Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Saint Olga of Kyiv

Saint Olga, Grand Duchess (knjagina) of Kyivan-Rus, is one of the most popular local saints in the Eastern Europe, usually called as “equal to the Apostles” because of her mission of Christianization realized during her times.
Olga was born about 890. According to the Russian Primary Chronicles, she came from Pskov, but the church sources names a village in Wybutska near Pskov as her origin. Probably she was of Varangian origin (Nordic population from the same family of languages with the Vikings), established in the northern regions of the actual Russia.  By some accounts, she was the daughter of Oleg of Novgorod. Her name is Olga has probably Scandinavian origins, deriving from Helga, an Old Norse word from the root heill, meaning “enjoying prosperity”, or “being happy”.
According to some other hypotheses, Olga was born in Pliska, Bulgaria, her father being the knjaz Vladimir of Bulgaria. This hypothesis goes from the fact that her first grandson was named Vladimir, after her father, respectively one of his sons Boris, after her grand-grandfather, Boris, the Christianizer of the Bulgarians. Anyway no other source attests these suppositions.
At the age of about 20, that is, around 903 B.C., she married Prince Igor I, the son of Rurik, the traditional founder of Russia. Prince Igor succeeded his father as the ruler of Kyiv about 912. In this time, Olga gave him a son called Svyatoslav, the father of St. Vladimir. 
Igor was murdered while collecting tribute from the Drevlians in 945. At that time, their son Svyatoslav, was only three years old, and Olga became the official ruler of Kyivan-Rus until her son reached adulthood, that is about 945–c. 963. As a widow, she used to have many problems with the neighbor Drevlians, a nation living in the woods from the region situated at the West of Kyiv. Their name, meaning “people of the trees”, suggest their way of living. 
Olga depicted in a manuscript of the Primary Chronicles -
Killing the Drevlyans by burning in the Bathhouse
Olga is remembered in the Primary Chronicles for her revenge against these people who murdered her husband. Shortly after killing Igor, the Drevlians sent twenty of their best men to convince Olga to marry their prince Mal and give up her rule of Kyivan Rus. After tricking them, she ordered her servants to bury them alive. Then she sent a letter to prince Mal, that she accepts the proposal, but she requires other envoys, namely their most distinguished men, as for her noble position. The prince sent his best men who helped him governing the land, but Olga prepared for them a bathhouse, burning them alive inside it. After that, she planned to destroy the remaining Drevlians, by inviting them to a funeral feast at her husband's grave. After the Drevlians became drunk, Olga's soldiers killed over 5000 of them. The ones still alive begged for mercy and offered to pay for their freedom, but she asked only for three pigeons and three sparrows from each house, since she did not want to burden the villagers any further after the loss they suffered. Then Olga gave to her soldiers the pigeons and the sparrows, ordering them to attach by the feet of the birds pieces small pieces of cloth soaked in sulphur and to release them. The birds flew to their nests and set on fire all the houses. The people fled were captured or killed, while some others she gave as slaves to her followers. The remnant left paid her tribute.
Olga remained regent ruler of Kyivan-Rus with the support of the army and her people. She changed the system of gathering tribute (poliudie) in the first legal reform recorded in Eastern Europe. In the following she continued to refuse different proposals of marriage, and managed to save the power of the throne for her son Svyatoslav, major in 963 or 964.

Christianization of Olga

There is uncertain when Olga became interested in Christianity, but it is possible that her interest may have started before her visit to Constantinople, happened, after different sources, sometime between 954 and 957. The ceremonies of her formal reception in the capital of the Byzantine Empire are described by the emperor Constantine VII in his book De Ceremoniis. The Slavonic chronicles add apocryphal details to the account of her baptism, such as the story how she charmed and "outwitted" the widower Constantine, who proposed her to marry.  Olga agreed to be baptized first, because only as Christian she could marry a Christian emperor. After that, she asked the emperor to be her godfather. After the Patriarch Polyeuct had instructed her in the faith, she was baptized with the name Helena, but not after St. Helena the Empress, as believed. The wife of Constantine, in reality dead only in 961, was named Helena Lekapena, being probably her godmother. But traditionally, after the baptism, Constantine requested once more her hand. Instead, Olga tricked him saying that she is his daughter in baptism and such a union is forbidden under Christian law. Even if Constantine commented to Olga about her trickery, he offered her many gifts and let her to return to Kyiv. In truth, this marriage affair is quite impossible to be real, because at the time of her baptism, Olga was an old woman, while Constantine had a wife, being widower only a few years later.
The Baptism of Olga in Constantinople -
depiction in the Radzwill Chronicle
Back in Kyiv, Olga instructed her son Svyatoslav and entreated him to be baptized. However, she failed to convert him, because he was more interested into the domestic fights and tribal wars, but this situation left into her care Vladimir, the presumable successor to the throne who later adopted Christianity as a state religion. Anyway, while Svyatoslav was not brought to baptism, he would not forbid others.
In the latest years of her life, Olga constructed two churches, namely the wooden church of St. Sophia (Wisdom of God) in Kyiv and the Holy Trinity church in Pskov.
In 968, while Svyatoslav was in a campaign of war against the Bulgarians, the Pechenegs surrounded Kyiv in a siege. At the moment, Olga was living into the city taking care for her grandsons Yaropolk, Oleg, and Vladimir. As the people became weaker with hunger and lack of water, Olga inspired a lad to escape the siege and bring relief. Svyatoslav came back in hurry and found his mother very sick. His intentions were to move his residence to Pereyaslav (which is on the Danube River), leaving Olga in Kyiv, but she restrained Svyatoslav from leaving until after she had died.
Saint Olga died on July 11, 969 and she was buried by a priest, having ordered that there would not be a funeral feast after the heathen Slavic customs. Presbyter Gregory, who was with her at Constantinople in 957, fulfilled her request. The Russian Synaxarion calculates that she was 20 years old at her marriage, and the next 42 years she was the wife of Igor. Then she reigned 10 years before her Baptism and after that she lived 15 years more. So she died about 90 years old.
Saint Olga on the Monument of the
Millenium from the Christianization, Kyiv
Her Relics

While Olga was not successful in converting her son or many others to the Christian faith, her example may have been a great influence on her grandson, Vladimir, who in 988 became an Orthodox Christian and led the inhabitants of Kyiv and Rus to follow him in Baptism. During his reign, prince (knjaz) Vladimir was discovered that the body of Olga has not decomposed, traditionally in 1007. This was the first case in relieving relics in the Slavic Christianity. Her body was placed in a coffin inside the Church of St. Sophia (Wisdom of God) in Kyiv. Anyway, only in 1574, the Russian Orthodox Church officially canonized Olga as a saint. Even if her grand-grandsons Boris and Gleb are the first officially recognized saints in Russia, Olga remains the first saint of her people, celebrated on July 11, that being according to the Old Calendar, July24.
During the Tartar invasions in the next centuries, the sacred relics of Olga became a source of numerous miraculous healings. At the beginning of the 18th century, the coffin was hidden in an undisclosed location and has not yet been found. In 1939, an expedition lead by the Leningrad scientist Mikhail Karger discovered some hidden recesses in the foundations of the Tithe Church in Kyiv. Within these recesses lay the remains of people, including a female skeleton with golden ornaments, so that the archaeologists inclined to believe that these were the relics of St. Olga. Anyway that was not officially confirmed until today.

Veneration of St. Olga

Because of her proselytizing influence, the Orthodox Church calls St. Olga like her grandson Vladimir by the honorific title of eissapóstolos, "Equal to the Apostles", such as St. Helena and Emperor Constantine in the Byzantine Empire. Through this title there is recognized the importance of her role to the Christianization of the Russians, process which happened only during a few centuries. The cult of St. Olga is widespread, although especially vivid in the Russian Orthodox Church. The icons present St. Olga as a mature woman, dressed in red and golden robes and bearing a princely crown. From the crown to the shoulders it drops a white scarf. Popularly she bears a cross in his right hand, but in other depictions she may not have a cross, instead her hands are prayerfully made on the chest.

Troparion (Hymn) of St. Olga
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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