Episode 12: Dragons of Russia

First of all, we are overjoyed to report that Anike’s wayward arachnid has safely returned home! Secondly, we’re in Russia, baby! So grab that MythsterMap and mark it off as we explore the dragons of Russia.

Links mentioned:

And now without further ado, on with the show!

Dragons of Russia transcript


Anike: Hello again, Mythsters!

Jaz: Hey Anike! How are you doing this fine day?

Anike: Hiya Jaz! I’m doing excellently. We finally found Redrum, just all of a sudden. And how are you doing?

Jaz: That’s awesome, awesome news. I’m, well, doing. Let’s just keep it at that. I will probably talk more about it in later episodes but right now, I’m just doing. Yeah, we’ll talk about that later. But I am excited about today’s batch of dragons and I can’t wait to dig in because I’m in desperate need of some distraction

Anike: Oooh, me too. Me, too. So, Russia today.

Jaz: Yeah! Awesome, isn’t it? Now, as usual, before we dig in, our usual pre-emptive apologies. Russian is not an easy language to learn on the fly.

Anike: That implies we’ve encountered easier languages before.

Jaz: Well, no? Any language you’re not used to is going to be hard. The rhythm and pronunciation and feel are completely different from what you’re used to. Vowels do completely different things, and–well, it’s always a minefield. Russia was no exception. So, we offer our apologies ahead of time, because we know we’re going to mutilate some syllables in the coming episode.

Anike: Yeah, most probably. Well, without further ado, let’s get to the linguistic acrobatics! A zmei is a dragon or serpent, or a humanoid type creature, but with some traits of a dragon. They feature in skazki–or Russian folktales– and byliny–Russian epic poetry.

Jaz: The first one we came across, is Zmey Gorynych, also known as The Snake of the Mountains. Now, this is a very popular dragon, with more myths and legends than he’s got toenails. He’s even had cartoons made about him. I watched a few on YouTube, and they’re actually quite cute. I’ve included a link to my favourite one in the show notes, for the curious souls among our Mythsters. Definitely do go check it out.

Anike: And know what else I found on the YouTubes when searching for Zmey Gorynych?

Jaz: I bet you’re about to tell me…

Anike: A folk metal band!

Jaz: No!

Anike: Yes! It’s got the vintage power guitar vibes of Dragonforce, and the folksy elements and shiverworthy vocal vibe of Finntroll!

Jaz: Oh, shit, I need that in my life. Like right now.

Anike: I knoooow! How sweet is this?

Jaz: Like candy. We will include this link in the show notes as well, of course.

Anike: Yes, but we digress. Who was Zmey Gorynych? What did he do?

Jaz: OK, so, these stories tend to follow a basic formula. The more so, as we travel west into cultures with a predominant Christian veneer: You’ve got the evil dragon guarding a thing. Of course, he is impossible to vanquish, and has outsmarted hero after hero, leaving a trail of dismembered heroic corpses in his wake.

Anike: UNTIL…

Jaz: Until what?

Anike: Until a hero above all other heroes arises. With the help of a clever trick or a superpower of some sorts, he defeats the dragon. In Zmey Gorynych’s case, his lair is usually located in the mountains or the forest. Hence the nickname “Snake of the Mountains.”

Jaz: But, you know what zmey reminds me of?

Anike: No?

Jaz: Smaug.

Anike: OOOH. THAT is an interesting theory. Especially since Smaug has at least one trait in common with the Russian dragons.

Jaz: *gasp* what? What, what, what?!

Anike: A Russian dragon knows how to speak. And he can spew sparks, smoke, and fire.

Jaz: Awe-some! Oh, my god.

Anike: I know. Now, a zmey also tends to have multiple heads, which is not like Smaug. Usually three, but sometimes seven or nine as well.

Jaz: Oh. There goes my theory.

Anike: Not necessarily. We see the word zmey having many etymological ties to other slavic dragons, so Tolkien could have been influenced by these, without using the complete image of the zmey, heads and all.

Jaz: Hmm. That’s a good point.

Anike: But anyway. As fascinating as this is, of course, it has very little to do with Zmey Gorynych. If you are at all familiar with Russian naming traditions, you know that the last name refers to the father of the person in question. And Gorynya happens to be an epic hero from the mountains.

Jaz: What? So this dragon is the offspring of a hero?

Anike: Ya. A gigantic hero, to be precise. Gorynya was one of the giants featuring in the Russian creation myth. He helped Svarog build the world. When all the work was done, Gorynya and his giant buddies got bored, and started tossing mountains at one another.

Jaz: Another image you can pluck right out of Tolkien’s work.

Anike: Ooh yes, when Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves leave Rivendel and have to hide from the giants, only to end up caught and chased by goblins.

Jaz: Yup, except these giants got turned into mountains when they wouldn’t listen to Svarog’s attempts at negotiating. Gorynya was among the few who were spared. They were given a task to perform. Busy work, I’d call it, maybe. Keep them out of mischief, you know.

Anike: I’d try that. It usually works, too.

Jaz: Yeah. So they were put in charge of guarding the door between our world, the ‘World of Yav’, from the underworld, or the ‘World of Nav’, and the spirits and demons that dwell there. They also help Baba-Yaga to guard the crossing of the river Smorodina. Now, as fascinating as Gorynya is, I couldn’t find much in the way of more concrete references to a familial bond there.

Anike: Oh, but it would be one hell of a coincidence if that bond didn’t exist.

Jaz: Ooh yeah, Absolutely. So, back to Zmey Gorynych. We don’t know that much more about him, other than the fact that he was an antagonist to a hero or bogatyr called Dobrynya Nikitich. If one is to believe the legend, Dobrynya hits the dragon, and the creature begs for mercy. Dobrynya, who is essentially an easygoing guy, obviously, takes pity on the dragon and lets him go free.

Anike: But Zmey Gorynych almost immediately kidnaps a princess, and so Dobrynya is obliged to hunt him down and fight him a second time. But this time, the battle is much more… MORE. 

Jaz: right. They fight to the death in a duel that lasts for three days and three nights. In the end, of course, Dobrynya slays the dragon and rescues the princess.

Anike: And, this is our first princess kidnapping and the gallant knight who rescues her from the evil dragon.

Jaz: I know. Talk about a milestone, eh? Anyway, Zmey Gorynych becomes a recurring motif in Russian folkloric art, even to this day. You can find a ton of monuments immortalising him throughout Russia. One Slavic poem from ancient times gives us a strong sense of how people viewed the dragon: “Zmey Gorynych, a terrible snake with three heads and seven tails. A flame blazes from his nostrils. Smoke belches from his ears. Copper claws sparkle on his paws.” Oh, I like that one. Copper claws sparkled, ooh, I want copper claws.

Anike: Copper claws, huh? Nice! Although, I guess he didn’t need nailpolish then.

Jaz: I hadn’t even thought of that! How convenient. Right, anyway. What do you say we look at another dragon?

Anike: Well, how can I say no to that?

Jaz: OK, OK. Tugarin Zmeyevich.

Anike: I sense a theme here going on, with the naming. I’m guessing in English that would be something like Jack Dragonson or something.

Jaz: Huh. There’s a name to build a story around. But we’re going off track again. This one goes by many names, actually. Tugarin Zmeyevich, Zmey Tugaretin, Zmeishe Tugarishche, and then some more, but yeah, they only got more and more difficult. So, hmm, let’s continue with the story.

Anike: Yeah. But this dragon appears either as a bogatyr, which we already established is a knight-errant–or the Russian equivalent of one, at least. Anyway, but he can also appear in a true animal form.

Jaz: His torso is covered with fiery snakes. He flies, with the help of his papery wings.

Anike: But in the end, it’s his flying that gets him defeated. The best-known story about him is without a doubt the duel with Alyosha Popovich and his servant Yekim. This is another one of those stories with countless variations and iterations, so as usual in these cases, we’ll pick out the one that makes the most sense to us.

Jaz: Right. So, at the beginning of the story, Alyosha and his servant Yekim travel to Kiev to attend a meeting with a certain prince Vladimir. Upon their arrival, the prince appears to be throwing a party and invites Alyosha to sit at his side, but Alyosha refuses. Instead, he finds a spot which lands him in the lowest ranking, right next to the stove

Anike: At least he was nice and warm.

Jaz: So true. These mythical people have so little regard for practicalities, haven’t they? OK so, we’re at the feast, where our friend keeps things modest but cozy and warm, and in walks Tugarin. He has no such compunctions, and plants his butt right in between Vladimir and his wife. And THEN, he not only refuses to pray to God, but he showed appalling table manners, gorging himself at the banquet table, as well. I bet he even chewed with his mouth open?

Anike: Ewww.

Jaz: Yeah. So, Alyosha gets annoyed with Tugarin, and insults him with stories about the deaths of a dog and a cow.

Anike: Ohhh kay????

Jaz: Yeah, don’t expect this to make too much sense. But Tugarin, insulted as he is, throws a dagger at Alyosha, who accepts the challenge. So I guess a dagger toss is like the cliché gauntlet slap we know from Robin Hood, Men in Tights, then?

Anike: Well, they end up facing off in an open field, and upon Alyosha’s arrival, Tugarin is already flying, on wings made of paper. Alyosha, who is suitably devout, unlike Tugarin, prays for rain. And of course he gets his wish. The wings get soaked, and Tugarin takes a tumble. Alyosha then knocks his head off with his staff, sticks it on a spear, cuts his body into little pieces, and presents all of this to Prince Vladimir’s court.

Jaz: Very thorough, I do have to say. So, despite being referred to as a dragon, he really retains his human form, is seen riding a horse, and he has to make wings out of paper, in order to fly? I will grant, the gluttony and greed is certainly a dragonlike trait in those cultures where a dragon is considered evil. But this story presents itself much more as a morality tale than that of Zmey Gorynych, if you ask me. For one, he shows poor manners, imposes on his host and is impious, all in direct opposition to Alyosha, who is modesty incarnate, prays, and does all the right things. So, pagans and heretics bad, Christians good, I guess? In this christian vs pagan context, I also found references to the dragon being used as a metaphor for the seemingly unstoppable Tatars. Some support the theory that Tugarin’s name has its root in Tugar-Khan or Tugor-Khan. However, not all of the sources I found supports this theory.

Anike: Maybe it has. In some versions, however, we do see a more supernatural version of Tugarin. With a body covered in fiery snakes, which are effectively weapons he tries to employ in his duel with Alyosha. He also tries to strangle his opponent with smoke, throws sparks at him, scorches him, and shoots firebrands at him. In some stories, he also hisses like a snake.

Jaz: And, other than a stealer of princesses, there are some versions of Tugarin’s story, where Vladimir’s wife is a bit miffed when Tugarin is defeated so not everyone was equally annoyed by the dragon. The zmey could also transform into a handsome young man, in order to seduce women.

Anike: We also have one account of our old friend Zmey Gorynych, seducing Ivan Tsarevich’s sister. She pretends to be sick and asks her brother to bring her a number of impossible things: the milk of a wolf, a bear, and a lioness. Against all odds, though, he succeeds. Later, when Ivan gets separated from his animal helpers, the zmey reveals his true nature and tries to eat him. In some other versions, it’s not Ivan’s sister, but his wife.

Jaz: I object to these stories. Stereotyped much?

Anike: Right?

Jaz: OK, as payback, let’s burst some bubbles about THE quintessential christian dragonmyth: According to some sources, it was not a classic dragon, or drakon, that Saint George defeated, but a zmey. So, it goes without saying that this holy dragonslayer was highly popular in Russia, and became the object of artists great and small. 

Anike: Oooh, now that is fascinating. Let’s stick a pin in that for when we reach the home of the good saint.

Jaz: Oh, yes let’s for sure. Because We won’t have time to dig deeper right now.

Anike: Yeaaaah, sadly, as usual. The hourglass has run out, mythsters. But we will meet again in a fortnight, of course.

Jaz: We certainly will, in warm and sunny Egypt!


Theme music: Wanderer by Alexander Nakarada (serpentsoundstudios.com) Licensed under Creative Commons BY Attribution 4.0 License


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