated underdogs to unexpected victors due to Igor’s miscalculation. Meanwhile, Kiev was in the hands of a woman and a three-year-old boy. The Drevlyans decided to capitalize on the situation, so they sent a delegation to prey on Igor’s ‘vulnerable’ widow.

Saint Olga of Kiev is the Best Warrior Princess You Never Knew
Olga buries Igor. Google Images.

Hell Hath no Fury

Believing Kiev to be at a disadvantage without an adult male ruler, the Drevlyans proposed that Olga should marry the Drevlyan Prince, Mal. So a delegation of twenty Drevlyan nobles arrived at Kiev to petition the Princess. As they expected, Olga, being a woman, heard them graciously. “Your proposal is pleasing to me, ” she declared. However, she needed to announce all of Kiev. Could they return the next day? The Drevlyans were more than happy to and went away. Meanwhile, Olga made her preparations.

The next day, the Drevlyans returned by boat, dressed in their best. They were greeted by Olga’s guard who carried them in State, still in their craft, into the Great Hall. However, once there, all pretense of respect evaporated. The guards dumped the Drevlyans, boat and all into a vast ditch Olga had ordered prepared the night before. They were buried alive. Meanwhile, Olga contacted Prince Mal. She explained his first delegation had failed to convince her. Could he do better a second time? The unsuspecting Prince sent out a second embassy. When it arrived, Olga invited the ambassadors to refresh themselves in her bathhouse- and burnt them alive.

With Mal still unaware of the fate of his emissaries, Olga sent a third message. “I am coming to you,” she told him “ so prepare great quantities of mead in the city where you killed my husband, that I may weep over his grave and hold a funeral feast for him.” Mal obliged and granted Olga and her entourage safe passage into Drevlyan territory. There, she hosted a magnificent funeral for Igor, which many Drevlyans attended. However, the guests celebrated a little too well, and once they were drunk, Olga ordered her men to kill them. The Primary Chronicle estimates 5000 Drevlyans died that day.

Saint Olga of Kiev is the Best Warrior Princess You Never Knew
Princess Olga and one of the birds who helped her complete her vengeance. Google Images.

Having wiped out much of the elite, Olga now set about finishing her revenge. Her army quickly defeated the Drevlyan army and drove the people into their cities. There they remained, under siege until one by one they capitulated to the Kievian forces. Finally, only Iskorosten prevailed. Mindful of Olga’s past actions, the city’s elders were reluctant to surrender. However Olga told them, she had had her fill of vengeance. All she required was: ” three pigeons and three sparrows from each house. “ This token tribute was in recognition of Iskorosten’s impoverishment by the war.

Finally, the desperate citizens gave up their birds, to Olga, who, in her turn gave one to each of her soldiers. When night fell, the soldiers tied a sulfur filled cloth to their bird’s leg, lit it and released the creatures who flew home to roost- and left Iskorosten in flames. As the people finally evacuated the city, the Kievans rounded them up. They killed some and enslaved others while the rest were left alive to scrape together an enormous tribute. Olga had completed her revenge- and had succeeded in utterly crushing the Drevlyans.

So how did such a woman become a saint?

Saint Olga of Kiev is the Best Warrior Princess You Never Knew
The Baptism of Olga of Kiev. Google Images

Saint Olga: “Equal to the Apostles”

Olga remained regent until her son was of age, supported not only by the army but the people of Kiev. By the time she handed the reins of power over to him, Olga had forged Kiev into a strong city-state. She consolidated its territory, with a string of new forts. She also made wise concessions to ensure the situation with the Dervlyans never occurred again by changing the system of tribute gathering; the first known legal reform in Europe.

However, Olga became a Christian by accident. The Chronicle claims it was part of a ruse to avoid marriage to the Emperor Constantine VII when the princess visited his court in Constantinople three years after the Drevlyan’s defeat. Olga explained to the emperor that they could not possibly marry because he was a Christian and she a pagan. However, she was more than happy to submit to baptism if it would please him. So, Olga was baptized Helena by the Patriarch of Constantinople, managed to evade marriage to Constantine because he stood as her godfather and underwent a miraculous “enlightened” of faith which left her “rejoiced in soul and body.”

Constantine was already married, so it’s unlikely he proposed to Olga. However, the reason for Olga’s conversion could lie in the reason for her visit to Constantinople in the first place. When she left Constantinople to return to Kiev, as well as her newfound faith, The Chronicle records that Olga returned heavily laden with “presents” from the Emperor. Once home, she immediately fulfilled a promise she had made to send Constantine “slaves, wax and furs.” This reciprocal gift giving sounds more like trade and suggests Olga converted- initially at least to help oil a deal- since, if she was Christian, the eastern church had a way into Kiev’s territory.

Saint Olga of Kiev is the Best Warrior Princess You Never Knew
Icon of St Olga. Google Images

If the church hoped to convert the Kievians, they were out of luck. One archbishop declared them impossible to convert. Olga’s son, Svyatoslav was equally intransigent, believing Christianity a weak religion. However, Olga took her commitment to her new faith seriously and kept her own priest. Once he took the throne, Svyatoslav was often away at war. However, he still believed in his now Christian mother enough to leave Kiev- and his children- in her charge.

Over a decade after her death and Christian burial, the exact extent of Princess Olga’s influence over her grandchildren was revealed. In the 980s her grandson Vladimir took the throne and made Christianity Kiev’s official religion. Olga had ultimately succeeded where all the delegates from Constantinople failed. It was this one deed, despite all the others in her life, which earned her the status of saint and the title Isapostolos in 1547- making Olga of Kiev only one of five women ever to be honored in such a way.



Alice-Mary Talbot and Denis F Sullivan (trans)(2005): The History of Leo the Deacon: Byzantine military expansion in the tenth century. Washington DC.

Samuel Hazzard Cross and Olgerd P Sherbowitz-Wetzor: The Russian Primary Chronicle: Laurentian Text. Cambridge: Massachusetts.

Zubkova, O. Orfinskaya, D. Likhachev: New Discovery of Viking Age clothing from Pskov, Russia. The Viking Saint Queen of Russia: 9 facts about Olga of Kiev The Saint Who Buried people alive and burned down a city in revenge.

Wikipedia: Igor of Kiev

Wikipedia: Olga of Kiev