of 24 /24
A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe Author(s): Francis Butler Source: Slavic Review, Vol. 63, No. 4 (Winter, 2004), pp. 771-793 Published by: Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1520420 . Accessed: 12/06/2014 18:05 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp . JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected]. . Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Slavic Review. http://www.jstor.org This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 18:05:01 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe

Embed Size (px)

Text of A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe

Page 1: A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe

A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic EuropeAuthor(s): Francis ButlerSource: Slavic Review, Vol. 63, No. 4 (Winter, 2004), pp. 771-793Published by:Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1520420 .

Accessed: 12/06/2014 18:05

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp

.JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected].


Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserveand extend access to Slavic Review.


This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 18:05:01 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Page 2: A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe

A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe

Francis Butler

The depiction of Ol'ga, the royal widow and regent who personally adopted Christianity several decades before her grandson adopted it for all of Rus', is one of the most memorable in the Povest'vremennykh let (often called the

Primary Chronicle, hereafter the Povest').1 It is made so largely by the strat-

agems whereby Ol'ga avenges the death of her husband and later avoids

marriage to a Byzantine emperor. While most readers are struck by the ac- counts of Ol'ga's vengeance and baptism, some might wonder why the Povest' attributes such cleverness to no other individual. Igor' and Sviato- slav, Ol'ga's pagan husband and son, are depicted as good warriors.2 Her

grandson, Vladimir Sviatoslavich, is also portrayed as a fine warrior, and his decision to adopt Christianity for himself and his people is treated as wise (though influenced, among other things, by Ol'ga's own adoption of Christianity).3 If any early East Slavic male ruler is depicted as approach- ing Ol'ga in cleverness, it is Oleg, who served as Igor"s regent.4 Yet not even Oleg exhibits Ol'ga's level of worldly (and deadly) resourcefulness.

I am grateful for the useful suggestions made by two Slavic Review referees and Diane Koenker. In addition, I wish to thank all who commented on portions of this paper pre- sented at the University of Illinois "Russkii kruzhok" (Urbana, 2002), the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages (New York, 2002), and the Sixth Midwest Medieval Slavic Workshop (Chicago, 2003).

1. On the debated circumstances of Ol'ga's baptism, with bibliography, see A. V Naza- renko, Drevniaia Rus'na mezhdunarodnykh putiakh: Mezhdistsiplinarnye ocherki kul'turnykh, tor- govykh, politicheskikh sviazei IX-XII vekov (Moscow, 2001), 219-310. On the origins of the Povest', see O. V Tvorogov, "Povest' vremennykh let," in D. S. Likhachev, ed., Slovar'knizhni- kov i knizhnosti drevnei rusi, vol. 1, XI-pervaia polovina XIVv. (Leningrad, 1987); and Don- ald G. Ostrowski, introduction to The 'Povest' vremennykh let' An Interlinear Collation and Paradosis, ed. Donald G. Ostrowski, Harvard Library of Early Ukrainian Literature, vol. 10 in 3 bks. (Cambridge, Mass., 2003), electronic version available at http://hudce7.harvard .edu/-ostrowski/pvl/index.html (last consulted 25 June 2004).

2. See Povest', ed. Ostrowski, lines 42:3-55:9 and 64:22-74:9 (years 6421-6453, 6472- 6480). Ostrowski's line numbers for the Povest'are keyed to the columns and lines in Polnoe sobranie russkikh letopisei (PSRL), vol. 1, 3d ed. (offset reprint of 2d ed. with additions, 1926; Moscow, 1997). Cf. the First Novgorod Chronicle, PSRL, vol. 3, 2d ed. (Moscow, 2000), 107, wherein Igor' is characterized as "brave and wise," and the praise for Igor' and Sviato- slav in the Sermon on Law and Grace attributed to the Metropolitan Ilarion, "Slovo o zakone i blagodati, Ilariona, "ed. A. M. Moldovan (Kiev, 1984), 91-92.

3. Povest', ed. Ostrowski, lines 75:23-130-31:29 (years 6488-6523); Ol'ga's influ- ence is mentioned in lines 108:26-28 (year 6495).

4. For instances of Oleg's cleverness, see Povest', ed. Ostrowski, lines 23:4-17 and 30: 10-16 (years 6390, 6415). Perhaps Oleg's depiction as clever somehow reflects his status as a regent, rather than as a true Riurikid ruler. We may note that the most striking de- ceptions and military strategems in the Povest' that are not connected either with Ol'ga or with him are associated with an unnamed Kievan youth and with the general Pretich (lines 66:4-67:8 [year 6476]), and with an elder in Belgorod (lines 127:10-129:12 [year 6505]). True Riurikids are shown as capable of trickery, but their deceptions are less so- phisticated than Ol'ga's or Oleg's. Sviatoslav deceives the Greeks about the number of his

Slavic Review 63, no. 4 (Winter 2004)

This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 18:05:01 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Page 3: A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe

772 Slavic Review

The legend of Ol'ga's vengeance has attracted considerable attention, with many scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries interpret- ing Ol'ga's behavior as admirable in the context of a pagan culture of re- venge.5 Some scholars have dealt with more specific aspects of the narra- tive, often focusing on (or at least noting) a disjunction between Ol'ga's first three acts of vengeance and her fourth act. In 1908, Aleksei Aleksan- drovich Shakhmatov argued that the description of the fourth act was probably added to the legend later.6 In 1934, Adolf Stender-Petersen dis- cussed numerous non-Slavic parallels to the fourth act.7 In works first published in 1948 and 1950, respectively, Dmitrij 6izevskij and Dimitrii Sergeevich Likhachev suggested that the first three acts may be read as riddles posed by Ol'ga to her adversaries, with (izevskij (but not Likha- chev) arguing that these adversaries fail to understand the riddles because they are Slavs while Ol'ga is Scandinavian.8 In 1988, Ludolf Miiller em- phasized forcefully that the stories of Ol'ga's vengeance and her avoidance of baptism both revolve around preventing an unwanted marriage.9

Among scholars writing in English since 1970, Dorothy Atkinson notes the "enthusiasm" with which the chronicler describes "the cleverness of thisfemmefatale. "'?Joan Grossman writes a brief but thoughtful discussion

troops (lines 69:28-70:8 [year 6479]), but this act shows mainly that the Greeks them- selves have not fooled him and, in any case, it is insufficient to deter the Greeks. Vladimir has his brother Iaropolk murdered (an act the chronicler condemns) and sends some Varangians to Byzantium with a message requesting that the emperor disperse them (lines 76:18-79:9-10 [year 6487]).

5. Representative examples include N. M. Karamzin, Istoriia gosudarstva Rossiiskogo, ed. A. N. Sakharov et al. (Moscow, 1989), 1:122; S. M. Solovev, Istoriia Rossii s drevneishikh vremen, ed. L. V. Cherepnin et al. (Moscow, 1959), 155-56; and N. L. Pushkareva, Zhen- shchiny drevnei rusi (Moscow, 1989), 14.

6. A. A. Shakhmatov, Razyskaniia o drevneishikh russkikh letopisnykh svodakh (St. Peters- burg, 1908), 108-10. 0. V Tvorogov, "Povest' vremennykh let i Nachal'nyi svod: Tekstolo- gicheskii kommentarii," Trudy Otdela drevnerusskoi literatury 30 (1976): 22-23, summarizes and restates Shakhmatov's argument. Tat'iana Vilkul, "Novgorodskaia pervaia letopis' i Nachal'nyi svod," Palaeoslavica 11 (2003): 5-35, reviews and criticizes literature on Shakh- matov's larger hypothesis of a text antedating the Povest', but she does not deal with Ol'ga.

7. Adolf Stender-Petersen, "Die Varagersage als Quelle der Altrussischen Chronik," Acta Jutlandica 6, no. 1 (1934): 127-55. See also Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk- Literature: A Classification of Narrative Elements in Folktales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Mediaeval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books, and Local Legends, rev. and enl. ed. (Bloomington, n.d.; reprint, 1966), vol. 4, motif K2351.1: "Sparrows of Cirencester"; E. A. Rydzevskaia, Drevniaia Rus' i Skandinaviia IX-XIV vv. (Moscow, 1978), 195-202; and Felix J. Oinas, "Folklore and History," Palaeoslavica 2 (1994): 33-35.

8. Dmitrij Tschizewskij, Geschichte derAltrussischen Literaturim 11., 12. und 13.Jahrhun- dert: KieverEpoche (Frankfurt am Main, 1948), 54-55; Dmitrij Cizevskij, History of Russian Literature from the Eleventh Century to the End of the Baroque (The Hague, 1960), 16; D. S. Likhachev, commentary to Povest' vremennykh let, ed. D. S. Likhachev, 2d ed. (St. Peters- burg, 1999), 435-38.

9. Ludolf Muller, "Die Erzahlung der Nestorchronik uber die Taufe Ol'gas im Jahre 954/55," Zeitschriftfiir Slawistik 33 (1988): 788.

10. Dorothy Atkinson, "Society and the Sexes in the Russian Past," in Dorothy Atkin- son, Alexander Dallin, and Gail Warshofsky Lapidus, eds., Women in Russia (Stanford, 1977), 10.

This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 18:05:01 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Page 4: A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe

A Woman of Words

of Ol'ga's image both within and outside the Povest' 11 Adele Marie Barker suggests that the chronicler exaggerates the pagan Ol'ga's ruthlessness in order to contrast paganism with Christianity, and she calls Ol'ga "an ag- gressive pagan avenger much like the type of women whom Herodotus had described living on the north shores of the Black Sea," that is, the Amazons.12Joanna Hubbs goes further, comparing Ol'ga to "a pagan god- dess, a brave Amazon," and "a Yaga-like widow."13 By contrast, Simon Franklin andJonathan Shepard emphasize that Ol'ga's behavior is "within the norms" for early East Slavic women, though they have also remarked on the "curiously 'feminine' texture" of narratives about her.'4 In a survey of women's images in early East Slavic literature published in 2002, Rosa- lind MacKenzie echoes Atkinson on the chronicler's "enthusiasm" and, like Barker and Hubbs, compares Ol'ga to an Amazon.15

My own views coincide with some but not all of those just summarized. I believe that Ol'ga's revenge is justifiable from a pre-Christian perspec- tive and that the Christian chronicler himself approved of this revenge, though Barker may have a point about the contrast between paganism and Christianity. To compare Ol'ga to Amazons (to say nothing of pagan goddesses and the witch Iaga), however, is misleading. Whereas Ama- zons are women of arms, the Ol'ga of the Povest' is portrayed as a woman of words.

Ol'ga's portrayal is distinctive largely because she is the only female ruler depicted in the Povest' Yet early East Slavic women were not warriors and, as Franklin and Shepard have suggested, Ol'ga's behavior fell within the norms of her society, as I will demonstrate with the aid of evidence from roughly contemporary Scandinavian and other Germanic cultures, and with references to recent scholarship on the roles and images of women in these cultures. Ol'ga lived in a society where women (or at least ruling women) had both considerable prerogatives and considerable re- sponsibilities. These women were largely barred from participation in mil- itary activities. They were, however, able and expected to use their intel- lectual and verbal abilities, which were not regarded as inferior to those

11. Joan Grossman, "Feminine Images in Old Russian Literature and Art," California Slavic Studies 11 (1980): 34-35.

12. Adele Marie Barker, The Mother Syndrome in the Russian Folk Imagination (Colum- bus, 1986), 40.

13. Joanna Hubbs, Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture (Bloomington, 1988), 89. Hubbs inaccurately identifies Ol'ga as Oleg's daughter and translates the epi- thet "mudreishi v'sekh" chelovek," applied to Ol'ga in Povest, ed. Ostrowski, line 108:28, as "wiser than any man," rather than "wiser than all [other] human beings." She cites The Rus- sian Primary Chronicle, Laurentian Text, trans. and ed. Samuel Hazzard Cross and Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor (Cambridge, Mass., 1953), 111, which reads (strangely, but more cor- rectly) "wiser than all other men." Errors of translation and fact occur throughout Hubbs's book and vitiate many of its arguments.

14. Simon Franklin and Jonathan Shepard, The Emergence of Rus 750-1200 (Lon- don, 1996), 301 (with an interpretation akin to Cizevskij's and Likhachev's).

15. Rosalind McKenzie, "Women's Image in Russian Medieval Literature," in Adele Marie Barker and Jehanne M Gheith, eds., A History of Women's Writing in Russia (Cam- bridge, Eng., 2002), 23.


This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 18:05:01 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Page 5: A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe

Slavic Review

of men, in the best interests of their people. The story of Ol'ga's revenge is a tale of a woman who achieves bloody but laudable ends without vio-

lating the strictures that her society placed on women's behavior. The less violent story of Ol'ga's baptism reflects a similar understanding of women's place in society.16

Like the Scandinavians and other Germanic peoples of western Eu- rope, the East Slavs were largely Indo-European in cultural origin.'7 The Slavic and Germanic languages and the cultural traditions associated with them seem to have diverged from one another relatively late.18 After di- vergence, the Germanic peoples remained in close geographic proximity to the Slavs, with ample opportunity for contact and interaction.19 In the early Middle Ages, South Slavic, West Slavic, and Baltic territories served as a partial buffer between the East Slavs and most of western Europe. Yet this buffer was quite permeable, especially in the north, where there were frequent and significant contacts between East Slavs and Scandinavians.20 The Riurikid dynasty itself came to Rus' from Scandinavia, and Ol'ga (a Riurikid by marriage) was probably Scandinavian.21

In short, the related origins of Slavic and Germanic culture, together with the continuing contacts between these two cultures, would lead us to expect considerable similarities between early Germanic and early East Slavic societies in the pre-Christian and early Christian period.22 One

16. For reasons of space, I will deal with the story of Ol'ga's baptism elsewhere. 17. I assume that linguistic and cultural groupings tend to coincide, though both lan-

guage and culture differentiate with time. Thus we may meaningfully speak of "early Slavic culture," "early Germanic culture," and (most vaguely) "Indo-European culture." These groupings do not invariably and neatly coincide. For example, French is spoken by what might be called "cultural descendants" of the Germanic Franks, but it is not a Germanic language. An optimistic view of the coincidence between Indo-European language and culture informs Thomas V Gamkrelidze and Vjaceslav Ivanov, Indo-European and the Indo- Europeans: A Reconstruction and Historical Analysis of a Proto-Language and a Proto-Culture, trans.Johanna Nichols, 2 vols. (Berlin, 1995). For a more skeptical view, see Colin Renfrew, "The Anatolian Origins of Proto-Indo-European and the Autochthony of the Hittites," in Robert Drews, ed., Greater Anatolia and the Indo-Hittite Language Family: Papers Presented at a Colloquium Hosted by the University of Richmond, March 18-19, 2000 (Washington, D.C., 2001), 54-56; see also remarks by Garrett Olmsted and BillJ. Darden, "Discussion Session, Saturday Afternoon," ibid., 74-75.

18. See Gamkrelidze and Ivanov, Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans, 1:325-50; Zbigniew Golab, The Origins of the Slavs: A Linguist's View (Columbus, 1992), 127-52, 170- 85, 337-92.

19. Gamkrelidze and Ivanov, Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans, 1:831-52; Gotab, Origins of the Slavs, 337-92.

20. On relations between East Slavs and Scandinavians in this period, see Franklin and Shepard, Emergence of Rus, and Ostrowski, "Who Were the Rus' and Why Did They Emerge?" Palaeoslavica 7 (1999): 307-12.

21. F. B. Uspenskii, Skandinavy. Variagi. Rus': Istoriko-filologicheskie ocherki (Moscow, 2002), 45-49, raises the interesting possibility that she was a Slav who was given the name Ol'ga (Scandinavian Helga) in honor of Oleg (Scandinavian Helgi).

22. In succeeding centuries, the social structures of the easternmost East Slavs di- verged from common European norms more radically than did those of the West Slavs and the western East Slavs. This happened for a many reasons, including the split between the eastern and western churches, the rise of Latin as the western literate lingua franca, the


This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 18:05:01 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Page 6: A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe

A Woman of Words

would expect these similarities to extend to attitudes toward women and to be most prominent among the aristocracy, the most mobile portion of the population. Although these attitudes were obviously not homoge- neous throughout Europe during this period, they were similar enough to make comparison meaningful.23

Early Germanic and Slavic states were usually ruled by men, who were normally chosen from patrilineally qualified groups.24 Men ruled at least partly because war was endemic, military acumen was considered an im- portant qualification for a leader, and fighting was normally the business of men.25 Yet a leader's skills are different from a combatant's, so that a woman (although she would have a physical disadvantage in combat) could, in principle, still be an effective ruler. In practice, female rule was unusual but not unheard of, and most female rulers were, like Ol'ga, re- gents for their underage children or grandchildren.26 In this context we may, on the one hand, consider how the Povest"s account of Ol'ga's ven- geance reflects early medieval Germano-Slavic norms and, on the other, attempt to distinguish it from some of its historical and literary analogues. Let us begin with Ol'ga's first appearance, in the Povest"s entry for the year AM 6411 (903-04 cE?):27 "In the year 6411, Igor', having grown, followed

rise of Slavonic as its eastern counterpart, and the incorporation of eastern East Slavic ter- ritory into the Mongol empire. All these developments lessened the unity of Slavic culture.

23. Pauline Stafford, Queens, Concubines, and Dowagers: The King's Wife in the Early Middle Ages (Athens, Ga., 1983), xi-xii, makes a case for the relative homogeneity of west- ern European attitudes toward queenship, though her book (which largely ignores Scan- dinavian as well as Slavic territory) explores the diversity within this homogeneity.

24. On ways of choosing rulers, see Jack Goody, introduction to Succession to High Office, ed. Goody (Cambridge, Eng., 1966), 1-56. In western Europe, as in East Slavic ter- ritory, rule by queens was always exceptional, even if the exceptions were memorable. For a survey of these exceptions (largely excluding Scandinavian ones), see Stafford, Queens. On early Slavic kinship and rule, see Marija Gimbutas, The Slavs (New York, 1971), 133 -50 (with perhaps excessive emphasis on the subjugation of women). On the patrilineal focus of Indo-European kinship and on Indo-European words for king and queen (with the lat- ter derived from the former), see Gamkrelidze and Ivanov, Indo-European and the Indo- Europeans, 1:658-76 and 653-55. Arguments for matrilineal tendencies among the early East Slavs do not pertain to royal succession patterns. Arguments for Slavic matrilineality and matriarchy are cited skeptically in Atkinson, "Society and the Sexes in the Russian Past," 4, and sympathetically in Hubbs, Mother Russia, 13-14. On the compatibility of close relations between mother's brother and sister's son (sometimes adduced as an indi- cator of matrilineality) with patrilineal kinship systems, see Gimbutas, Slavs, 137; Rolf H. Bremmer, Jr., "The Importance of Kinship: Uncle and Nephew in Beowulf," Amsterdamer Beitrdge zur dlteren Germanistik 15 (1980): 21-22; and Gamkrelidze and Ivanov, Indo- European and the Indo-Europeans, 1:669-76.

25. On early Germanic women (historical, quasi-historical, and literary) as fighters and leaders in time of war, see Ian W. Walker, Mercia and the Making of England (Stroud, Eng., 2000), 96-121; Alexandra Hennessey Olsen, "Gender Roles," in Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles, eds., A Beowulf Handbook (Lincoln, 1997), 322; CarolJ. Clover, "Maiden War- riors and Other Sons,"Journal of English and Germanic Philology 85 (1986): 35-49; Clover, "Regardless of Sex: Men, Women, and Power in Early Northern Europe," Speculum 68 (1993): 363-87; and Stafford, Queens, 117-20.

26. A Germanic exception is AEthelflaed of Mercia, on whom see Walker, Mercia, 96-121.

27. For the Povest' years in the common era are usually calculated by subtracting 5508 from the AM year and assuming that the year ran from March 1 through the end of


This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 18:05:01 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Page 7: A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe

Slavic Review

Oleg and listened to him, and a wife by the name of Ol'ga was brought to him from Pskov."28 Igor"s regent, Oleg, apparently arranged the marriage to Ol'ga. We are told nothing about Ol'ga's antecedents, but we may make some educated guesses about them. Igor' was of royal blood, and politics underlay nearly all early medieval European royal marriages.29 It seems reasonable to presume that Ol'ga's family was powerful in the Pskov region and that her marriage facilitated the incorporation of Pskov (which is first mentioned in this passage of the Povest') into the nascent Riurikid state.30

The Povest"s second mention of Ol'ga, in the first of two entries for 6453, supports the above hypothesis. Here, the preamble to a treaty with the Byzantines lists an ambassador representing Igor', a second one rep- resenting Igor' and Ol'ga's young son, Sviatoslav, and a third one repre- senting Ol'ga.31 If Ol'ga had not been queen, she might not have merited her own ambassador. The fact that she had one suggests that she had con- siderable influence even during her husband's lifetime. Some of this in- fluence doubtless derived from Igor"s status, but presumably some of it derived from her own family background. Perhaps more important, this passage tells us that Ol'ga's gender did not prevent her from commanding some degree of respect and authority even before her husband's death.32

We now come to Ol'ga's vengeance. The Povest"s second entry for 6453 relates how Igor' was killed by the Derevlians, a neighboring tribe ruled by a prince named Mal, from which Igor' was attempting to gather an exces- sive amount of tribute.33 The entry then describes Ol'ga's situation and the Derevlians' plan: "And Ol'ga was in Kiev with her son Sviatoslav, who was a child, and Sviatoslav's foster father was Asmud, and the military commander was Sveneld, who was also the father of Mstisha. And the Derevlians said: 'We have killed the prince of Rus'; let us take his wife Ol'ga for our prince Mal and [take] Sviatoslav and do with him as we please.'"34 If we have not yet passed a point where literary elaboration predominates over historical fact in the narrative, we are probably about to do so. It is

February, but some dates may follow other patterns. See N. N. Danilevskii, "Nereshennye voprosy khronologii russkogo letopisaniia," Vspomogatel'nye istoricheskie distsipliny 15 (1983): 62-71.

28. Povest', ed. Ostrowski, lines 29:12-14 (this and all translations are mine). The word zhena in early East Slavic typically means simply "woman," but must refer here to Igor"s spouse. This sort of usage doubtlessly led to the modern meaning (cf. English wife).

29. See Stafford, Queens, 32-54; and Alexander Kazhdan, "Rus'-Byzantine Princely Marriages in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries," Harvard Ukrainian Studies 12-13 (1988-89): 414-29.

30. These conclusions resemble those of Pushkareva, Zhenshchiny, 12-13. Interest- ingly, the second mention of Pskov in the Povest' refers to Ol'ga's sani (sledge?), which was apparently kept there after she visited in AM 6455. Povest' ed. Ostrowski, lines 60:9-12. Preservation of the sani may have reflected some sort of Pskovian civic or dynastic pride.

31. Povst', ed. Ostrowski, lines 46:20-23. This list of names seems to have been part of a genuine treaty. SeeJana Malingoudi, Die Russisch-Byzantinischen Vertrdge des 10.Jhds. aus diplomatischerSicht (Thessaloniki, 1994), 35-38. Cf. Franklin and Shepard, Emergence ofRus, 118-19. Pushkareva, Zhenshchiny, 13, treats the list as a possible literary creation.

32. Cf. Pushkareva, Zhenshchiny, 13. 33. Povest', ed. Ostrowski, lines 54:14-55:9. 34. Ibid., lines 55:10-16.


This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 18:05:01 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Page 8: A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe

A Woman of Words

uncertain that Mal existed; it is even less certain that he or any other Derevlian prince ever proposed marriage to Ol'ga. Nevertheless, the situ- ation described so far is quite plausible.

In early medieval Europe, including Scandinavia and Rus', a ruler's death often precipitated a succession struggle among sons, brothers, and other relations of the deceased.35 Young children of rulers, such as Sviato- slav, were especially vulnerable when their fathers died, but here Sviato- slav had an unusual advantage. His father, Igor', was an only child who had himself been raised by a (male) regent, had recently married Ol'ga, and had recently come of age. Without close kin on the paternal side, Sviato- slav had no competition within his own dynasty.

With no internal competition, it is unsurprising that there should have been external competition from the Derevlian Mal and that Mal should have attempted to marry Ol'ga. In the west, widowed queens fre- quently attracted royal suitors, who in effect wished to achieve conquest by marriage.36 Such marriages sometimes involved pressure or coercion, the nature and degree of which varied with the circumstances of the match. Some queens (including some with children whose futures were threatened by the suitors) appear to have used such alliances as a means of retaining power and influence, however, and some seem even to have welcomed them, though the nature of medieval sources often makes it difficult to be certain.37

35. Similar struggles have occurred in many societies; see Goody, Succession to High Office, 8-29. On how the succession system in Rus' became more orderly over generations, see Janet Martin, Medieval Russia: 980-1584 (Cambridge, Eng., 1995), 21-35. See also Nancy Shields Kollmann, "Collateral Succession in Kievan Rus'," Harvard Ukrainian Stud- ies 14 (1990): 377-87. On succession in western Europe (excluding Scandinavia), see Stafford, Queens, 152-65.

36. This pattern was not confined to Europe. For a survey that remains valuable and thought-provoking in spite of its age, uncritical use of sources, and dubious interpreta- tions, seeJames G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, 3d ed. (New York, 1935), 2:268-322. On re- married European royal widows roughly contemporary to Ol'ga, see Stafford, Queens, 49- 54, 137, 168-71.

37. Stafford, Queen Emma and Queen Edith: Queenship and Women's Power in Eleventh- Century England (Oxford, 1997), 220-36, presents the marriage of Emma, widow of AEthelred II (the Unready) of England, to AEthelred's enemy Cnut of Denmark in 1017, as perhaps initially coerced but eventually used by Emma to advantage. Other queens of in- terest include Bertha, wife of Eudes of Blois and the Capetian Robert the Pious; Eadgifu, widow of the West Frankish Charles the Simple; and Bertha of Swabia. See Stafford, Queens, 53, 83-84, 168-69, and Stafford, Queen Emma and Queen Edith, 62; Jean Dhont, "Sept femmes et un trio de rois," Contributions a l'histoire economique et sociale 3 (1964-65): 37-70; Gina Fasoli, I re d'talia: 888-962 (Florence, 1949), 139-40. Likhachev, commentary to Povest', 435, suggests that Mal's belief that he could assume power reflects a "matriarchate" among the Derevlians, who "were on a significantly lower level of social development than the Polianians [i.e., the Rus']." On the Derevlians' backwardness, Likhachev cites B. D. Grekov, Kievskaia Rus' (Moscow, 1949), 358-59, which is based on a tendentious reading of the Povest'. Cf. M. B. Sverdlov's note in Likhachev, ed., Povest', 607. Likhachev cites no references on matriarchy. His remarks may be influenced (directly or not) by Friedrich Engels, UrsprungderFamilie, des Privateigentums und des Staats (Hottingen-Ziirich, 1884) but they seem more closely linked to Frazer, Golden Bough, 2:286-322. See Cynthia Eller, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future (Boston, 2000), 32, on Engels and Soviet scholarship; cf. Stafford's skepticism regarding matrilineality in


This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 18:05:01 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Page 9: A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe

Slavic Review

Yet if western models present one paradigm for a woman switching her allegiance to a new husband, they also present a paradigm for female regency without remarriage, and the passage above suggests that a crucial condition for such a regency was present. A woman could not become re- gent without support from men of rank, and the reference to Asmud and Sveneld suggests that Ol'ga had such support.38 As my translation suggests, the term kormilets', applied to Asmud, very probably corresponds to Old Norse-Icelandic f6stri and fostr-fadir, "foster father." Most Scandinavian royal sons had foster fathers, typically trusted nobles who raised them with their own familes.39 This practice strengthened the bonds between royalty and nobility, enhancing the influence of the royal dynasty.40 It also, as in Sviatoslav's case, provided the child with a male protector if the king died. Since foster fathers were usually not of royal blood, they did not pose threats as potential usurpers.41 Sveneld, the military commander, was also presumably not of royal blood and hence not a threat to the underage ruler. These two men could thus help Ol'ga fill the power-vacuum left by Igor"s death without threatening Sviatoslav's future.

As noted earlier, Cizevskij and Likhachev have argued that Ol'ga's first three acts of revenge against the Derevlians take the form of riddles. With- out pursuing these interpretations in detail, I would suggest that Ol'ga presents the Derevlians with a broad enigma: should they regard her as a potential bride or as a bereaved woman? In early Germanic (and, I would suggest, early East Slavic) culture, the roles of bride and queen were

Queens, 169-70, and Atkinson, "Society and the Sexes in the Russian Past," 4. For a modi- fied version of Likhachev's interpretation (without reference to relative social develop- ment), see Pushkareva, Zhenshchiny, 214n8.

38. On conditions for female regency in the early medieval west (with a survey of individual cases), see Gunther Wolf, "K6niginwitwen als Vormiinder ihrer Sohne und Enkel im Abendland zwischen 426 und 1056," in Wolf, ed., Kaiserin Theophanu: Prinzessin aus derFremde-des Westreichs Grofle Kaiserin (Cologne, 1991), 58. See also Stafford, Queens, 153-65.

39. References to foster fathers in sagas are widespread. For f6stri and related terms, see Johan Fritzner, Ordbog over det gamle norske Sprog (Kristiania, 1886), 1:465-66, and Richard Cleasby and Gudbrand Vigfusson, An Icelandic-English Dictionary, 2d ed. with sup- plement by William A. Cragie (Oxford, 1957), 168. For instances of kormilets' in East Slavic, see R. I. Avanesov, S. G. Barkhudarov, V. I. Borkovskii, et al., Slovar' drevnerusskogo iazyka: XI-XIVvv., vol. 4 (Moscow, 1991), s.v. k"rmilc'. For discussions of foster fathers in Rus' (with limited attention to western analogues), see V. K. Gardanov, "'Kormitel'stvo' v drevnei Rusi," Sovetskaia etnografiia, 1959, no. 6:43-59, and Gardanov, "'Diadki' drevnei Rusi," Is- toricheskie zapiski 71 (1962): 236-50. More recently, see N. I. Shchaveleva, "O kniazheskikh vospitateliakh v drevnei Pol'she," Drevneishie gosudarstva na territorii SSSR, 1985, 123-31.

40. See Sverre Bagge, Society and Politics in Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla (Berkeley, 1991), 120, 134.

41. King Athelstan of England apparently fostered Hakon, son of Harald Fairhair and later himself king, but the treatment of this event in Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla: His- tory of the Kings of Norway, trans. and intro. Lee M. Hollander (Austin, 1964), 92-93 (Har- alds saga Hdrfagra, chap. 39) indicates that it was exceptional. Cf. Theodore M. Andersson and Kari Ellen Gade, trans. and eds., Morkinskinna: The Earliest Icelandic Chronicle of the Norwegian Kings (1030-1157) (Ithaca, 2000), 89-90 and note 5. Gardanov, "Diadki," and Shchaveleva, "O kniazheskikh vospitateliakh v drevnei Pol'she," suggest that, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, foster fathers were sometimes seen as a threat to Polish and East Slavic rulers.


This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 18:05:01 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Page 10: A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe

A Woman of Words

strongly associated with peacemaking and diplomacy for two reasons. First, ruling families often exchanged brides in an effort to promote peace. Second, one of the primary duties of a queen appears to have been the fostering of social harmony through active diplomacy and concilia- tion.42 In contrast to brides, bereaved women were extremely dangerous, since one of their primary social functions appears to have been bringing about the deaths of those who had killed their kin.43 As we shall see, such women were most dangerous when they had lost fathers or brothers. The

danger presented by a woman who had lost a husband (as Ol'ga had) was less clear, and Ol'ga's status as both a potential peacemaker and a poten- tial avenger seems to have confused the Derevlians.

The Povest' describes the Derevlians' first encounter with Ol'ga thus:

And the Derevlians sent their best men, twenty in number, in a boat to Ol'ga. And they moored themselves near Borychev in their boat. For at that time the water flowed near the hill of Kiev, and people lived not on the lowland but on the hill. And the fortress of Kiev was where the court of Gordiata and Nikifor is now, and the royal court was inside the fortress where the court of Vorotislav and Chudin is now, and the bird-nets were outside the fortress. And there was another court outside the fortress, where the court of the Choir-Leader is, beyond the Church of the Mother of God, at the top of the hill, because there was a stone palace [?] there. And Ol'ga was informed that the Derevlians had arrived. And Ol'ga called them into her presence and said to them: "The guests are wel- come." And the Derevlians said, "We have come to the queen." And Ol'ga said to them: "So tell why you have come here." The Derevlians said: "The Derevlian land has sent us to say this: We have killed your husband, for your husband was like a wolf, looting and stealing, and our princes, who have cared for the Derevlian land, are good, so marry our prince Mal," for the name of the Derevlian prince was Mal. And Ol'ga said to them: "I like what you are saying. I cannot resurrect my husband now. But I would like to honor you in the morning before my people, and now go to your boat and lie down proudly in it. And in the morning I will send for you, and you say, 'We do not ride on horses or in carts, nor go on foot, but carry us in our boat."' And she let them go to their boat. And Ol'ga ordered that a wide and deep pit be dug in the court of the palace out- side the city. And on the next day Ol'ga, who was sitting in the palace, sent for her guests. And her people went to them saying, "Ol'ga calls you to great honor." And they said: "We do not ride on horseback or in carts nor go on foot, but carry us in our boat." And the Kievans said: "Slavery is our lot! Our prince is killed, and our queen wants to marry your prince." And they carried them off in the boat. And they rode in cloaks [?], pridefully in great breast-clasps [?].44 And they were brought to Ol'ga in the court

42. See L. John Sklute, 'Treoduwebbe in Old English Poetry," in Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen, eds., New Readings on Women in Old English Literature (Bloo- mington, 1990); and Olsen, "Gender Roles," 314-17.

43. Clover, "Maiden Warriors"; Olsen "Gender Roles," 318; and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen, "Cynewulf's Autonomous Women: A Reconsideration of Elene and Juliana," in Damico and Olsen, eds., New Readings on Women, 225-26.

44. The words pereg"bekh" and sustugakh" are apparently unique to this text, though cf. Likhachev, commentary to Povest', 436, on the latter.


This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 18:05:01 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Page 11: A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe

780 Slavic Review

and those who brought them flung them into the pit with their boat. And Ol'ga bent over and said to them: "Is the honor to your liking?" And they said: "Our death is worse than Igor"s." And she ordered them buried alive. And they buried them.45

Ol'ga's initial welcome of the Derevlians suggests that she is a potential bride, willing to negotiate, and her remark that she "cannot resurrect" her husband might seem a realistic assessment of her predicament. Having lost one protector, she may need another to help her retain whatever in- fluence she can. Since medieval queens sometimes did marry their de- ceased husbands' rivals, we should not regard the Derevlians as exces- sively gullible for accepting these words at face value.46

The burial of the Derevlians has a parallel in the late twelfth- or early thirteenth-century Nibelungenlied. There, Queen Kriemhild invites her kinsmen, who have killed her first husband, to visit her and her second husband. When they come, she engineers their deaths. At one point, as Kriemhild is attempting to burn her enemies alive in a banquet hall, caus- ing coals to fall down on them from above, the victims say that she has given them an "ubel h6hzit" and an "arge h6hzit" (both roughly translatable as "evil feast").47 Although there is certainly no close textual connection between the Povest' and the Nibelungenlied, events in the two works follow a pattern that may have its roots in a tradition antedating both: (1) The killers of a woman's husband (2) come to woman's land, where (3) they are offered hospitality, but (4) the woman causes a dangerous substance to rain down on them and (5) the characters comment ironically on the woman's hospitality.48 Although this parallel between the Povest' and the

45. Povest', ed. Ostrowski, lines 55:16-56:29. 46. (izevskij, History, 15-16, argues that this phrase, as used here and in one other

instance in the Povest', suggests "the declaration of a bloody vengeance which abolished all moral standards, including the laws of hospitality," and he asserts that "the [Derevlians] did not understand the Varangian formula of declaration of a bloody vengeance" (cf. Tschizewskij, Geschichte, 54-55). By contrast, George Krugovoy, "A Norman Legal Formula in Russian Chronicles and 'Slovo o polku Igoreve,"' Canadian Slavonic Papers 11 (1969): 497-514, argues that this and similar statements found in the Slovo o polku Igoreve and the Old French Chanson de Roland probably constitute instances of a genuine formulaic rejec- tion of revenge. He explains Ol'ga's failure to adhere to this rejection in terms of "extreme situations and offences against honour which ... would justify the pursuit of revenge by the most devious and ruthless means including breach of faith and the laws of hospitality" (504). Cf. Likhachev, "Slovo o polku Igoreve" i kul'tura ego vremeni, 2d ed. (Leningrad, 1985), 216-17.

47. Das Nibelungenlied, ed. Karl Bartsch, rev. Helmut de Boor, 13th ed. (Wiesbaden, 1956), stanzas 2118-19, 2122.

48. A more distant parallel to the events in the Povest' occurs in the English Life of Offa II, which describes how the evil Cynethryth arranged for her guest and prospective son-in-law St. iEthelbert, king of East Anglia, to fall into a pit, where cushions were thrown on him until he suffocated. See R. W. Chambers, Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem with a Discussion of the Stories of Offa and Finn, 3d ed., with a supplement by C. L. Wrenn (Cambridge, Eng., 1967), 239-42; and C. E. Wright, The Cultivation of Saga in Anglo-Saxon England (Edinburgh, 1939), 94-106. On the Lives of Offa I and Offa II (Vitae Duorum Of- farum), see Edith Rickert, "The Old English Offa Saga," Modern Philology 2 (1904-1905): 29-76 and 321-76. Likhachev, commentary to Povest', 435-36, while he does not draw a parallel with the Nibelungenlied, links the episode in the Povest'with boat-burial, a practice better attested among Germanic tribes than among Slavs. See Lubor Niederle [Niderle],

This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 18:05:01 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Page 12: A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe

A Woman of Words

Nibelungenlied suggests something about the history of narrative patterns, it tells us little or nothing about the social reality behind these patterns. Other parallels between the Povest' Nibelungenlied, and various Scandina- vian texts, however, can tell us considerably more about early medieval East Slavic and Germanic society.

Having buried the first Derevlian delegation, Ol'ga proceeds with her second and third acts of revenge:

And Ol'ga sent to the Derevlians saying: "If you are really asking for me, then send your finest men, so that I may go to marry your prince in great honor; otherwise the people of Kiev will not let me go." Having heard this, the Derevlians selected their best men, who ruled the Derevlian land, and sent them for her. When the Derevlians arrived, Ol'ga ordered that a bath be made for them, saying: "When you have washed, come to me." They heated up the bathhouse and the Derevlians went in and began to wash. And they locked them inside the bathhouse and Ol'ga ordered that the doors be set on fire, and all of them were burned up there.

And Ol'ga sent to the Derevlians saying: "Now I am coming to you, so set up many mead-vats [?] by your fortress where you killed my husband so that I may weep over his tomb and have a trizna [funeral feast] for him."49 And they, having heard this, brought a great many mead-vats [?] and brewed mead. And Ol'ga, taking a small retinue and moving swiftly, came to his grave and wept over her husband and ordered her people to raise up a great burial mound. And when they had raised it up she or- dered that a trizna be held. After this the Derevlians sat down to drink, and Ol'ga ordered her followers to serve them. And the Derevlians said to Ol'ga: "Where are our men, whom we sent to you?" And she answered: "They are following me with the retinue of my husband." And when the Derevlians had become drunk, Ol'ga ordered her retainers to drink to them, and herself went away, and ordered her retainers to kill [more lit- erally, "cut"] the Derevlians, and they killed ["cut up" or "cut to death"] 5,000 of them. And Ol'ga went back to Kiev and prepared troops to march against the rest of them.50

Western, particularly Scandinavian, accounts of people being burned alive inside buildings are too numerous to list. In at least two accounts, one preserved in a Danish folk song and one in Heidarviga saga, the build- ing is a bathhouse, but otherwise these accounts differ considerably from the one in the Povest'.5 At least equally relevant to the Povest' narrative are

Slavianskie drevnosti, Russ. trans. from Czech by T. Kovaleva and M. Khazanov (Moscow, 1956), 209-11, and, more recently, Gamkrelidze and Ivanov, Indo-European and the Indo- Europeans, 1: 724, 728n58. Likhachev also notes parallels to East Slavic folkloric episodes in which a bride or groom finds a way of arriving "neither on foot nor on horseback." The Derevlians, who are proxies in a marriage proposal, find just such an unusual mode of travel.

49. The meaning of trizna is discussed below. 50. Povest' ed. Ostrowski, lines 56:29-57:29. 51. See Heidarviga saga, ed. Kr. Kalund (Copenhagen, 1904), 13-14, and Danmarks

gamlefolkeviser, ed. Svend Grundtvig (Copenhagen, 1862), 3:20-53, both discussed in Rydzevskaia, Drevniaia Rus' 195-96. Thompson, Motif-Index, motif K831, "victim killed while being bathed" cites only Clytemnestra's murder of Agamemnon and some Indian in- stances. The drowning of Byzantine emperor Romanos III in a bath in 1034 CE is well


This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 18:05:01 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Page 13: A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe

Slavic Review

several Scandinavian accounts in which guests are lured to feasts and then burned or otherwise killed, a stratagem that recalls both the scene in the Nibelungenlied already mentioned and Ol'ga's slaughter of the Derevlians at Igor"s funeral feast.52 Of particular interest for us are instances where women commit such acts.53

In the Eddic Atlakvida a woman named Gu6run, in revenge for the murder of her brothers, feeds her children to her husband, Atli, at a feast, makes him drunk with wine that she serves there, kills him in his bed with a sword, and burns him and his men in their hall.54 This sequence of events combines the motifs of burning alive and fatal intoxication that oc- cur in the Povest' account.55 In the Eddic Atlamdl in Grcnennzko and the prose Volsunga saga, both of which contain a variation on the same narra- tive, Gu6run proposes that a feast be held in honor of her slain brothers. Atli agrees, and the children are served at the feast.56 An even closer par- allel to the account of the treacherous feast in the Povest' (though without the motif of burning) appears in Ynglinga saga, wherein the Swedish King Agni kills a Finnish leader and abducts his daughter, Skjalf. Agni marries Skjalf, who begs that he hold a funeral feast for her father. He does so, drinks, and falls asleep, whereupon Skjalf and her retinue strangle him with a golden necklace.57 We may summarize the parallels between the stories of Ol'ga ("O"), Gu6ruin ("G"), Skjalf ("S"), and Gufirun's literary relative Kriemhild (Scandinavian "Grimhild," "K") thus:58

enough documented to be considered historical. See N. A. Skalabanovich, Vizantiiskoe go- sudarstvo i tserkov v XI veke: Ot smerti Vasiliia II Bol'aroboitsy do votsareniia Alekseia I Komnina (1884; reprint with an introduction byJ. M. Hussey, n.p., 1972), 26-27.

52. These are instances of "enemies invited to a banquet and killed" as presented in Thompson, Motif-Index, motif K811.1.

53. Probably relevant, in addition to the parallels discussed here, is the legend of how Sigri6r "the Proud," a widowed queen of Sweden, killed Harald of Greenland and an unidentified king of Rus' named Vissavald (=Vsevolod?) who wished to marry her. See Sturluson, Heimskringla, 185-86 ("Olifs saga Tryggvasonar, chap. 43); discussed in Friedrich Braun, "Das historische RuBland im nordischen Schrifftum des 10 bis 14 Jahrhunderts," in Festschrift: Eugen Mogk zum 70. Geburtstag, 19Juli 1924 (Halle an der Saale, 1924), 160-61; and in Rydzevskaia, Drevniaia Rus', 196-200.

54. Atlakvida, stanzas 34-43, in Ursula Dronke, ed. and trans., The Poetic Edda, vol. 1, Heroic Poems (Oxford, 1969).

55. For more analogues, see Thompson, Motif-Index, motifs K871: "Fatal intoxica- tion"; K871.1: "Army intoxicated and overcome"; K871.2: "Slaughter of drunken enemies in banquet hall"; and K872: 'Judith and Holofernes."

56. Atlamdl in Grcenlenzko, stanzas 72-82, in Dronke, ed. and trans., Heroic Poems; The Saga of the Volsungs, Norse text edited with facing English translation by R. G. Finch (Lon- don, 1965), 72-74. On Atlakvida, Atlamdl, and Volsunga saga, see Ronald G. Finch, "At- lakvi6a, Atlamdl, and Volsunga Saga: A Study in Combination and Integration," in Ursula Dronke et al., eds., Speculum norroenum: Norse Studies in Memory of Gabriel Turville-Petre ([Odense], 1981); and Theodore M. Andersson, A Preface to the Nibelungenlied (Stanford, 1987), 27, 107-9 (with references).

57. Sturluson, Heimskringla, 22 (Ynglinga saga, chap. 19). 58. Here I treat as one (and slightly simplify) the narratives about Gubruin in the At-

lakvida, Atlamdl in Grcenlenzko, and Volsunga saga. I do the same thing with narratives about Kriemhild in the Nibelungenlied and in bi6reks saga. For the Nibelungenlied, see Das Nibelun- genlied, ed. Bartsch and de Boor. For pidreks saga, see relevant passages translated in An- dersson, Preface to the Nibelungenlied, 186-208. On the relation between Gu6run and Kriemhild, with further references, see Andersson, Preface to the Nibelungenlied, 106-12,


This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 18:05:01 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Page 14: A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe

A Woman of Words

(1) The story is about a queen's revenge.59 [0, G, S, K] (2) It begins with the killing of the queen's (a) husband or [O, K]

(b) blood kin [G, S] (3) The killer(s) is/are6? (a) the queen's blood kin or [K]

(b) the queen's husband or [G, S] (c) the queen's would-be husband. [0]

(4) The queen organizes a feast, [0, G, S, K] (5) usually to commemorate the victim(s), [0, G, S] (6) at which the killer(s) most often become drunk and [0, G, S] (7) the queen kills (a) at least one killer herself or [G, S, K]

(b) many killers by proxy. [O]

Henceforth, I shall refer to the victim(s) mentioned in point (2) above as 'Victim 1," and to the victim(s) of the queen as 'Victim 2."

The stories characterized above coincide most consistently at points (1) and (4). The queen herself invariably organizes the feast, and Victim 2 attends it. Moreover, in all cases except Kriemhild's, the queen is matri-

monially linked to Victim 2 and the feast itself is associated with the com- memoration of Victim 1.61 Only in Kriemhild's case (where the very ac-

ceptance of the invitation is presented as a heroic act) is there even a

suggestion that Victim 2 might be reluctant to attend. The willingness of Victim 2 to attend a feast in honor of Victim 1 seems to be part of a tradi- tional topos, but perhaps this willingness made some sort of psychological sense to early medieval authors and audiences. Here, we may look more

closely at the structure and function of the East Slavic trizna, or funeral feast, and at its medieval Germanic analogues.62

In the Povest' trizna clearly refers to ritual commemoration of the dead.

Igor"s trizna begins at Ol'ga's order, and if we take the words "after this" to mean "after the order," rather than "after the trizna," then the trizna involves first sitting down and then drinking. While the second element seems central to the trizna, the first also bears brief comment. Paul Bau- schatz has remarked that references to group sitting in Germanic litera- ture are few and that they usually suggest a significant ritual.63 In the

and Elisabeth Vestergaard, "Gudrun/Kriemhild-s0ster eller hustru?" Arkiv fdr nordisk filologi 99 (19842: 63-78. Other relevant figures that would render my comparison un- wieldy include Asa, wife of Gunr6th in Sturluson, Heimskringla, 48-49 (Ynglinga saga, chap. 48), Sigri6r the Proud, and Rogneda. Robert Mann, The Germanic Legend ofAttila the Hun in Kievan Rus' (Jupiter, Florida, 2004) juxtaposes Ol'ga with Gubr6n and Kriemhild from an interesting perspective that differs from mine.

59. By "queen," I mean a woman married to a male ruler. Skjalf is a ruler's child who becomes Agni's queen after her father's death.

60. For the sake of simplicity, in my summary of this pattern I do not distinguish the actions of male rulers from actions carried out by their people or at their orders.

61. A reference to a commemorative feast seems to be buried even in the Nibelungen- lied, where Hagen (Victim 2) speaks of commemorating the dead as he at once recalls his own murder of Siegfried (Victim 1) and commits a new murder. See Das Nibelungenlied, ed. Bartsch and de Boor, stanza 1960 and note.

62. On the word trizna, see Aleksandr B. Strakhov, "Iz oblasti obriadovoi termi- nologii: ts.-slav. tryzna, (b)dyn', etc.," Palaeoslavica 10, no. 2 (2002): 166-96. (Strakhov's co- pious bibliography omits Niederle, Slavianskie drevnosti, 211-13.)

63. Paul C. Bauschatz, "The Germanic Ritual Feast," in John Weinstock, ed., The Nordic Languages and Modern Linguistics 3: Proceedings of the Third International Conference of Nordic and General Linguistics, The Univ. of Texas at Austin, April 5-9, 1976 (Austin, 1978),


This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 18:05:01 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Page 15: A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe

Slavic Review

Povest', the passage under discussion contains the first explicit reference to a large group of people sitting down.64 The next is in the description of the treacherous peace conference to which Vladimir Sviatoslavich invites his brother Iaropolk. Other group sittings occur after the adoption of Christianity, with most clustered in entries for 6605 through 6611. None of these other sittings take place at funeral ceremonies or involve women, and none contain references to drinking, but nearly all involve councils that include one or more princes and their retainers.65 Thus, in the Povest', as in Germanic works, explicit references to sitting in groups appear to underline the significance of events.

If communal sitting set the stage for early medieval formal gatherings, communal drinking seems to have been integral to them.66 In the Povest', mead figures prominently in descriptions not only of Igor"s trizna but also of feasts held by Vladimir Sviatoslavich after his conversion.67 Michael Enright has explored the significance of early Germanic banquets and the roles of queens at such banquets. His principal (but not sole) source of ev- idence is Beowulf, which depicts, in Enright's words, "the idealized arche- typical image of aristocratic Germanic life."68 Although Beowulfwas com- posed in a Christian society, this archetype had pre-Christian roots, and I posit that an "archetypical image" of (Germano)-Slavic pre-Christian life (idealized or not) was present in the mind of whoever wrote the story of Ol'ga's feast.69 Enright remarks that, in early Germanic society, rituals of

289. See also MichaelJ. Enright, "Lady with a Mead-Cup: Ritual, Group Cohesion and Hi- erarchy in the Germanic Warband," Friihmittelalterliche Studien 22 (1988): 179. Hugh Ma- gennis, "Monig oft gesat: Some Images of Sitting in Anglo-Saxon Poetry," Neophilologus 70 (1986): 442-52, emphasizes associations of (often solitary) sitting with sorrow in Anglo- Saxon poetry but also notes associations with feasting and council.

64. I have reached this conclusion with the aid of 0. V. Tvorogov, "Leksicheskii sostav Povesti vremennykh let: Slovoukazateli i chastotnyi slovnik, krome poucheniia Vladimira Monomakha," in PSRL 1, 695, 716, 717. I exclude instances in which the verbs sedeti and sesti refer to actions other than "sitting" (e.g., "settling," "colonization") and where they may be treated as referring either to sitting or to riding.

65. See Povest', ed. Ostrowski, lines 78:5, 171:9, 239:2 (less relevant than most), 259:7, 265:9, 273:27, 274:3, 275:27, 277:3, 279:8.

66. See Enright, "Lady with a Mead-Cup," 184-85 with references, and Hugh Ma- gennis, "The Beowulf Poet and His Druncne Dryhtguman," Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 86 (1985): 159-64. Among Enright's references, see especially Bauschatz, "The Germanic Ritual Feast," and Maurice Cahen, Etudes sur le vocabulaire religieux du vieux-scandinave: La libation (Paris, 1921), 33. Bauschatz overstates his thesis somewhat (as, perhaps, Cahen does to a lesser degree). In particular, Bauschatz's suggestion that eating may have been "deliberately excluded" from feasts is not supportable. See Beowulf, lines 560-64, in Fr. Klaeber, ed., Beowulfand the Fight atFinnsburg, 3d ed. (Boston, 1950); cf. Atlakvida, stanzas 34-37, and Atlamdl in Grnlennzko, stanzas 79-80, in Dronke, ed. and trans., Heroic Poems.

67. Povist' ed. Ostrowski, lines 125:24-126:20 (year 6504). In fact, this passage de- scribes two feasts: A feast for the poor motivated by Christian charity and a more tradi- tional feast for Vladimir's druzhina or comitatus.

68. Enright, "Lady with a Mead-Cup," 173. In connection with this assertion, Enright tentatively dates Beowulf to the eighth century, but a dating as late as the tenth would not necessarily weaken his argument. For a survey of the dating controversy, see Robert E. Bjork and Anita Obermeier, "Date, Provenance, Author, Audiences," in Bjork and Niles, eds., A Beowulf Handbook, 13-34.

69. The very casualness with which the apparently pagan term trizna is used supports this hypothesis.


This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 18:05:01 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Page 16: A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe

A Woman of Words

communal drinking "had the purpose of creating fictive kinship" or "a non-natural bond of loyalty" among the drinkers.70 Seen from this per- spective, Igor"s trizna could present an opportunity for ritual reconcilia- tion between the Derevlians and the Rus'. By drinking together, members of the tribes could attempt to put the past behind them and form a new union. Yet drinking alone would be insufficient for reconciliation. As En-

right emphasizes, Germanic feasts presented an opportunity to establish hierarchies, with drink being distributed, "strictly according to rank."71

Presumably, Igor"s trizna would have entailed the establishment of a serv-

ing order that would not excessively offend either the Derevlian nobles or the Rus' nobles. Ol'ga would be the one to establish this order because, as

Enright's analysis suggests, the presiding queen (typically the wife of a

living king) was personally responsible for serving the drink at feasts and thus for symbolically determining the hierarchy.72 Indeed, the queen would normally begin by serving the king, a point to which we shall return.

Here we find a seeming problem with the application of Enright's par- adigm to Igor"s trizna: The Povest' does not say that Ol'ga served the drink. Rather, it explicitly states that she ordered her people to serve the drink. It might thus seem that, even if the paradigm correctly describes early Germanic tradition, it could not characterize the trizna in the East Slavic Povest'. Fortunately, Beowulf itself provides a solution. Enright cites two pas- sages from Beowulf wherein Queen Wealhtheow serves mead to the com-

pany of men at her husband Hrothgar's hall.73 In both cases, however, the

drinking clearly begins before Wealhtheow's appearance, and in the first instance the narrator explicitly mentions a thane who is charged with

dispensing drink.74 Thus, while drinking typically began early in a feast, the queen did not personally distribute any drink until near the end of the event.75 This observation may shed light on the Derevlians' question about the emissaries to Ol'ga and on Ol'ga's remark that these emissaries are coming together with Igor"s retinue. Since the second group of emis- saries to Ol'ga were the Derevlians' "best men," and since Igor"s retinue were presumably among the "best" of the Rus', it seems unlikely that the most formal part of the feast could take place without either of these two groups. It does, however, seem that preliminary drinking could begin without them.

If Beowulf suggests that drinking in Germanic feasts involved two stages, with a woman playing a central role in the second and most important stage, the Scandinavian Fagrskinna (or Noregs konunga tal) includes a de- scription of pagan Scandinavian funeral feasts for rulers where drinking

70. Enright, "Lady with a Mead-Cup," 185; cf. Magennis, "The Beowulf Poet," Bau- schatz, "The Germanic Ritual Feast," and Cahen, Etudes.

71. Enright, "Lady with a Mead-Cup," 181. 72. Ibid., 179-84. 73. Ibid., 171-73, 177, cites Beowulf, lines 607-41 and 1163-75. Helen Damico, "Beo-

wulf"'s Wealhtheow and the Valkyrie Tradition (Madison, 1984), 3-4 with n2 and 21-23, ques- tions the notion that queens personally offered drink to all warriors in the hierarchy, but she emphasizes the importance of queens offering drink to the ruler.

74. Beowulf, lines 491-96 and 1013-15. 75. Cf. Damico, "Beowulf"'s Wealhtheow, 21-23.


This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 18:05:01 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Page 17: A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe

Slavic Review

also seems to have followed a two-stage pattern.76 According to Fagrskinna, the man who was to inherit the authority of the deceased was responsible for organizing the feast. At the beginning of the feast, during which toasts were drunk to the deceased, to influential kinsmen, and to pagan gods, the heir was forbidden from sitting in his predecessor's seat. Only after these toasts had been drunk could the heir drink from a ceremonial cup, the bragafull (or bragarfull), and take an oath. The remainder of those pres- ent then did the same thing, after which the heir would seat himself in the place of the deceased.77

The bragafull was not used only at funerals, and in a larger context its function was linked to the swearing of oaths. These oaths could pertain to a variety of acts, including the intended defeat of an enemy and the in- tended acquisition of a bride.78 At a ruler's funeral, however, the oaths re- quired of the heir and his new subjects were presumably oaths of service: Kings would swear to act as the protectors of their people, and subjects would swear fealty to their new kings. Funeral feasts thus provided a venue for the orderly transfer of power. After the new ruler had taken his oath, the bragafull presumably went from man to man according to rank. Again, although the feast in Beowulf is not a funeral feast, the function of the mead-cup there is related to that of the bragafull: Wealhtheow passes it to the men in order of rank, and (although there is no transfer of power since king Hrothgar is living) Beowulf drinks and swears to defeat the monster Grendel or die trying.79

Let us now consider a medieval queen serving drink for the first time after her royal husband's death. Enright suggests that in some circum- stances a widowed queen appears, at least nominally, to have been able to

76. Fagrskinna appears to have been compiled early in the thirteenth century from older sources. The most recent scholarly edition is in Agrip af Noregskonunga sogum/ Fagrskinna-Noregs konunga tal, ed. Bjarni Einarsson (Reykjavik, 1984). In English, see Halld6r Hermannsson, Bibliography of the Sagas of the Kings of Norway and Related Sagas and Tales, Islandica (Ithaca, 1910), 3:6-7, on the textual tradition and on older editions, and Theodore M. Andersson, "Kings Sagas," in CarolJ. Clover andJohn Lindow, eds., Old Norse- Icelandic Literature: A Critical Guide (Ithaca, 1985), on the interrelationships of the Kings' Sagas.

77. Agrip/Fagrskinna, ed. Einarsson, 124-25. Part of the passage is translated in Ste- fan Einarsson, "Old English Beot and Old Icelandic Heitstrenging," in Jess B. Bessinger, Jr., and StanleyJ. Kahrl, eds., Essential Articles for the Study of Old English Poetry (Hamden, Conn., 1968), 110. My interpretation is indebted to Ottar Gr0nvik, Runene pd Tunesteinen: Alfabet, Sprdkform, Budskap (Oslo, 1981), 165- 66, and Gr0nvik, The Words for "Heir," "Inheritance," and "Funeral Feast" in Early Germanic (Oslo, 1982), 9 and note 3. For other relevant pas- sages, see Sturluson, Heimskringla, 39 (Ynglinga saga, chap. 36), 175-76 ("Oldfs saga Tryggva- sonar, chap. 35). Cf. Damico, "Beowulf"'s Wealhtheow, 4, 54-56.

78. Among the most famous such oaths recorded in the Scandinavian tradition are those of theJomsvikings, described in Agrip/Fagrskinna, ed. Einarsson, 125, in Sturluson, Heimskringla, 175-76 ( "Oldfs saga Tryggvasonar, chap. 35), and inJ6msvikinga saga/The Saga oftheJomsvikings, Norse text edited with facing translation by N. F. Blake (London, 1962), 28-29. On the bragafull outside funeral contexts, see Saga Hei6reks Konungs ins Vitra/The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise, Norse text edited with facing translation by Christopher Tolkien (London, 1960), 3, and Helgaqvida Hiirvardzsonar, prose after stanza 30 and stan- zas 31-32, in Gustav Neckel, ed., Edda:DieLiederdes CodexRegius nebst verwandten Denkmiler, Text, 3d ed., rev. Hans Kuhn (Heidelberg, 1962), vol. 1.

79. Beowulf, lines 628-38.


This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 18:05:01 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Page 18: A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe

A Woman of Words

designate a new ruler by choosing him as her spouse.80 His most striking evidence is a passage in Paul the Deacon's Historia Langobardorum that re- lates how, after the death of her husband, Authari, the widowed queen Theudelinda was permitted to choose a new husband for herself and a new king for the Lombards. Theudelinda sends for Agiulf, duke of Turin. When he arrives, she converses with him, orders that wine be brought, drinks, and gives him the cup. As he receives the cup, he kisses her hand, but she tells him to kiss her on the lips, raises him up to do so, and informs him of their impending marriage.81 Thus, a widowed queen personally offers drink to a man in a way that seems to signify the bestowal of kingship.82

The evidence of Beowulf, Fagrskinna, and Paul the Deacon suggests that early medieval European queens were often responsible for distrib- uting ceremonial drink at feasts, that they normally served men in order of rank, that distribution of drink at funeral feasts was associated with transfer of power to a new ruler and the establishment of a new hierarchy, and that a widowed queen could symbolically confer the dignity of king on a man by serving him drink for the first time. We may thus conclude that the description of the feast in the Povest' (whatever its basis in reality) was intended to be understood as follows: The Derevlians perceive Ol'ga's suitor, Mal, as the inheritor at Igor"s trizna. Whether Mal is present when the trizna begins is unclear; perhaps he was among the Derevlians' "finest men," who were burned alive in the bathhouse. In any event, the Derev- lians expect him to be present at the conclusion of the trizna so that, after Igor' has been honored, Mal can receive drink from Ol'ga and be recognized as Igor"s successor. The remark that Ol'ga "ordered her fol- lowers to serve [the Derevlians]" emphasizes that Ol'ga does not person- ally participate in any such ritual. Were she to do so, an attempt on the Derevlians' lives afterwards would constitute treachery to her new lord. (For that matter, a ritual acknowledgment of Mal's sovereignty could be taken as nullifying her authority over the Rus', leaving her unable to order the slaughter.) Ol'ga's behavior here contrasts with that of Gu6ruin, who personally serves drink to Atli and his men before killing Atli.83

80. Enright, "Lady with a Mead-Cup," 190-203. The extent to which queens acted at the will of their late husbands' followers probably varied. Few (if any) male monarchs have ever ruled without at least the tacit consent of some larger group, and the powers of such groups have always depended on the situation and personalities involved. Analogously, al- though no widow-queen may ever have been completely free to choose her husband's suc- cessors, some probably had more of a real voice in the matter than others did.

81. See Pauli Historia Langobardorum, ed. Georg Waitz, Monumenta Germaniae historica, Scriptores rerum Germanicarum in usum scholarum, [vol. 25] (Hannover, 1878), 140-41, and Enright, "Lady with a Mead-Cup," 192-93. On the significance of gestures, particularly the offering of the cup, in this scene, seeJoaquin Martinez Pizarro, A Rhetoric of the Scene: Dra- matic Narrative in the Early Middle Ages (Toronto, 1989), 109-11.

82. The scene also fits a third pattern: an unmarried woman serving drink to a man implies an intention (the woman's, the man's, or someone else's) that the two should be wed. See Pauli Historia Langobardorum, 133-34, with Enright, "Lady with a Mead-Cup," 180-81; Karl Strecher, ed., Waltharius, in Monumenta Germaniae historica, Poetae latini medii aevi, vol. 6, bk. 1 (Weimar, 1951), lines 221-29; Ragnars saga lodbr6kar, in Magnus Olsen, ed., Volsunga saga ok Ragnars saga lodbr6kar (Copenhagen, 1906-8), 133.

83. Atlakvi6a, stanzas 34-36, in Dronke, ed. and trans., Heroic Poems.


This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 18:05:01 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Page 19: A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe

Slavic Review

The Povest"s laconic narrator also takes the trouble to emphasize that Ol'ga takes no physical part in killing the Derevlians. Instead, she gives her instructions and departs before the slaughter begins. In this respect she differs from Gu6ruin, Skjalf, and Kriemhild, who all physically participate in the killing of one or more victims. Why, we may ask, does Ol'ga take an emphatically less physical role in her revenge than her Germanic counter- parts do?

Let us assume that the stories of the four women (as summarized ear- lier) all arise from a common proto-epos (or proto-ethos) with a distinct code for feminine behavior. Carol Clover has argued that, in early Scan- dinavian literature (and, to some extent, in early Scandinavian society), women could, under the right circumstances, take on almost any male so- cial function, including functions relating to killing.84 More specifically, a woman without brothers could inherit from her father (as a son would do otherwise) and a woman in a literary work could (again, like a son) be responsible for avenging her father's death by her own hand.85 In effect, such a "maiden warrior" (to use Clover's term) could (or was even re- quired to) take on the authority and role of a man when there was no man to do it for her. Clover further notes that eventually maiden warriors cease to behave as men, marry, and become mothers. Once they have male chil- dren who can carry on the male ancestral legacy that had survived only in the maiden warriors themselves, they usually revert to standard feminine roles.86

Although Clover mentions neither Skjalf nor Gu6ruin, Skjalf's killing of Agni may partly be subsumed into Clover's paradigm. Although Skjalf has a living brother, he has been captured by Agni. Thus, Skjalf, like a maiden warrior, is the only member of her family in a position to avenge her father's death. Her use of deception, however, like Ol'ga's, Guruin's, and Kriemhild's, distinguishes her from more typical maiden warriors who rely primarily or entirely on military prowess (normally a masculine trait) to defeat their enemies. Further, Skjalf's killing of Agni by her own hand would seem to fit Clover's paradigm, but her weapon (a necklace) is not that of a male warrior. While Snorri Sturluson is not given to exten- sive moralizing, his failure either to praise or blame Skjalf may suggest that her behavior is understandable and might be expected, at least in terms of literary norms.

Like Skjalf, Gu6ruin fits Clover's maiden warrior paradigm in several important respects though not in all. She is not a maiden avenging her fa- ther but a remarried widow (with small children) avenging her brothers. She has no living adult male kin, however, and she seems to be fulfilling an obligation to avenge her brothers' deaths because there is no man left to do so.87 Like her analogues, she uses deception to achieve her ends, but

84. Clover, "Maiden Warriors" and "Regardless of Sex," 363-72. 85. Clover, "Maiden Warriors." 86. Clover, "Maiden Warriors," 39-40, 47-48. 87. In principle, she could raise her children as avengers, but this would entail en-

couraging them to kill their own father. Gu6run's story broadly resembles the East Slavic legend of Rogneda, who first tries to kill Vladimir Sviatoslavich (who has killed her father), then encourages her son Iziaslav to confront Vladimir. See PSRL 1, col. 300.


This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 18:05:01 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Page 20: A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe

A Woman of Words

she kills Atli by her own hand with an eminently masculine weapon.88 This action does not seem to have scandalized the early narrators of her story, who seem certainly to understand and probably to approve of her actions as appropriate to her situation.89 Interestingly, Gu6ruin continues on the path of a maiden warrior by living on to remarry yet again, and when re- venge is again called for she goads her grown sons by her final husband to carry it out rather than taking physical action herself.90 This behavior is appropriate to her later status as a woman with grown male kin.91

If Gu6run and Skjalf nearly fit Clover's paradigm, Kriemhild does not. Whereas the first two women both take revenge for the deaths of their last male blood kin, Kriemhild kills precisely these kin. Her anger at her brothers, who have killed her husband, was doubtless understandable to

contemporary readers of her story. But her killing of her brothers is pre- sented in unambiguously negative terms in Saxo Grammaticus's Gesta Danorum, in pi6reks saga, and in the Nibelungenlied.92 Moreover, in the lat- ter two works, Kriemhild's personal participation in the killing of men (in one case with a sword and in the other with a burning brand) horrifies one of her own male supporters and causes him to kill her.93 Apparently, whereas a lone daughter or sister could kill with her own hands, and even take up male arms to avenge her blood kin, the idea of a widow doing so to avenge her husband was scandalous to the early Germanic (and, I

88. References in Atlamdl (stanzas 47-49 and 96-97 in Dronke, ed. and trans., Heroic Poems) to GuBruin defending her brothers with a sword while they still lived and partici- pating in Viking raids in her youth seem to be modifications of the earlier Atlakvi6a. Cf. Andersson, Preface to the Nibelungenlied, 27, 107-9 (with references).

89. If anything scandalized the narrators, it was presumably Gu6run's treatment of her sons. Vestergaard, "Gudrun/Kriemhild," 68, summarizes some modern scholarly perspectives on Gu6rfin's behavior before presenting her own; see also M. I. Steblin- Kamenskij, "Valkyries and Heroes," Arkivfdr nordiskfilologi 97 (1982): 86.

90. See Gu6runarhv6t and Hamaismal, in Dronke, ed. and trans., Heroic Poems and cf. the legend of Rogneda.

91. On this later Gu6rfn as a goader, see Carol Clover, "Hildigunnr's Lament," in Sarah M. Anderson and Karen Swenson, eds., Cold Counsel: Women in Old Norse Literature and Mythology (New York, 2002), 23-27. For arguments that the Scandinavian stereotype of goading women developed late (though without attention to Eddic material), see Jenny M.Jochens, "The Medieval Icelandic Heroine: Fact or Fiction," Viator 17 (1986): 35- 50, and Jochens, "The Female Inciter in the Kings' Sagas," Arkiv fdr nordisk filologi 102 (1987): 100-19.

92. Andersson remarks that, in the Nibelungenlied, Kriemhild is "caught between the demands of clan loyalty and marital fidelity" (the former traditional, the latter strongly supported by the church; cf. Vestergaard, "Gudrun/Kriemhild," 71-76) and observes that the poet of the Nibelungenlied treats Kriemhild more gently than his predecessors. Ander- sson, Preface to the Nibelungenlied, 93, 165-66. These sensible remarks mainly suggest (as they are intended to do) how the Nibelungenlied differs from more traditional accounts of Kriemhild. Even the Nibelungenlied's narrator condemns her actions (if not so much her character), however, as, for example, in Das Nibelungenlied, ed. Bartsch and de Boor, stanza 1394. For English translations of the relevant passages from kidreks saga and Gesta Danorum and a reconstruction of the Nibelungenlied's hypothetical source, see Andersson, Preface to the Nibelungenlied, 186-213, 252-55.

93. Saxo does not describe Kriemhild's acts in any detail. For the scenes in which Kriemhild (Grimhild) kills and is killed, see Andersson, Preface to the Nibelungenlied, 207, and Das Nibelungenlied, ed. Bartsch and de Boor, stanzas 2372-77.


This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 18:05:01 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Page 21: A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe

790 Slavic Review

would argue, the early East Slavic) mind.94 Depictions of Kriemhild as vio- lating this taboo underline the horrible wrongness of her actions.

Ol'ga, like Kriemhild, is a widow who avenges her husband. We may thus doubt that she is obligated to take vengeance on Igor"s killers, as a man or a lone daughter or sister like Skjalf or Gu6run would be obligated. Yet the Povest' account does not seem intended to present Ol'ga's behav- ior as monstrous.95 To begin with, we should consider that by avoiding marriage to Mal she almost certainly saves her son's life.96 We should also recall how the Rus' who carry the doomed Derevlians in their boat bewail the "slavery" that would be their fate if Ol'ga's marriage to Mal were con- summated. By killing the Derevlians and avoiding the marriage, Ol'ga saves Rus' from conquest. Moreover, the superiority of the Polianians (Slavs ruled by the Scandinavian Rus') over the Derevlians is emphasized in the opening of the Povest', where the gentle customs of the former are compared to the vile behavior of the latter.97 Surely, from the point of view of the passage's author, Ol'ga's desire to protect her people from the de- praved Derevlians was a good thing. Finally, her actions lead to the suc- cession of her son and, eventually, of her Christian grandson.

Kriemhild's revenge for her husband's murder brings about innumer- able deaths, including her own son's, and benefits no one.98 By contrast Ol'ga's vengeance, in the short run, works to the advantage of her son and her people and, in the long run, furthers God's plan for the conversion of Rus' and the salvation of humanity. Of course Ol'ga later furthers the same plan by converting to Christianity; my point here is that she furthers it even as a pagan. Moreover, the deadly wiles she uses to defeat the Derevlians, the gentler cunning she employs to evade the embraces of the Byzantine emperor, and the spiritual insight that guides her to Christian- ity constitute three aspects of the "wisdom" attributed to her in the Povest'

94. The East Slavic authors of the Povest' might have been more scandalized by a woman's use of weapons (under any circumstances) than would their Scandinavian con- temporaries. See Franklin and Shepard, Emergence of Rus, 122-24, on evidence about the relative status of women in early Rus' and early Sweden and on the significance of weapons in male burials. See also Judith Jesch, Women in the Viking Age (Woodbridge, Eng., 1991), 10-35; Clover, "Regardless of Sex," 368; and Clover, "The Politics of Scarcity: Notes on the Sex Ratio in Early Scandinavia," in Damico and Olsen, eds., New Readings on Women, 114- 17. On the burial, centuries before Ol'ga's time, of women with weapons on what would become East Slavic territory, see Tadeusz Sulimirski, The Sarmatians (London, 1970), 34, 105-6.

95. In an as yet unpublished paper, David Prestel has argued that the Povest' sets up a contrast between Ol'ga's violent pagan behavior and her gentler Christian behavior. While I agree, I believe that, before her conversion, Ol'ga is shown striving to behave as well as the Povest"s Christian author(s) believed a pagan could. Cf. Lars Lonnroth, "The Noble Heathen: A Theme in the Sagas," Scandinavian Studies 41 (1969): 1-29. L6nnroth (whose examplary "noble heathens" are all men) remarks that "in the sagas not even the noblest of heathens ever renounces his pagan code of honor as far as revenge is concerned" (15).

96. The Derevlians' desire to "do with [Sviatoslav] as we please" transparently sug- gests murder, since a living Sviatoslav would constitute a perpetual threat to Mal.

97. Povest', ed. Ostrowski, lines 13:7-19. 98. For the death of Kriemhild's son, see bidreks saga, translated in Andersson, Preface to the Nibelungenlied, 199-200, and Das Nibelungenlied, ed. Bartsch and de Boor, stanzas

1912-20 and 1960-61.

This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 18:05:01 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Page 22: A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe

A Woman of Words

entry for 6495, wherein her grandson's boyars call her "the wisest of all hu- man beings."99

When Ol'ga orders that the Derevlians be served drink, rather than serving it herself, and when she orders that they be killed, rather than

killing them herself, she (or the narrator of her story) seems highly con- scious of queenly professional ethics. It might be inappropriate for a

queen to betray men to whom she herself had served drink or to kill men with her own hands, but Ol'ga carefully avoids doing either. Instead she acts by proxy, rendering her enemies first drunk and then dead entirely through the force of verbal orders. The distancing of Ol'ga from acts in-

volving bloodshed is also apparent in the sequel to the passage that de- scribes the deadly trizna:

The beginning of the reign of Sviatoslav. In the year 6454, Ol'ga and her son Sviatoslav gathered a large number of soldiers and warriors100 and marched on the Derevlian land. And the Derevlians advanced against them. And when the two forces came together in battle, Sviatoslav cast his spear against the Derevlians, and the spear flew between the ears of [his] horse and landed at the feet of the [Derevlians'?] horse[s?], for Sviato- slav was a child. And Sveneld and Asmud said, "The prince has now be- gun; let us join battle, comrades, as our prince has." And they defeated the Derevlians.101

We may wonder why Sviatoslav's rule is said to have begun at this point, rather than earlier, after the death of his father, or later, when he comes of age. I would suggest that it is because the Rus' have embarked on a mili-

tary campaign, as distinct from the campaign of wits that Ol'ga has un- dertaken so far.102 Sviatoslav's first act as ruler is to help his mother gather troops, and his second act is to signal the beginning of a battle by throw- ing a ceremonial spear.103 Sveneld and Asmud, rather than Ol'ga, manage the successful battle.

The pattern of a woman standing by an orphaned king's son (who is often still a child), then retreating into the background when it comes time for a military expedition, has several Scandinavian analogues. In Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson relates how Asta, Saint Olaf's mother, ar- ranged to have her twelve-year-old son go on a Viking expedition with his foster father, Hrani. Sturluson remarks that "Hrani sat by the helm, and therefore some say that Olaf was [only] an oarsman. Still he was king over the crew."104 In a second instance, Astrifr, the royal widow of Saint Olaf and a member of the Swedish royal family, helps Magnus the Good, Olaf's

99. Povest', ed. Ostrowski, line 108:28 100. The distinction between voi, "troops," and khrabry, "warriors," is not clear,

though the latter were presumably better equipped. Translation of khrabry here as "brave" is certainly wrong; cf. I. I. Sreznevskii, Materialy dlia slovaria drevnerusskogo iazyka (St. Pe- tersburg, 1912), vol. 3, cols. 1394-95.

101. Povest', ed. Ostrowski, lines 57:30-58:9. 102. To my knowledge, the only other explanation advanced for the placement of

this reference to Sviatoslav's rule is in Shakhmatov's often speculative Razyskaniia, 108-10. 103. See Likhachev, commentary to Povest', 438. Cf. Dronke, ed. and trans., Heroic Po-

ems, 13, for the casting of the first spear by Odin in the Eddic Volsupa (stanza 24). 104. Sturluson, Heimskringla, 246 ("Oldfs saga Helga, chap. 4).


This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 18:05:01 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Page 23: A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe

792 Slavic Review

adult son by another woman, to raise a Swedish army and wrest Norway from the Danish king Svein (a young king perhaps still under the regency of his own mother Alfifa).105 In a third case Ingiriir, King Harald Gilli's widow, hears of her husband's death and sends messengers to the north- ern Trondheim region, urging the acceptance of Sigur6r, Harald's son by another woman, as regional king, then herself sets out for the southern Vik region, where she arranges the acceptance of her own two-year-old son, Ingi, as a second regional king. She then vanishes from the scene while Ingi "leads" an army against his uncle Magnus the Blind, riding into battle on the lap of an adviser and incurring permanent injuries.106 In Scandinavian and East Slavic traditions, a young male child of royal blood seems to have been regarded as more competent to lead an army than a woman was, and if the child was too young to play more than a symbolic role in the battle (as Sviatoslav and Ingi were), then adult male advisers, rather than the queen, supervised the troops. Thus, the chroniclers could flatter early male rulers of Rus' by depicting them as great warriors but could not do the same for Ol'ga.

After defeating the Derevlian army, Ol'ga and Sviatoslav besiege the Derevlian city of Iskorestan for a year, after which Ol'ga plays her fourth deadly trick. Assuring the city's inhabitants that she has had enough of vengeance, she requests a small tribute of three pigeons and three spar- rows from each household. The Derevlians comply, whereupon she or- ders her soldiers to attach burning tinder to the birds' feet and set them free. The birds seek their nests and the city burns, after which Ol'ga levies a heavy tribute and departs. Although the story of this stratagem has nu- merous analogues, I know of no other instance where it is attributed to a woman.'07 It is noteworthy that, after almost disappearing during the ac- count of the Derevlian military campaign, Ol'ga returns to center stage with this new (nonmilitary) scheme.108

Having followed Ol'ga nearly to her conversion, we may now draw some conclusions about the portrayal of her pagan period. As I have sug- gested, most early male rulers of Rus', pagan and Christian, are presented in the Povest' as fine warriors who serve the interests of their people. The authors of the Povest' wished to present Ol'ga in a similarly positive light, but Ol'ga's gender necessitated a different kind of depiction. Ol'ga is not a warrior, but neither is she weak or passive. She is a woman of words, whether she is welcoming the Derevlians, instructing them to come to her in their boat, inviting them to bathe, commanding that they be served drink, or ordering their death. In this respect, she resembles early medi-

105. Sturluson, Heimskringla, 538-40 (Magnzss saga ins G66a, chap. 1); on Alfifa and Svein, see. 524-34 ("Ol6fs saga Helga, chaps. 239-47).

106. Sturluson, Heimskringla, 736-37 (Haraldssona saga, chaps. 1 and 2). See also An- dersson and Gade, trans. and eds., Morkinskinna, 372, where Ingiri6r supports only Ingi.

107. Stender-Petersen, Die Varagersage, 127-55; Thompson, Motif-Index, motif K2351.1; Rydzevskaia, Drevniaia Rus', 195-202; and Oinas, "Folklore and History," 33-35.

108. Even if Shakhmatov's theory that this fourth revenge was somehow added to the story of Ol'ga is correct, the insertion still seems broadly consistent with the remainder of Ol'ga's depiction. Shakhmatov, Razyskaniia, 108-10.

This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 18:05:01 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Page 24: A Woman of Words: Pagan Ol'ga in the Mirror of Germanic Europe

A Woman of Words

eval Germanic women who, in Alexandra Hennessey Olsen's words, "nor- mally use speech rather than action to achieve their ends."109 Olsen's re- mark summarizes a considerable body of recent scholarship on the early medieval period, primarily in the fields of Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon culture and literature. War was almost exclusively a male activity, but speech was associated with women at least as much as with men.110 Some- times a woman's speech was diplomatic (as Ol'ga's "I cannot resurrect my husband now" initially appears to be)."' When a kinsman was to be avenged and other adult male kinsmen were available to listen, it usually took the form of goading.l2 Yet Ol'ga's situation demands neither goad- ing or diplomacy (unless one regards deception as a natural part of diplo- macy), and she tailors her speech to her needs.

From the chronicler's perspective, Ol'ga's vengeance is morallyjustifi- able because it advances the interests of her son, the Riurikid dynasty, the people of Rus', and God's plan for salvation. Because Ol'ga is apparently constrained from achieving her ends by force of arms as a man would, she achieves them through intelligence and verbal resourcefulness, qualities that were not, in the early medieval period, regarded as exclusively mas- culine attributes.113 In pursuing her goals, she seems to adhere to a female code that is analogous to a male code of honor. To criticize her for du- plicity within this framework would be to suggest that she should re- nounce the only means she has of defending her son's and her people's interests."4 From the Derevlian perspective, Ol'ga's speech may be decep- tive and destructive, but for the Rus' it is an honorable weapon, far more useful than the swords and lances of most male warriors.

109. Olsen, "Cynewulf's Autonomous Women," 225. 110. See Michael Murphy, 'Vows, Boasts and Taunts, and the Role of Women in Some

Medieval Literature," English Studies 66 (1985): 105-12; Olsen, "Cynewulf's Autonomous Women," Olsen, "Gender Roles," and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen, "Old English Women, Old English Men: A Reconsideration of 'Minor' Characters," all in Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe, ed., Old English Shorter Poems: Basic Readings (New York, 1994); Barrie Ruth Straus, "Women's Words as Weapons: Speech as Action in 'The Wife's Lament,"' Texas Stud- ies in Literature and Language 23 (1981): 268-85; John D. Niles, "The Problem of the End- ing of The Wife's Lament," Speculum 78 (2003): 1107-50. Clover, "Hildigunnr's Lament," fo- cuses on early Scandinavian society but includes comparisons with cultures temporally and geographically removed from it. Also relevant to Ol'ga's situation are three stanzas dedi- cated to queen Astri6r, wherein the skald Sigvatr praises a woman's speech as a political in- strument. See Sturluson, Heimskringla, 539-40 (Magnuiss saga ins Goda, chap. 1).

111. See L. John Sklute, "Freoduwebbe in Old English Poetry," in Damico and Olsen, eds., New Readings on Women; Enright, "Lady with a Mead-Cup"; and Olsen, "Gender Roles," 316-17.

112. See especially Clover, "Hildigunnr's Lament." 113. On early medieval attitudes toward women's intelligence, see Alain Renoir,

"Eve's I.Q. Rating: Two Sexist Views of Genesis B," in Damico and Olsen, eds., New Readings on Women, 262-72.

114. Cf. Niles, "Problem of the Ending," 1142-43 on the justice of the Wife's Lament, and 1146-49 on the dubious modern assumption that early medieval women had a duty to be "nice." In an unpublished paper, David Prestel has discussed the possibility that pa- gan Ol'ga could be considered cruel.


This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 18:05:01 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions