Zmaj and the Dragon Lore of Slavic Mythology
The dragon is one of the most well-known creatures in ancient mythology, and many cultures have this creature (or one of its related forms) in their folklore. In East Asian countries, for instance, dragons are regarded as symbols of power, strength and good fortune. They are believed to be benevolent creatures that have power over bodies of water, rain and floods. In Western Europe, by contrast, dragons are viewed as malevolent creatures that are the embodiment of evil. One popular motif of Western European art is that of St. George slaying the dragon. One of the lesser known dragons is that of the zmaj, a dragon that can be found in Slavic folklore.
In certain Slavic countries, dragons can viewed either as good or evil, depending on their sex. In Bulgarian legends, for instance, male dragons are believed to be the protectors of crops, whilst the female ones are bent on destroying the fruits of man’s labour. In other parts of the Slavic world, the dragon is seen as a wicked beast, similar to those of Western Europe. In Russia and Ukraine, a particular dragon-like creature, Zmey Gorynych, is a dangerous beast with three heads that spit fire.
‘Zmey Gorynych’ by Viktor Vasnetsov ( Wikimedia Commons )
In Serbia, however, the zmaj is generally regarded as a benevolent being, just like the dragons of East Asia. These creatures have been described as having “a ram’s head and a seductive snake’s body”. These dragons are said to protect the people from the Ala, or Azjada, a creature believed to bring bad weather and storms that destroyed crops.
An illustration of a zmaj with a ram’s head and serpent body, from Milenko Bodirogić’s “Fairies and Dragons – Serbian Mythology”. Photo source: www.serbia.com.
In addition to great strength and wisdom, the zmaj are also reputed to be able to take on different forms, including that of human beings. In this form, they were able to pursue one of their favourite hobbies – the pursuit of women. Some zmaj are thought to be so engrossed in this activity to the extent that they neglect the protection of farmlands from bad weather. If crops were destroyed by bad weather, villagers would gather to expel the zmaj from the houses of local women. The lust of the zmaj for mortal women is also a major theme in a Serbian folk tale known as The Tsarina Militza and the Zmaj of Yastrebatz .
‘The Great Red Dragon and the Woman clothed with the sun’ by William Blake ( Wikimedia Commons )
In this tale, the Tsarina Militza is said to have been visited by a zmaj from Yastrebatz every night for a year. When her husband, the 14 th century Serbian ruler, Tsar Lazar, hears this, he tells the tsarina to ask the zmaj if he feared anyone besides God, and whether there is a hero on this earth superior to himself. The zmaj is tricked into revealing that there is indeed one that he feared, the Zmaj-Despot Vook, who lived in a village called Koopinova in the plain of Sirmia. The next day, the Tsar sent for the Zmaj-Despot Vook, who arrives, and subsequently slays the zmaj of Yastrebatz.
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It has been pointed out that the Zmaj-Despot Vook is actually based on a real historical figure, Despot Vuk Brankovic, who lived during the second half of the 15 th century, and was believed to be a descendant of a dragon. The portrayal of Vuk Brankovich as a hero shows how history and legend could be merged to suit a ruler’s needs. Vuk was not the only Serbian ruler to employ the legend of the zmaj to bolster his image. There are other rulers who claim that their fathers were actually zmaj. These include Tsar Lazar’s son and successor, Stefan Lazarević, as well as Stojan Čupić and Vasa Čarapić, two important figures of the First Serbian Uprising that took place in the early 19 th century.
Portrait of Vuk Brankovic ( Wikimedia Commons )
Some years ago, there were plans in Serbia to capitalize on the country’s rich dragon lore, and turn it into a tourist attraction. Numerous landmarks, including castles, fortresses and churches where the zmaj are said to have visited would be incorporated into a ‘dragon trail’ for tourists. Today, such a trail, known as the “Paths of Dragons through Serbia” is in existence. The route begins in Fruška Gora in the north, passes through the country’s capital, Belgrade, and ends at the fortress of Markovo Kale in the south. In a way, this might help to preserve the legends of the zmaj for future generations, and also contribute to Serbia’s tourism industry.