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Grand Princess Olga of Rus’ Shows the Bird: Her ‘Christian Falcon’ Emblem

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This study attempts to interpret the symbols (a falcon “crowned” with a cross, a key, and a Riurikid bident) found on a newly discovered tenth-century trapezoidal pendant from Pskov. Aside from a handful of imitation dirham coins that carry identical images of the falcon, no other parallels of these symbols or their combination have yet been discovered. Based on various sources, it is argued that the pendant was jointly issued to a Rus’ administrator-revenue collector by Grand Princess Olga and her son Sviatoslav at the time of his minority but not prior to Olga’s administrative reforms in the late 940s, i.e., ca. 950. While the bident was Sviatoslav’s dynastic emblem (reserved for reigning male Riurikids), Olga’s authority over the realm and her minor son was represented by way of a key (latchlifter) and a falcon. The key carried legal and possibly religious symbolism of right over the domain, while the falcon represented religious as well as royal authority. But, both emblems can be connected with the goddess Freyja – the chief female divinity in the Nordic pantheon – and Olga adopted them as her symbols in ca. 950. Based on her choice of these symbols and other circumstantial evidence, it is contended that Olga was a devotee of the goddess and practiced her cult prior to her conversion to Christianity (i.e., she was a vǫlva). Indeed, it is possible that Olga was the supreme priestess of Freyja, or her close equivalent Slavic goddess Mokosh, for the Rus’ state prior to her stepping down from the position as regent and her official conversion to Christianity.

Abstract

This study attempts to interpret the symbols (a falcon “crowned” with a cross, a key, and a Riurikid bident) found on a newly discovered tenth-century trapezoidal pendant from Pskov. Aside from a handful of imitation dirham coins that carry identical images of the falcon, no other parallels of these symbols or their combination have yet been discovered. Based on various sources, it is argued that the pendant was jointly issued to a Rus’ administrator-revenue collector by Grand Princess Olga and her son Sviatoslav at the time of his minority but not prior to Olga’s administrative reforms in the late 940s, i.e., ca. 950. While the bident was Sviatoslav’s dynastic emblem (reserved for reigning male Riurikids), Olga’s authority over the realm and her minor son was represented by way of a key (latchlifter) and a falcon. The key carried legal and possibly religious symbolism of right over the domain, while the falcon represented religious as well as royal authority. But, both emblems can be connected with the goddess Freyja – the chief female divinity in the Nordic pantheon – and Olga adopted them as her symbols in ca. 950. Based on her choice of these symbols and other circumstantial evidence, it is contended that Olga was a devotee of the goddess and practiced her cult prior to her conversion to Christianity (i.e., she was a vǫlva). Indeed, it is possible that Olga was the supreme priestess of Freyja, or her close equivalent Slavic goddess Mokosh, for the Rus’ state prior to her stepping down from the position as regent and her official conversion to Christianity.

Introduction

Until very recently, scholars who have been interested in Olga (d. 969) – Grand Princess of Rus’, regent for her son Sviatoslav (d. 972), and the first historical Christian Rus’ ruler – have had to rely exclusively on the written evidence to explore her many interesting and important historical roles. Unfortunately, there are few of these textual sources: some tidbits coming from German Latin chronicles as well as Norse sagas, and a bit more, albeit not much more, from Byzantine documents. Most of what is known about Olga comes from the Rus’ written accounts, but they are also laconic and, to make things even more interesting and problematic, they are semi-legendary. Using these texts, researchers have constructed a short biography of Olga and her role in Rus’ history. Aside from being very brief, this history has not changed much from one generation to the next. This is understandable, since the traditional written sources can eventually be exhausted for information, particularly since they are scant, dubious, and at times contradictory. It is for this reason that historians should welcome a new set of source material that speaks of Olga and her time – namely the newly discovered trapezoidal pendant from Pskov and the evidence of the “Christian Falcon” imitation dirham coins that can now be better interpreted thanks to the pendant. These non-textual sources – indeed largely pictorial – open a new window to the better understanding of the traditional texts as well as provide insights and new directions for the study of Olga and the history of Rus’ during her time in general. To interpret them, however, it will require the author and the reader to engage in sources that are not altogether typical for the customary historical discipline: archeology, historical numismatics, heraldry, semiotics, comparative mythology, ethnography-folklore, and others. But, when utilizing all of the evidence available to date, it becomes possible to open up a totally new chapter to a forgotten, but very important, period of early Rus’ history – the “Olga Era.”

Chamber Grave №6 from Pskov

In 2008, T.E. Ershova and her team of archaeologists excavated chamber grave №6 at a Viking-age cemetery in Pskov. The grave was a large chamber inhumation burial belonging to a male some 45-55 years of age. While robbed sometime during the Middle Ages, it still contained a considerable number of artifacts: wooden utensils, including a large ladle decorated with silver leaf inlay worked in niello; a birch bark case containing a collapsible scale-set (balancing beam and two cups), two Sāmānid silver coins or dirhams (one whole coin with two holes dating to 953/54 and half a coin dating to 924-928?), and a Byzantine copper coin or folis of Emperor Romanos I Lekapenos dating to 931-944); a silver earring; a knife; a fragment of cloth with sixteen silver buttons; a wooden bowl with bird remains inside; a large wax candle; a wooden chest with metal bindings; a wooden bucket; and, a wooden board with the remnant of a painting of a cross inside a circle, a cross inside a circle with Christ’s monogram (Chrismon), or Christ’s monogram inside a circle (executed with white, black, red, and yellow paints). Remains of a decapitated rooster lay near the head of the deceased and that of a wood grouse (Capercaillie) near the feet. A silver gold-gilded cross lay near the deceased alongside a bone comb. At his waist a leather wallet/pouch was discovered, inside of which lay one more Sāmānid dirham dating to 914-943, a gold nugget, and a knife wrapped around in silver wire. Next to the wallet/pouch, under a piece of clothing, rested a silver trapezoidal pendant (2.3 cm x 3.2 cm x 4.2 cm) with a hole and a loop made of silver wire, tied in the so-called “Scandinavian” knot for hanging. The pendant was cast-made and carries images on both of its sides made in niello. One of its sides carries an image of a “bident” with a key and the other an image of a bird with a cross over its head. Numerous micro-defects and loss of niello caused by wear on the surface of the face with the bird suggest that the owner of the pendant wore this side facing the body while the side with the bident and key facing outward.1

Ershova argues that because the latest coins in the burial (dating to 953/54) had two holes, made so that it could be worn as a pendant, the coin had a lifespan somewhat later than it is dated. Thus, she dates the burial to the late 950s-960s.2 However, it is possible to refine this chronology. Since no coins dating to the 960s were deposited in the burial, it seems that its chronology should be narrowed down to the early 960s at the latest. In other words, there would have been a very good chance that new dirhams would have been added to the burial, had it been made any later than the first few years of the 960s. What also needs to be considered is that the individual buried in this grave clearly was involved in financial operations, particularly ones dealing with dirhams and weighing precious metals. Therefore, it would be reasonable to believe that he would have had direct access to the most current coin-stock that circulated in eastern Europe, where, incidentally, a great many of the coins that circulated during the period in question were newly-struck dirhams.3 In light of all of this, a more confined chronology of late 950 to early 960s at the latest will be proposed for the burial.

This grave is exemplar par excellence of a syncretic burial. It has obvious pagan elements, such as sacrificial birds, deposits of birds (most probably poultry) in the bowl as food items for the journey to the “otherworld,” and the inclusion of all other objects that were deemed necessary in the afterlife. At the same time, there were quite a number of Christian rituals and symbols attached to the deceased: inhumation chamber burial, painting of a cross/Christ’s monogram, a cross-pendant, a wax candle, and the Byzantine folis, which, being made of copper, had no intrinsic value and was probably understood as a Christian object by its owner. All of these features of the burial bring to mind Olga’s final wishes just before she died in 969 “… not to hold a trizna (pagan funeral feast) for her, since she had a priest to perform the last rites over her;” her request was observed.4 It appears that the individual buried in chamber grave №6 in Pskov never made such a request, although the Christian elements of his burial seem to dominate the pagan. In this connection, it should be remembered that the burial predates the official Christianization of the Rus’ lands by some three decades. But, this burial chronologically corresponds to Olga’s baptism in Constantinople (perhaps Kiev) in the late 940s to late 950s.5

The artifacts found in Pskov chamber grave №6 speak very well of the deceased high status and wealth. Despite being robbed, the grave still contained an extraordinary quantity, quality, and variety of objects. Finds of gold in graves of this period are extremely rare in the Rus’ lands. The large ladle decorated with silver leaf, silver buttons, a silver earring, and the knife wrapped in silver wire all speak of his high social and economic status. What is more, the scales, weights, and coins deposited in the burial also betray the individual’s role in processing silver as well his ownership of it. The wealth and the status of this individual can be explained by the role he played in the administrative-fiscal apparatus of the Rus’ ruling elite. Ershova is most correct to associate the trapezoidal pendant discovered with the deceased with such a post.6 Indeed, these types of trapezoidal pendants have been interpreted as sanctioned badges issued to individuals entrusted by Rus’ rulers to act as their officials and revenue collectors.7 Badges (Old Norse jartegnir, often translated as “tokens” or “signs”) were also issued and used by officials of kings in contemporary Scandinavia.8 In this way, the deceased male was not only of high social and economic standing, but also political.

The Trapezoidal Pendant

One side of the pendant carries an image of a classic Riurikid dynasty (ca. 860-1598) princely emblem, which at first was a bident and later evolved into a trident with numerous variations. Inside the bident found on the pendant, there is an image of a key turned leftwards. No such images of keys appear on any early Rus’ objects discovered thus far. The image of the key is thus unique. On the other side of the pendant, there is an image of a bird with a Byzantine cross above its head, also turned leftwards [Fig. 1]. An almost identical image of a bird is found on a set of “Christian Falcon” coins (Types I-III) that are imitation Islamic dirhams struck sometime in ca. 950 [Fig. 2].9 While this is not the place to discuss these coins in detail, several important observations need to be made presently.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Trapezoidal Pendant from Pskov

Citation: Russian History 39, 4 (2012) ; 10.1163/48763316-03904002

Figure 2
Figure 2

Imitation of Islamic Dirham with Falcon and Cross

Citation: Russian History 39, 4 (2012) ; 10.1163/48763316-03904002

First, in his analyses of these coins some quarter century ago, Gert Rispling suggested that they were struck somewhere in European Russia, although none have been found (or at least identified) in the area at the time he wrote his work. All of these coins – only 12 found to date – were discovered in the Baltic region (mostly Sweden). Despite this potential problem of connecting these coins with Russia, Rispling advanced a number of solid numismatic arguments that make his suggestion quite compelling.10 With the discovery of the pendant with the same exact image of a “Christian Falcon” in Pskov and, furthermore, with the image of a Riurikid bident on its other side, Rispling’s suggestion has been fully vindicated. It is now clear that the “Christian Falcon” was not only known in Rus’, but, as will be argued below, was also intimately connected with the highest Rus’ ruling elite.11

Second, in his examination of the coins, Rispling was the first to suggest that the bird represented on the dirham was a falcon. Others who have studied these coins have supported his identification of the bird with the falcon. There seems to be no good reason to disagree with this interpretation. The only question that remains to be answered is the falcon’s outfit or the object/item found below its neck. Rispling and later E. Lindberger described the falcon as wearing a hood, a fundamental part of falconer’s training program or when the falcon was not in action.12 However, this interpretation can be seriously challenged, since the purpose of the hood in falconry was to cover the bird’s head and eyes. On the coin and pendant, however, it is quite apparent that both the head and the eyes are uncovered, and the eyes are indeed open. What can be suggested instead – at least tentatively – is that the bird is represented as clothed in a cloak. Cloaks were one of the most common items of Viking-age woman’s attire, worn over the rest of the female outfit. Parallels, albeit imperfect, of the cloak worn by the falcon occur on pendant-figurines and other objects depicting women dressed in cloaks, discovered in many areas of early medieval Scandinavia [Fig. 3].

Figure 3
Figure 3

Viking-Age Women’s Garments from Scandinavia13

Citation: Russian History 39, 4 (2012) ; 10.1163/48763316-03904002

Lastly, in his initial 1987 study of these coins, Rispling connected the emission of the “Christian Falcon” imitation dirhams with the Rus’ Grand Prince Igor’ (d. ca. 945). The reason for this association was based on Rispling’s belief at the time that these coins were struck in the early 930s, or the period of Igor’s rule. Naturally, the image of the cross over the bird’s head has brought doubt to Ripsling’s suggestion, since it is very unlikely that it could have been this prince’s symbol; Igor’, after all was known to have been a good pagan. For this reason, some fifteen years thereafter, Lindberger speculated that Olga minted the coins, since it is known that she was a Christian.14 However, as Rispling ignored the cross, Lindberger ignored the chronology Rispling gave to the emission of the coins – early 930s. Although the exact date of Olga’s conversion is debated – did it occur in the late 940s or the late 950s? – there is no discussion of it occurring in the early 930s. The subject of Olga’s conversion and the meaning of the cross on the “Christian Falcon” coins is much larger that this article intends to be and will be considered in another inquiry. But, as the present study hopes to show, it turns out that Lindberger is actually correct to associate these coins with Olga, but not strictly based on the cross over the bird’s head and Olga’s Christianity. Furthermore, very recently, based on a newer reading of the coins Rispling has redated the emission of these “Christian Falcon” imitations to ca. 950, which does, indeed, corresponds to the period of Olga’s rule.15 Such a dating of the “Christian Falcon” image also seems to give more credence to the arguments posed for Olga’s earlier conversion, i.e., in the late 940s, although this subject will not be considered in the present study.

Ershova has interpreted the images on the pendant in the following way. She connects the bident with the key to Vladimir I (r. 970-ca. 978 as Prince of Novgorod; ca. 978-1015 as Grand Prince of Kiev) and does so for the following reasons. The bident has been traditionally identified as belonging to Sviatoslav, Vladimir’s father, but the appearance of the key in its midst suggests that it is not Sviatoslav’s. On the other hand, Vladimir’s mother, Malusha, was a servant to Princess Olga, whose role it was to keep keys, i.e., she was a key-bearer (kliuchnitsa), as described in the Russian Primary Chronicle or Povest’ vremennykh let (henceforth, PVL). While Sviatoslav recognized Vladimir as equal amongst his other sons, such a low birth from his mother’s side, equated with a “slave” by Rogneda when the latter proposed to marry her, prevented him from inheriting the official bident used by his father. When Olga died in 969, the following year Sviatoslav divided up the Rus’ realm amongst his three sons and Vladimir received Novgorod. Noting V.L. Ianin’s earlier suggestion that Vladimir used the trident sign as his symbol beginning with 970 when he was appointed to rule Novgorod (also see below), Ershova proposes that Vladimir could have used the bident with the key before that time. Ershova then contends that Vladimir’s trident could have developed out of the key inside the original bident.16

As for the other side of the pendant with the “Christian Falcon,” Ershova connects it with Olga not only because it carries a cross, an obvious symbol of Christian Olga and no other ruler at the time, but also because the other rulers of Rus’ had their own symbol in the shape of bidents that can be dated based on graffiti of these symbols on coins to the late ninth century. As further evidence, she points to the chronology of the grave in which the pendant with the “Christian Falcon” was found, which she dates to the late 950s-960s. She argues that this dating corresponds to the circulation of the “Christian Falcon” coins, which was mainly in the 950s. Since this chronology corresponds to both, the coins and the pendant should be connected with Olga and her activities in the late 950s to the 960s.17

Finally, based on all of this, Ershova draws the following hypothetical reconstruction of events surrounding the pendant and its symbolism. When still alive, Olga gave Vladimir the Pskov lands which were her patrimonial territories, as is known from the PVL. In this event, since the pendant carried emblems of Olga and Vladimir, the individual buried in chamber grave №6 was an official appointed by these two individuals to administer the princely affairs in the lands of Pskov.18

Ershova advances some interesting and compelling arguments in her evaluation of the symbolism found on the pendant. On the one hand, her connection of the “Christian Falcon” with Olga stands on solid ground, but needs much closer study and elaboration. On the other hand, her conclusions in reference to the bident and the key need to be closely reexamined.

The Meaning of the Bident

Ershova’s suggestion that the pendant carried on it Vladimir’s emblem has to be seriously questioned for a number of reasons. First, it should be kept in mind that while the pendant was buried in chamber grave №6 sometime in the late 950s to early 960s, it was not new when deposited. As Ershova herself observes, the pendant shows clear signs of wear. Its 45-55 year-old owner could well have worn it for quite a few years prior to his death. Thus, all that can be said about the upper chronology of the pendant is that it was made and worn sometime before the late 950s to early 960s, or using Ershova’s dating, more broadly to the 960s, which is less likely. However, the lower chronology can theoretically be a bit broader than Ershova suggests. While it is true that the “Christian Falcon” coins circulated in the 950s, the coins in question were actually struck in ca. 950. Thus, based strictly on the coins, the preliminary lower chronology of the pendant in question can be given as ca. 950.

With the above in mind, the “Christian Falcon” emblem can be dated to the period anywhere from ca. 950 at the earliest to the early 960s at the latest (perhaps 960s, if Ershova’s chronology is to be accepted). Of course, this does not necessarily indicate that the pendant itself has to be dated so broadly. All that this means is that the pendant does not necessarily have to be dated to the 950s, as Ershova suggested. In light of its wear, it could easily date to the late 940s. Vladimir, however, was born only in ca. 958, when Sviatoslav was sixteen (sic!), based on the record of the latter’s birth sub annum 942 found in the Hypatian and Khlebnikov chronicles.19 Even if Vladimir was born by the time the pendant was made, it is doubtful that Olga would have granted her patrimonial estates to an infant or perhaps a small child who was not a Grand Prince at the time nor would he have been even a contender for the position in light of his two more legitimate and older half-brothers. The fact that he was relegated to remote Novgorod by Sviatoslav in 970 points to the same conclusion. It is true that Vladimir was associated with the lands of Pskov because he was allegedly born there when Olga exiled his mother to the area.20 Nothing in the written sources, however, suggests that Olga gave Vladimir anything; Vladimir, even if he was born in the Pskov region, appears to have resided in Kiev until 970 when he was sent to Novgorod.21 Of course, it could be argued that Vladimir was not residing in Pskov but was simply granted authority over it, mainly to collect revenues. But, the question why Olga would grant Vladimir her patrimony has to be answer or at least addressed. Furthermore, it is not altogether clear why Olga and Vladimir would advertise his lower social status – born to a servant-stewardess mother – by inserting the key into the bident. It does not appear to be a very convincing and authoritative symbol for Vladimir to use to declare his dominion. Overall, it seems that Ershova came to her evaluation and understanding of the meaning of the bident with the key solely based on the reference made in the PVL to Vladimir’s mother being a bearer of keys. As convenient and even at first compelling as this passage may be for such an interpretation, Ershova’s conclusion seems to pose more questions than it answers.

Second, most importantly, it was Sviatoslav, not Vladimir, who was Grand Prince of Rus’ until 970/972. It was Sviatoslav’s bident that designated his authority throughout the Rus’ lands during his lifespan after his father Grand Prince Igor’ was killed in ca. 945. It was Sviatoslav, Grand Prince of Kiev and qağan of the Rus’, who was the head of state starting with ca. 945 to the time of his death in 972, not regent Olga nor any of his sons.22 It was only after Sviatoslav decided to move the capital of his realm from Kiev to Pereiaslav on the lower Danube that the bident began to evolve into other forms. As a result of his move, Sviatoslav divided up the old Rus’ territories between his three sons in 970 (Kiev for Iaropolk, Drevlianian lands for Oleg, and Novgorod for Vladimir), and each of them began to use the Riurikid insignia. But, they did so by developing their own, unique forms of the symbol based on the original bident.23 While Oleg’s symbol remains unknown, Vladimir changed the bident into a trident. The earliest evidence of this trident comes from a bone pendant discovered in Novgorod in layers dating to the third quarter of the tenth century. But, it has been more precisely dated to 972.24 Iaropolk most probably retained the original bident, since he was the oldest son and ruler of Kiev. However, he soon also changed the bident by adding a cross to its bottom, almost certainly because of his conversion to Christianity, or at least taking prima signatio, in 975.25 In sum, only Sviatoslav could have used the bident as a symbol of authority in the Rus’ lands until he died in 972 or, at least until he granted Kiev to Iaropolk in 970 who could then use the insignia as his own. Consequently, it was only in 970 that Vladimir could have had any pretensions on the insignia when he was sent to rule over the Novgorodian lands. Then and there he developed the bident into his own unique symbol – the trident. To suggest that he could have had one any earlier would go against the grain of everything that is known about the use of Riurikid bident-trident symbols. Since there is no reason to think otherwise, this emblem was used only by reigning princes, be they Grand Princes of Kiev or princes of other principalities. Prior to 970, Vladimir was neither.

Third, Ershova’s suggestion that Vladimir’s trident evolved out of the key inserted into the bident likewise can be questioned. The third and central “dent” found in his trident can be associated with a body of a bird. By adding this central “dent,” the earlier bident came to represent a full, albeit, highly stylized representation of a bird in mid-air flight diving position. The earlier features of the bident represented only wings and a head-beak pointing downwards. Vladimir’s new central “dent” completed it with the torso [Figs. 7-8]. That this symbol represented a bird has been made quite clear by the existence of eyes above the beak on some of the later coins of Iaroslav the Wise (ca. 978-1054).26 Hence, it is unlikely that the key has anything to do with the evolution of the bident into a trident. This process occurred in context of changes to other symbolism.

Overall, presently there is little dispute in scholarly literature that bidents were all associated with the earliest Rus’ princes up through the end of Sviatoslav’s reign.27 As mentioned above, only after 970 the bident metamorphosed into other variants. Furthermore, because the pendant was deposited in the grave sometime around the late 950s-early 960s it would stand to reason that it was made sometime during the reign of Sviatoslav, but not earlier than when it began in ca. 945. In such a case, the tentative lower chronology of the pendant – ca. 945 at the earliest – seems to confirm the time of the emergence of the “Christian Falcon” imitation dirhams, i.e., ca. 950. Thus, both the coins and the pendant made their appearance at almost the same exact time.

The Meaning of the Key

Another interpretation of the key and its place inside Sviatoslav’s bident on the Pskov pendant, other than Ershova’s, can be put forward. Keys and locks of various types were well known in eastern Europe since the ninth century and have been found in many towns, settlements, and cemeteries across the Rus’ lands. While there were a number of different kinds of keys, there is one particular type that is fully analogous to the key depicted on the pendant [Fig. 4, especially nos. 4 & 7]. This key type – known as latchlifter in English – was used for locking and unlocking wooden locks, particularly those that locked chests. They have been found in Novgorod, Pskov, Gnezdovo, Chernigov (Chernaia mogila burial), upper Volga (e.g., Rostov, Mikhailovskoe cemetery, and a settlement near Uglech), Voin, and other Rus’ sites.28 Latchlifters of this type have also been discovered across Viking-age Northern Europe, from Sweden (e.g., Helgö, Birka, and Gotland) and Denmark (e.g., Ribe) to England (e.g., Kent).29 In Novgorod and in Pskov they appear in the first half of the tenth century and were in use there through the early twelfth.30 Thus, a representation of a latchlifter on the pendant from Pskov dating to the mid-tenth century should not seem to be out of the ordinary.

In Norse Viking-age Northern European world, to which Olga and the Rus’ ruling elite largely belonged, there was a very close connection between keys and women, as is evidenced by way of archaeological finds as well as literary sources. In Viking-age Norway 55.8% of keys and parts of chests to which they belonged have been found in women’s graves, while 44.2% in men’s. Albeit, the percentage is actually much higher in favor of females, since there are three times many more male graves than female, thereby making the ratio of key and chest finds in female graves 3.7 times higher than in those of males.32 In the Scandinavian graves discovered in the Rus’ lands, the statistics still suggest the frequent, if not dominant, association of women with keys: of the 24 such graves with keys and locks, seven were female, ten male, and seven male and female.33 The tradition of depositing keys in female graves actually had a long history in the Germanic world. Keys were most commonly buried in women’s graves in the Merovingian lands and early Anglo-Saxon England, and in both areas have been associated with women’s status and domain.34

Figure 4
Figure 4

Keys/Latchlifters from Novgorod31

Citation: Russian History 39, 4 (2012) ; 10.1163/48763316-03904002

Aside from actual keys discovered in female graves, miniature keys served as pendants-amulets. Among the earliest are the silver ornamental keys that were unearthed in the two richest female Lombard graves excavated in the Carpathians dating to the very early Middle Ages.35 Miniature key-amulets were also quite common items of female dress in early Anglo-Saxon England and are known in scholarship as “girdle-hangers,” since they were suspended from the waist.36 Miniature keys have also been discovered in Viking-age Scandinavia.37 Amulets in the form of keys were likewise known in Rus’. They became particularly widespread in the eleventh to the early twelfth centuries and were deposited mainly in female graves in the southern Lake Ladoga area as well as the upper-Volga and upper-Dnepr regions. The keys found in the later Rus’ period have been interpreted as symbols of womanhood and matrimony.38 But, one of the earliest of these examples comes from Pskov.

This miniature pendant key/latchlifter found in Pskov comes from a male grave dating to second half of the tenth-early eleventh centuries [Fig. 5]. Based on the types of artifacts discovered in the grave (e.g., weights and scales, Borre-style ornaments), the deceased is believed to have been a Scandinavian merchant. The key was one of fourteen miniature amulets suspended on a bronze ring; amongst them, many cannot be connected with any specific objects.40 However, the figure sitting inside a ship can be securely identified as the god of the sea Njǫrðr, father of both Freyja and Freyr, or perhaps Freyr himself, as both are clearly associated with ships in Old Norse mythology – all Vanir gods, connected with fertility, the life-death-rebirth cycle, and ships.41 Njǫrðr, in particular, is closely tied not only to ships, but also to seafarers (fishermen and merchants) and great wealth that derives from the sea itself or from sea travel.42 Not coincidentally, a miniature wooden boat was deposited into the same male grave in which the amulet set was found.43 This boat was most likely a proxy for a real ship used in classic Viking ship burial. In light of all of the above, the ring with the amulets can be interpreted as an assorted collection of various Nordic divinities and their symbols, including those of the Vanir gods – Njǫrðr/Freyr. The other major Vanir divinity – the goddess Freyja – is very likely to be represented by the key. Her figurative presence here would compliment and, indeed, complete the other chief Vanir deity in the ship – all fundamental gods that would be of great concern to the merchant buried in this grave.

Figure 5
Figure 5

Ring with Amulets from Pskov39

Citation: Russian History 39, 4 (2012) ; 10.1163/48763316-03904002

Indeed, literary sources not only tie keys to women, but to Freyja in particular. In his Gylfaginning, Snorri Sturluson describes the goddess Sýr – actually one of Freyja’s hypostases whose function was to “shield/protect”44 – as one who “Guards the doors in the hall and locks out those who ought not enter.”45 In the Þrymskviða, a connection is made yet again between key ownership and Freyja as well as women in general (at least those of the highest rank), like the goddess. It relates an episode in which the god Þorr had to disguise himself as a woman and borrowed Freyja’s outfit to do so, which included keys:

Let’s dress Þorr in a bridal head-dress,

let him wear the great necklace of the Brisings [Freyja’s necklace, R.K.K.]

Let keys jingle about him

and let women’s clothing fall down to his knees,

and on his breast let’s display jewels.46

In the Rígsþula we hear that when the god Rígr fathered three races – slaves, farmers, and nobles, his second son Farmer got a wife and:

Then they drove home the woman with keys at her belt,

in a goatskin kirtle, married her to Farmer.47

Keys were thus associated with farmwomen as well. This information is supported by early medieval Scandinavian laws, which also relate that farmwomen were given the legal right to keys to the farms, thereby charging them with the responsibility over the property whether the husband was at home or away.48 Women as key-keepers (O.E. locbore, i.e., “lock/key-bearer”) are noted in the early Anglo-Saxon law of the King of Kent Æthelberht (560-616).49 The same connection is made in the later laws of Cnut/Canute (ca. 985-1035), king of England, Norway, Denmark, and regions of Sweden: “But it is her duty to guard the keys of the following – her storeroom and her chest and cupboard.”50

Leaving the Worldly for the Otherworldly: it has been argued that the key symbolized Freyja, the goddess of fertility and bounty. The symbol of the key has been connected with her function of assisting in childbirth and marriage; woman’s personal integrity/loyalty; and, woman’s power over the household.51 The key has also been interpreted as opening up the door to the “Other World,” likewise connecting it with the Freyja cult.52 Indeed, Freyja is associated with death in mythology in a number of ways, but especially in her connection to being a battle goddess. More specifically, according to Snorri Sturluson’s Gylfaginning, when she went into battle she would pick up and bring half of the slain to her own palace (Folkvángr) and hall (Sessrúmnir) in Ásgarðr (home of the gods), while the other half went to her husband Óðr/Óðinn’s Valhalla.53 But, she is also clearly a deity that regenerates life, being a fertility goddess – one of her other chief functions.54 Again, none of these associations are mutually exclusive; indeed, they complement one another, representing the regenerative cycle of life-death-rebirth. In one form or another, all of the principal female attributes, such as woman’s reproductive abilities, family, and household, came to be personified – indeed deified – in the form of Freyja.

In his Ynglinga saga, Snorri Sturluson sums it up nicely when he describes Freyja as someone who “became so very renowned, that they called all their noble women by her name, even as they are now called fruer; so every woman is called Freya (Frue), who rules over her own property, but she is called house-freya (husfrue), who has a household.”55 In his Skáldsaparmál he adds that Freyja can be referred to in kennings as “the household deity of the Vanir” gods.56 Women were entrusted with keys to the family treasure chests or households in general to guard, particularly when the men left home for long periods of time. By having keys entrusted to them, women became heads of households and the keepers of family fortunes, as was Freyja and her doublet Frigg, whose husbands, Óðr and Óðinn respectively, were very often away from home.57 His absence caused Freyja to weep golden tears, according to Snorri’s Gylfaginning and Skáldsaparmál.58 Thus, while Freyja was the ruler over half of Ásgarðr or home of the gods when Óðr/Óðinn was at home she became ruler over its entirety when he was away. It is the woman’s power over the household and her connection to keys that is of particular interest to us presently.

Aside from being active managers of the household when men were away for extended periods of time, women could become in charge of the household permanently when widowed. Of what we know of widows in Scandinavian as well as early Rus’ societies, they could not inherit their husband’s property while there were living children, but they could act as heads of the household and dispense of their wealth as they saw fit by acting as guardians for their children until they were of age.59 Control over capital, movable or immovable, by a widow while the children were minors should not be at all strange or surprising. There are plenty of examples from the early Middle Ages in the Germanic world not only of royal wives controlling treasuries when they were widowed, but even when their husbands were still living.60

It is precisely in this connection that the image of the key found on the Pskov pendent has to be understood. When her husband Grand Prince Igor was killed by the Drevlianians sub annum 945, the widowed Olga was left with a very young son and thus had to become regent for him until he came of age. In her capacity as de facto ruler-regent, she acted as the keeper or guardian of the state until Sviatoslav matured to take over the realm in his own full right. The key was thus Olga’s symbol of regency for her son over the Rus’ lands. What is more, to make it clear that she was only a temporary custodian of the state, and underscore Sviatoslav’s legitimate ruler-to-be status – Grand Prince of Kiev and qağan of the Rus’ – Olga had the engraver making the pendant combine both symbols into one – the main one being Sviatoslav’s bident regal family emblem, while the central, albeit a smaller one, of herself – the custodial key, symbol of a woman in charge of the royal household. It needs to be underscored that this role Olga assumed sometime just after ca. 945, or the approximate date estimated above for the lower chronology of the pendant based on Sviatoslav’s bident (post-ca. 945) and the “Christian Falcon” imitation dirhams (ca. 950). In this way, all of the above historical events are tied together by the symbols and the coins discussed above, which date to the late 940s/ca. 950.

Lastly, some have suggested that Olga could have had her own regal bident insignia. However, no convincing evidence of such an emblem has thus far been advanced.61 What is more, since Olga came from outside of the Riurikid bloodline and was a female, she could not have possibly had any pretensions on this symbol connected with a male qağan’s authority of her husband and son.62 Furthermore, not one example of a bident-trident Riurikid emblem used by a princess has thus far been found. Being regent, not official ruler, she chose the symbol of a key, which surely would have been understood by most people of the day in Northern Europe not only as a sign of a woman, but probably also as a religious-legal symbol of guardianship, as is suggested by the close connection between women and keys in the Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon laws. In this regard, one is reminded of mayors of cities in more recent times who hold the key to their city, which they present on occasion to outsiders in welcoming ceremonies.

Combining Identities

Interestingly, the pendant from Pskov is not the only object that combines Olga’s identity with that of her son Sviatoslav. The other is a bulla from Kiev [Fig. 6]. Strangely overlooked, or intentionally avoided in literature because of its implications, is the cross that is found above one of the bidents. There is a general consensus that this bulla belonged to Sviatoslav.63 But, how can one explain the cross above the bident? Sviatoslav was by no means a Christian, and, indeed, all that we know of him suggests that he was a true pagan until his death. So, how is one to understand the cross? It seems that the most likely explanation for the cross can, once again, be tied to his Christian mother and regent, until he turned of age, or perhaps even afterwards. The authority of young Grand Prince/qağan had to be made clear on the bulla with his bident. But, regent Olga also had to assert her own position of power and authority in the Rus’ lands and used the cross as her identity to underscore it. Even after Sviatoslav became an adult, Olga’s Christian identity of power represented in the form of the cross was retained, since it would have been most handy in diplomacy with the Byzantines and other Christian polities.

Figure 6
Figure 6

Sviatoslav’s (and Olga’s?) Bulla From Kiev. Discovered under the Church of the Holy Virgin (Desiatinnaia) in Kiev, built in 994-996, with a cross above a “bident,” with the letters, Greek or Cyrillic reading “*Sviatoslav” encircling it, and another “bident” with several letters encircling it, the meaning of which have yet to be understood. Dated to the lifespan of Sviatoslav (ca. 942-972)

Citation: Russian History 39, 4 (2012) ; 10.1163/48763316-03904002

There are other examples of combining identities amongst early Rus’ rulers. Perhaps the most interesting of them is the bone pendant discovered in Novgorod which carries two princely signs – one side has a bident belonging to Sviatoslav and the other a trident belonging to his son Vladimir [Fig. 7]. The former sign was “corrected” to make it Vladimir’s by adding an extra “dent” to the middle of the bident, thereby making it into a trident, or Vladimir’s insignia. It is believed that this “correction” was made after Sviatoslav died in 972 and thus Vladimir became full ruler of Novgorod. Prior to then, the pendant contained the bident of Sviatoslav, the titular ruler of the Kievan Rus’ realm, on the one side, and the trident of Vladimir, the acting ruler in the Novgorodian lands, on the other. The pendant, hence, dates to 970-972 when Vladimir was sent to rule in Novgorod by Sviatoslav, but the change that was made dates to a period just after he became full ruler with Sviatoslav’s death in 972. In this way, the pendant initially contained symbols of two Riurikid authoritative identities and later just one.65

Figure 7
Figure 7

Sviatoslav-Vladimir Bone Pendant from Novgorod. Yard (usad’ba) “G” of the Troits Dig, layers dating to 950s-970s64

Citation: Russian History 39, 4 (2012) ; 10.1163/48763316-03904002

Another example of combined royal identities can be found on the trapezoidal pendant made of bronze that was discovered in a grave near Staraia Ladoga in the Novgorodian lands. It contains an image of Vladimir I’s “trident” on its one side and Iaroslav the Wise’s “trident” on the other [Fig. 8]. It has been convincingly argued that this pendant was issued to a native resident of Staraia Ladoga who acted as an administrator for Vladimir’s son Iaroslav the Wise, appointed by the former to rule Novgorod and its lands, including Staraia Ladoga, from 1010-1015.66 In its semantics, the symbolism on the pendent is analogous to the pendants from Pskov and Novgorod. It bears on its one side the symbol of the titular Grand Prince of Kiev – Vladimir – and on the other, the subordinate, but acting prince of the lands of Novgorod – Iaroslav. Similarly, the pendent from Pskov carries on it the symbols of Olga (key, and as we will see also the falcon and cross) and Sviatoslav (“bident”). Sviatoslav is the titular Grand Prince of Kiev, while Olga is the subordinate but acting ruler of the Rus’ state.

Figure 8
Figure 8

Trapezoidal Pendant from Staraia Ladoga Region

Citation: Russian History 39, 4 (2012) ; 10.1163/48763316-03904002

All three pendants serve as excellent parallels to one another and shed new light on the early Rus’ political and administrative structures. The Pskov pendant, however, is the earliest one of such objects found and its appearance is very likely connected with Olga’s well known administrative-fiscal reforms in the northern Rus’ lands that she carried out a year or two after she became regent, as recorded in the PVL sub annum 947, and is very likely evidenced archeologically and numismatically. If this is so, then the lower chronology of the pendant in question can be further readjusted from ca. 945 to post-ca. 947, at the earliest.67 This dating fully corresponds to the first appearance of the “Christian Falcon” imitation dirhams (dating to ca. 950) and the advent of the images found on the Pskov pendant (dating to the late 940s).

The “Christian Falcon”

1. The Meaning of the Falcon

The images of the bird and the cross on the coins and the pendant from Pskov are stylistically and semantically very similar to one another, suggesting that they were modeled from a common prototype [Figs. 2 and 9]. It should be observed that there are no parallels to these falcon images, with or without crosses over their heads, on any object from the Rus’ lands, or anywhere else for that matter. Rispling observed in his study of the coins that the image of the falcon was executed with high precision, unlike the Kuffic text in the legends, indicating a total lack of familiarity with Arabic script on the part of the die-cutter.68 Lindberger proposed that the die-cutter was of Byzantine origin, albeit with no particular reason indicated.69 This may well be so. However, until a close examination by an art specialist is conducted on the image, the origin of the die-cutter will have to remain open (although, as said above, it is unlikely that the cutter was of Muslim background).

Figure 9
Figure 9

Trapezoidal Pendant from Pskov

Citation: Russian History 39, 4 (2012) ; 10.1163/48763316-03904002

As discussed above, there is no argument on identifying the bird with a falcon. Falconry and, by default through association, the falcon itself became very closely linked with the royal hunt and the ruling elites, not only in medieval Northern Europe, but across Eurasia in general.70 Indeed, falconry was such a beloved preoccupation of the aristocracy in Europe by the High Middle Ages that the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (r. 1220-1250) wrote an entire opus dedicated to falconry – The Art of Hunting With Birds (De arte venandi cum avibus).71 Most probably having its origins in the pastoral nomadic societies of the Eurasian steppes, this sport-hunting entertainment involving falcons was carried to late Roman northwestern Europe from where it entered England by the early sixth century, as is made clear by the images of the bird on objects deposited in Suffolk burial of Sutton Hoo.72 Based on the finds of skeletal remains of falcons in graves beginning with the sixth century, falconry spread to eastern Scandinavia very rapidly and was well known there during the Viking Age, as is evidenced by archaeological, written, and pictorial evidence.73 Not insignificantly, falcons appear mainly inside elite male burials and the overwhelming majority of them are found in the Uppland and Södermanland regions of east-central Sweden.74

East-central Sweden where falconry was particularly prominent had very close contacts with the northwestern Rus’ lands since the early Viking Age.75 This may well then explain how and why this elite hunting practice entered northern Rus’. Falconry, or at least association between the falcon and the nobility, can be traced in the Rus’ territories to the late ninth century. The bird, albeit usually in highly stylized form, was represented on various decorative metalwork objects such as sword scabbard chapes, pendants, and other items discovered in the Rus’ lands (e.g., Staraia Ladoga, Riurikovo gorodishche, Gnezdovo, Timerevo, Sarskoe gorodishche) or regions that had especially close contact with northwestern Russia, such as east-central Sweden (e.g., Birka) and southeastern Baltic. Most of these objects have been found in graves belonging to the warrior elite class, or those who took part in the Rus’ princely retinues.76 In the following centuries, falconry continued to play a prominent role in Rus’ society, as is made evident in the eleventh-twelfth centuries Rus’ law codes (various editions of the Pravda Rus’kaia) that established stiff fines for pilfering falcons, hawks, and other birds from snares.77 Not surprisingly, falconry was also associated with the Rus’ princes: in the “Testament” to his sons, Grand Prince of Kiev Vladimir Monomakh (d. 1125), an avid hunter, speaks of his personal care for his hawks and falcons.78 There is also some archaeological evidence and a birch-bark text that provides evidence of hawking-falconry in medieval Novgorod.79

Based on the pervasive imagery of falcons found on objects associated with the Rus’ warrior elite culture spoken of above, B. Ambrosiani has proposed that this bird may have somehow been tied to the Frigg/Freyja cult amongst the Rus’. He further suggests that this goddess may have been the patron female deity of the earliest Rus’ rulers.80 These suppositions are quite compelling. Indeed, many ruling dynasties in Northern Europe of the day adopted major Nordic gods as their patron deities and came to claim these divinities as the progenitors of their dynasties and justified their sacral kingship based on these divine connections. The early Anglo-Saxon house of Kent associated itself with Woden/Óðinn.81 Other Old English royal genealogies are derived from Ingui, Inguinus, and Inguet – in all cases identifiable as Yngvi-Freyr.82 Swedish kings came to be known by the title of Yngvi after Yngvi-Freyr, hence the Swedish Ynglingar dynasty.83 The kings of Norway also connected their descent from Yngvi-Freyr.84 More interesting for our purposes is the Danish Skilfingar dynasty that derived its origins from Skjálf-Freyja.85 In light of this, it would be somewhat strange if the Rus’ rulers did not choose a major Norse divinity as their patron deity.

As it was alluded to above in relation to the pendant from Pskov, the image of the key may link Olga with Freyja. But, as will be proposed below, there is much more evidence that not only makes this association closer, but also explains why and how the bird and the goddess came to be so closely coupled with the Rus’ princess. To do so, it is first necessary to examine the sources that speak of Freyja, and her association with the image of the falcon, in particular.

First, the Þrymskviða and Skáldsaparmál both relate that the goddess Freyja had a feather cloak (fjaðrhamr/valshamr) in the shape of a falcon or made of falcon feathers, which she lent the god Loki to fly to Giantland.86 As with her many other characteristics, Freyja shares the attribute of the falcon outfit with Frigg: the mischievous Loki steals the falcon outfit from Frigg and for bemusement flies in it to Giantland, according to the Skáldsaparmál.87

Aside from the written accounts, visual evidence also links Freyja with the falcon. For instance, the miniature gold figurine of a female clad in what appears to be a cloak made of feathers (discovered near Trønninge, Holbæk, Denmark) has been interpreted as Freyja.88 A very similar amulet-figurine, made of silver and gilded in gold, was discovered in 1867 in Gnezdovo inside a coin-treasure hoard dating to the mid-tenth century.89 Likewise, perhaps one of the two episodes from Norse mythology mentioned above is depicted in a series of broaches that have been unearthed by archaeologists in Uppåkra, near Lund in southernmost Sweden. In them one finds male faces (Loki?) wrapped inside a falcon [Fig. 10]. Such falcon broaches – with and without male faces – were discovered in female graves.90 It has been suggested that the women owners of these broaches were involved in fowling or that the image of the falcon was their high status symbol. It is possible that both of these interpretations are correct.91 However, it is just as possible that these women had a close association/relationship with Freyja and her cult, and the falcon served not only as the goddess’s symbol but also as their own – in life and death. High social status, falconry, and worship of Freyja are not at all mutually exclusive. In fact, they complement one another.

Figure 10
Figure 10

Falcon Broach from Uppåkra