Her name may not pop up in lists of fierce woman in history, but just because her story is obscure doesn’t mean it isn’t fascinating. After her husband was executed, Olga of Kiev went out for vengeance and became an unstoppable machine. Her terrifying reputation precedes her, but Olga was also full of wit, vigor, spirituality, and the desire to protect her country from those who sought to take it away from her. Here are 43 brutal facts about Olga of Kiev.
1. Born to be Wild
Olga was born somewhere between 890AD and 925AD in the bleak environment of northeastern Russia. Foreshadowing Olga’s vicious nature, her parents were Varyags, better known as the Norse Vikings who settled Russia.
2. Male Matchmakers
When Olga was a young woman, she hit the jackpot and married Prince Igor I of Russia’s Rurik dynasty. But how does a girl who isn’t a princess net such a royal match? Well, Olga’s dad may have been Oleg Veshchy, who was King Rurik’s highly respected kinsman. As such, even though Olga wasn’t a technical princess, she was a very well-positioned young lady.
The match was a win-win situation for both sides.
3. The Heavy Crown
When Igor was still technically a prince, his father tragically died. The weight of the kingdom now rested on the young man’s shoulders.
4. Four Magpies
Historians aren’t sure exactly when, but after their wedding—possibly in 912—Olga and Igor welcomed a baby boy into their family. His name was Syvatoslav and he would one day rule over Russia.
5. We’re With Him
Olga and Igor’s honeymoon would be cut short. Trouble was brewing next to Kiev, their kingdom. A nearby tribe named the Drevlians used to be loyal to Igor and Olga’s fathers, Rurik and Oleg. But once Oleg followed King Rurik to the grave, the Drevlians stopped paying tribute to Igor. They shifted allegiances and teamed up with a brutal warlord.
6. Our Bad
Igor knew it was his responsibility to stop the Drevlian threat and make sure Kiev kept receiving those sweet tributes. He marched to the Drevlian tribe’s capital Iskorosten, in what is now Ukraine, and intimidated the townspeople with his imposing, bloodthirsty army. The Drevlians backed down and got right back to paying their regular tribute.
7. Greed Will Cause Pain
Before Igor even got back to Kiev, he changed his mind. It turns out that he was not impressed with what the Drevlians had to offer. After accepting their money and even riding away with his army, Igor decided to give them a piece of his mind. He turned around and headed back to the tribe. Little did he know, this would be an enormous—and painful—mistake.
8. Not Today
When the Drevlians saw Igor approach, they knew what was coming: this dude wanted even more of their sweet, sweet dough. They decided to stop the Russian King in his tracks. As Igor entered the town on that fateful day in 945, the Drevlians killed him in cold blood.
9. Birch Please
According to the historian Leo the Deacon, Igor suffered an absolutely brutal end. The Drevlians didn’t just behead him. They tied the King’s legs and feet to bent birch trees, then released the pressure from the trunks. As the trees sprang back into their usual stance, the force tore Igor in half. Ouch.
10. Mom’s Got This
When Igor’s wife Olga heard about her husband’s violent demise, her profound sense of grief transformed into bloody vengeance. She sprung into action, taking over the kingdom in place of the heir Svyatoslav, who was just three years old.
11. My Muse!
Thanks to Olga’s pretty extreme exploits (more on this later), the Viking princess is beloved by heavy metal bands, especially in her homeland of Eastern Europe. A French band even made an entire concept album exclusively about Olga. How many 10th century army leaders can say that?
12. Her Lowest Point
One day, Olga was a beloved queen, wife, and mother. The next, she was a heartbroken widow, single mother, and new regent. And things were not about to get any easier: The Drevlians, who executed Olga’s husband, taunted the grieving woman with a cruel offer.
13. Bad Call
After Igor’s demise, 20 smug Drevlians rode into town, attempting to intimidate Olga with their might. They saw her at court and proposed an utterly horrific idea. The tribe asked Olga to marry Prince Mal—the same man who had murdered Olga’s husband.
14. Puppet Mistress
Olga kept her cool in the face of extreme duress. She told the Drevlians that she would consider their offer and even invited the tribe to return the next day and receive a local ceremony where the townspeople would carry them to their boat. The Drevlians thought that everything was going according to plan—but they didn’t know that Olga was pulling all the strings.
15. Plot Twist
The day after the Drevlians asked Olga to marry her husband’s killer, they returned to court to receive their honors. As Olga had promised, her people began to carry the Drevlians back to their boat as a show of respect. Or at least it seemed like a show of respect until Olga’s forces threw the Drevlians into a trench.
16. Paging Quentin Tarantino
It turned out that the night after Olga heard the Drevlians’ twisted offer, she ordered the people of Kiev to secretly dig an enormous grave for her “honored” guests. As her forces threw the 20 Drevlians into the pit, Olga leaned down and watched her vengeance unfurl. She ordered her people to bury the Drevlians alive.
17. Come at Me
Because of her religious activism, Olga earned a significant honorific title. She is said to be “Isapostolos” or “Equal to the Apostles". Um, okay. Comment if you know of any apostles who rival Olga’s body count.
18. Would Wear Her Iconography
Despite all the darkness, Olga eventually became a saint who protected widows and Christian converts.
19. Hot Tub
With this batch of the Drevlians dispatched, Olga moved right along, determined to wipe out everyone involved in her husband’s brutal end. She sent a letter to the tribesman who remained at home, urging them to send more men to Kiev to prove that they were serious about the whole marriage thing. Thinking Olga was going to be their new Queen, the Drevlians were happy to oblige.
Olga repaid the favor by locking the new arrivals in a bathhouse and setting it on fire.
20. A Royal Rager
Olga was not one to do things by halves. After massacring two separate groups of Drevlians, she sent yet another letter to the tribe, but this time her plans were a little different. Olga told the tribe to make as much mead as they could—Queen Olga was going to pay them a visit and she wanted to send off her deceased husband in style.
Even when Svyatoslav was old enough to rule, he basically shared the crown with his mom. The people of Kiev did not have a problem with this arrangement for reasons that are probably obvious. Olga was one heck of a leader.
22. Mead for What Ails You?
After Olga made the long journey to the Drevlian territories, she was devastated to see her beloved husband’s tomb. Historians say that she wept—but only for a minute before turning her mind back to the mission at hand, which was complete havoc. Olga encouraged the Drevlians to get wildly intoxicated on the mead they had prepared for her visit.
Once they were incapacitated, Olga ordered her warriors to get rid of the Drevlians.
23. Bring it On
Olga didn’t just stand by and watch the battle. Apparently, the vicious queen was like a warlord-cheerleader, shouting at her army and encouraging them to go hard in the blood bath. Thanks to Olga’s vicious attack, 5,000 Drevlians perished in a single night.
24. Hard Pass
Either out of fear or lust, numerous rulers asked for Olga’s hand in marriage after her brutal takedowns of the Drevlians. Olga refused every single offer.
25. Just Give Up
Even after wiping out the majority of the Drevlians, Olga wasn’t satisfied. She rode back to Kiev, rallied even more fighters, and marched right back to the Drevlian fortress. If there were any Drevlians willing to fight after the mead-soaked slaughter, they were quickly dissuaded. Olga’s warriors forced the remaining Drevlians to surrender and go back to their cities.
26. The Cogs Turn
In 964, Olga took her fight to Iskorosten, the city where her husband had been so brutally slain—only for her luck to run out. Olga’s forces battled the Drevlians for a long, hard year without victory. Even in the face of defeat, Olga refused to back down. She did what she did best: Olga came up with a brilliant plan.
27. Put a Bird on it
Olga sent a peace offering to the Drevlians, claiming that she’d had enough carnage to satisfy her thirst for revenge. But before making it official, she asked for a small favor as a sign of goodwill from the Drevlians. Olga requested three pigeons and three sparrows from each of the city’s houses, even drawing attention to how her tiny request symbolized her merciful nature. Sure, Jan.
28. Burn Baby Burn
Olga was like the MacGyver of misery. You could give her a toothpick and a rabbit and she’d somehow invent the plot of Saw 14—so you can only imagine what she did with the birds. Olga’s army attached pieces of sulfur to the birds and then lit the rocks on fire. When the birds flew to their nests, the flaming sulfur set hundreds of buildings and trees ablaze. In the end, the entire city burned to the ground.
29. Gotta Make That Paper
Olga did a lot of tough stuff, but she was also a ruler and she needed to fill the royal coffers. When she wasn’t busy avenging her lover’s death, the vicious princess was responsible for the first major system of “tribute gathering". In other words, Olga is the reason we have taxes.
30. Adding Insult to Injury
The Drevlians fled their burning city, but they didn’t get far. If Olga’s forces didn’t kill the runaways, they enslaved them. After divvying up the Drevlians into either dead or enslaved peoples, Olga made sure to leave a humiliating fate for the rest of the tribesmen. Anyone who somehow managed to survive the fire had to stay in the ruined city and, surprise surprise, pay a whole bunch of taxes to Olga.
31. Watch the Queen Conquer
After this intense bid for power, it’s no surprise that Kiev kept Olga on as their regent queen. Evidently, they made the right call. Olga’s brilliant revenge plans were just a small sign that she had a head for governance. Olga actually enacted the first judicial reform in Eastern Europe.
32. Streets Ahead
When Olga was queen, she placed trading posts, towns, and hunting grounds throughout her territories. In effect, she unified Russia into a linked country, rather than a series of disparate towns. Olga could always hatch a multi-step plan.
33. Brutality Runs in the Family
Olga’s son Svyatoslav clearly inherited some of his mother’s bloodlust. While historians don’t know very much about him—fair enough, his mom was a hard act to follow—we do know that he was an established army commander.
34. An Inspirational Bait And Switch
Remember when Anne Rice, the woman who wrote all those vampire novels, did a 180 and became a born again Christian? She got that move from Olga. In the 950s, the vicious queen met up with Emperor Constantine VII in Constantinople. She immediately converted from paganism to Christianity.
35. Mixing Religion and Romance
To this day, no one knows exactly why Olga saw the light—but one historian has a very interesting theory. When Olga was baptized, the Emperor christened her as Helena. Most people think this refers to Saint Helena, but one scholar argues that the Emperor drew inspiration from his, uh, wife—awkwardly also named Helena. Reading between the lines, Emperor Constantine VII might have been making a move on Olga.
36. Talk to the Hand
No matter what Constantine and Olga’s motivations were, they never made it official, even after Olga converted to Christianity. Apparently, Olga might have been ticked about the broken engagement. When the Byzantine ambassadors visited Kiev, they did not receive a particularly warm welcome.
37. Come on, Man
When Olga returned to Kiev as a changed, Christian woman, she sat her beloved son Svyatoslav down and begged him to save his soul by converting. To Olga’s despair, her son declined for a pretty wimpy reason. He thought his friends would laugh at him.
38. Tolerance in the Kingdom
Svyatoslav may not have joined his mother on the Christianity train, but he did make a few important changes to the way Kiev treated non-Pagans. Christians were not persecuted and Svyatoslav even let his mom establish churches throughout her territories—even though the people of Kiev raised their eyebrows.
39. Working on that Sainthood
Olga’s conversion, combined with her son’s tolerant reign, are two of the main reasons that Christianity spread through eastern Europe. In particular, her grandson Vladimir continued Olga’s quest to spread the Christian religion.
40. Come on, Man: The Sequel
In 969, tragedy struck. The Pechenegs, a Turkish tribe, invaded Kiev and threatened Svyatoslav’s rule. After Olga and her grandchildren worked hard to defend the city, the poor queen had to watch her son consider the humiliating idea of running away and letting the Pechenegs take Kiev. Ever the warrior, Olga urged him to stay and fight.
41. RIP to a Real One
Olga had another reason to want her son by her side. The indomitable queen was dying. Just three days after begging her son to stay in Kiev, Olga passed on. According to legend, all of Kiev wept.
42. Old Testament Style Saint
Almost six centuries after Olga perished, she became a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church. It just goes to show: Brutal massacres don’t mean anything if you build a few churches along the way.
43. Ice Cold
Legend has it that Olga didn’t just watch the Drevlians’ brutal execution in the pit, she also taunted her husband’s killers. As the dirt rained down on her terrified enemies, she coolly asked “whether they found the honor to their taste".