Zmey, the Slavic Dragon

The day was still. The lake, as sleek as a crisp sheet of glass, mirrored the clear skies and the pointy tips of the surrounding pine trees. The sun was moving westwards and the crickets’ subtle melody bounced off of the smooth surface. Then, it happened. First, the bubbles shattered the glass to reunite with the air, followed by a gargantuan carp that twisted its body free of water in a shower of bejewelled drops. Its scales glinted in the rosily setting sunlight as its muscular body contorted grotesquely, grappling with the air, refusing to fall back into the deep greenness of the lake. Its body stretched, so that its tail snaked in the sunlight sending a volley of sparkling scales, it sprouted two skinny, bat-like wings, that flapped frantically, keeping its massive body, which had by now produced four muscly, heavily taloned paws that scratched the surface of the lake, leaving a foamy furrow in their wake. The newborn dragon embraced the air with his outstretched wings and soared into the clear heights. The sun and the forest underneath reflected in the two golden orbs that had replaced his dull fish eyes framed by two horns that curled their way from his forehead. He opened his sharp-toothed maw and his thunderous roar shook the pine forest and reverberated against the bottom of the lake. 

The North vs. the South

There are two quite clearcut veins in the dragon (zmey, zmei, zmaj) lore in Slavic mythology. On the one hand, there are Russian myths where the dragons assume the role of the chief antagonist, often represented by the three-headed Zmey Gorynych, the ruler of the mountain that must be slain by the hero Dobrynya Nikitich. On the other hand, there is the Southern Slavic vein, particularly revolving around the Balkans, where dragons are regarded as a benevolent force of nature, the protectors and guardians of the realms, the people, and their crops. 

The Southern Slavic dragons were described as extremely intelligent guardians of territory. They represented the South Slavs’ patriotic inclinations, since they were highly territorial and would oppose and fight any other dragon that would try usurping their dominion. They could affect the weather, summon the rain, and help the crops grow and yield better. It was believed that the dragons lived near forest streams in their high, heavily wooded mountains. Since forests were seen as Slavic ancestral grounds, the fact that the dragons find their home there implies their ancestral quality. 

What do Slavic dragons look like?

The dragons looked more or less like we see them in other mythologies: a serpent-like creature  with four legs and webbed, bat-like wings. Certain animals were believed to have the power to turn into a dragon when they reached a certain age, such as the ram, the snake, the carp, or the Aesculapian snake. Therefore, Slavic dragons had ram horns on their heads, their bodies could be covered in scales, they could have fish tails, they resided near water, and they could spout red or blue flames. 

Shapeshifters and Lovers

Another significant feature of Slavic dragons is that they were shapeshifters, they could be invisible and they could even assume human form. In their human form, they were notorious for seducing young people, especially women. Children born out of such relationships were believed to possess supernatural abilities, particularly, they were believed to be endowed with superhuman strength. Therefore, many of the famous Slavic heroes were considered to have mythological, particularly draconic, ancestry. Slavic dragons could be portrayed as villains in stories usually when they would kidnap young women and take them to their lairs or drive them mad with love until they committed suicide. 

The dragons were opposed to the malevolent dragons, known as lamia, ala, hala, or aždaja. 

Lamia, the Drought

Lamia is a reptile-like creature with three to nine dog-like heads with very sharp teeth. It dwells at the bottom of lakes, seas, and other sources of water and can cause drought. It needs to be destroyed, either by a hero, or a by a dragon in order for the water to flow again, and for the fertility to be restored to the land. 

Pozoy, the City Dragon

There is a belief, especially in Croatia and Slovenia, that there can be a dragon dwelling underneath a city. It could cause earthquakes whenever it moved and the only way to get rid of it by the use of black magic.  

Ala, the Whirlwind

Ala or Hala was another form of a an evil dragon that would manifest itself in the form of dense or mist, it would cause strong winds and whirlwinds that could damage people’s crops and property. It was up to the dragons to defeat the ala and restore the balance in the nature. 

© 2019 Erna Grcic 

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