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A zmej or zmaj is a male dragon in Slavic mythology.


A dragon is called zmey in Russian and Bulgarian; zmiy in Old Church Slavonic; zmaj in Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Slovene; zmij in Polish. Most of these words are masculine forms of the Slavic word for snake. In Romania , there is a similar figure, derived from the Slavic dragon and named zmeu . In Polish and Belarussian culture there is also smok, which comes from the Indo-Iranian word for swallow.


Zmej is a multi-headed dragon (with 3, 7 or 9 heads) that breathes fire. Zmej is also an anthropomorphic creature, which is best illustrated by the motif of the Dragon Lover. Dragon Love is a popular motif in Bulgarian folk songs. Most of the folk songs dealing with zmej describe dragon love, while the female dragons are more likely to appear in heroic songs.

Zmej is mainly associated with fire, and he has the power to throw fiery arrows - lightning bolts. Zmej is extraordinarily strong, and this strength can be transferred to the man that eats the dragon’s heart.


Unlike the female dragons, Zmej generally has a positive image. He plays the role of protector to his family and tribe, and he is the the good demonic force behind the atmospheric phenomena (the motif of the dragon as a good demonic force is common South Slavic). He fights with hail, storms and strong winds, and thus protects the harvest from destruction.


One of the most interesting aspects of Bulgarian dragon folklore is the division between the male and the female dragons. The female and the male are often viewed as sister and brother . Despite this, they are deadly opponents: the female dragons represent weather phenomena destructive to agriculture, while the male dragon protects the harvest and fights with his female counterparts. The opposition of water/fire is also important when considering the Dragon motifs: female and male dragons have both water and fire characteristics, but while the female is associated mainly with water, the male is viewed as a fiery creature.

Regional variations

Russia and Ukraine

  • In Russia and Ukraine, a particular dragon-like creature, Zmey Gorynych, has three heads, is green, walks on two back paws, has small front paws, and spits fire. According to one bylina, Zmey Gorynych was killed by Dobrynya Nikitich.
  • Other Russian dragons (such as Tugarin Zmeyevich) have Turkic names, probably symbolizing the Mongols and other steppe peoples. Accordingly, St George (symbolizing Christianity) killing the Dragon (symbolizing Satan) is represented on the coat of arms of Moscow. Some prehistoric structures, notably the Serpent's Wall near Kiev, have been associated with dragons as symbols of foreign peoples.


  • In Slovenia a dragon is called zmaj, although an archaic word of unclear origins, pozoj is sometimes used as well. Dragons in Slovenia are generally negative in nature, and usually appear in relation with St. George . Other, presumably pre-christian folk tales relate stories of dragons defeated similarly as the Polish Wawel Dragon , i.e. by tricking them into devouring lime. However, the dragon is not always harmful to man. The best example of this is the Ljubljana dragon, who benevolently protects the city of Ljubljana and is pictured in the city's coat of arms.

Macedonia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro

In Macedonia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro a dragon is called zmaj, zmej or lamja. It is a multi-headed dragon (with 3, 7 or 9 heads) who breathes fire. Also in Serbia and Bosnia it is also called aždaja (Serbian language) or aždaha (Bosnian language).

See also