In Russian and Ukrainian folklore, Zmey Gorynych (also referred to as Zmei Gorynishche or Zmei Gorynych) is a monstrous dragon. He is best known for his depiction as the dragon that was slain by the bogatyr Dobrynya Nikitich.
The term Zmei Gorynishche literally means "Dragon, the Son of a Mountain".
Zmey Gorynych is a western dragon that notably has up to twelve heads, each of which may have twin horns and also be crowned. The dragon may also have up to seven tails and stand upright on its hind legs. Zmey Gorynych may smell like sulfur, the dragon’s scent being strong enough to alert others of its presence.
Zmey Gorynych primally appears in bylina (a form of Russian heroic poetry).
Dobrynya and the Dragon
This bylina 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 the bogatyr 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. Finding it impossible to slay the dragon, Dobrynya feels like riding away, however a voice from the heavens convinces him to fight the dragon for three more hours, the hero then managing to kill Zmey Gorynych.
After being slain, 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.
Being unable to marry Zabava due to being a peasant, Dobrynya gives her to the bogatyr Alyosha Popovich. He then encounters a polyanitsa, Nastasia, and marries her instead.
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 the dragon and the sorcerer 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 Zmey Gorynych.
Dobrynya and Marinka
In this bylina, 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, Zmey 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 he quickly flees when Dobrynya threatens him by pulling out his sword.
In the bylina “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 carry Dyuk safely past the dragon.
It was said Zmey Gorynych would occasionally take a bite out of the sun, causing an eclipse.
The bylina "Dobrynya and the Dragon" has been regarded as an allegory of the victory of Christianity over the “dragon of paganism” in the nation of Kiev Rus. This can be supported by the “hat of the Greek land”,[note 1] 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.
Teachings of the Orthodox Chruch suggested that the belief of Zmey Gorynych taking a bite out of the sun is proof that good always eventually triumphs over evil. This is due to the damage caused by the dragon to the sun being only temporary.
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 Gorynich 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
- In this context, the hat could be referring to the ancient Greek city Byzantium, which was the capital city of the Byzantine Empire (known then as Constantinople and now known as Istanbul). This would make the hat a headgear worn by priests of the Orthodox Chruch and sometimes by pilgrims who traveled to the Holy Land.
- James Bailey, Tatyana Ivanova (1998) An Anthology of Russian Folk Epics M.E. Sharpe pp.81-97, 99, 253
- Elizabeth Warner (2002) Russian Myths University of Texas Press pp.64, 69
- Doug Niles (2013) Dragons: The Myths, Legends, & Lore Adams Media pp.146-148
- Bylina Encyplopedia Brittanica