Pigeons & Mead: The Bloody Clever Revenge of Olga of Kiev On 'Noble Blood'


On this episode of Noble Blood, host and author Dana Schwartz tells the story of the Grand Princess Olga of Kiev. She’s revered as a saint in the Catholic Church for spreading Christianity to her people, but Dana wants to tell us about the time she enacted a bloody revenge on the tribe that killed her husband, Igor I, in the year 945. Igor I was doing well: his wife, Olga, had given birth to a son, Svyastolov, securing his lineage, and he ruled over the loose federation of tribes known as the Kievan-Rus. But on one pilgrimage to collect tributes from all the tribes he subjugated, Igor I was murdered. With her son only a toddler, Olga stood as regent – and she knew exactly what she wanted to accomplish first.

The Drevlian tribe wasn't happy about it, but they paid their tribute to Igor when he came through, giving him wax, honey, furs, and leather. But an hour outside of their city, Igor realized that they hadn’t shown him enough respect. Their tribute should be larger, since they lived in such a resource-dense area. And they were insubordinate; they might revolt soon, unless he laid down the law. So he turned back, instructing his entourage to go on without him. He confronted Prince Mal, the Drevlian ruler, telling him he deserved a bigger tribute. “A wolf chasing a single sheep will eventually reach all the sheep,” Prince Mal responded, “unless the wolf is killed.” The Drevlians captured Igor and took him to a hill where there were two supple birch trees. With all their might, they bent the trees low to the ground, securing them with rope, then tied one of Igor’s arms to each of them. Then, the trees were released, ripping Igor apart. 

The Drevlians sent twenty men to Olga, telling her they had killed the Grand Prince, and that she should marry Prince Mal so they could all unite. Olga agreed, but stipulated that the men must return as honored guests, carried through the city in their boat by her subjects. When they obeyed, their boat, with all twenty men inside, was thrown into a ditch, and they were buried alive. She reached out to Prince Mal, saying he had sent common men to ask for her hand; did she not deserve to hear from more respected agents? A dozen governors showed up; they were escorted to a bathhouse and set on fire. And after that, Olga got mean. Hear all about how she laid siege to the Drevlians using mead and pigeons, how she tricked the Byzantine emperor Constantine, and her enduring legacy on this episode of Noble Blood.

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