The Myth of the Hero slaying the Dragon

The Myth of The Hero slaying the Dragon as found in the Romanian Song
Iovan Iorgovan

The hero slaying the dragon is one of the few myths that have survived for thousands of years in almost all the cultures of the world. Numerous songs, ballads, and fairy tales retell the story of a dragon that created havoc in the community, and to restore order the hero had to vanquish it.
Dragons are mythical characters having the form of a very large snake with one or more heads, spitting fire through their mouths, with many tongues and sharp fangs, and sometimes, a set of bat-like wings. In many European traditions they are monstrous and fierce depictions, symbol of chaotic elements of nature, belonging to the pre-cosmic era. Gods and heroes must reinforce their sovereign powers over the dragon’s force of destruction and chaos, and create or restore the cosmic order. As obstructer of waters the dragon must be vanquished by the storm god, who thus frees the rain and returns fertility and prosperity to the community.
These monstrous creatures are sometimes guardians of the tree of life, or the Golden Fleece, or some other kind of wealth, as the gold for which the hero of the Germanic sagas has to fight. Stories in which dragons threaten the life of women, or request sacrificing of a young girl in exchange for the fertilizing water or something else valuable to the community, are also wide spread. In more recent times dragons appear as agents of devils, as depicted in the well-known portrait of St. George slaying the serpent – the enemy of God – although in some legends the Saint saves a princess from perish. In spite of the Christian influence, almost all folk traditions regard dragons as a source of fecundity and life, or as embodying the souls of the ancestors in a household.
Before analyzing the Romanian song a short presentation of this mythical motif as it is found in ancient hymns and prayers addressed to the storm god and his fight with the dragon may offer a better understanding of the subject. One of the oldest versions of the dragon slaying myth is found in a Hittite text, considered an ancient prayer song asking gods for rain and abundance of crops: the story recounts the Storm-god fight against the dragon Illuyankas; at first the god appears weak and is defeated, however, with help from a mortal human, who uses tricks instead of force the dragon is defeated, and dies together with the human. In some later version the dragon takes the god’s heart and eyes; then the Storm-god marries a poor man’s daughter, with whom he has a son. His son will marry the dragon’s daughter, and the god will ask his son to get his heart and eyes from the dragon. In Gaster’s opinion the Hittite myth of the dragon slaying is a seasonal ritual: “…at the beginning of the agricultural year,…the ancient Hittites held a festival which they called Puruli…a seasonal celebration designed to regulate the subterranean waters and to insure due meed of rainfall for the crops” (Gaster 1961: 137).
The Greek tradition knows many versions of this myth: this Earth monster Typhoeus or Tiphon, associated with strong storms and hurricanes, is struck by Zeus’s lightening (Homer Il. ii. 782). Hesiod (Theog. 820) describes this monster as having a hundred heads with black tongues flickering and fire spreading, with terrible voices coming from each head, a terrible monster challenging Zeus sovereignty. Cadmus, disguised as a shepherd, puts the dragon to sleep with his soft songs, thus helping Zeus defeat Typhoeus, and imprison him beneath Mount Etna, where he is causing the volcanic fires. Fighting monsters motif appears related to foundation myths as that of Apollo, who slew the huge serpent, Python, at Delphi; similarly Kadmos (Latinized form Cadmus) in the story told by Apollodoros, follows a guiding cow and wherever the animal should lay down he would found the city of Thebes; resting there he wants to sacrifice the cow to Athena, but when his men go to bring water, the nearby spring is guarded by a dragon, an offspring of Ares. Kadmos kills the dragon, and as instructed by Athena, sows its teeth, from which rose the armed men called Spartoi (Sown Men). Heracles’s labors involves killing many monsters such as smashing each of Hydra’s heads with his club, or saving Hesiona from a sea-dragon, same with Andromeda who was offered by her father to a sea monster and was saved by Perseus, to list a few. (Apollodorus: The library)
The Indian heritage recounts stories about the monster Vritra, obstructer of the cows symbolizing water and dawn; upon seeing the serpent, god Indra gets scared and turns away, a first defeat as suffered by the Hittite Strom God or Zeus; but then he recovers, and strikes the serpent with his thunderbolt, releasing the waters. As in the Kadmos story, Vritra’s teeth turn out into the Maruti, fierce fighters. Furthermore, from each of Vritra’s heads a bird or a flock of birds, namely partridges, sparrows, and quails would fly away. In the Iranian version the hero must vanquish the monster with three heads, named Azhi (serpent) Dahaka, who lived in a place named “the palace of the Stork”, which perhaps suggest a connection with the Indian version and the birds coming out of the monster’s head. In some later version, as in the Greek one, the monster is imprisoned beneath a volcanic mountain. (West: 2007)
The German god Thor, the thunder god, plans to vanquish Jörmungandr, also known as serpent Midgard, coiled like a belt around the world, using his hammer called Miolnir or ‘Crusher, maul’ (wooden club), generally identified as a thunderbolt. (Sturluson The prose Edda: 48)
In an Irish story Fraich, swims across a boundary, symbolized by a pool in which lives a dragon, the Lord of the Otherworld. Thus the swim becomes a rite of initiation. His lover, Findabar comes to his aid and gives him the sword with which he slays the serpent (Brenneman 1991). Another Irish story tells of Fergus mac Leti who goes under water where he sees the water monster, ‘muirdris’. He becomes disfigured by fear, and for 7 years he is under interdiction to see his face; Dorn, a slave girl, who washes his face for him, is not answering his request quickly enough, so Fergus kills her and plunges under water, from where, after one night and one day, he comes out holding the monster’s head, then he falls down dead. (Watkins: 1995) Lars Noolen (1992) states that in the Irish tradition: “…dragons indicate lack of fertility. Two dragons were heard screaming on the Island of Britain every May 1st, and this caused sterility in all living creatures of the land and water. A dragon briefly ravaged Ireland ruining the land and preventing daily activities. The dragons had to be destroyed in order to restore the fertility of the land”. Something similar is to be found in the Romanian tradition, when in the night before the Saint George’s day, April 23rd, witches are running through the fields trying to stop the growth of crops, and the only way to scare them is by making a lot of noise with horns and church bells.
The motif of the dragon fight is found in the Russian folklore in the well-known ballad: Dobrynya Nikitich slaying Zmey Gorynych. Dobrynya was bathing in the Puchai river when the dragon appeared; initially he thought he was going to die because he had no arms to defend himself, but found “a hat of the Greek land” and used it to defeat the dragon. The dragon asked Dobrynya not to kill him and they agreed not to attack each other again. But the dragon fled away and captured the niece of Prince Vladimir, Zabava Potyatichna. Dobrynya found out from Prince Vladimir that his niece had been taken by the dragon. The prince asked the hero to rescue her. Dobrynya went to the Saracen Mountains and began fighting the dragon; they fought for three days. On the third day Dobrynya was on the point of giving up, but he heard a voice from heaven telling him to stay and go on fighting, and after three more hours Dobrynya killed the dragon. but he got stuck in the blood for three days because the dragon’s blood did not sink into the ground. Again, a voice from heaven told him to stick his spear into the ground while uttering some magic words; and so the blood disappeared into the earth and Dobrynya rescued Zabava. (Bailey, James and Ivanova Tatyana: 1998)
The Romanian tradition offers a good example of a dragon slayer in the song “Iovan Iorgovan” (Vrabie 1966). Spread all over the country with concentration particularly in the Southern part of the Romanian territory in most songs we encounter the same sequence of events: three sisters go for a walk in the forest; the youngest one falls asleep and is abandoned by the older sisters (such developments are connected to the well-known fairy tale of the hero killing the dragon or monster, or giant, ATh. 300 The Dragon-Slayer). When she wakes up she asks the cuckoo, a bird that symbolizes loneliness in Romanian tradition, to help her find the way back to her house, promising to marry him; she repeats the request for three times and each time the bird refuses. The ‘three sisters’ motif in this song may not be found in all versions, some folklorists considering it as a contamination with the ballad “Three Sisters”, or with the fairy tale mentioned above. When the dragon appears and threatens the girl her screams are heard by the hero who runs to her rescue. To reach her Iovan has to cross the very turbulent river Cerna, and he offers magical objects and gifts in exchange for allowing him to cross it. Among these gifts are a magic silver spinning wheel that turns by itself, a magic fish, and other ritual offerings with magic properties revealing his divine status. Iovan finds the girl, and while awaits the dragon’s re-appearance he lays his head on her lap falling asleep; he is awakened by the girl’s tears at the site of the dragon. Before beginning to fight the dragon warns the hero that if he will cut off his head a very dangerous fly will come out of it, a fly that could kill horses, cattle, and even people. Iovan replies to the monster that he will teach people how to start fumes that kill the fly, and save everyone, thus stating his role as the hero who brings divine instructions to people. The story ends here without reference to further developments in the fight. In some versions the hero is mesmerized by the young girl’s beauty and wants to marry her, but she is amazed by their resemblance, realizing they are brother and sister, and the marriage will be incestuous. (Balade populare românești 1997) By recognizing the hero as her brother the story alludes to the hierogamy motif as preserved in another Romanian song The Sun and the Moon, (see above) establishing her position as a divine character. In Dumezilian system of Indo-European social functions beauty as well as water are associated with the third function that of fertility, productivity and wealth, whereas the hero, as the warrior belonging to the second function enters into the realm of fertility first by crossing the magic river and then encountering the girl and the dragon.
In other versions of the Romanian song the episode of the three sisters is replaced by that of a young man crying for help. The lad’s mother cursed him when he was an infant ‘’to be taken’ away by the snake living under the threshold of their house. In the Romanian tradition the snake is perceived as a fantastic creature that lives under the house threshold for seven years, when reaching maturity it rises to the sky as a storm cloud. The cursed buy grows simultaneously with the snake, and when reaching adulthood the lad must fulfill his destiny, that of fighting the house snake, which in the meantime, became a huge dragon. During the fight, the dragon swallows the young man up to his waist, up to his weapons, which are ‘ferecate’, a word that could be translated as ‘locked by a spell’. Iovan hears the lad cry and runs to his help, killing the dragon. Afterwards, they become ‘blood brothers’, ‘fraţi de cruce’. This motif from the Romanian ballad can be associated Thracian-Phrygian mysteries of the god Sabazios and the warriors’ initiation rite according to which a serpent was drawn across the bosom of the initiate to give him hope for attaining immortality (Encyclopedia of Religion 1987). This ancient rite shows possible relationships to the snake that lived under a house as described in the Romanian Iovan Iorgovan song, a snake that embodied the soul of the ancestors. In the Romanian folklore house snakes are harmless creatures that bring good luck to the family, and that should never be killed for fear of killing the good luck bestowed upon the house. (Olteanu 1998) The lad had to be symbolically immersed into the magic forces of the serpent, hence swallowed by the dragon, symbolizing his ancestor warriors, so that he himself could be admitted into the group of warriors, and his weapons could be unlocked, in other words, invested with magical powers coming from his ancestors. This conclusion is in accord with George Dumezil’s statement that warriors motifs from the Indo-European myths “may now be interpreted literally point for point, as a memory of much older rituals and myths of initiation or military promotion” (Dumezil 1970). After the initiation, Iovan ‘saves’ the young man, and admits him into his entourage, making him his ‘blood brother’, a wide spread custom in Romanian tradition among young men. As Dumezil continues, “This does not, of course, prevent the myths from having also been – and even congenitally – myths of the storms. It is the destiny of the warrior gods, patrons of the terrestrial warriors, to be storm gods as well, or to have a tendency to become confused with them. Thor, the thunder with his hammer, like Indra with his thunderbolt, has obvious nature god significance…” (Dumezil 1970).
The folklore of the Southern Europe abounds in stories about snakes and dragons. Among the ancient Greeks there was the belief that springs and wells were protected by a dragon or a large snake, known as lamnia, present in the Macedonian folklore as a feminine monster called lamia or lamnia, and in Bulgarian lamiia, (Săneanu 1978) monstrous character that is also found in the Lithuanian folklore as Laume, who “lives and appears in the vicinity of water”.(Dundzila 1991) This mefinine monster, lamia/lamnia, lives in streams, wells, or lakes, and she doesn’t allow people to take water unless a human being is offered, in most cases, a girl.
The Romanian folklore includes two kinds of beliefs in dragons, one which sees them as rainy clouds, and another by which they are monsters with many heads and spitting fire through his nostrils. It was believed that the clouds were the sun’s bulls, pulling his cart with water; when getting lazy they would let water to pour over and it rained; it was also believed that they drank a lot of water ready to burst, and the clouds dragons, driven by ‘solomonari’, highly educated wizards with special powers able to ride these creatures, whipping and running them over the sky, would force them to burst the water and it rained. (Niculiță-Voronca: 1998) The fierce dragons are cruel creatures, with seven heads and large mouths that could swallow a human; they come from normal snakes that every seven years in a spring day get together in a certain place and collect their drools which turn into a precious stone, for which they fight to swallow; the one that manages to swallow it runs to the wild forest, and in seven years if it does not meet a human being it could become a dragon. These snakes/dragons rule the wells and the springs, using the rainbow as their road. Their most spread image is that of a strong storm, (Saineanu 1978). Killing it is the greatest achievement of the legendary hero Iovan, or the fairy tale hero “Făt Frumos.” This creature is also present in the Romanian cosmogony where the creator Fârtat punishes the dragon for the continuous mischiefs by telling it to coil nine times around the Earth to protect it from floods, (Vulcanescu 1987) reminding of Midgard, the Teutonic dragon coiling around the Earth. The Romanian word for dragon is ‘balaur’, a word that has its root in the I-E *bhleu- ‘swell, overflow, roar’, Skt. bala ‘physical power’, and found in Dacian names like Balius, Decebalus, and in the modern languages: Romanian: bală, ‘monster, fierce beast’, Alb. bollë, ‘snake’, Sb. blavor, ‘snake’; we also find ala in Serbian and hala in Bulgarian, as a female dragon, closer to the lamia mentioned above.
The motif of the dragon fight is found in the folklore of countries surrounding Romania, of special interest being the areas south of the Danube, with which the Romanians have more customs in common. In these areas the archaic hero has been replaced by the Christian Saint George, (Vrabie 1966) a preference not to be found in the Romanian folklore, but well represented in Christian iconography and literature about the lives and miracles of Saints. The legend of Saint George killing the dragon is first mentioned in a Church manuscript from 17th Century, but the Saint George’s biography such a miracle of killing a monster is not included in the work of Dosoftei from 1682 “The Life and work of Saints”.
The slaying of the dragon myth is generally interpreted as the symbolic victory of order over chaos, of growth over stagnation during the annual cycle, of rebirth over death. It is a myth that has to be recited and enacted cyclically in order to maintain its magic force. According to Calvert Watkins (1995) the dragon represents the chaotic world and it must be subdued in order to restore order; this is interpreted as a sovereignty fight. As the obstructer of waters the dragon generates draughts, and the hero must fight with it in order to free the waters, and ensure an abundance of crops. This is considered a fertility myth, which must be reenacted cyclically in order to maintain its magic forces.
To these another interpretation can be added, as it may relate to the most popular variant of the myth, that in which the hero saves a princess: by threatening the life of a girl/princess, the dragon obstructs the function of a woman and/or goddess of fertility, threatening the community in which she marries and procreates; thus it is the duty of the hero to fight and restore order. Once again the archaic nature of this myth is revealed as a fertility myth.
These interpretations, the royal power’s obligation to restore order, the fight against the obstruction of the waters that bring prosperity to the land, seem to have a common archaic mythical source, in which the hero must fight an opposing magic force, to reinstate order and bring prosperity to the community. This basic motif received in time different treatments: in some areas the sovereignty aspect prevailed, in others the fertility was more important to the community.
A brief comparison between the Romanian song and the ancient versions mentioned above reveals these common motifs:
– Iovan Iorgovan, the dragon fighter, uses as his weapon a wooden club, his heroic recognizable mark, Iovan’s buzdugan ´mace’ as it appears in the leit-motif of the song, “Iovan Iorgovan/Braţ de buzdugan/Iovan Iorgovan/Arm of wooden club”. similar to Thor’s ‘Crusher maul’, Indra’s ‘whizzing club’, Zeus’s thunderbolt,
– the dragon tries to discourage the hero to fight by threatening the community with the consequences of his beheading – the fly that would kill horses and cattle, which resonates with most of the ancient versions describing how something comes out of the dragon’s severed head: a bird or a flock of birds as in the Indian version, and from his teeth, the Maruti, or the Spartoi, fierce fighters, or the Earth men as in another Greek version; in the Romanian song instead of an army of young fighters, an army of aggressive fierce horseflies, perhaps equally dangerous to the community. By telling the dragon that he will teach people how to fight the dangerous horseflies, the hero is stating his sovereign role of giving the divine instruction to people.
An interesting difference revealed from this comparison in that in the Romanian song the hero does not explicitly free the fertilizing waters, but his encounter with the river Cerna, and especially the need to offer magical gifts for crossing it into the magical world where the heroine/goddess, symbol of fertility, is in danger, could present a different way of stating the powers of waters.
The Romanian song have retained the main motif of the ancient myth, that of the hero, Iovan Iorgovan, the god-like presence, young and strong, having a club as his distinct sign of power, who fights the dragon. The hero’s name, Iovan Iorgovan could also give us some indication of his archaic connections. The origin of his name is considered to be related to the Serbian name form Iovan, that is believed to have its origin in Hebrew Yohānān, through the Greek Iōannēs, hence the Slavic forms Ivan, Iovan. As per argument, the Romanian song and the mane of this hero is a borrowing from the Serbian tradition. Except that in Slavic traditions from the South of Danube region there is no hero or mythological character in any popular song having the name Iovan Iorgovan, whereas in the Romanian folklore the name Iovan Iorgovan is reserved entirely to this mythical character. It is natural to ask then how it was possible for this important Indo-European god/warrior to receive a Slavic name which was kept only in the Romanian folklore, while in Serbian and Bulgarian folklore cannot be not found? More so, the dragon slayer is known only as Saint George. Assuming that the Indo-European myth of the dragon slayer existed on the Romanian territory before the Christian era then the Slavic name Iovan could not be justified simply because the Slavs arrived in the Southern part of Danube around 6th Century A.C. And if the myth entered north of the Danube after the Christian influence began then it should have become Saint George, not Iovan Iorgovan. It seems also difficult to validate how the Biblical name representing John the Baptist, in Greek Iōannēs, and Iovan in South Slavic languages, would be attributed to a mythical character from an ancient myth of fertility, the dragon slayer, while in fact the Leviathan, a sea monster, is being slayed by God, not a hero or demigod. All, while the hero/divinity bearing the name Iovan did not survive exactly in the place of origin, the Slavic world, where it turned into Saint George, but surfaced in the Romanian tradition as Iovan Iorgovan.
If the name Ivan was exclusively a Slavic development, it may be worthwhile noting that the innovation Iovan/Ivan is found in Armenian form Yovan as a name of an army chief from 9th Century (Petrosyan 2002), and his successor Hovan, as well as the today’s Armenian name Hovanes, a fact which raises questions concerning the hypothesis that only Slavic languages know this development. Perhaps other possibilities should be explored. One such possibility may be the presence of an older form in the European South-East substrata, meaning ‘young’, ‘youth’ < IE root *yuwen, related to Lat. iuvenis, Skt. yuvan, and Av. Yavan.
The replacement of the dragon slayer character with that of St. George in South East Europe may find an explanation in the Greek word meaning ‘farmer’. Perhaps it is not accidental that this particular Saint was celebrated on April 23, a date in which numerous customs and ceremonies related to fertility of land and animals were performed in this area.
As mentioned above, the name Iorgovan has its origin in the Greek word meaning ‘farmer’ which justifies this mythical character’s connection with farming, fertility, and production of wealth. In the Romanian folklore the name Iovan Iorgovan, almost as a magical formula, is exclusively reserved to this great heroic figure, unique and divine by the nature of his function of dragon slayer, having the club as his distinct weapon, the powerful keeper of peace and order.
The Romanian researcher Ovid Densusianu considered that in Dacian tradition Hercules was worshiped as a god of warm waters that sprang from the Mehadia Mountains: “in popular traditions from Banat Iovan Iorgovan was spending time in a cave near the Mehadia thermal bays, named after him, the Iorgovan Cave. Here, near the warm waters by the Cerna river is the place mentioned in the legend about the killing of the lion or lions in the Nemean forests:
El din peştere-mi pleca/He from the cave would come out
Si la Cerna dobora/By the Cerna river would crush them
Pe tustrei îi omora/All three he would slaughter
Si pieile le lua/And their skins he would take
Cu ele se îmbrăca/Wearing them on his body
Si mai departe pleca/And away he would go
His weapons were those from the North of Ister: the bow, the sword (and the club. Son of Joe, named Herculus Jovius or Hercules Jovius, his co-name was Iorgovan corresponding to the greek gricola), either because he was the first who himself used a plough, or because he was considered the son of ” (Densuşuanu 1986). Following his argument we may have to take into consideration such possible relation between Hercules Jovius and Iovan Iorgovan, the mythical hero whose function was to kill monsters, son of 
The survival of such archaic motifs in the European folklore in general, and in the Romanian folklore in particular, deserves a lot of attention and serious consideration.
Bailey, James and Ivanova, Tatyana. An Anthology of Russian Folk Epics. M.E. Sharpe, Inc. Armonk, New York, 1998.
Balade Populare Romanesti; antologie de Stelian Carstean. Bucuresti, 1997
Dumezil, Georges.The Destiny of the Warrior, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1970
Dundzila, A. V. Maiden, Mother, Crone: Goddesses from Prehistory to European Mythology and their Reemergence in German, Lithuanian, and Latvian, Univ. of Wisconsin, 1991
Eliade, Mircea. Zalmoxis, the Vanishing God. Chicago, 1972
Emile Benveniste & L. Renou: Vrtra et Vr(th)ragna; etude de mythologie indo-iranienne; Cahiers de la Societe asiatique, III, Paris, 1934.
Gaster, Th. H. Thespis; Ritual, Myth, and Drama in the Ancient Near East. N.Y., 1961.
Kerenyi, C. The Heroes of the Greeks, Thames & Hudson, 1952; reprinted, 1997
Noolen, Lars. Animal Symbolism in Celtic Mythology, the Univ. of Michigan, 1992.
Propp, Vladimir. Rădăcinile istorice ale basmului fantastic, Univers, Bucharest, 1973
Săineanu, Lazar. Basmele Romane, Bucuresti, 1978
Vrabie, Gheorghe. Balada populară română, Bucureşti, 1966.
Vulcǎnescu, Romulus. Mitologie Româneascǎ, Bucureşti, 1987.
Watkins, Calvert: How to Kill a Dragon; Aspects of I-E Poetics, Oxford Univ. Press., New York, 1995.
West, M. L. Indo-European Poetry and Myth, Oxford Univ. Press. 2007

About anarchelariu

Research in Indo-European Mythology with special attention to the Romanian Mythology and Folklore
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2 Responses to The Myth of the Hero slaying the Dragon

  1. Helger says:

    Regarding Dobrynya Nikitich. The story is allegory reflection of real life, regarding fight for the power in Kiev. Zmey Gorynych can be identified as the local god Perun that was worshipped by Ryurik. After his party lost the power, Perun was thrown down from the hill to the river Dnepr. So Perun was replaced by Christ. There were alltogether 12 slavic gods, each representing its own kingdom. Thats why the main Sophia cathedral in Novgorod and Kiev has 12 (kingdoms) + 1 domes for char Vladimir. When the Russia was united, the necessity arouse to have one common god above all of them.

    • The beauty of myth is that it can be reinterpreted over and over again, and applied to all sorts of socio-political conditions, but the main mithical motif of the fight between a hero and a monster remains.
      Thank you for your comments.

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