Zmei (Russian)

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A Zmei Gorynich or zmei (Russian: змей; plural: Russian: змеи, romanizedzmei), in skazki (Russian folktales) and byliny (Russian epic poetry), is a dragon or serpent, or sometimes a human-like character with dragon-like traits.

Zmei Gorynych and Tugarin Zmeyevich, two well-known zmei, appear as adversaries of the bogatyri (heroes) Dobrynya Nikitich or Alyosha Popovich.


The word zmei in Russian is the masculine form of zmeya, a feminine noun, meaning "snake".[1]

General traits[edit]


The dragon in Russian folk fiction may be female, in which case she is called zmeya. The tendency is for the prose folktale versions to have male dragons, and the byliny poetry to have the females.[2] This will affect the behavior of the dragons. For instance, only the male dragons will capture or captivate a princess or a maiden as a love interest.


The zmei is often depicted with multiple heads, and the number of heads may be 3, 6, 9, or 12.[3]

A three-, six-, nine-, and twelve-headed dragon are defeated on successive nights by the hero of the tale "Ivan the Peasant's Son and the Little Man the Size of a Finger" (Afanasyev #138). The twelve-headed one was hardest to kill, and although the hero beheaded it nearly completely, the last head had to be taken by six men provided to Ivan by the Tsar.[4][a]


In the variant "Ivan Bykovich (Ivan Buikovich)" (# 137),[b] an equivalent sets of these multi-headed creatures appear, but are not called zmei, but a Chudo-Iudo (Chudo-Yudo). These are humanlike creatures, each one is riding a horse.[c] Even when decapitated, if the head is picked up it grows back on once a line is drawn on it with the dragon's fiery finger.[6][7] As is pointed out below, a zmei can take human-form, and in the variant "Storm-bogatyr, Ivan the Cow's Son" (#136), the multi-headed Chudo-Iudo are described as using the word zmei also.[8] [9][10]

Other attributes[edit]

The creature's appearance is not described in bylinas.[11] In more recent sources, the Russian zmei is described as being covered with either green[3] or red[12] scales, and having iron claws.[3]


The zmei may turn into a handsome youth. In that form he enthralls the sister or wife of Ivan Tsarevich in different versions of "The Milk of Wild Beasts" [fr] (Afanasyev #204, #205), as described below. In one of these (#204) the zmei also transforms into kitchen implements to avoid detection: he becomes a broom, a sort of mop (помело pomelo) and oven fork [ru]. But Ivan's obedient animals are able to detect the presence of an intruder in these implements.[13][14]

The zmei assumes the form of a golden goat in another tale ("The Crystal Mountain", Afanasyev #162).[15]

In fairy tales[edit]

Zmey Gorynych, by Viktor Vasnetsov.

The zmei occurs in the literature of Russia and Ukraine in numerous wondertales (skazki[d]) such as those in Alexander Afanasyev's compilation Narodnye russkie skazki,[16] and in the byliny (epic ballads), and rendered as "serpent" or "dragon". They may also appear as a character with "Zmei" or "Zmeyevich" (Zmeevich, etc.) in their proper name, and these may exhibit more human-like qualities, such as courting women.

As fabulous beast[edit]

The zmei slain by the bogatyr Dobrynya Nikitich in the bylina "Dobrynya and the Zmei" can be male or female. It may happen to be Zmei Gorynishche[e] ("Dragon, the Son of a Mountain").[17][18] This name is a variant form of "Zmei Gorynych" found in fairy tales.[19] Or it may be she-dragon without a name, as in the byliny collected from Karelian Russia.[20] The "Puchai River" was its haunt, but in the caves of the "Saracen Mountains" it raised its pups and kept hostages. It was capable of flight, and abducted a princess from Kiev by flying there.[20]

Zmei Gorynych[edit]

Zmei Gorynych (Russian: Змей Горыныч) has decidedly dragon-like characteristics, such as having multiple heads (from 3 to upwards of 12[21]), spitting fire, and being associated with a body of water.[f][17]

However, "Zmei Gorynych" is not consistently beast-like, and he may appear in the guise of a human thoroughout in some works (See §Milk of Wild Beasts, §Dobrynya and Marinka) below.[22]


Sometimes there are "Sons of Zmei" (Zmeyevich being their patronymic surname) who are recognized as monsters with human qualities, or vice versa.[23]

Tugarin Zmeyevich[edit]

Tugarin Zmeyevich is one such with anthropomorphic characteristics.[23] The half-human quality is borne out by the sobriquet zmei-bogatyr (serpent-hero) given him,[24][25] and from him being able to ride a horse like a human being in the folktale "Alyosha Popovich". Tugarin thus faces off against the bogatyr Alyosha, and is slain.[25]

Tugarin is a great glutton, which is suggestive of a dragon; however Tugar still retains human form, even in the scene where he displays the extraordinary feat of devouring a whole swan, moving it from cheek to cheek, and spitting out the bones.[26] Tugarin also has flying wings like a dragon,[27][28] but some songs rationalize these as paper wings, a device attached to the horse.[29]

Tugarin is referred to as a pagan[27] and he has been given overlays of a Tatar tyrant around the folkloric dragon.[28] Some support the conjecture that Tugarin's name derives from "Tugar-Khan", or Tugor-Khan, of the Turkic Polovets,[30][g] but this etymology has been discounted by later commentators.[33][34]

Milk of Wild Beasts[edit]

The zmei also transforms into a handsome youth to seduce women (folktale "The Milk of Wild Beasts" [fr], #204, 205).[15] In one version, Zmei Gorynych seduces the sister of Ivan Tsarevich. She feigns illnesses and asks Ivan to perform the precarious task of retrieving the milk of the wolf, bear, and lioness. This plan fails. Later however, when Ivan is separated from his trusty pack of animals, zmei reveals his true nature and poises to devour him with his gaping mouth.[13][h] In another version, Zmei Zmeyevich ("Serpent, Son of Serpent") and Ivan's adulterous wife play out a similar plot.[35]

Other examples[edit]

Zmei Gorynych or Tugarin Zmeyevich, in "Dobrynya and Marinka", play fleeting roles as the lover of Marinka the sorceress, and are instantly killed.[36][37][38]

In some tales, this Zmei Zmeyevich is a tsar.[39]

Other folktale literature[edit]

Eruslan Lazarevich[edit]

There is also the three-headed zmei defeated by Eruslan Lazarevich, hero of the story material found in popular print (lubki).[40]

Saint George[edit]

It was a zmei, and not a drakon (Russian: драко́н) that was defeated by Saint George, or St. Egorii, as he was popularly known in Russia.[41] The saint appears as "Egorii the brave" (Russian: Егорий Храбрый, with the epithet "chrabryii") in religious verses.[40][42] This can be seen in popular lubok prints of Saint George and the Dragon in Russia.[43] The scene is also often depicted in Russian icons.[40]

See also[edit]

Explanatory notes[edit]

  1. ^ A three-, six-, and twelve-headed are killed in "Ivan Popyalov" (Иван Попялов, No. 135)[5]
  2. ^ Variant to "Ivan Popyalov" (#135), in Ralston's discussion, strictly speaking.
  3. ^ The twelve-headed Chudo-Yudo rides a horse with twelve silver wings, which is gold-maned and tailed
  4. ^ Plural form of skazka ска́зка.
  5. ^ "Zmei Gorynchische" Змей Горынчище may be the correct transcription. The Cyrillic form is the one given by Stangé-Zhirovova.
  6. ^ In contrast to Tugarin Zmeyevich, etc., who have "anthropomorphic traits" (Bailey & Ivanova (1998), p. 81).
  7. ^ Tugar-Khan appears as the ruler of the fictitious "Tugars" in the 1956 film Ilya Muromets.[31]
  8. ^ There is a later development where Ivan vanquishes a 12-headed dragon, but is beheaded by a water-carrier who sought to steal credit.


  1. ^ Bailey & Ivanova (1998), p. 83.
  2. ^ Warner (2002), p. 68.
  3. ^ a b c Kravchenko, Maria (1987), The World of the Russian Fairy Tale, European university studies: Ser. 16, Vol. 34, Lang, p. 130, ISBN 9-783-2610-3672-8
  4. ^ "Ivan the Peasant's Son and the Little Man the Size of a Finger with Moustaches Seven Versts in Length", Curtin (1890), pp. 37–46
  5. ^ Ralston (1880), pp. 79–83.
  6. ^  Russian Wikisource has original text related to this article: Иван Быкович
  7. ^ Ralston (1880), pp. 83–86.
  8. ^  Russian Wikisource has original text related to this article: Буря-богатырь Иван коровий сын
  9. ^ Levchin, Sergei (2014). Blast-Bogatyr Ivan the Cow's Son. Mineola, New York: Dover. pp. 153–. ISBN 9780486782980. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  10. ^ Afanas'ev & Haney (2015) [1]
  11. ^ Змей. // Русский гуманитарный словарь. М., 2000.
  12. ^ Надежда Конобеева
  13. ^ a b Afanas'ev & Haney (2015), #204.
  14. ^ Mizukami (2015), p. 62.
  15. ^ a b Propp (1968), p. 15.
  16. ^ Mizukami (2015), p. 53.
  17. ^ a b Bailey & Ivanova (1998), p. 81.
  18. ^ Version collected by Kirsha Danilov. Printed in: Evgenyeva, A. P. and Putilov [ru] (1977), Ancient Russian poems, p. 184, cited by Stangé-Zhirovova.
  19. ^ Stangé-Zhirovova (1992), p. 325.
  20. ^ a b "Dobrynya and the Dragon" (English translation), in Bailey & Ivanova (1998), pp. 84–97, after the version collected by A. F. Gilferding from Olonets.
  21. ^ McCullough, Joseph A. (2013). Dragonslayers: From Beowulf to St. George. Osprey Publishing. p. 67. ISBN 9781472801029.
  22. ^ Thus the Zmei Gorynych or Tugarin who feature as boyfriends of Marinka in Dobrynya and Marinka are noted as being "dragon-like figures" (Bailey & Ivanova (1998), p. 99)
  23. ^ a b :Bailey & Ivanova (1998), p. 122 "zoomorphic and anthropomorphic features are combined in him". Citing Propp (1958b), The Russian Heroic Epic, pp. 206–24; Putilov [ru] (1971b) "Сюжетная замкнутость и второй сюжетный план в славянском эпосе"[Plot enclosure and plot background in the Slavic epic]", pp. 54–62.
  24. ^ W. R. M. (1911). "Russian Literature" . In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 23 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 914–915.
  25. ^ a b "Alyosha Popovich", Afanas'ev & Haney (2015), #312
  26. ^ Bailey & Ivanova (1998), pp. 122, 126.
  27. ^ a b Magnus (1916), p. 168.
  28. ^ a b Bailey & Ivanova (1998), p. 122.
  29. ^ "Alyosha Popovich, his Squire Yekim, and Tugarin" (English translation), in Bailey & Ivanova (1998), pp. 124–129, after the version taken down by N. E. Onchukov from Archangel Province.
  30. ^ Hapgood (1886), p. 345.
  31. ^ Haase, Donald (2008), "Soviet Fairy-Tale Films", The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales: Q-Z, Greenwood Publishing Group, p. 904, ISBN 9780313334412
  32. ^ Bailey & Ivanova (1998), pp. 124–129.
  33. ^ Discounted in favor of derivation that derives Tugar from tug meaning "grief".[32]
  34. ^ The Spiritual Origins of Eastern Europe and the Future Mysteries of the Holy Grail, Temple Lodge Publishing, 1993, p. 488, ISBN 9780904693553 ISBN 0904693554
  35. ^ Afanas'ev & Haney (2015), #205.
  36. ^ Bailey & Ivanova (1998), p. 99
  37. ^ Warner (2002), p. 68. Zmei Gorynych.
  38. ^ Warner (2002), ""Dobrýnya the Dragon-Slayer, and Marína", p. 118, Marína (Marínushka Ignátievna) has Tugarin Dragon's Son as "her dear friend"
  39. ^ "Marko the Rich and Vasily the Luckless" or "Marko the Luckless" (Afanasyev #305)
  40. ^ a b c Warner (2002), pp. 67–68.
  41. ^ Warner (2002), p. 19.
  42. ^ Lunk, Maria (1985). Study of the Thematic Typology of the Religious Folk Verses (duxovnye Stixi) about St. George (Thesis). University of Wisconsin, Madison.: "Egorij the Brave (Xrabryj).
  43. ^ Warner (2002), p. 68: See caption on the 19th century print photograph.
  • Alexander, Alex E. (1973), Bylina and Fairy Tale: The Origin of Russian Heroic Poetry, The Hague: Mouton
  • Mizukami, Noriko (2015), アファナーシエフにおけるзмейをめぐって ["zmei" in Russian fairy tales, collected by Alexander Afanasyev] (PDF), JISRD (in Japanese and Russian) (6): 53–63
  • Propp, Vladímir (1968) [1928], (Excerpt) Morphology of the Folk Tore (PDF), The American Folklore Society (tr.), Indiana University
  • Stangé-Zhirovova, Nadia (1992), Народная и книжная традиция почитания св. Георгия на Руси: Опыт историко-этнографического анализа [The folk and book tradition of veneration of St. George in Russia: The experience of historical and ethnographic analysis], Revue des études slaves (in Russian), 64 (2), JSTOR 43493601