The boundary between history and legend used to be malleable. People were not always so in love with facts. And, frankly, that made historical accounts and chronicles a lot more interesting to read. Who cares if much of what we read is legendary? That’s not a bad word in my book.
One of the most famous examples of such a half-legendary, half-historical hero from old Res is Prince Oleg the Farseer.
Oleg: the prince who was killed by his favorite horse
Prince Oleg the Farseer (meaning “the clairvoyant” or “the prophet”) is one of the most mysterious figures in early Russian history. He was either related to Riurik, the half-mythical Varengian who unified Rus, or his main general. But in fact he did much more than Riurik to unify old Rus. While Riurik’s son Igor was still a child, Oleg seized Smolensk and Liubech, both important cities. He also tricked and killed the princes of Kiev, Askold and Dir, and made it the cultural and political center of Rus.
All the disparate groups of Slavs came to accept his sovereignty as “Grand Prince” of Rus.
He also had major successes in “foreign affairs.” For two hundred years before Oleg, the Khaganate of the Khazars had successfully demanded tribute from the Eastern Slavic lands. Oleg took the battle to them, and was almost universally successful. He even managed to make Byzantium sit up and take notice. During his reign, Russian merchants received the right—unique for the time—of duty-free trade with Byzantium. Byzantium also gave them almost unlimited materials and artisans to repair their boats. For free!
For these reasons, some historian prefer to consider Oleg, not Riurik, as the true unifier of Rus. However, if that list of achievement sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
The Invasion that Never Was
Oleg is popularly most known for attacking Byzantium, after which he received his nickname “the Farseer.” According to the Chronicle of Past Times, the Prince gathered two thousand ships, each one of which was able to carry forty warriors. The emperor at the time, Leo VI “the Philosopher,” was so afraid only at the sight of such an army that he closed the inner gates of the city, leaving the outskirts of Byzantium open to looting.
However, instead of attacking, Oleg chose trickery. As the Chronicle says,
He ordered his men to make wheels and to place his ships on those wheels. And when a favorable wind blew, they raised sails and sailed to the city on dry land.
After this the Greeks, scared to death, were supposed to have offered Oleg tribute and peace. According to this peace treaty of 907, Russian merchants received the right to duty-free trade, as I already mentioned above.
However, although basically every Russian medieval source mentions this invasion, most historians believe it to be no more than legend. First of all, no Byzantine source mentions it, even though similar invasions on the part of Slavs were recorded in both 860 and 941. The peace treaty of 907 also raises more questions. It seems to be a compilation of several other treaties, including one from 911, when Oleg apparently sent an embassy to Byzantium to confirm the peace.
More than that, the exact description of the Russians’ return with booty sounds like it was copied from previous accounts. For one, their sails were supposed to have been made from gold silk, a detail that is found in the same Chronicle’s account of Prince Vladimir’s return from Byzantium after his baptism. A similar description can also be found in a 12th century saga about King Olaf of Norway’s return from a successful war:
It was said that after a certain victory he returned home, and his ships were so magnificent and majestic that their sails were sewed from precious silks, as were their pavilions.
What about the snake?
Oleg’s other claim to popular fame comes from a popular folk song that describes an episode also found in the Chronicle. According to this tradition, a druid predicted that Oleg would be killed by his own favorite horse. Heartbroken at this prophecy, Oleg ordered that his horse be taken away. He only remembered the prophecy much later, years after his favorite horse had died.
Laughing at the druids, Oleg went to see the place his horse’s bones. When he put his foot on the horse’s skull, he said, “Is this what I should fear?” At that very moment, a poisonous snake came out of the skull and bit the prince.
Naturally, this is a legend—a legendary death for a legendary warrior-prince. This was actually a popular literary trope for sagas of the time. Such deaths gave more importance to the lives of great heroes. Thus, for example, the Icelandic sagas tell of a certain Viking named Örvard-Oddr. According to Wikipedia, “when he was an infant, a druid predicted that he would be killed by his own horse Faxi, at the place where he was born, at the age of 300.”
Oddr killed his own horse and threw it into a pit and covered its body with stones. Later, like Oleg, he also visited Faxi’s grave and mocked the prophecy. But then:
When they walked away quickly, Oddr struck his foot and bent down. “What was it that I struck with my foot?” He touched it with the point of his spear, and all saw that it was the skull of a horse. Immediately, a snake slithered out of it and attacked Oddr and bit him in the foot above his ankle. The poison immediately acted, and his leg swelled up all the way to the hip.
To this day, it’s actually not clear who copied the story from whom. It’s hard to determine the exact date of Oleg’s death from the Chronicle, especially since the original manuscript was rewritten many times. All we know for sure is that Örvard-Oddr is a fictional character who was probably invented no earlier than the 13th century. What is possible also is that the tragic death by snakebite is a Scandinavian story trope that made its way into Rus together with the Varengians, finding its final Russian form in the half-legendary traditions surrounding Prince Igor. However, some historians insist that Örvard-Oddr and Oleg are actually one and the same, and both fictional.
The Persian Saga
I’ve earlier written about the popularity of Alexander the Great among ancient Russians. It’s possible that Alexander’s famous death in the East inspired another, little-known version of Oleg’s death. One of the earliest of the old Russian chronicles is the Novgorodian Chronicle, which may even be older than the Chronicle of Past Times. It calls Oleg “Igor’s voyevoda (i.e. chief military commander)” and mentions that he may have died in a military adventure “beyond the seas”
It’s possible that this military adventure is the one described by the Arabian writer Al-Masudi (sometimes called the Herodotus of the Arabs). Al-Masudi describes a fleet of 500 Russian ships that attacked the Kerch Strait (see map here) in 912, led by two warriors he names as “Al-dir and Olvang.” This second leader could, in fact, be Oleg.
The story of this invasion was as follows. The Khan of the Khazars allowed the Rus access through the Don River to the Volga, and from there into the Caspian Sea. In return, he was to get half of all their booty. The goal of their adventure was the legendary riches of Persia itself. One of the results of this invasion was the almost complete destruction of Persian Azerbaijan.
When the loot from “Persia” came back to the Khazars, some of the Khan’s Moslem mercenaries were so incensed at the death of their fellow Moslems in Azerbaijan that they decided to attack the Russians. The Khan of the Khazars didn’t warn his Russian “allies,” and, according to the Novgorod Chronicle, 30,000 Russian were killed in a surprise attack. The rest escaped up the Volga, but were finished off by Bulgarian warriors.
Some historians prefer this version of Oleg’s death to the more legendary one. Being a lover of legends myself, I will always choose the horse-head version.
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