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  • 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: .Accessed: 12/06/2014 18:05

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  • 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)

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  • 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.

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  • 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 shor

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