Saint Hyacinth of Poland and a pagan island in Kyiv

Saint Hyacinth of Poland and a pagan island in Kyiv

During several centuries of its existence, Kyiv has become home to many legends and macabre relations sometimes confirmed in reality. One of them tells about the Polish Dominican and pagans living in Kyiv.


Kyiv – woodcut from “Theatrvm Novellarum Mundi”, 1687. Source: Google Books

In 988, Kievan Rus was baptized. However, pagan customs, despite the conversion of the Kievans, were difficult to eradicate. Many old customs and beliefs survived the following centuries, hiding in the form of folk traditions. In 1230, Jacek Odrowąż (known in English as Saint Hyacinth of Poland) – a Polish Dominican and preacher, also known as the Apostle of the Slavs, arrived in Kyiv. At that time, the land of former Kievan Rus experienced difficult times, as the principalities were subordinated to the Tatar Golden Horde. Thanks to the initiative of Odrowąż, a Dominican church and monastery were built in Kyiv, which survived until the mid-17th century. The future saint spent several years in Rus. Ukrainian researcher Volodymyr Ryczka cites a medieval legend about Jacek Odrowąż’s stay in Kyiv:

He found paganism there; the city and its vicinity were full of idols, pagan temples, and altars (…). He learned that on the river Dnieper there is an island overgrown with a dense forest and that pagans of Kyiv worship one of the trees, the tallest.  They also follow Satan’s prophecies, who lives inside the tree, and speaks to people. The island was separated from the shore by a wide river, so it looked very inaccessible.

However, thanks to the strength of his faith, Hyacinth managed to overcome this obstacle and crossed the Dnieper to the dark island. There, the crowd of Kievians worshiped the great oak. Odrowąż in a passionate speech to the pagans and persuaded them to test their faith; he struck the tree with his staff, which fell to the ground, and the devil jumped out of it and ran away. According to legend, thanks to this event, the people of Kyiv turned away from their old beliefs, and pagan idols were burned by the fire ignited by the Dominican monk.

Saint Hyacinth by L. Carracio, 1594. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, shortly after Hyacinth’s visit in 1240, the Mongol forces of Batu Khan subjugated Kyiv in a bloody invasion. After a few days of siege, the horde poured into the city, destroying it almost completely and murdering its inhabitants. Leaving ashes and dead bodies behind, the Mongols set off for Poland – a year after the destruction of Kyiv, they defeated the knights near Legnica. Some of the inhabitants of Kyiv hid in the lush forests around the city, but according to legends, the ruins of the former capital became a habitat for witches and devils.

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