The Truly Legendary Queen Olga of Kyiv

Posted on March 8, 2022

by Nancy Marie Brown

At a bend in the river Dnipro, where a stream flows in from the west and the ferries made their crossing, a fortress shone on a hilltop high above a busy trading town: The Vikings called it Könugarðr, or “King’s Fort.” We know it as Kyiv.

Its hillfort was built in the same style as that of the Viking town of Birka in Sweden, with earthen ramparts and a wooden palisade topped by guard towers. Like Birka, Kyiv belonged to a multi-ethnic trading society that spanned medieval Europe from Sweden east along the Baltic coasts of Finland and Estonia to the town of Ladoga, in modern Russia near St. Petersburg, and south along the rivers to Kyiv and then on to Byzantium and beyond. All along these routes, from Birka to Kyiv, archaeologists find similar hillforts, houses, graves, clothing, jewelry, insignia, weapons, money, and boats. 

But the fortress at Kyiv dwarfed any of the others; its town held as many as 15,000 people. And at the height of the Viking Age, from 945 to about 957, this Viking “King’s Fort” was ruled, not by a king, but by a queen. The Vikings called her Helga; we know her as Saint Olga.

Her great wooden palace at the crest of the hill was surrounded by burial mounds—one of which, legend says, contains the twenty noblemen from Dereva whom she had buried alive, in their boat, in revenge for the murder of her husband, King Igor. 

She besieged the town of Iskorosten, where Igor died, but offered to end it if the Derevlians paid a token tribute: three pigeons and three sparrows per house. Says The Russian Primary Chronicle, “Olga gave to each soldier in her army a pigeon or sparrow, and ordered them to attach by a thread…a piece of sulphur bound with small pieces of cloth.” When night fell, the birds were released to fly home to their nests; then Olga’s army shot fire-arrows into the town. “The dovecotes, the coops, the porches, and the haymows were set on fire. There was not a house that was not consumed.… The people fled from the city, and Olga ordered her soldiers to catch them.” Some she killed, some she enslaved, the rest she allowed to pay tribute. Olga may not have been a Viking shield-maid, but she was certainly a war leader—and a ruthless one. 

The Russian Primary Chronicle is not a history book in the modern sense. It was written down in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, hundreds of years later, and mingles fact with fiction. The “incendiary bird” is a common folktale motif. Knowing this, historians have named Queen Olga’s revenge “picturesque” and “largely legendary.” To one translator of the Chronicle, Olga’s entire reign consists of “empty years.” Faced with “scanty data,” the chroniclers filled their pages with “tradition.”

We have long underestimated Queen Olga of Kyiv. According to Ukrainian archaeologist Fedir Androschuk, “Even such a fabulous description as Olga’s attack on Iskorosten…contains a core of historical truth.” Excavations in the oldest part of modern Korosten have revealed that a rich hillfort, littered with Scandinavian, Byzantine, and Slavic objects, was indeed burned down in Olga’s days. 

Queen Olga capably ruled Kyiv until her son Sviatoslav came of age, at least ten years later. She marked her boundaries and established fortified towns throughout newly conquered Dereva, and began industrial-scale quarrying of the schist found there; spindle whorls of this light red stone became very popular in late-tenth-century Sweden. She sectioned off hunting grounds and beekeeping areas, and controlled access to them. She established marketplaces and trading posts, set new levels of taxes and tributes, and standardized the laws. Her influence was long-lasting. As the Chronicle’s medieval author noted several hundred years later, “Her hunting-grounds, boundary posts, towns, and trading posts still exist throughout the whole region.”

Sometime before 957, Queen Olga visited Constantinople, today’s Istanbul; her visit is described by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII, as well as by the Chronicle. While in Byzantium, she converted to Christianity and, in 1547, Olga was declared a saint for her efforts to bring Christianity to the north. Queen Olga may have been sincere in her new faith as she retained a priest until her death and requested a Christian burial, with no grave mound. 

But she was also a clear-eyed politician. Like her peers, King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark and Queen Gunnhild Mother-of-Kings in Norway, Queen Olga of Kyiv perceived how the world was shifting. The Christian Church stymied trade with pagans on principle. But its bureaucracy—with common values, accounting standards, and language—made the logistics of trade run smoother. Queen Olga wanted Kyiv to be part of that wider economic world.

Photo Credit: Jóhann Sigfússon/Profilm.

Nancy Marie Brown is the author of The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women (St. Martin’s Press, 2021), in which she tells the story of Queen Olga of Kyiv and other powerful women of the tenth century.

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