Pan-European Motifs in the Martyrdom of Boris and Gleb

Francis Butler, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

In a series of studies, Norman Ingham has noted the strong resemblances between East Slavic accounts of the murders of Boris and Gleb and accounts of other princely martyrs in Czech and Old Norse-Icelandic texts. The present paper will build on Ingham's work by attempting to place at least two motifs associated with the deaths of these martyrs into a broader European context.

In both the Povest´ vremennykh let and the Skazanie i strast´i pokhvala sv´iatuiu mucheniku Borisa i Gleba, Gleb's horse stumbles and breaks his leg shortly before the saint is killed. This stumble may be juxtaposed with other stumbles, falls from horses, and related incidents in Classical Latin, Medieval Latin, Old Norse-Icelandic, and Byzantine literature. Such stumbles as Gleb's must be distinguished from fortunate stumbles, including those attributed to Julius Caesar by Suetonius, to William the Conqueror by William of Malmsbury, and to St. Olaf in the Old Norse-Icelandic tradition. Gleb's stumble is closer in significance to the stumble of the pretender Gundovald in Gregory of Tours' Histories, Charlemagne's fall from his horse in Einhard's Life of Charlemagne, Bardas Phocas's falls from two horses in Psellos's Chronography, and stumbles that either kill or forebode defeat or death in various Old Norse-Icelandic texts. The present paper will demonstrate the strikingly close resemblance between Gleb's horse's stumble and the stumble of St. Olaf's horse in the Old Norse-Icelandic Legendary Saga of St. Olaf.

In the Skazanie i strast´, Gleb hears the sound of the evil whispering (shopot´´ z´´l´´) or evil tramping (topot´´ z´´l´´)of the murderers approaching his tent before he is killed. This detail in the description of the killing is surprising given the near absence of references to sounds other than speech in early Kievan literature. Sounds other than speech are similarly rare in the Old Norse-Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon traditions, but when they are mentioned they almost invariably forebode deadly violence, as they do in the Skazanie.

This paper will argue that the motifs of the stumble and of the sound before death both derive from a pre-Christian tradition; it also will examine how these, and perhaps other, motifs have been adapted to hagiographic use both in and outside of Rus´.