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Category Archives: Bulgarian

Zmej

Zmej

Other names: zmaj (Serbian) змај, (Croatian and Bosnian), zmaj (Slovene), zmey, змей (Bulgarian, Russian), zmiy (Old Church Slavonic), змеj (Macedonian), żmij (Polish), змій (Ukrainian)

It should be noted that most of these words are the masculine forms for the Slavic word “snake.” In Russian, the feminine is zmeya. Other names include zmajček or zmajić that is used as a diminutive form of endearment.

Etymology – Dragon, Snake or Serpent

In the Slavic language, a dragon is called a Zmej. It appears as multi-headed dragon with three, seven or nine heads that are capable of breathing fire. The Eastern Slavic dragons are believed to be able to regrow their heads like a hydra if one head is chopped off. In all cases, their large size makes them fearsome foes.

The Zmej is primarily associated with fire, like a good many other dragons of European folklore. It either breathes fire or it can throw fiery arrows or lightning bolts. It is exceedingly strong and the Zmej’s strength can be taken by a person who eats the dragon’s heart. That puts a whole new light on the movie Dragon Heart. The precise abilities of the Slavic dragons vary by locality and country.

The male Zmej were often portrayed in a positive light, acting as protectors of their family and tribe. He was seen as a good demonic force, using the power of weather in the way of hail, storms and strong winds to protect crops and harvests from getting ruined. Among the Southern Slavs, it’s very common to see the imagery of a dragon representing a good demonic force.

While I note the use of the word and spelling demonic to describe the Zmej; given the context and influence of Christianity upon an older Pagan religion, beliefs and traditions; it is very likely that the Greek term and usage of daimon is more appropriate.

You Called Him A Daimon!

Yes, as in the Greek term and meaning for the word spirit. It is Christianity that takes and twists the word and meaning to Demon, for an evil spirit or being.

Among the ancient Greeks, the word daimon means spirit or “replete with knowledge.” They recognized both good (eudemons) and bad (cacodemons). The word or term daimon also means “divine power,” “fate,” or “god.” And in Greek mythology, daimons could also include deified heroes.

Daimons functioned as messengers or intermediary spirits between men and gods. The good daimons were viewed as guardian spirits who gave guidance and protection to those they watched over. The bad daimons, naturally, weren’t so nice and could mislead people, getting them into trouble.

Romanian Similarities

 Sometimes the Zmej also appears as an anthropomorphic dragon man, much like the Romanian Zmeu, seen as very intelligent, wise and knowledgeable with great magical proficiency, breath fire and superhuman strength. Like the Romanian Zmeu, the Slavic Zmej was also known for being very wealthy with castles and realms in otherworlds. They too lusted after women with home they could bear children. Respect was always given to these Zmej as one never knew what to expect in terms of behavior.

National And Folk Heroes

A good many heroes were considered dragons or the son of a Zmej. A number of these heroes include:

Husein-Kapetan Gradaščević – A successful Bosniak general who fought for the independence of the Ottoman Empire from Bosnia. He is known as “Zmaj od Bosnia,” or “The Dragon of Bosnia.”

Vlad III Dracula – A Romanian Hero and more infamously known as Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s book Dracula and depicted as a Vampire. Among the Romanians of Wallachia, Vlad is a hero, having been inducted into the Order of the Dragon by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to defend a Christian Europe against the Ottoman Empire.

Vuk Grgurević – A Serbian Despot known as “Zmaj-Ognjeni Vuk” or “Vuk the Fiery-Dragon” due to the vicioness of his rule and his many battles against the Turks.

Bulgarian Folklore

In the folk songs of Bulgaria, the Zmej appears as a popular motif as a Draconic Lover. Most of these songs featuring a Dragon Love, have a male Zmej. More heroic songs involving a Zmej will be female.

It’s interesting to note a very stark contrast and distinction male and female dragons in Bulgarian folklore. For one, the male and female dragons were seen as brother and sister. Yet for all this, they were very staunchly opposed to each other. The female dragons were known for representing the destructive weather that would destroy crops and agriculture. Whereas, the male dragons protected the fields and crops for harvest. Such that the two often fought each other, representing the dueling, opposing forces of female/water with male/fire symbolism.

Macedonia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Serbia, Slovenia and Montenegro Folklore

In these Eastern Slavic countries and areas, a dragon is known by the name of zmaj, zmej and lamja. Similar to the Russian dragons, it has three, seven or even nine heads, all of which breathe fire. Additionally, in Serbia the dragon is called aždaja or hala and in Bosnia is called aždaha.

Polish And Belarussian Folklore

In both of these cultures, aside from Zmej, they also have the word smok, coming from the Indo-Iranian word for swallow. Other spellings for smok are: смок and цмок.

Romanian Folklore

As previously mentioned, there is a very similar dragon-like creature in Romania with an equally similar name called the Zmeu. It is distinguished from many of the Slavic Zmej as it is anthropomorphic in nature and always a destructive force.

Russian And Ukrainian Folklore

Representing the Eastern Slavic people, there are a few different dragons found in their folklore. A number of prehistoric sites such as the Serpent’s Wall near Kiev have associations with dragons and act as symbols for foreign people. The Russian dragons are known to have heads that come in multiples of three and will grow back if every single head isn’t chopped off or promptly covered in ash or burnt.

Zmey Gorynych – This green colored dragon has three heads and walks on two back paws with two smaller front paws. Like many dragons, it breathes fire. The hero Dobrynya Nikitich is who killed this dragon.

Tugarin Zmeyevich – This dragon very strongly represented the Mongols and other Steppe peoples who often threatened the borders of Russia. Tugarin’s name is Turkic in origin. He was defeated by the hero Alyosha Popovich.

Saint George And The Dragon – It is without question that the hero Saint George symbolizes Christianity and that his killing of the Dragon symbolizes the Devil or Satan. It is a motif often portrayed on the coat of arms for Moscow.

Serbian Folklore

The Serbian folklore for dragons is very similar to that of Bulgarian folklore. Essentially the differences come down to the different countries and regions’ name for them. Here, the Zmaj or Zmey is seen as very intelligent with superhuman strength and well versed in the use of magic. Like many European dragons, they breath fire and lust over young women. An image that sounds very much so like the Romanian Zmeu. The big difference here is that the Zmaj or Zmey are defenders of the crops and fight against a demon known as Ala that they attack using lightning.

Slovenia Folklore

The Slovene word of zmaj is of an uncertain, archaic origin. Another word used for dragons is pozoj. Like many European dragons, the zmaj are often seen in a negative light and associated with Saint George in his slaying the dragon.

There are other Pre-Christian Folk Tales involving dragons.

Ljubljana Dragon – This dragon features on the city of Ljubljana’s coat of arms that it guarded over and protected.

Wawel Dragon – This Polish dragon is often defeated by tricking it into eating a lime. It should be noted that this dragon isn’t always harmful towards people.

Aždaja

Also known as aždaha, ala or hala in Persian mythology. Some Southern Slavic countries will mention Aždaja as a type of dragon. Its true nature is considered to be drastically different than that of a real dragon and considered separate. While the Zmej is often seen as a positive force, the Aždaja is seen as a negative force and woefully evil. Ultimately the nature of the Aždaja seems contradictory and should be a type of dragon as it shares all of the hall marks of the European dragons that are often sinister in nature. After all, the Aždaja is draconic in appearance, they live in dark places such as caves. Like many other Slavic dragons, the Aždaja is frequently multi-headed with three, seven or nine heads and breathes fire. In some of the Christian mythologies of Saint George, he is shown slaying the Aždaja and not Zmej.

Lamya

While the Zmej is male, the Southern Slavic folklore makes mention of a female version known as Lamya. This name derives from the name Lamia, a Queen and former lover of the god Zeus who turns into a daemon that devours children and in some versions of her story, Lamia becomes more serpentine. Later stories will equate Lamia to vampires and succubae.

In Bulgaria and Macedonia, there is a Bulgarian legend about the hero Mavrud who succeeds in cutting off all of the heads of Lamya; who appears in this story as a hydra-like dragon. It has been commented that this story seems to symbolize the pruning of grape vines. Further, there is a variety of Bulgarian grapes known as Mavrud.

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Zmeu

ZmeuOther names: smeu, zmei (plural) and zmeoaică or zmeoaice (feminine)

Etymology – Dragon, Snake or Serpent

The Zmeu is a draconic being found in Romanian folklore and is often compared to other supernatural creatures such as the balaur, a type of dragon and the vârcolac, a werewolf. Due to the similarity of names, the Zmeu resembles the Slavic dragons, Zmej in their ability to fly and breathe fire.

Unlike other dragons, the Zmeu is often described as having anthropomorphic features as it is very human-like having arms and legs and is able to use or create human-like tools. It is also anthropomorphized due to the Zmeu’s desire to marry human maidens.

Dacian Etymology, Origins & Disputes

The biggest problem with trying to prove a connection to the Dacian-Thracian languages is due to a lack of written language from them and only a handful of words are known for certain. And it gets argued that Zmeu is not of Dacian origins. Instead, the word “Zmei” or “Zmeu” is of Russian, Bulgarian and Serbian origins. In all of these languages, “Zmei” means “snake.” The argument further continues that “Zmei” is of Slavic origin and comes from the Slavic word for earth, “Zemia.” The Proto-Slavic root is “zm” or “zum” So Zmei means a snake or an animal that lives close to the ground or earth, “Zemia.”

Paliga – The linguist, Sorin Paliga, believes that the word Zmeu and the very similar Slavic word Zmey may have come from the Dacian language. He even tries extensively to connect the word to the Romanian word for Earth and Subterranean features. Since then, Paliga’s idea have become contested and disputed.

English – Not really a linguist connection other than how the word translates. The name Zmeu is sometimes translated to refer to a type of ogre or giant due to the Zmeu’s tendency to kidnap a young maiden to be his wife in an otherworldly realm.

Romanian – Another source for the etymology of Zmeu is suggesting a relation to the Romanian word zmeura, meaning “raspberry.” It has been suggested that this may indicate a double meaning for the name Zmeu and is indicator of its true nature and color as a red colored dragon. Additionally, the name Zmeu also refers to a children’s kite. The folklore for Zmeu is also very similar to folklore found in Bulgaria.

Folklore And Legend

In many of the Romanian and Bulgarian stories, the Zmeu is a fierce being known for its cunning, intelligence and dangerous, destructive levels of greed and selfishness. Some of the stories told about the Zmeu, they appear in the sky like a dragon, flying and breathing out a gout of fire. Other stories make mention of the Zmeu having a magical gemstone in its head that shines as brightly as the sun. Aside from its tremendous supernatural strength, the Zmeu is also capable of great feats of magic that can allow it to steal the sun and moon from the sky.

The stories also go on to tell how the Zmeu can shapeshift into human form or as various, different animals. The Zmeu’s natural form is that of a dragon, specifically an anthropomorphized dragon man.

Like many dragons in European folklore, the Zmeu is particularly fond of beautiful young maidens, whom it kidnaps and carries way to its otherworldly realm. And also like in much of European folklore, the maiden is often rescued by a brave prince or knight-errant who manages to defeat the Zmeu.

Many Romanian stories depict the Zmeu as the destructive forces of greed and selfishness incarnated. The Zmeu will steal something of immense value that only the Romanian “Fat-Frumos” or “Prince Charming,” a literal translation is “handsome youth” who will be the only one who that can retrieve this valuable object back through his acts of great, selfless bravery. Often times, the Zmeu lives in an otherworldly realm, Celalalt Tarâm where Fat-Frumos must travel to in order to battle with the Zmeu. With descriptions of the Zmeu’s lair being dark, its often thought to imply that the Zmeu lives underground.

Ballad Of The Knight Greuceanu – In this story, the Zmeu steals the sun and moon from the sky and thus envelopes all of the earth and humankind under a cloak of darkness.

Prâslea The Brave And The Golden Apples – In this story, the Zmeu robs a king of his golden apples. This story that has been remarked to bear similarities to the German Fairy Tale of “The Golden Bird,” the Russian story of “Tsarevitch Ivan, The Fire Bird And The Gray Wolf” and the Bulgarian folktale of “The Nine Peahens And The Golden Apples.” In the later stories, the thief is a bird, though in some retellings of the Romanian tale, the Zmeu transforms into a bird in order to steal the apples.

Moldavian Vampire!?!

In Moldavia, the Zmeu is a vampiric or Incubus type figure. It will take the form of a flame and enter the room of a young woman or widow. Once in the room, the flame then becomes a man who seduces the woman.