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Introduction | Questions to Consider | Source  

The Lay of Igor's Host:
Warfare on the Russian Steppes
(c. 900)

As Norwegian Vikings raided the British Isles and Danish Vikings ransacked Carolingian cities, Swedish Vikings (Varangians) made their way from the Baltic Sea into eastern Slavic territories during the ninth century. Establishing themselves at Novgorod in the north and Kiev in the south, the Varangians soon became familiar in the Byzantine world, both as traders and as invaders. By the tenth century, the princes of Kiev formed the state of Rus, but not without a continual struggle against other people who held claim or wanted access to the Russian steppes. The following poem commemorates Prince Igor (r. 913-945) and his loss.

Questions to Consider
  • Some epics recount the glory of warfare and the nobility of death in battle. How is this poem different? What might account for this poem's tone?

And so it used to be.
There were battles and campaigns,
but there had never been such battle as this.
From early morning to night,
from evening to dawn
there flew tempered arrows,
swords rained down upon helmets,
Frankish lances resound,
and all this in the unknown prairie,
in the human land.
The black earth under the hooves
was strewn with bones,
was covered with blood.
Grief overwhelmed the Russian land.
What noise do I hear?
What clinking comes to my ears
so early in the morning, before the dawn?
It is Prince Igor who has led away his troops.
He is saddened by the fate of his brother, Vsevolod.
They fought for one day.
They fought for another day.
At noon on the third day Igor's banners fell.
Here, on the shores of the swift river Kaiala,
the brothers parted.
The wine of this bloody banquet was drunk to the
  last drop.
The Russians gave their guests to drink from the same cup.
They died for the Russian land.
  The grass withered from sorrow,
  and the saddened trees drooped earthward.


Source: Serge A. Zenkovsky, ed., Medieval Russia's Epics, Chronicles and Tales (New York: Dutton, 1963), 142-146.