July: St. Olha, the Godmother
Saints with Funny Names
July’s saint may have a funny name but let me tell you, Olha (890 – 969) was no joke. Just ask the Drevlians. They murdered her husband so she murdered them — 5,000 of them. Mafia style.
That was before her conversion to Christianity.
Olha, whose feast day is July 11, was a Viking princess from Pskov (in the western part of present-day Russia). She was given in marriage to Ihor, grand prince of Kyiv (Kiev, now the capital of Ukraine) and bore him a son, Sviatoslav. When Sviatoslav was about 3 years old, Ihor made a fatal journey into Drevlian territory to collect tribute. Apparently, he asked for too much. They attacked him, bent two birch trees to the ground, tied a leg to each, and let go.
With that, something in Olha snapped, too.
The Drevlians overestimated their own charm because they saw Ihor’s widow as a chance to expand their rule. They sent 20 noblemen to ask for her hand in marriage. She responded by having them buried alive.
Then she sent her own messengers to their rulers saying that she would be glad to marry. Just send a few more of your best and brightest and we’ll make the deal. When these men arrived all hot and dusty from the trip, she was all smiles. How about a nice hot bath? Once they were all inside the bath house, she locked the door and tossed in a match.
Back at home, the remaining Drevlian nobles were excited. Olha had invited them to the wedding! But first, she only asked that there be a funeral feast in honor of her slain husband. One must start the new marriage off on the right note. When they were all gathered at the feast, she offered them ale. And then some more. Soon the men were good and drunk and it was just a matter of getting the gun out from behind the toilet. After that she burned down their town.
And the Darwin Award goes to: The entire Drevlian tribe! Which sadly could not be here tonight to receive this award.
Was it revenge, was it justice, was it an extreme act of self-defense? Or was it a complicated mix of all of the above like the opening scene of The Godfather II when Vito’s widowed mother attacks the Don to save her son? Whatever it was, it was effective. Olha and Sviatoslav survived. She ruled as his regent until he grew to manhood and after that whenever he left to go a-raiding.
Apparently, Olha was just as effective at ruling as she was at husband-avenging. She traveled through the entire territory of Kievan Rus, getting to know the people, letting them see who was boss, and making much needed reforms. Not surprisingly, one of the first reforms was to set up local centers to collect a standard rate of tribute. Perhaps this had long been her dream. If only Ihor had listened. … She also traveled to Constantinople and furthered trade and diplomatic relations with this rich and powerful city.
It was in Constantinople that the indomitable Olha was finally conquered. There she met the King of Kings and fell in love with him through the beauty of the Divine Liturgy. She returned to Kyiv a Christian.
Olha set about in her energetic way to try to establish Christianity throughout the realm. She demolished pagan temples, built Christian churches, and sent to Germany for priests and a bishop. But Sviatoslav was now in charge and he was pagan born and most certainly bred. And so was nearly everybody else in the kingdom. When the German emperor sent St. Adalbert with other missionaries, the missionaries were killed and Adalbert barely escaped with his life. Olha’s prayers and pleadings failed to convert her son and kingdom but when she died, Sviatoslav did give her a Christian burial.
Olha’s prayers were answered just a generation later when her grandson, Volodymyr acceded to the throne. At first, Volodymyr was as nasty as his pagan forefathers but upon his marriage to the Christian Anna, the sister of the Byzantine emperor, he accepted Christianity.
One of the arguments in favor of the decision was that Christianity had been the chosen faith of his grandmother. Volodymyr was then able to complete the spiritual reforms that Olha had begun. He demolished pagan temples, many of which he had built. He built churches and monasteries. He established schools. His conversion was as real and sincere as that of his grandmother. Their spiritual descendants honor both of them with the title “Equal of the Apostles” for their zeal in spreading the Christian faith to the people of Kievan Rus. If Volodymyr gets the credit for being the first Christian father of that people, then perhaps we can call Olha their godmother.
The name suits her in more ways than one.
Olha or Olga?
Olha’s name is also rendered Olga. It comes from the German name Helga which is derived from the German word heilige which means holy or saint.