In Russian and Ukrainian folklore, Zmey Gorynych (also referred to as Zmei Gorynishche) is a monstrous dragon, best known for his depiction as the dragon that was slain by the bogatyr Dobrynya Nikitich. The creature is sometimes thought of as a Hydra because of its multiple heads.
Zmey Gorynych is a western dragon that notably has up to twelve heads, each of which may have twin horns and also be crowned depending on depiction. The dragon may also have up to seven tails and stand upright on its hind legs. Zmey Gorynych may notably smell of sulfur, the dragon’s scent being strong enough to alert others of its presence.
Dobrynya and the Dragon
This folk epic begins with Dobyrnya’s mother warning the hero to avoid the Saracen Mountains, not to trample on any baby dragons, not to rescue Russian captives, and not to bathe in the Puchai River. Dobyrnya disregards her mothers words however and does all four things.
While bathing in the Puchai River, Zmey Gorynych emerges from the river and threatens him. At first terrified, Dobrynya suddenly finds a “hat of the Greek land” next to him and ends up defeating the dragon with the hat. Before the hero kills the dragon however, Zmey Gorynych pleads to be spared, offering a nonagression pact. Dobyrnya agrees to this, however the dragon immediately breaks the pact afterwards by flying to the grand city of Keiv and kidnaping Zabava Putyatishna, the niece of Prince Vladimar.
When Dobrynya enters Keiv, Vladimir orders Dobrynya to rescue Zabava or have his head chopped off. With no steed or weapon, the hero consults his mother, who offers Dobrynya a steed and on the next day gives the bogatyr a Shemakhan whip. Dobrynya then ventures into the Saracren Mountains, trampling over baby dragons and rescuing captives. While doing the former, the baby dragons manage to wound his steed's legs, however with his whip Dobrynya is able to push his steed past these wounds and continue forth.
Dobrynya eventually comes to the dragon’s cave, who refuses to give up Zabava without a fight. Dobrynya and Zmey Gorynych then proceed to battle for three days. During the fight, Dobrynya feels like riding away, however a voice from the heavens convinces him to fight the dragon for three more hours, the hero managing to slay the dragon.
After being killed, Zmey Gorynych’s blood spills from his body, which refuses to seep into the ground. Dobrnya feels like riding away at first, but a voice in the heavens tells him to instead drive his spear into the earth and incite an incantation. When the hero does this, the blood seeps into the ground.
In one folktale, Zmey Gorynych has a cousin named Nemal Cholovek. A malevolent sorcerer, Nemal plans to make the dragon the king of Russia, furthering this plan by kidnapping the princess of the tsar and locking her away in a castle in the Ural Mountains. Many knights attempt to save the princess, however Gorynych and Nemal prove to be too powerful to defeat.
Eventually however, they are both killed after Ivan, a young palace guard, had found out the secret location of the princess through his ability to communicate with birds. Having asked the king for permission to find her, the king gave Ivan a magic sword and sent him off. When Ivan arrived and was confronted by Nemal in the form of a giant , the sword launched out of Ivan’s hand and struck Nemal through the heart before decapitating Gorynych.
Dobrynya and Marinka
In this folk epic, Zmey Gorynych may be the lover of the notorious witch Marinka. In one version of the tale, the dragon is instantly killed as soon as he is introduced after Dobrynya launches an arrow at a pair of doves that magically shoots into Marinka’s home. This arrow kills Gorynych, the chaos causing Marinka to pacify Dobrynya by putting him under a love spell.
In another interpretation, Zmey Gorynych is introduced after Dobyrnya has been enchanted. In this interpretation, Gorynych is being entertained by Marinka in her home when Dobrynya shows up at the door. When Marinka refuses to let the hero in, Dobrynya furiously knocks the door down using a log as a battering ram. This earns a curse from the dragon, however the dragon quickly flees when Dobrynya threatens him by pulling out his sword.
In the folk epic “Dyuk Stepanovich”, the eponymous hero may encounter Zmey Gorynych as he travels to Kiev. This encounter is brief however, as Dyuk’s steed is able to safely carry Dyuk past the dragon.
It was said Zmey Gorynych would occasionally take a bite out of the sun, causing an eclipse.
The folk epic "Dobrynya and the Dragon" has been regarded as an allegory of the victory of Christianity over the “dragon of paganism” in Kiev Rus. This can be supported ion of the “hat of the Greek land”, voices from the heavens, and the prohibition of bathing in a holy river. The Puchai River has also been suggested by some scholars to be a distortion of the Pochaina river, a river near Kiev where the citizens, according to legend, were baptized in 988.
On the other hand, some scholars point out that the trope of the dragon slayer has existed before Christianity, and that the epic contains only a few religious tones while also including elements of magic.
In Popular Culture
- Zmey Gorynych is a main antagonist in the Soviet film Vasilisa the Beautiful.
- Zmey Gorynych appears in the Soviet film Illyra Muromets (known as The Sword and the Dragon in the US and The Epic Hero and the Beast in the UK).
- Zmey Gorynych is a recurring character in the Russian animated film series The Three Bogatyrs, featuring primarily in the second film Dobrynya Nikitich and the Dragon.
- The Russian band Zmey Gorynych is named after the dragon.
- Zmey Gorynych is featured in Dracopedia Legends: An Artist’s Guide to Drawing Dragons of Folklore.
- The term Gorynych is the name for a species of lesser dragon in Pathfinder
- James Bailey, Tatyana Ivanova (1998) An Anthology of Russian Folk Epics M.E. Sharpe
- Doug Niles (2013) Dragons: The Myths, Legends, & Lore Adams Media
- Elizabeth Warner (2002) Russian Myths University of Texas Press