The Bulgarian zmey, or dragon, is part snake, part bird, and part human. Usually portrayed as a benign creature, it guarded the fertility of the land and had the ability to change into human form.
As a human the zmey could walk among people unrecognized, except by the pure in heart. With serpentine body, legs, wings, a tail, and a human face, the zmey lived in caves, lakes, or mountain palaces and glowed as it flew.
Each village had its own guardian zmey, which fought against the evil forces that caused drought and hail. The ferocity of these battles gave rise to thunderstorms and lightning, a belief that was linked with the mythology of the Slavic thunder god, Perun, and his Christian successor, Saint Ilya.
Zmeys were able to summon whirlwinds or become invisible at will. They were shapeshifters that could take on different forms, from alluring humans to dogs, ﬂower garlands, or even necklaces. Zmeyitsas, the females of the species, could shape-shift into bears. Conversely, humans could become zmeys, either through magic or by taking certain herbs.
Zmeys often fell in love with humans, who might then grow pale and sicken. The only way to repulse an unwanted dragon suitor was to take a potion brewed with special herbs such as gentian, tansy, or wormwood.
Zmeys were attracted by music and sometimes seduced maidens with the beauty of their playing on the kaval, a kind of flute. They might trick a vain or arrogant maiden and carry her off.
If humans married zmeys, their offspring looked human except for wings growing under their arms. When such a child was born, twelve maidens were called, and under oaths of silence and secrecy, they wove a shirt for the child to hide its wings. The dragon-child could then safely enter the human world, and no one except for the pure of heart would know the child’s true nature.
Zmeys should not be confused with their evil relatives, the lamias, although zmeyitsas sometimes bear this name.