Young Folks' History of Russia - Nathan Dole

The Beautiful Princess Saint Olga
and Pagan Russia

Prince Igor's band, laden with the tribute, rode slowly through the shady forest back to Kief, and at last began to wonder why their prince so long delayed to overtake them. Just as they reached the city gate a Norman captain came flying at full speed and, half breathless, cried,—

"Prince Igor is dead, and all his men are dead, and I alone have escaped from the fury of the Forest Folk."

When they heard the story of the fugitive the bolder captains were minded forthwith to turn back and avenge the murder of their comrades, but their counsels were divided; they had no prince to lead them, for Igor's son, Holy Fame, was a mere boy; and so they returned each to his own house. The tidings of the disaster spread through the city and came to the ears of the beautiful Princess Olga, as she sat waiting her lord's return in her palace of wood. Olga swore to wreak vengeance on the Forest Folk, but first she firmly established herself on the throne of Kief and ruled in her son's stead, collecting the tribute and judging disputes among her followers.

View in the forest


When months thus passed away, and the Forest Folk saw no ill effects from their violence, they grew bold and said among themselves,—

"We have killed the Russian prince; now let us send to his widow, Olga, and marry her to our prince Mal. Thus shall Igor's son and city come into our power."

An embassy of twenty of their chief men appeared before Olga and delivered their message. The princess affected to hear them graciously, but as they turned to go she had them seized and buried alive. No one escaped to tell the story to their prince. Olga, however, sent him a courier, saying,—

"Thy embassy receives good cheer in Kief, but if thou wouldst make me thy princess send more honorable men than they."

When they without suspicion heeded her request and came to Kief, Olga offered them the luxury of a bath, and caused it to be so heated that they perished, every one.

Then Olga went to mourn at her husband's tomb, and when the Forest Folk gathered about her she made them drunk with mead and put five thousand of them to death. Even this did not satisfy her thirst for vengeance. She gathered a great army and went out with her son against the Forest Folk. Holy Fame threw the first javelin, but being young he missed his aim; nevertheless the Forest Folk fled and shut themselves up in their wooden city, called Bark Wall, which Olga besieged for a year, and when she could not take it she offered them peace on condition that they would pay a tribute of three pigeons and three sparrows from each house. This the Forest Folk were glad to do, but they soon regretted it, for Olga tied lighted tow to the tails of the birds and set them free. The pigeons flew to the barns, the sparrows flew to the roofs, where their nests were, and immediately the whole city was in flames. The inhabitants fled, followed by the troops of Olga, who massacred some and made the rest slaves.

Having thus avenged Igor's death, Olga made a triumphal progress through all her dominions, regulating the tribute and founding villages and castles. When she came back to Kief the desire seized her to go to Constantinople and learn for herself about the new faith which some of her people claimed to be so far superior to the old. Christianity was not unknown in Russia. When the fleet of Askold and Dir was dispersed by the miraculous storm, it is said that the Russians sent envoys to Constantinople to ask for baptism, and they were given an archbishop who worked a miracle by throwing a Bible into a burning brazier and drawing it out unscorched before their eyes. Askold became a Christian saint, and a Christian church was built on the spot where his bones were laid.

Olga went to the Queen City and listened to the arguments of the clergy. Her heart was moved by the mysteries of the sacraments, and she was baptized under the name of Helen. The Greek Emperor himself was her godfather.

With the benediction of the Patriarch, and laden with many splendid gifts, she returned to Kief, full of zeal to induce her subjects to leave their ancient worship and accept the new faith.

Pagan Tartars


The pagan Russians of her time, like most primitive peoples, worshipped the sun, moon, and stars, the thunder, and the spirits of their dead ancestors. Their chief deity was the avenger, Perun, the god of fire, who wielded the thunderbolt and sent the rain and made the plants grow and the trees bud. He was believed to be tall and beautifully formed, with black hair and a long golden beard. He rode in a flaming car, grasping in his left hand a quiver full of arrows, and in his right a fiery bow, or he flew abroad on a great mill-stone, supported by the mountain spirits, who obeyed his will and caused the storms to rise. His dart became a golden key which unlocked the earth and brought to light its hidden treasures, the gems hidden under lofty mountains or in the depths of the sea. The fern was Perun's flower, and those who resisted the spells of the evil demons and gathered its rare blossoms in spite of the magic sleep, the rocking earth, the lightning flashes, the roaring thunder, and the devouring flames, could read the secrets of the universe.

Perun's statue, at Kief, was made of carved wood with iron legs and silver head adorned with golden ears and mustache. In its hands was a precious stone fashioned to represent the thunderbolt. Before it burned the sacred fire of oak logs, and on festal days they sacrificed animals and human beings, prisoners of war, slaves, young men and maidens. Whole forests were devoted to his service.

"The groves were God's first temples,"

and no one was allowed to cut or mutilate a single tree under pain of death. In later times, when Christianity began to take the place of paganism, the peasants transferred the attributes of Perun to the Prophet Elijah, who went to heaven in a fiery chariot drawn by flaming horses. Volos, the god of cattle, was the sun personified, who watched over the flocks and herds. Stribog, or the Air-god, rode in the chariot of the winds. His idol stood with that of Perun and several others on Perun's hill at Kief.

In the early spring the Russians celebrated the feast of Kupalo the Bather, the god of the summer time, a kind and gentle god. Girls and boys adorned with garlands of flowers danced hand in hand around the sacred fire, singing their songs of rejoicing because the pleasant days had come. Afterwards the feast of St. John the Baptist, whom the peasants, call Ivan Kupalo, was celebrated in like manner on the 24th of June. Did-Lado was the goddess of marriage, of mirth and pleasure, to whom couples about to wed offered sacrifices to secure a happy union. The Virgin Mary, "the sister of Elijah, the thunderer," subsequently took the place of Did-Lado, and the peasants sing:—

Ivan and Marya

Bathed on the hill;

While Ivan bathed,

The earth shook;

While Marya bathed,

The grass sprouted.

Russian stories and songs are full of allusions to the strange beings which peopled that ancient world, giant heroes, rivers which spoke and performed mighty deeds of valor, Morena, the goddess of death, the cruel Frost with ruddy nose and icy heart, the deathless Snake with fiery wings and many heads, which changed into a handsome youth and wooed earthly maidens. Then there was the Baba-Iaga, a dreadful ogress, a hideous, bony, tall old woman, with a long iron nose and sharp teeth. Her cottage was supposed to rest on a single support like a fowl's leg, and to whirl and sway in the breeze. It stood at the entrance of the forest, and was protected by a fence made of the bones of the unlucky mortals on which she fed. The posts were tipped with skulls, in whose hollow eyes at night gleamed a ghostly fire. The gates were human legs, the bolts human arms, and a mouth with bristling teeth served as a lock. In an iron mortar she sallied forth, paddling herself along with her pestle and sweeping away all traces of her frightful journey with a burning broom. The Day and the Night were her slaves; bodiless hands worked her behests. She had fire-breathing horses, seven-leagued boots, a self-cutting sword, a self-flying carpet. She fed on the bodies of the living and on the souls of the dead. When the wind bows down the tall grass or the ears of corn, the Russian peasants still frighten naughty children by saying that the Baba-Iaga is running after them to pound them in her iron churn.

A water-nymph


In the sea dwelt the sea-tsar with his thirty beautiful daughters, the swan-maidens, in a great crystal, gem-adorned palace of light and splendor. The rivers were full of Undines or naiads, sometimes mischievous, sometimes kindly disposed to men. They were beautiful maidens with slender limbs, wild eyes, and fair faces, and long, waving hair, green as grass. In June, when the wind blows and the waves plash upon the shore, the Russian even now sees their dancing feet. Little children who were drowned were changed into these merry water-nymphs.

In lakes, ponds, and swamps, and especially near mill-wheels dwelt the water-sprite, who was supposed to be a naked old man who cares for the bees. The peasants call him Little Grandfather, and stand in awe of him. These water-sprites marry young girls who drown themselves and become Undines. When the brook arises and carries away the bridge or mill, it is the mad prank of the water-sprite who is celebrating his marriage.

Here is one of the stories which the Russian peasants tell:—

"Once upon a time a girl was drowned and she lived for many a year with a water-sprite. But one day she swam to the shore and saw the red sun and the green woods and fields, she heard the humming of bees and the far-off sound of bells. Then a longing for her old life on earth came over her, and she could not resist it. So she came out from the water and went to her native village. But her relatives knew her not, her friends knew her not. Sadly she returned at eventide to the water-side and rejoined once more the water-sprite. Two days later her body drifted upon the sands while the stream roared and was wildly agitated. The remorseful water-sprite was lamenting his irrevocable loss."

The forests too were haunted by demons who sometimes appeared as peasants dressed in sheep skin garments, but ungirdled and having neither eyebrows nor eyelashes. The forest demon in his own shape had an eye like a cyclops from his head sprang branching horns; his legs were those of a goat; his head and body were covered with shaggy green hair; his fingers had sharp claws. When the Russian goes out to hunt he must offer sacrifice to the forest sprite or come back unsuccessful. The belated traveller in the woods is often frightened by his shrieks of laughter, his feigned voices of horses, cows, and dogs.

A still more important place in the belief of the people was held by the household spirit, whose home is behind the great oven in the peasant's cottage, and which jealously guards the inmates and warns them of coming good or evil. Woe befall the unlucky cow or hen, cat or dog, whose color offends the household spirit! Once a year he is believed to grow malicious, and the peasants offer him little cakes or stewed grain, or a red egg, on the midnight of the thirtieth day of March. When a Russian moves into a new house and all the furniture has been taken from the old one, the oldest woman of the family, the grandmother, or mother-in-law, lights a fire for the last time in the oven. At noon she puts the burning embers into a clean jar, covers them with a white napkin, and takes them to the door of the new abode, where the head of the family is waiting to say,—

"Welcome, grandfather, to our new home."

The jar is then broken, and buried at night under the front corner of the house, and the household-spirit is content. All these rites and ceremonies have come down from the pagan days.

The Slavs believed that after death the soul had to travel a long journey either across the sea or down the Milky Way. So they put money in the grave to pay the boatman, and food because it was a desert road. The Milky Way was called the mouse-path, for they thought the soul escaped in the form of a mouse. The dead finally reached the land of the sun, eastward of the ocean. Souls of little children live and play there and gather golden fruit. The souls of men unborn are there. It is the mystic land of the snake older than all snakes, and the prophetic raven oldest brother of all ravens, and the bird the largest and oldest of all birds, with iron beak and copper claws, and the mother of bees eldest of bees. There is the dripping oak under which lies the snake Garafena and the divine maiden Zaria the Dawn, and there is the white stone under which flow rivers of healing. No cold wind ever blows across those Fortunate Isles and there winter never dares to come.

The life beyond the grave they believed would be a continuation of that led on earth. The slave still served his master, the wife still clung to her lord. The bodies of the dead were sometimes buried, sometimes burned; their favorite slaves and horses were sacrificed, and the widows either hung themselves and were burned upon the pyre, or they were buried in caves upon the hillside.

An Arabian traveller of the ninth century describes a Russian funeral which he witnessed:—

For ten days the friends of the dead merchant bewailed him and drank themselves drunk over his body.

Then the men-servants were asked which of them would be buried with his master. One offered

and was instantly strangled. A maid-servant also gave herself up for the same purpose and was taken in charge by a wrinkled, yellow crone, called the Death-Angel, who washed her, adorned her with rich raiment, and treated her like a princess. On the appointed day she took off her jewels, and drinking a glass of spirit, cried,—

"Look! there is my lord. He sits in paradise. Paradise is so green, so beautiful! By his side are all his men and boys. He calls me. Bring me to him!" Then, when the men beat their shields with clubs so as to drown her cries, the Death-Angel put an end to her with a dagger. Her body was placed beside her lord in a boat propped up by four trees, and surrounded by gigantic wooden idols. The funeral pyre was lighted, and consumed the merchant, his arms, and his garments, his slaves, his dog, two horses, and a pair of fowls.

The Slavs of Novgorod buried their dead, and in their tombs are found weapons, tools, jewels, bones of animals, and grains of wheat. Every spring they celebrated a feast in honor of their dead, throwing portions of the food under the table for the ghosts. After the spirits had eaten all they wanted they were escorted out, and the hosts drank and made merry.

Many of these heathen notions were retained by the peasants after Christianity was brought to Russia. In their prayers still echo the strange spells which their pagan ancestors addressed to the powers of nature. The superstitious still go out into the woods and say such words as these:—

"Forgive me, O Lord; forgive me, O holy mother of God; forgive me, O ye angels, archangels, cherubim, and seraphim, and all ye heavenly host; forgive me, O sky; forgive, O damp mother earth; forgive, O free and righteous sun; forgive, O fair moon; forgive, O bright stars; forgive, ye rivers, lakes, and hills; forgive me, all ye elements of heaven and earth."

A few of Olga's subjects followed her example, and were baptized. Nestor says that when one of her soldiers wished to become a convert he was not prevented, but only laughed at. Her efforts to convert her son, Holy Fame, were in vain. Olga assured him that if he would be baptized all his subjects would follow his example. But he despised the rite of baptism, and would hear nothing of it. To his mother's arguments he replied harshly,—

"How can I embrace a new religion? My men would mock me." And he continued to live like a pagan.