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Some saints are all about peace: Saint Valentine married couples in the Christian faith while in prison and Saint Julia refused to forsake her religion, even unto her own death and crucifixion. Apparently, Russia looked at all the saints up until that point and said “eh, we could do better,” because then there’s Saint and Equal-to-the-Apostles Olga of Kiev, the Russian Viking Queen who once had a town destroyed using a flock of bird with fire on their feet.
- She descended from Vikings
According to the Russian Primary Chronicle, Olga was born in Pskov in northwest modern-day Russia to a family of Varyag origin. The Varyags are more commonly known to the Greeks and East Slavs as Vikings or Norsemen.
- After her husband’s death, she held power over the country
Olga’s husband Igor was killed somewhere around 945 A.D. when he was out collecting tribute. He decided that he wanted to collect higher than normal tribute from the Derevlian people, coming back after collecting tribute once already. The Derevlians killed him and buried him. This threw the power of the throne into jeopardy, as Igor and Olga’s son was a toddler, only three years old at the time of his father’s death. In her son’s stead, Olga took power as regent until such time as her son came of age. While she officially handed over that power to her grown son, she continued to hold much political power, with some sources even claiming that she shared power with her son, who in any case was more concerned with foreign affairs.
- Her four-step vengeance on her husband’s killers
Olga was not content to simply stand by after her husband was killed. Not only was the death of her husband a deep personal loss, the open rebellion against the royal family threatened to shake their power. On top of that, shortly after killing and burying her husband, Prince Mal of the Derevlians sent an envoy of matchmakers to Olga with a proposition of marriage. Olga’s revenge, outlined in the Russian text The Tale of Bygone Years, was wreaked in four steps.
- Bury the matchmakers
Olga first met with the envoy of matchmakers outside Kiev’s city walls. She pretended to be intrigued by the offer of marriage, and told them that, before answering, she would like to honor the envoy with a public ceremony the next day where they would be carried in their boats into the city. After the flattered Derevlians returned to camp, Olga ordered a long, deep trench dug in town. In the morning, she had her people carry the richly-dressed Derevlians in their boats into town, then had them cast into the pit and buried alive.
- Burning the ambassadors
But Olga was not done. She sent a message to Prince Mal asking for a company of his best men to escort her to Dereva. Not knowing what happened to his previous envoy, Prince Mal agreed and sent a company of his best warriors to Kiev. On their arrival, Olga suggested that they all bathe themselves before seeing her. Once the warriors had all gone into the bathhouse, Olga had them locked in and burned the baths to the ground, burning alive all the men inside.
- Killing the revelers
With a company of the Derevlian’s best men now dead, Olga set her sights on the rest of their warriors in Dereva. So, this time she went to Dereva’s capitol Iskorosten, with the official reason of holding a funeral for her late husband. The Derevlians threw a grand feast with much, much alcohol. Olga waited until the Derevlians were quite drunk, then ordered them all killed. Around 5,000 Derevlians were killed in the ensuing slaughter.
- Flocks of firebirds
What followed the next year was full-on war. Olga marched into Dereva with her armies, eventually laying siege to Iskorosten itself. The starving and weak Derevlians offered to surrender, but they had none of the usual tribute to appease the attacking army. So Olga demanded three sparrows and three pigeons from each household. The aggrieved townspeople complied and delivered the birds, thinking their ordeal over.
Olga’s armies tied burning rags dipped in sulphur and lit on fire to the feet of each bird and released them. The birds returned to their nests in the city and burned it. The Derevlians perished in their homes.
- She converted to Christianity, leading to the country becoming Christian
In the 950s, Olga went to Constantinople. While there, she converted to Christianity, being baptized by the Patriarch (the highest figure in the Eastern Church), with the Roman Emperor Constantine VII himself as her godfather. This was a huge risk on her part, as Christianity was as yet a minority religion in her home country. Despite her urgings, her son refused to convert, although he did not oppose the new religion. She apparently had a huge influence, however, on her grandson Vladimir the Great. In 988 A.D., he made Christianity the official religion of the Kievan Rus (modern day Russia).
- She was named a Saint and an Equal-to-the-Apostles
In 1547, the Orthodox Church named Olga of Kiev as a Saint and an equal-to-the-apostles, one of only five women to ever be honored in this way.