Basically, She's A Lannister
July 10, 2013 10:06 PM   Subscribe

Let us come together this, July the eleventh, to celebrate the feast of Saint Olga, Olga the Beauty, descended of the Izborsk princes, Princess of Rus, Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Olga. Please, allow me to tell you the tale of this fine Christian woman, sainted in both the Roman Catholic and Russian Eastern Orthodox Churches.

I will tell you her tale by lifting the following directly from Wikipedia, for I am not sure there are better words to tell the history of this princess who was, I will remind you again, sainted by two major Christian denominations (emphasis mine):
Princess Olga was the wife of Igor of Kiev, who was killed by the Drevlians. Upon her husband's death, their son, Svyatoslav, was three years old, making Olga the official ruler of Kievan Rus until he reached adulthood. The Drevlians wanted Olga to marry their Prince Mal, making him the ruler of Kievan Rus, but Olga was determined to remain in power and preserve it for her son.

The Drevlians sent twenty of their best men to persuade Olga to marry their Prince Mal and give up her rule of Kievan Rus. She had them buried alive. Then she sent word to Prince Mal that she accepted the proposal, but required their most distinguished men to accompany her on the journey in order for her people to accept the offer of marriage. The Drevlians sent their best men who governed their land. Upon their arrival, she offered them a warm welcome and an invitation to clean up after their long journey in a bathhouse. After they entered, she locked the doors and set fire to the building, burning them alive.

With the best and wisest men out of the way, she planned to destroy the remaining Drevlians. She invited them to a funeral feast so she could mourn over her husband's grave, where her servants waited on them. After the Drevlians were drunk, Olga's soldiers killed over 5,000 of them. She returned to Kiev and prepared an army to attack the survivors. The Drevlians begged for mercy and offered to pay for their freedom with honey and furs. She asked for three pigeons and three sparrows from each house, since she did not want to burden the villagers any further after the siege. They were happy to comply with such a reasonable request.

Now Olga gave to each soldier in her army a pigeon or a sparrow, and ordered them to attach by thread to each pigeon and sparrow a piece of sulfur bound with small pieces of cloth. When night fell, Olga bade her soldiers release the pigeons and the sparrows. So the birds flew to their nests, the pigeons to the cotes, and the sparrows under the eaves. The dove-cotes, the coops, the porches, and the haymows were set on fire. There was not a house that was not consumed, and it was impossible to extinguish the flames, because all the houses caught on fire at once. The people fled from the city, and Olga ordered her soldiers to catch them. Thus she took the city and burned it, and captured the elders of the city. Some of the other captives she killed, while some she gave to others as slaves to her followers. The remnant she left to pay tribute. - [Wikipedia]
Despite her love of birds, Olga's reign was marked by improvements to building commericial centers known as pogosti, fortifying Kiev's defenses, and establishing borders along the Polish frontier [North American Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese]. She is thought to instituted one of the first tax systems in Eastern Europe and to have built the first stone city buildings in Kiev, Novgorod, and Pskov [Russiapedia].

Olga was sainted for having been the first ruler of Rus to convert to Christianity, taking the name Yelena after baptism, an affair that was half religious and half political.
Before her baptism, Constantine asked her hand in marriage, but Olga deferred claiming that she wanted to be baptised an Orthodox Christian first. Again, after the baptism, Constantine requested her hand in marriage, but the quick-thinking Olga tricked him (since he was her godfather in baptism), noting that he called her his daughter in baptism and so such a union is forbidden under Christian law. While Constantine commented to Olga about her trickery, he lavished gifts on her when she returned to Kiev. - [orthodoxwiki.org]
Other accounts, however, indicate that she received a cold welcome in Constanstiople after arriving amidst a display of Rus military power on the Black Sea. After returning home following her baptism, she later rebuffed requests for military aid from the Byzantine Emperor by replying, "If you had spent time with me, as I did at the Court, then I would send the soldiers to help you.” [A History of Russian Christianity, Volume 1]

Still, Olga sought to convert her subjects, building churches on the original site of the church of St. Sophia in Kiev, (possibly) at the site of The Trinity Cathedral in her home city of Pskov, Russia, and in Vitebsk, Belarus.

Olga failed to convert her son to Christianity, but her grandson, Saint Vladimir of Kiev, is credited as converting Rus with his baptism. She died in Kiev and was buried as a Christian according to her wishes. Perhaps fittingly, she ordered there be no funeral feast.
posted by maryr (52 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
 
Note: shoutout to the 2012 MIT Mystery Hunt puzzle O Blessed Day (uh, spoiler on the theme of the puzzle) for forcing me to read a bunch of Wikipedia articles about saints including Olga's. (Olga's clue: "I used incendiary doves as a weapon.")
posted by maryr at 10:16 PM on July 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


Lol, at that wiki description:

In a tough world the Princess Olga could be tough.

That's one way of putting it.
posted by longdaysjourney at 10:26 PM on July 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


I caught "Incendiary Doves" live in concert back in '08 - brilliant, brilliant show.
seriously, great post though
posted by en forme de poire at 10:45 PM on July 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


Why did the Drevlians keep sending guys? Fool me once, and so on.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 11:08 PM on July 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


She is in my family tree on my father's side. She may have been, besides being a good military leader, possessed of great powers of persuasion. Hence her enemies being frequently made fools.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 11:24 PM on July 10, 2013


What caused the sulphur to burn? The Sulphur Safety page states:
Various investigators have reported spontaneous ignition temperatures for molten pure sulphur in still air which vary from 232°C to 260°C (450°F to 500°F). The flash point of pure sulphur, as determined by the modified Cleveland open cup method and others, has been reported by various investigators at values from 188°C to 207°C (370°F to 405°F).
Would the nests have been that warm?
posted by unliteral at 11:46 PM on July 10, 2013


Funnily enough I am reading Russia : A History at the moment and have literally just finished learning this morning about the early Rus including Olga, wife of Igor and mother of Sviatoslav. It's part of my ongoing "learn a ton of stuff about random subjects" program (currently the subjecty is "Russia!"). I'm flitting between that, The Icon and the Axe, the Russian Rulers Podcast and Martin Sixsmith's Russia. Round about now is where I start soliciting other recommendations for Russian history from other MeFites.
posted by longbaugh at 11:55 PM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


On her husband, Igor:
Igor was killed while collecting tribute from the Drevlians in 945. The Byzantine historian and chronicler, Leo the Deacon (born c.a 950), describes how Igor met his death: "They had bent down two birch trees to the prince’s feet and tied them to his legs; then they let the trees straighten again, thus tearing the prince’s body apart."
It seems everyone in the vicinity was a murder innovator.
posted by vanar sena at 11:56 PM on July 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


She was a Job Creator and a Christian. How dare you sully her reputation.
posted by TrialByMedia at 11:57 PM on July 10, 2013 [14 favorites]


Would the nests have been that warm?

A nest at 188 Celsius is not a nest, it's an oven. The Byzantines had Greek Fire at around that time, so "sulfur" may be a stand-in for some more esoteric incendiary mixture.
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:18 AM on July 11, 2013


Would it be overly simplistic of me to remark that Olga sounds like a majorly scary lady?

Seriously though, this is some Game of Thrones grade stuff right here.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 12:31 AM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Admittedly, I've only seen part of Game of Thrones, but she seems far smarter than most of the Lannisters. Though equally vicious.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 1:16 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Not sure we need to bring her extraordinary story down to the latest pop culture reference point - her actions stand on their own!
posted by wilful at 1:20 AM on July 11, 2013


unliteral: What caused the sulphur to burn? The Sulphur Safety page states:
Various investigators have reported spontaneous ignition temperatures for molten pure sulphur in still air which vary from 232°C to 260°C (450°F to 500°F). The flash point of pure sulphur, as determined by the modified Cleveland open cup method and others, has been reported by various investigators at values from 188°C to 207°C (370°F to 405°F).
Would the nests have been that warm?
There's no reason to believe the sulfur was pure. It's simply described as "sulfur" in a military story; not an alchemist's account. Bit of phosphorus would do the trick.
posted by IAmBroom at 2:37 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


It seems everyone in the vicinity was a murder innovator.

It was the golden age of creative murder, it seems.
posted by acb at 2:50 AM on July 11, 2013


If you melt sulfur and drag a cotton string through it (or a bit of cloth, I suppose) to coat it with sulfur, you create a very slow burning fuse that is hard to put out (these are a very very crude version of a 'time delay'). It burns with a very small flame, perhaps not enough to bother a pigeon or sparrow for a time period short enough for them to return to their nests. Once this fuse was brought back into a nest, it would very likely catch it on fire. This seems plausible, let's get the Mythbusters on it.

Also, it's a bit too clever for the Lannisters - sounds more like something Daenerys Targaryen would do.
posted by grajohnt at 3:43 AM on July 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Interestingly, the Saga of Harald Hardrada (the Viking king of Norway who invaded England in 1066 shortly before William the Bastard) has roughly the same story about the birds (scroll down to the invasion of Sicily). I've always been curious if this was just a really good story that the chroniclers kept using, or if it actually did reflect military tactics employed by both Harald and Olga. If the latter, Harald spent his youth and early manhood at the Kievan court of Olga's great-grandson Yaroslav before going to work as a Byzantine mercenary, so he would have been familiar with Olga's story. (For that matter, he might have just stolen it and told it to the chronicler as though it happened to him. He seems like the type.)
posted by posadnitsa at 3:47 AM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


• The Byzantines had Greek Fire at around that time, so "sulfur" may be a stand-in for some more esoteric incendiary mixture.
• Not sure we need to bring her extraordinary story down to the latest pop culture reference point
• It's simply described as "sulfur" in a military story; not an alchemist's account.

So, it was wildfire then.
posted by unliteral at 4:16 AM on July 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


the Saga of Harald Hardrada (the Viking king of Norway who invaded England in 1066 shortly before William the Bastard) has roughly the same story about the birds
Interesting. That sounds more doable:
He made his bird-catchers catch the small birds which had their nests within the castle, but flew into the woods by day to get food for their young. He had small splinters of tarred wood bound upon the backs of the birds, smeared these over with wax and sulphur, and set fire to them. As soon as the birds were let loose they all flew at once to the castle to their young, and to their nests, which they had under the house roofs that were covered with reeds or straw. The fire from the birds seized upon the house roofs; and although each bird could only carry a small burden of fire, yet all at once there was a mighty flame, caused by so many birds carrying fire with them and spreading it widely among the house roofs. Thus one house after the other was set on fire, until the castle itself was in flames.
Although, one wonders how his bird-catchers knew which birds were castle nesters rather than just members of the (presumably large) general bird population. One may assume that the woods were set on fire too.
posted by unliteral at 4:35 AM on July 11, 2013


just think what alfred hitchcock could have done with this idea
posted by pyramid termite at 5:00 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


What caused the sulphur to burn

I got the impression tha they set the houses on fire in the normal way (torches or whatever), and the sulfur was just there to make it catch quicker and/or be harder to put out.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 5:00 AM on July 11, 2013


so - what is the air-speed volatility of a fire laden sparrow?
posted by pyramid termite at 5:08 AM on July 11, 2013 [11 favorites]


Ask the USAAF - they tied incendiaries to bats during WWII - maybe they did some research with sparrows beforehand ;)
posted by longbaugh at 5:52 AM on July 11, 2013


They used to do the same thing with cats too. I just read this blog post a while ago.
posted by interplanetjanet at 5:58 AM on July 11, 2013


pyramid termite: "so - what is the air-speed volatility of a fire laden sparrow?"

Assuming a sparrow of average size and weight (6in by 2in, 30g) and drag coefficient of 0.4, its terminal velocity is roughly 13m/s. Terminal velocity is relevant here if the bird is no longer attempting to fly and is headed straight down.

Obviously this is a highly simplistic approximation.
posted by vanar sena at 6:03 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I only just noticed "volatility", which makes my response unbearably lame, as opposed to only mostly lame.
posted by vanar sena at 6:05 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Assuming a sparrow of average size and weight (6in by 2in, 30g) and drag coefficient of 0.4, its terminal velocity

i said "volatility"

AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH
posted by pyramid termite at 6:06 AM on July 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Guys. The story is probably bullshit. Lots of bullshit in the Dark Ages.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:08 AM on July 11, 2013


Minus the magical, there probably isn't a violent event in Game of Thrones that doesn't have a real world model that equals or surpasses it.

Olga ruled at an incredible time for Kiev which would have definitely been the powerful kingdom/empire that Moscow/Russia later became were it not for those wonderful steppe land nomads - the Mongols. Also, she was likely descended from Vikings. The world didn't have a chance. NONE.
posted by Atreides at 6:27 AM on July 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


I have been reading some Medieval history lately. Without exception, it seems, the dynasties which got established around the world were made up of the people who were best at organized crime and violence. Abetted by whatever religion was in the area, for the churches got a major cut of the action and kept the masses cowed, for the most part.
posted by Danf at 6:53 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Guys. The story is probably bullshit. Lots of bullshit in the Dark Ages.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:08 AM on July 11 [+] [!]


So, you're saying that manure will spontaneously combust? Can you give a cite for that?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:06 AM on July 11, 2013


Not sure of the exact chemistry here, but the fact that the sulfur was being carried back to the birds' nests may be significant. Guano's a rich source of phosphorus and nitrogen compounds, so could they have been relying on the sulfur to ignite when it was brought into an environment full of bird poop?
posted by McCoy Pauley at 7:13 AM on July 11, 2013


Although, one wonders how his bird-catchers knew which birds were castle nesters rather than just members of the (presumably large) general bird population. One may assume that the woods were set on fire too.

Woods? In Sicily?
posted by ocschwar at 8:03 AM on July 11, 2013


Guys. The story is probably bullshit. Lots of bullshit in the Dark Ages.

So, you're saying that manure will spontaneously combust? Can you give a cite for that?


Would the Ages have been Dark if the manure had combusted?
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 8:03 AM on July 11, 2013


Atreides - Igor and Olga (and their family) were Varangians. They may not have called themselves Vikings but for all intents and purposes, that's exactly what they were. There is a lot of scholarship and discussion about whether the Varangians brought culture to the Slavs or vice versa. My reading is that the Slavs were settled as farmers and the Varangians came in alongside this as warrior bands defending the individual settlements against other roaming threats (the Pechenegs, other Varangians etc).

Danf - Russia doesn't seem to have changed much - it's almost always been crooks and religion working in concert. The one thing I'm learning from my reading is that Russia is essentially ungovernable unless you are willing to crush all resistance and implement a shitty system to ensure people bow to your will. It's just too fricking big.

McCoy Pauley nice Gibson ref - human and animal faeces were one of the places that folks used to collect saltpetre/er (Potassium Nitrate), one of the three parts used to make black powder (the part that serves as the oxidant iirc). Neal Stephensons Baroque Cycle has a rather long detour (one of many) about the collection of Potassium from extracted human urine and the dangers of it when boiled under pressure. It's perfectly possible that historically this was known and may have been a part of ancient incendiary devices.
posted by longbaugh at 8:10 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


If Drevlians were to kill me, I like to think my wife would react accordingly.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:27 AM on July 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Interestingly, the Saga of Harald Hardrada (the Viking king of Norway who invaded England in 1066 shortly before William the Bastard) has roughly the same story about the birds (scroll down to the invasion of Sicily). I've always been curious if this was just a really good story that the chroniclers kept using, or if it actually did reflect military tactics employed by both Harald and Olga.

That section of the saga has a series of anecdotes about Harald conquering towns with clever ruses. In another one, he fakes his own death and then leaps out of a coffin during the funeral procession, for example. Most of the ruses are also attributed to a wide variety of other ancient and medieval clever generals, and I think the whole thing is the Viking equivalent of fishing stories and should be taken about as literally. It's not even particularly likely that he would have had an independent command.

Plus, Harald lived an interesting enough life without improbable stories about breaking sieges. He went from being left for dead in a ditch in his brother's failed war for the Norwegian throne to touring the Mediterranean as a soldier for the Byzantine Empire and made so much money at that he was able to fund his own successful campaign to rule Norway.
posted by Copronymus at 8:47 AM on July 11, 2013


Igor and Olga (and their family) were Varangians.

Really? I could have sworn they were Vulgarians.
posted by Madamina at 9:07 AM on July 11, 2013


On ruses and cleverly murderous war leaders, I recently read in a book about the Taiping Rebellion that the rebels were approaching the empire's capital but were thrown back by the emperor's favorite Mongol general, and took refuge in a fortified town. There was no way for the general's troops to beat the well defended rebels, so the general ordered a tall earth wall built encircling the town. Then he ordered a channel dug from the nearest main big channel system, many miles away, and through gates put into the just mentioned wall, basically drowning every rebel inside. Moral of the story seems to be "pissing off Mongol generals is bad for your health".
posted by Iosephus at 9:16 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Cersei Lannister only wishes she could be this chick.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:48 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


She sounds like the love child of Tywin Lannister and Roose Bolton.
posted by nubs at 10:08 AM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


One of my Polish great aunts was named after Saint Olga. You could incur her serious wrath if you talked during dinner and didn't eat all your pierogis.

I named one of my cats after my aunt. Olga the cat loves birds (where "love" = "would love to get a taste of one").
posted by medeine at 1:45 PM on July 11, 2013


I love this picture. "Shall I kill all of the Drevlians, or go out for ice cream?"
posted by epersonae at 1:48 PM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


so as someone else asked upthread, why did the Drevilians keep sending people? I mean the second time maybe. but the third? seriously?

can some historian person answer this? was this due to bad advisors or gullibility or what? was this sort of thing common - murdering envoys en masse and tricking the sender of said envoy into sending again? "oops yeah we're totes cool now. send more peeps." ?!
posted by sio42 at 1:55 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Really? I could have sworn they were Vulgarians.

You're the Vulgarian, you fuck!
posted by COBRA! at 1:55 PM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Something's screwy on Olga's wiki page: it says that she was born in 890 and died in 969, aged 79 --- that's nice, but would someone please explain how Olga was named regent for her 3-year-old son in 945? That would mean she presented her husband with that son when Olga herself was 52 years old......
posted by easily confused at 2:35 PM on July 11, 2013


I love this picture. "Shall I kill all of the Drevlians, or go out for ice cream?"

Apparently she somehow bowed her head coyly during her baptism or some such (at which her spoken reply to her annointment was "By your prayers, O Master, let me be preserved from the wiles of enemies") and that's part of her iconography. I like the nod in the first picture I linked which seems like a facial expression I have seen Lena Headley make.
posted by maryr at 3:59 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also - really the best bit about the bird story is that those birds were tribute. Those birds were collected by the people whose houses they burned down. That is just cruel.
posted by maryr at 4:00 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Pretty proud of my Catholic heritage, here.
We also have a saint with dragons - just saying ;)
posted by Neekee at 5:18 PM on July 11, 2013


You also have a saint who had his head lopped off, then promptly picked it up and put it back on again. And of course, there's the certain Danish Saint who could be a close second to Olga for blood soaked sainthood.
posted by Atreides at 6:50 PM on July 11, 2013


Oh, there are plenty of Catholic saints who walked around after being beheaded.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:09 AM on July 12, 2013 [2 favorites]




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