Episode 17: Dragons of the Balkans

Welcome to episode 17, the dragons of the Balkans in which Koji and Anike begin that part of our journey that will take us deeper and deeper into Europe, and where we discover our first dragon-rider. How awesome is that? Quick, grab your MythsterMap and mark the area.

So without further ado, let’s dig in!

Dragons of the Balkans Transcript

Anike: Hello, hello, Mythsters, and welcome to episode 17 where we’ll be travelling  to Eastern Europe. This is our first episode without Jaz, and she’s taking the weekend off for a trip to the city. So instead, I have the lovely Koji with me today, who lives in Bulgaria and can hopefully give us some insight into the area. 

Koji: Yay! Hey Anike and Mythster-listeners. I have to admit, I’ve been excited for this episode since we’ve started the podcast. The Balkans have such an interesting dragon mythology. 

Anike: It does from what I’ve just skimmed through. So, what exactly will we be covering today? We’re supposed to get all of Eastern Europe into this episode, but you only said the Balkans. 

Koji: Yeah, I did. So, technically, we should be covering Greece, the Balkans all the way up to the Baltic States. 

Anike: But… 

Koji: But, as usual, there are so many myths and legends in this area. Some might have to go into blog posts. 

Anike: Well, lucky for our readers then, at least. And that’s pretty much what happens every episode.

Koji: It’s like we’re not surprised about it anymore but we act like we are.

Anike: Ya. but before we get into it, our usual disclaimer about, well, butchering pronunciations. Although, I think, Koji, you have an advantage over me on this.

Koji: I mean, I’ve got the Bulgarian pronunciations, but when we get to Romania, I beg forgiveness.

Anike: Okay, then the disclaimer still stands. So, let’s dig into it and see how far we can get. 

Koji: Okay. So, we’re going to start with the Balkans and I’ll just say that there are a lot of similarities between Serbian, Macedonian, and Bulgarian myths. So, in these countries, there are three types of serpent/dragon creatures. And these are the zmei, the lamya (also called the hala) and the stopan. Although, some Bulgarians might argue with me about whether the stopan should really be put in this category, because of some of our past serpents, I went ahead and put him in there. Also, it’s worth noting they are spelled differently in each country. In Bulgaria, the lamya is the more common name for the lamya/hala, but in Serbia, the ala (without an h) which is the more common name. In this episode, I’ll mostly use the Bulgarian names. 

Anike: That sounds like a plan. Also, let’s start with the zmei because we’ve already covered a zmei before up there in Russia. So, we’re going Serbia first, which the zmei has a ram’s head and a serpent’s body, which is very interesting. But in Bulgaria, it is usually a male dragon with golden wings and a serpent’s tail covered in scales. The zmei lives in caves and on mountaintops, is associated with fog, hail, and strong winds, and can blow down a tree with a single breath. It also, conveniently, can turn into a human male. 

Koji: Okay, but not just a human male, we’re talking about a very attractive human male.

Anike: Of course.

Koji: No, like this guy is like crack to Bulgarian women. He’s like the hottest guy around. But, luckily, in Bulgaria, it only shows itself as a human to the woman who he falls in love with. So he doesn’t have whole villages chasing after him. And, once he shows himself to her, they are destined to be together, even if she is already married to someone else.

Anike: Okay…

Koji: But luckily, they make really good husbands, and they live on white bread, milk, and strong wine. 

Anike: Well, he’s very easy to keep happy, then.

Koji: Yeah!

Anike: And that doesn’t sound like a bad life. Well, I guess except if you’re one of those women who accidentally attracts the zmei by picking his flowers. See, he plants flowers that lead to a well or a spring, and young girls are taught to not pick them. But if they do, the zmei will become obsessed with them, not leaving them alone unless their mother makes a potion of herbs and pours it over her. 

Koji: But, okay, so if you’re this girl who has the hottest guy in the world after her, are you really going to want to be released? 

Anike: Well, especially not if he’s so easy to keep.

Koji: And, okay, the zmei will take her to his cave, where he’s collected all of his riches. And she gets to send these home to her family. She sends home gold and other valuable items to take care of her family. And most common, she sends home onion skins, which turn to gold. 

Anike: Well, that doesn’t really sound like a bad package at all.

Koji: I know!Like, what’s so bad about being captured by a zmei here?

Anike: Right? But he’s not home all the time with his wife, he’s also known as the village protector. So who is he protecting the villages from? 

Koji: Right. So usually he protects it from different zmei from other villages, or from the lamya, which is a lot like the zmei, except for evil and, of course, female. But we’ll get to her in a bit. In some instances, the zmei also protected the villages from Byzantine and Ottoman invasions. And this is especially common in Serbian mythology, where there’s a special kind of zmej called a zhudach, or a dragon-man. This is usually the offspring of a zmej with a human woman. He lives his life as a human man, but might have some dragon properties such as webbing under the armpits, denoting wings, or a tail. 

Anike: Ha, so they used the dragon mythology to describe certain birth abnormalities? 

Koji: I mean, it looks like it. They also used it to explain things such as cradle-death and epilepsy. According to legend, the zhudach could leave his body, becoming a dragon, to protect the village from bad weather, a lamya, or foreign invasion. When the man leaves his body, his spirit turns into a zmej, but his body remains weak on the ground, and if the body is attacked, the spirit-zmej will lose the battle. For this reason when a man is fighting the lamya, another man will stand over his body, swinging a scythe or a knife, to protect his body. And so that’s kind of how they describe epilepsy.

Anike: That is so cool!

Koji: Yeah.

Anike: So, and then with cot death, they believed the zhudach was strongest when it was a baby and it would sometimes leave its body to battle when it was sleeping. However, if the baby was turned while it was away from its body, it wouldn’t be able to find its way back in, resulting, unfortunately, in its death. 

Koji: Which is terribly sad, of course, but…

Anike: Indeed.

Koji: But I think that kind of mythology would really help families deal with the death. But let’s back up a second and take a look at where these zmei come from. In Bulgaria, they come from snakes that live over a hundred years or from the sexual union of a zmei and human woman. But this is one of the instances when the Serbian legends are a bit more interesting. In Serbian lore, zmej come from either snakes, birds, or fish who live over a hundred years. 

Anike: That sounds so similar to what we explored in the far east, although the birds is a new thing. Snakes and fish we’ve heard of. And this brings us back to the tree of life idea as well, where the serpent can go between the underworld, the human world, and the heavens, if I’m not mistaken? 

Koji: Exactly, and the people of the balkans also believe in the tree of life mythology, quite similar to those of Central Asia. Which may be why the dragon is a serpent with wings, something between snake and bird. 

Anike: Oooh, like the Aidakhar was. 

Koji: Exactly. It’s again that tree of life thing.

Anike: Yeah. Now, I like this next theory, which is that zmej fell to earth in a meteor shower. And, the ones who fell in lakes and rivers, turned into male mermaids, half man, half fish, with big eyes, wide noses and long canine teeth. But those who fell in forests lived in big old trees and looked like serpents with wings which transformed into light when they fly. Those which landed in mountains inhabited caves and looked similar to the tree dwelling zmej.

Koji: I just love the meteor shower theory. Just imagine all these dragon souls crashing to earth. It’s amazing. 

Anike: It is!

Koji: But I think it’s time we move onto the lamya, hala, or ala. We’ll call these creatures lamya, because it’s such a fun word to say. 

Anike: But are you sure that all three are the same thing? 

Koji: Not really. Some people say the lamya and hala are different, but the stories almost use all the titles interchangeably, so it is most likely a regional thing. They do, however, have two vastly differing forms. The first is a lot like the hydra of Greek legend. It’s a three-headed dragon with several tails. Other stories say they are more like a giant lizard with a dog’s head, long, sharp claws, scales, and a tail. Both forms usually have wings. 

Anike: Ah. And these ones are the bad guys. Or rather, bad girls. Like the zmei, they can turn into humans, but they either turn into old hags or beautiful young women who, of course, lure men away and kill them. 

Koji: At this point, i have to say it’s probably the men who wrote history, so they are the ones who said the male dragons were good and the females were bad. But yeah, they had a lot in common with the zmei. They were also associated with storms and bad weather. They are also like a lot of Eastern dragons in that they are known to block water and demand virgin sacrifices to allow it to flow again. It’s thought that every water source has a lamya living in it, and when they thrash about, the water turns dangerous. So, they also ruined harvests and turned entire towns sterile. They are considered the enemy of men and often blocked roadways, ate humans, and stole children. 

Anike: They sound pretty nasty, if I have to say so. Well, if a zmei or dragon-man wasn’t around to fight a lamya, an ordinary human hero would have to do, I suppose. He would usually be accompanied on his quest to slay the lamya by his faithful dog and hawk. 

Koji: Right, but he doesn’t always slay the lamya. Sometimes he can tame her and make her his servant, so she can help him in other quests. It’s also worth noting the lamya sometimes has three daughters, often very beautiful. When the hero kills the lamya, he wins these three daughters. 

Anike: Oh. Okay. Yeah, definitely written by a man. 

Koji: I know, right? But the lamya have one other cool feature worth mentioning. While the zmei may be able to breath fire balls, the lamya’s whole body can be covered in fire. This isn’t often mentioned, but it’s referenced a few times. So I am wondering if it’s something they can turn on and off. 

Anike: Whole body covered in fire is pretty awesome, if you ask me. 

Koji: Yeah, it is. But now we’re going to have to move on to the stopan. I debated whether or not to include this one, because it is more serpent mythology than dragon mythology. 

Anike: We have a lot of serpents under our belt already, so…

Koji: Exactly.

Anike: What is a stopan? 

Koji: A stopan is a type of spirit who protects a home. It usually takes the form of an adder snake, but in some areas, probably where snakes are less common, it takes the form of a lizard. This snake or lizard lives near the hearth of the home and is rarely, if ever seen. It is thought that if the creature is seen, something bad will happen in the house. And if the creature dies, someone in the house, usually the owner of the house, will die. 

Anike: That’s quite unfortunate, but I’m not sure it really qualifies as a dragon actually, now that you mention it that way. It’s still a pretty awesome piece of mythology and folklore. That is really cool. So why don’t we end the episode with some Romanian mythology? Like the Baluar. The Baluar is Romania’s evil dragon. It is thought to come from a snake who hasn’t bitten anyone in 7-12 years. It then goes into underground hiding and grows wings, legs, and as many heads for the number of years it had failed to bite anyone. 

Koji: Oh, that sounds nasty.

Anike: Right?

Koji: So he’s a pretty classic dragon in that he can breath fire, influence the weather, and enjoys kidnapping fair maidens. 

Anike: Of course.

Koji: Supposedly, his saliva can produce gemstones, which is pretty cool. And, if a human manages to kill the Baluar, he will be forgiven a sin. 

Anike: Romania also has a version of the zmeu, I think it’s pronounced zmeu?

Koji: I’m guessing. It’s a different writing than the Bulgarian or Serbian versions, so your guess is as good as mine.

Anike. Okay. Well, Romania also has a version of the zmeu, not quite as friendly as the Bulgarian and Serbian zmei, but still more human than the baluar. It has human-like hands and occasionally uses weapons to fight as opposed to just its claws and teeth. Sometimes it is described as a dragon and other times as a large, ugly man. 

Koji: Ooh, yay. Ugly man. As we move further from dragons to men, we get to what are, I believe, our podcast first dragon riders. 

Anike: Oe, this is so exciting. The solomanari are a type of sorcerer. They are humans that are taken in by spirits and trained in magic. They are said to be tall and red-headed, and they wear white robes or patched clothing like peasants. They often go around as beggars, judging the character of towns. And if they are given food, they throw it in rivers or streams for the spirits. If they are given nothing, however, they call down the dragon, ride them into the sky, and bring terrible weather upon the village. 

Koji: That’s just so cool.

Anike: It is!

Koji: But this was, obviously, before Christianity took hold in Romania and now the Solomanari are said to train with the devil and be evil. However, before they were thought to be more neutral and even sometimes good. Now they are said to kidnap children to train with the devil. 

Anike: Apparently the devil takes ten children and trains them in his ways. At the end of the training period, he lets nine go and keeps one to be his special apprentice. That is the one who will learn to tame and ride dragons. 

Koji: Is it horrible that i want to be the one the devil keeps?

Anike: I was just thinking that. Take me anytime.

Koji: I’ll be evil, I swear! But of course, Romania is most well-known for vampires, not dragons. But our friend vlad’s name has dragon roots. 

Anike: Oh,yes. I learned that very interesting tidbit a while back about Vlad Tepes.

Koji: So you knew this before I found out?

Anike: Yeah, I’ve known it for a few years. I was watching a documentary about Vlad the Impaler.

Koji: Oh! So cool. 

Anike: It is awesome. But, for the Mythsters’ benefit, why don’t you explain it for us?

Koji: Okay, so apparently Dracula’s father was a Knight of the Order of the Dragon and the Dragon Knights fought against the Ottoman Empire to protect their homeland, and they were a lot like the dragon men in Serbian legend. Vlad’s father was called Dracul, which meant “dragon or devil” as he was a member of the Order. Dracula means “son of the Dragon” in Romanian. 

Anike: And I think that is by far a fascinating tidbit to leave our readers and listeners with. And perhaps this fortnight’s blog will keep going north to the Baltic States. 

Koji: If we don’t get sidetracked, as we usually do, I think that sounds like a very good plan. 

Anike: Until then, later Mythsters!

Koji: Later, Mythsters!



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


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