In Slavic languages, dragon is called “zmaj” (Croatian, pronounced as “zmay”) or variations thereof – zmej (Russian), zmij (Ukrainian), smok (Belarussian, Polish), though variations on draco (drak, drakon etc.) are also used. Word “zmaj” is actually a masculine form of zmija, or “snake” – thus displaying dragons’ origins as snakes. Another word used for dragons is “aždaja” (pronounced as “azhdaia”). In Romania, there is a similar being derived from Slavic one, callied zmeu.
Dragons in Slavic mythology are generally seen as protectors of crops and fertility. They tend to be three-headed, and often conglomerates of snakes, humans and birds; but they are never bound to one form and can shape-shift. Dragons are often portrayed as male and sexually aggressive, often mating with humans (for which purpose they would take human form). They are associated with fire and water, as both are crucial for human survival. Dragons fight against demons known as “alas”, which bring hailstorms and destroy crops; dragons thus act as protectors of humanity and human livelihoods. A dragon could develop out of old carp, snake or ram. Because of this, carp was considered a holy animal in several places, and carp’s meat was forbidden for food. Person who ate carp could get an epilepsy. A dragon in human form could be invisible except for the woman he fell in love with. Women in sexual relationship with a dragon would be pale, thin, and have no desire for sexual relationship with humans. They would not want to end the relationship, but dragon would be chased away if a bad year hit, because it was believed that relationship had caused dragon to abandon his duties towards the community. Dragon usually entered through chimney. If a woman wanted to end the relationship, she had to smoke herself by burning her own hair, or to find and burn down the beech tree which dragon is using as a home. Dragon could also be killed by boilling water. Relationship could result in children, who would be superhuman: extremely strong and wise. Consequently, many heroes gained a nickname of Zmaj (Dragon).
Slavic mythology speaks of eternal combat between Perun – god of thunder – and god of nature Veles. Perun is atop the World Tree, while Veles – in shape of a dragon (often with three heads), a snake or an otter – is underground, among the roots. Veles periodically steals Perun’s cattle and slithers up the World Tree as a challenge, and each time he is cast down and killed by Perun, but is reborn and tries again the next year. The combat which repeats every year symbolizes the cyclical nature of life. Veles used to be Perun’s son, though in some variants of the story he stole Perun’s son (or wife, or cattle). The duck which created the world had laid an egg, which laid down an egg that hatched a dragon. Dragon climbed the world tree to reach the sky, but Perun cast it down and asked his son – Veles – to tame the dragon. But Veles came to like the dragon. Afraid and jealous, Perun threw his lightning at the World Tree, burning it down and forever separating the three worlds. Veles came to hate Perun for that act, but still accepted governance over underworld.
While Veles represents chaos, he is not seen as evil. In many of the Russian folk tales, Veles, appearing under the Christian guise of St. Nicholas, saves the poor farmer and his cattle from the furious and destructive St. Elias the Thunderer, who represents Perun. It is not a clash of good and evil, but rather of opposing elements of earth/water (Veles) against sky/fire (Perun). Veles himself is not just a god of underworld, but also of vegetation and fertility. Veles brings rain which gives life to plants, and fights against malicious dragons.
In other legends, Zmey (other name for Veles, or else a dragon related to him) was believed to be a guardian of the entrance to the Nawia, one of places where human souls (for each human had multiple) went. Zmey was able to change shape, and participate in sexual intercourse with human women. These women gave birth to heroes, people who had inherited strength and bravery from Zmey.
In South Slavic folklore there is a distinction between two types of dragons: zmaj/zmej, and aždaja (azhdaia). Zmaj / zmej is considered an extremely wise and knowledgeable creature of superhuman strength and proficiency in magic, as well as very rich (owning castles filled with riches hidden in distant land). It is often lustful for women, but is also highly respected – and while never wholly benevolent, it is also never entirely evil. Many historical and mythical figures are considered as having been conceived by a dragon. Azhdaia is similar to dragon, but is also polar opposite in nature. It is a being of pure evil, a monster which destroys and kills for no reason and lives in dark and hostile places. In Christian iconography, “dragon” killed by St. George is described as azhdaia.
In Slovenia, dragon is called zmaj, though another word of unknown origin – pozoj – is also used. There is a legend of Slovenian dragon of Ljubljana, who protects the city of Ljubljana. Origins of Ljubljana dragon can be traced back to Jason and the Argonauts. After stealing the Golden Fleece, they fledto the mouth of river Danube. Through it, they reached Ljubljanica river, and decided to camp near its spring until spring. But in a nearby large lake and a marsh, there lived a dragon, which Jason killed. St. George is also said to have killed the dragon. Third legend states that a man and a woman he loved killed a dragon to avenge his dead army. Most dragons are negative in nature, and appear in connection to St. George. Exception is the dragon near town of Vrhika, which sleeps in the town’s spring; whenever water reaches too high, dragon shifts in discomfort, causing water to pour out of the spring.
In Croatia, dragon is a huge snake which waits in lakes and chasms to catch and eat people. Šarkanj is a type of dragon which develops out of an old snake, and also looks like one. It flies on the clouds, but can come down to ground and take a guise of a man. Acting a beggar, it goes through villages asking for milk. If denied, dragon brings down the hail, and can also create storms. Dragon Ognjen (“Flamer”) fell in love with goddess of day, Zora (“Dawn”). Since she did not reciprocitate, dragon kidnapped her and imprisoned her underground, but she was saved by a good god Vid. In Bosnia, Husein-Captain Gradašević, who fought for independence against the Ottoman Empire, is seen as having been concieved by a dragon, and is called “Dragon of Bosnia”.
In Serbia, dragon (zmaj) is seen as a benevolent being, much like dragons of East Asia. They have ram’s head and snake’s body, and protect people from the Ala or the Azdaja (sometimes called Aždaja in Croatian), a creature which brings bad weather and storms that destroy crops. In addition to great strength and wisdom, dragons are also able to take on different forms, including that of a human being. This allows them to pursue one of their favourite hobbies: the pursuit of women. Some become so engrossed into this activity that they forget to fulfill their duties, leading to the crops’ destruction by bad weather. Villagers then gather to expel the dragon from houses of local women, so he can resume his duties.
This theme is seen in the Serbian folk tale The Tsarina Militz and the Zmaj of Yastrebatz. Tsarina Militza is said to have been visited by a zmaj from Yastrebatz every night for a year. When her husband, Tsar Lazar (otherwise a historical figure) hears this, he tells tsarina to ask dragon whether he fears anyone besides the God, and if there is a hero superior to himself. Dragon indeed reveals that there is a one person he fears, the Zmaj-Despot Vook, who arrives and subsequently slays the Zmaj of Yastrebatz. Despot Vook is also a historical figure, based on Despot Vuk Branković, who himself claimed to be descended from a dragon, as did Tsar Lazar’s son, Stefan Lazarević. The grandson of last ruler of Serbia was nicknamed Flaming Dragon, while Stojan Čupić was named Night Dragon.
In Bulgaria, dragons can be male or female, often presented as a brother and a sister. Female dragon represents bad weather, and destroys crops, hates people, and is forever fighting her brother. Male dragon protects people and their crops, and loves humanity in general. Female dragon is associated with water while male is associated with fire. Bulgarian dragons are generally three-headed with wings and snake-like body. They sometimes oppose the evil Lamya, a beast which shares likeness with zmey.
In Russian, Belarussian and Ukrainian mythology, dragon is an evil four-legged creature with few virtues which can repair its reputation. They are intelligent but not overly so, and they attack villages and cities. They place tribute on them, demadning maidens for food, or gold. In return, they may give food or gold. Number of heads ranges from one to seven, with three- and seven- -headed varieties being the most common. Rarely, they may have even more than seven heads. Similar to the Greek Hydra, these heads regrow when cut off unless treated with fire. Dragon blood is so poisonous earth itself will refuse to absorb it.
In Russia specifically there is a dragon Zmey Gorynych. It is green with three heads, walks on rear legs as forelegs are very small, and spits fire. It was killed by Dobrynya Nikitich. Other Russian dragons have Turkic names, representing likely Mongols and other Steppe peoples. Thus Russian dragons are generally evil.
Ukrainian boy tale Ivanko and the Dragon tells of a boy named Ivanko, who had once been a sapling. His old mother had a sweet voice, and a dragon asked a smith to forge her a voice as sweet as Ivanko’s mother. Dragon used it to kidnap Ivanko, but Ivanko escaped the fate of being cooked in dragon’s oven and returned to his parents.
Most famous Polish dragon is the Wavel Dragon (Smok Wavelski), whose legend likely appeared after Christianization of Poland. Dragon is portrayed as evil, having terrorized ancient Krakow from his caves near Wistula river bank below the Wavel castle. According to lore based on the Book of Daniel, it was killed by a boy who offered it a sheepskin filled with sulfur and tar. After devouring it, the dragon became so thirsty that it finally exploded from drinking too much water.
Also connected to the dragon is legend of Krakus and Smok. Long before there was a city of Krakow or Wavel Castle, there existed a small settlement of peaceful people, who tilled the soil, harvested their crops and prospered. In the evening when work was done and the sun had gone to sleep, they would gather around fires and the old men would tell stories of an evil dragon who lived in a deep dark cave in the side of Wawel hill. The entrance to the cave was overgrown with vines, yet nobody dared venture in for the fear of waking a dragon. Eventually however, five foolish youths set out to prove stories false and entered the cave. Inside they found foul air and felt the presence of evil around them, but they continued on despite their fear.
By the time they reached the dragon, it was awakening from its sleep. They ran from the entrance and down the hill, only stopping when they had reached the river. Turning back, boys saw dragon atop the hill. From that day forth, dragon would daily venture out of the cave to produce food – a sheep, a child or a grown man. Men banded together to try and slay the dragon, but all attempts yielded nothing but failure and heavy casualties.
In the village lived Krakus, a wise man whom some considered a magician. Villagers asked him for help, and after a long time in thought, Krakus started to mix up a paste. He then had the villagers bring sheep to him. Sheep were covered in paste, carried uphill and thrown into the dragon’s cave. Not long after, roaring was heard – mixture sheep had been covered with caused great burning inside the dragon. The beast came down to the Vistula river, where it drank until it literally burst apart. Krakus was declared ruler, and he built a stronghold atop the hill. The city below prospered, and was named Krakow in Krakus’ honour.
In general, Slavic dragons can be good, ambivalent, and evil. Which is which varies from dragon to dragon, and even from tale to tale.