“Never stray from the path, never eat a windfall apple, and never trust a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle” – Company of Wolves

I could have been a contender...
I could have been a contender…

The Principality of Polotsk is one of those many early medieval kingdoms that vanished long before somebody got the bright idea of making accurate maps and establishing the boundaries we recognize today.  The kingdom seems to have been centered on the Belarussian town of Polotsk and included parts of northern and central Belarus, and Latvia, and was closely associated with Kievan Rus after being stomped on by Vladimir the Great (958-1015 A.D.).  History was not kind to Polotsk, as it suffered a series of 12th Century succession crises, fought a nasty little war with the Land of Novgorod, and by the 13th Century was swallowed up by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.  But the way in which the Principality of Polotsk was forgotten isn’t what interests us, rather more curious are its origins as the seat of a dynasty of sorcerous werewolf princes, culminating in the rule of the most notable sorcerous and lycanthropic aristocrat, Vseslav Bryachislavich (1039-1101 A.D.), also known alternatively as Vseslav the Sorcerer or Vseslav the Seer.

Every now and again, the big kahuna of some imperial line gets associated with diabolical dealings, strange occult powers, or unchecked monstrosity.  This is mostly either propaganda generated by his usurpers to convince the masses that a sound thrashing was in order, or pure jealousy.  In the case of Vseslav, he had the pedigree to back it up.  You see, the Principality of Polotsk was said to have been founded in the 6th Century A.D. by a tribal union of the Finnic Krivichi, who were no doubt tired of shoveling snow in Scandinavia, and looking for a slightly more temperate climate to settle down in.  The fact that they chose the Belarus region simply tells you how insufferable Scandinavian winters can be.  We don’t know a whole lot about the Krivichi, except that they were making the bucks capitalizing on Varangian (Viking) to Greek trade routes.  There are brief mentions of the Polotsk folks tagging along when Russian King Igor the 1st (10th Century A.D.) decided to open up a can of whoop ass on the Byzantines.  Polotsk as a principality first gets mentioned by 10th-century Eastern Roman Emperor Constantine VII in his policy manual De Administrando Imperio (“On the Governance of the Empire”), noting a semi-legendary Prince of Polotsk named Ragnvald (or Rogvolod) which tellingly translated means, “the man who manipulates witches” in mediaeval Lithuanian.  Unfortunately for Ragnvald, his rumored ability to control witches didn’t help when he was dragged into a conflict between Vladimir the Great, Prince of Novgorod and Yaropolk, Prince of Kiev, both of whom were looking to Polotsk for military support.  Long story short, Ragnvald refuses to marry his daughter Rogneda to Vladimir, siding with Yaropolk; Vladimir kidnapped, raped and married Rogneda, and executed Ragnvlad and all his relatives.  Vladimir converted to Christianity in 988 A.D., remarried after divorcing Rogneda and sent her back to Polotsk with their son Izyaslau.  For the next two centuries the Principality of Polotsk was ruled by the descendants of Izyaslau, who had a son named Bryachislav, who in turn was the father of Vseslav.  To sum up, Vseslav was the grandson of the deeply traumatized wife of a murdered man known by a moniker that emphasized his control of the powers of darkness.  This is a recipe for serious issues.  Nobody remembers Polotsk since by the 13th Century, the Teutonic Knights had descended on the Baltic, and interestingly, the Lithuanians, the last bastion of paganism in Europe were known to have served alongside the armies of Polotsk in a last ditch effort to stem the tide of Christian knights carving up the Baltic into little fiefdoms.

Meanwhile, the reign of Vseslav, who ascended the throne in 1044 A.D., was regarded as the Golden Age of Polotsk.  Now “golden age” has a slightly different meaning out there north of the Ukraine, and to this day usually involved the ability and willingness to kick somebody’s ass.  Lest you think Vladimir Putin is some sort of modern phenomenon.  And Vseslav distinguished himself in a similar fashion.  Russia at the time was ruled from Kiev, and Vseslav was the only major Prince excluded for succession to the throne.  This obviously irritated him, as he proceeded to raid northern Kievan Rus, lay siege to Pskov, loot and burn Novgorod, and generally raise hell for the other Kievan princes in the economically important Baltic region.  Vseslav’s talent for mayhem is largely attributed to the fact that he was both a sorcerer and a werewolf, because sometimes one supernatural secret identity just isn’t enough.  Especially when there are Mongols nearby.  Grand Prince Mstislav the Brave of Kiev (1076-1132 A.D.), reluctantly ruling a fractured Russia from Novgorod, spent the better part of his reign fighting with Polotsk.  After raids on Novgorod territory believed to originate in the Pskoff and Polotsk regions, Mstislav resolved to bring the hammer down, assembling some twenty thousand troops and laying waste to the lands between Novgorod and the Baltic.  Old offenses were dredged up as a motivational tool, the same offenses that were scrupulously recorded in the oldest extant literature we have on the Novgorod republic, the Novgorod First Chronicle 1016-1471, which complained that in A.D. 1066 “Vseslav came and took Novgorod, with the women and children; and he took down the bells from St. Sophia—Oh great was the distress at that time!—and he took down the church lustres” (Michell, 1914, p5).  Sure Vseslav carried off the women and children which was pretty much par for the course, but they were really pissed off that he took the Church bells.  I mean, what’s a werewolf going to do with a bell anyway?

According to old usage, the posadnik of Pskoff was appointed by Novgorod, but on this point there were endless disputes between the two cities. The Pskoff men wished independence and their own prince. During the winter of 1180 Mystislav planned a campaign for the springtime. He remembered the offenses of Prince Vseslav, the Plotosk wizard, who could turn, as the people declared, into a gray wolf and run in one night from the Caucasus to Novgorod. Vseslav, years before, had seized a part of Great Novgorod; he had carried off its assembly bell and borne away holy images and church vessels. Mystislav resolved to bring all these back to the city (Curtin, 1908, p119).

During Vseslav’s reign, a whole parcel of Kievan princes were busy squabbling amongst themselves and angling for supremacy, a bigger piece of land, and popularity among the people, which was a darn shame since the Tartars were lurking on the borders looking for a good rape and pillage.  While experts recommend against fighting a land war in Asia, when you live near Kiev, the land war comes to you.  After a sound thrashing by the Cuman-Kipchak tribes, a revolt against Grand Prince Iziaslav Yaroslavich of Kiev erupted in 1068, because if you’re going to take on aristocratic airs, the least you can do is put up a respectable fight against invading Mongols.  It just so happened that earlier that year, Iziaslav had double-crossed Vseslav, captured him during peace talks, and tossed him in a Kiev jail.  Iziaslav was a jerk.  The Kiev locals wanted him overthrown. So they freed Vseslav and declared him Grand Prince of Kiev.  Eventually he was forced to flee back to Polotsk, but continued to run things there until his death on Good Friday in 1101.  Now, why exactly did everyone think Vseslav was a sorcerer and a werewolf?  Well, there were a few signs.  The Primary Russian Chronicle, an early history of Kievan Rus compiled by the monk Nestor in about 1113 A.D. recorded the circumstances of his birth.

1044 – In the same year died Bryachislav, son of Izyaslav, and father of Vseslav; and Vseslav his son succeeded to his throne. Him his mother bore by enchantment, for when his mother bore him, there was a caul over his head, and the magicians bade his mother bind this caul upon him, that he might carry it with him the rest of his life. Vseslav accordingly bears it to this day, and for this reason he is pitiless in bloodshed (Cross trans. “Laurentian Text of the Primary Russian Chronicle”, p139).

About 1 in 80,000 children are born with a thin, harmless membrane covering their head.  Doctors and midwives just remove it and everything is copasetic, but in Slavic folklore, if you carry it around with you, it acts like supernatural armor.  Apparently, this emboldened Vseslav in battle.  The 12th Century Old Slavic epic poem, “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign” described Vseslav as some sort of body-hopping freak that could turn into a wolf.

Prince Vseslav sat in judgment over his people, apportioned cities to the princes, but himself raced a wolf in the night, and by cockcrow reached from Kiev to Tmutorokan, and as a wolf crossed the path of great Khors. When they rang the bell in the church of St. Sophia for matins, early in the morning at Polotsk, he heard the ringing in Kiev. Though his cunning soul could pass into another body, yet he often suffered woe (Weiner, 1902, p93).

Clearly, mediaeval Polotsk was a rough and tumble place, and when you’re jockeying for power with a bunch of other upstart princelings, it pays to have a preternatural edge or two, especially a little sorcery in your pocket and some lycanthropic tendencies.  Perhaps we should be happy that Kievan Rus was a hotbed of political machinations and outright warfare, sweeping the Kingdom of Polotsk under the carpet of history.  Who would have wanted to face an Imperial Russia run by magic werewolves?  Although, perhaps this explains much of the tenor of Russian history, for as Nikita Khrushchev said, “If you live among wolves you have to act like a wolf”.

Curtin, Jeremiah, 1835-1906. The Mongols in Russia. London: Sampson Low, Marston, 1908.
Cross, S.H. and Sherbowitz-Wetzer, O.P.  “The Russian Primary Chronicle”.  Cambridge, MA: Mediaeval Academy of America, 1953.
Michell, Robert, F.R.G.S., and Robert Michell trans. The Chronicle of Novgorod, 1016-1471. London: Offices of the Society, 1914.
Wiener, Leo, 1862-1939. Anthology of Russian Literature From the Earliest Period to the Present Time. New York: G. P. Putnam’s sons, 1902.