11 July 2018

Heilaga Helga inn fagra, Jafn við Postulana

Saint Olga of Kiev, Equal to the Apostles, has a privileged and – in my view – admirable place in the sanctuary of Saint Herman’s. A Scandinavian saint of the Orthodox Church, standing alongside Saint Moses the Black and Saint Herman the Wonderworker of Alaska, her presence and juxtaposition seem to offer a gentle, subtle rebuke to those in the Church who would promote certain racialist political agendas. Saint Moses the Black, of course, had been a slave and a bandit who later turned to the monastic life; Saint Herman was a missionary monk among the natives of Alaska and a fervent advocate for their rights and dignity comparable to Bartolomé de las Casas among the Spanish. I don’t know if this placement of Saint Olga alongside Saints Moses and Herman at our parish was planned or a deliberate choice, but I do not trust coincidences, particularly not in the church.

There are other factors which make such a placement appropriate. Saint Olga – likely named Helga in the Norse – was born in the countryside around Pskov (then Pleskov) to an East Norse Varangian noble family in the Izborsk lineage, and married in her youth to Ívarr of Kœnugarðr (Kiev). At this time, the Rus’ polity was still pagan, and Ívarr had to deal with the problems typical of a tribal Norse leader in the midst of Slavic pagan peoples. The tributary Slavic nation, the Drevlyane, had stopped paying the tribute to Ívarr’s predecessors, and Ívarr himself was determined to restore the relationship. He went to Korosten’ to collect tribute from the Drevlyane, who – not being impressed by Ívarr’s ouvertures – lynched him in a grisly way: by stringing him up between two bent birch saplings and then letting the saplings go, tearing him apart.

The Drevlyane expected Ívarr’s widow to be meek and easily cowed. Their prince, Mal, offered to marry her and seal the alliance that Ívarr had sought to restore – on terms favourable to them. Olga, receiving the Drevlyan prince’s twenty heralds, had them all buried alive under their own boats. She then sent a messenger of her own, pretending to accept Mal’s proposal and asking that she be given an escort of Drevlyan noblemen suitable to her status as the lady of Kœnugarðr. Mal sent his best men to retrieve her. She sent them to wash off in the sauna, but then had the doors barred and the sauna set alight, burning the entire Drevlyane escort to death inside.

She then went herself to Korosten’, to mourn her husband’s death before she would wed Mal, and arranged a large banquet to be held. Despite not having heard back from either party of their messengers, the Drevlyane feasted and got themselves drunk at the banquet, and when they were all intoxicated, she ordered the men she had brought with her to put them all to the sword – five thousand Drevlyane were thus gruesomely dispatched.

This was still not the end of her bloody vengeance on behalf of her murdered husband, though. Her armies laid waste to the lands of the Drevlyane, until they had to beg her to make peace on them, offering her furs and honey if she would only stop attacking them. Seeming to soften, the Primary Chronicle notes, she asked:
Give me three pigeons and three sparrows from each house. I do not desire to impose a heavy tribute, like my husband, but I require only this small gift from you, for you are impoverished by the siege.
The Drevlyane complied. What Helga did with this tribute of live fowl is the stuff Icelandic sagas are made of.
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 sulphur 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 their 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.
The fearsome destruction and the insatiable fury wreaked by the widowed Helga, as described in the Tale of Bygone Years, has been glossed thus by our hagiographers:
Having sworn their oaths on their swords and believing “only in their swords”, the pagans were doomed by the judgment of God to also perish by the sword (Mt. 26: 52). Worshipping fire among the other primal elements, they found their own doom in the fire. And the Lord chose Olga to fulfill the fiery chastisement.
As a pagan, Olga gained still greater reputation as a skilful manager in peacetime, establishing a system of pogosti across the lands of the Rus’ which served as legal courts and administrative centres for the collection of tribute. However, she did not remain a pagan long after this. Very much like her grandson, the saintly Valdimárr Sveinaldsson (Prince Vladimir of Kiev), baptism into the Orthodox Church seems to have truly transfigured her. Even though, as one of the first of the Rus’ to be baptised into the Christian faith, she was immediately embroiled in civil and religious struggles with her pagan kin and vassals, she would never again use the kind of ruthless tactics of war she had deployed against the Drevlyane. Instead, she sought to exercise influence through moral suasion. In the case of her son Svenald Ívarsson (or Svyatoslav Igorevich), she did not succeed. However, she managed to keep a firm hold over her grandson’s upbringing, which no doubt influenced his ultimate decision to become baptised an Orthodox Christian himself – along with his entire revenue, at Korsun’.

This kind of transfiguration – with her will and personality intact, but her vengeful and violent tendencies transmuted into the peaceable weapons of faith – very closely mirrors the life and spiritual trajectory of Saint Moses the Black: another reason why I think the juxtaposition of these two icons is so apposite. Saint Moses began his life as a slave, who committed a murder and joined a band of robbers in the Wâdi al-Natrun. As he was physically the strongest and temperamentally the most ruthless of these bandits, he quickly made himself their leader, and committed numerous acts of butchery and banditry in this life. Suddenly and unaccountably, though, Saint Moses was taken with remorse, and begged to be admitted to the monastic life of the hermits in the wâdi. This sudden transformation and acceptance of Christianity deeply influenced Moses’ character; although he lost none of his physical strength and none of his strength of will, he practised a demanding form of self-abnegation. He refused to pass judgement even on his brothers who committed faults.

There were other facets to this baptismal transfiguration in Saint Olga’s case. Saint Olga of Kiev also turned her formidable administrative talents after her conversion from the collection of tribute to the establishment of hospitals and the distribution of food and necessities to the poor. Though she did this mostly on an individual basis as the mother and regent of the king of Kœnugarðr, this kind of public philanthrōpia would later become a bedrock of Rus’ social ethics when the entire polity became Christian. For this reason among many others, we truly call upon Saint Olga as an ‘equal-to-the-apostles’. She did most of the heavy labour of bringing Christianity to the Russian world; whether in her personal witness, in her public comportment, or in the raising of her grandson. Saint Olga, Right-Believing Princess of Russia, pray to God for us!
Giving your mind the wings of divine understanding,
You soared above visible creation seeking God the Creator of all.
When you had found Him, you received rebirth through baptism.
As one who enjoys the Tree of Life,
You remain eternally incorrupt, ever-glorious Olga!

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