The Zmeu (plural: zmei, feminine: zmeoaică / zmeoaice) is a fantastic creature of Romanian folklore and Romanian mythology.

Făt-Frumos and a zmeu, art by Nadia Bulighin

Though referred by some sources as a dragon, the zmeu is nevertheless distinct, because it usually has clear anthropomorphic traits: it is humanoid and has legs, arms, the ability to create and use artifacts such as weapons, and to ride a horse, and has the desire to marry young girls. There are commentators that class it as a giant (equivalent of an ogre), or a devil, or even a vampire.

In some stories, Zmeu appears in the sky and spits fire, or has the ability to change form. In other stories, it has a magical precious stone on its head that shines like the sun. It likes beautiful young girls, whom it kidnaps, usually for the purpose of marrying them. It is almost always defeated by a daring prince or knight-errant.

The zmei has also been conflated with or confused with the dracu or with the balaur type dragon.


Most scholars agree that the Romanian term zmeu derives from Slavic zmey. However, Romanian linguist Sorin Paliga challenges this notion of Slavic origin, hypothesizing that the pan-Slavic forms were an early Slavic loan from the Dacian language.[1][2]

The relation with Romanian zmeurăraspberry’ has been deemed to be possible, but rather unlikely, by Alexandru Ciorănescu [ro].[3]

General descriptionEdit

The zmeu is described by some as a "dragon", but a dragon that may assume the role of a suitor or a lover of a human female, and in some cases are heroic figures,[4] though in other cases, diabolical.[5][6]

Thus zmeu has been noted to be "anthropo-ophidian", i.e., possessing both man and dragon/serpent-like features: a "scale-covered, human-like body, a snake's tail, and bat-like wings",[7] or rather it is a "man's head" sitting on a "bird's trunk, [and a] serpent's tail", according to other accounts.[a][8]

Indeed, zmeu has been described as a sort of man-eating giant, an equivalent of the Western ogre, possessing a "rocky tail",[9] but still able to mount a horse.[9][5] The zmeu was no more than a creature with human-face, though somewhat taller and thicker-bodied, according to the assertions of some folklorists,[10] and are capable of human speech, though in somewhat uncouth a fashion.[11]

One paper categorized the zmeu among the Rumanian vampires, alongside the vârcolac (blood-drinking werewolf),[12] but the latter tends to be confused more with the blood-sucking strigă (pl. strigoi).[6]

The zmei are also confused with the dracu (dragon) among the populace.[6] The flying creatures ridden by the Șolomonarii are the zmeu, or the balaur, depending on the authority.

But in certain fairytales, the zmeu merely appears as a king of the serpents.[5]

Role and functionsEdit

The "zmeu" figures prominently in many Romanian folk tales as the manifestation of the destructive forces of greed and selfishness. Often, the zmeu steals something of great value, which only Făt-Frumos (the Romanian "Prince Charming"; literally: "handsome youth") can retrieve through his great, selfless bravery. For example, in the ballad of the knight Greuceanu, the zmeu steals the sun and the moon from the sky, thereby enshrouding all humanity in darkness. In the story of Prâslea the Brave and the Golden Apples, the zmeu robs the king of the precious "golden apples"; a parallel can be drawn to the German fairy tale The Golden Bird, the Russian Tsarevitch Ivan, the Fire Bird and the Gray Wolf, and the Bulgarian The Nine Peahens and the Golden Apples — although in all these other cases, the thief was a bird (nevertheless, in some versions of the Romanian story, the zmeu does transform into a bird to steal the golden apples). Usually, the zmeu resides in the "other world" (celălalt tărâm) and sometimes Făt-Frumos has to descend into his dark kingdom, implying that the zmeu lives underground.

The zmeu has a plethora of magical, destructive powers at his disposal. He can fly, shapeshift, and has tremendous supernatural strength. Ultimately, the abilities of the zmeu are of no avail, as Făt-Frumos defeats him through martial skill and daring.

The zmeu likes to kidnap a maiden to be his wife in his otherworldly realm.[5] After Făt-Frumos slays the zmeu, he takes the maiden as his bride-to-be. Similarly, like the giant in the popular British stories of Jack and the Beanstalk, the zmeu returns home to his fortress from his raids into human lands sensing that a human (Făt-Frumos) is lying in ambush somewhere nearby. A Zmeu is also sometimes pictured as a flame who goes in the room of a young girl or widow and once inside, becomes a man and seduces her.

There are people who have allegedly seen zmei flying through the sky. They are supposed to look like a living trail of fire, or fireworks.[citation needed]

Explanatory notesEdit

  1. ^ This is a description of a creature identified as a zmeu, on a 15th century monumental stove tile, by art collector and folk art writer Barbu Slătineanu.


  1. ^ Paliga, Sorin; Teodor, Eugen S. (2009). "Lingvistica şi arheologia slavilor timpurii: o altă vedere de la Dunărea de Jos" (in Romanian). Editura Cetatea de Scaun: 229. ISBN 9786065370043. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  2. ^ Paliga, Sorin (2015), Mańczak-Wohlfeld, Elżbieta; Podolak, Barbara (eds.), "Compiling dicgtionaries of defunct (?) languages: Thracian elements in Romanian", Words and Dictionaries: A Festschrift for Professor Stanisław Stachowski on the Occasion of His 85th Birthday, Wydawnictwo UJ, p. 246, ISBN 9788323393153
  3. ^ Ciorănescu, Alexandru (1958-1966) Dicționarul etimologic român, Tenerife: Universidad de la Laguna, s.v. Zmeură (in Romanian).
  4. ^ Murgoci, Agnes (31 December 1926), "The Vampire in Roumania", Folklore, 37 (4): 341, doi:10.1080/0015587X.1926.9718370, JSTOR 1256143. Reprinted in Dundes, Alan ed. (1998), The Vampire: A Casebook. p. 28
  5. ^ a b c d Moldován (1897), p. 189.
  6. ^ a b c Mailand, Oskar (26 December 1887), "Mytische Wesen in dem rumanischen Volksglauben", Das Ausland: Eine Wochenschrift für Kunde des geistigen und sittlichen Lebens der Völker, 60 (52): 341
  7. ^ Vulcănescu, Romulus (1987), "15. Zmeul", Mitologie română, Editura Academiei Republicii Socialiste România, p. 528
  8. ^ Prut (1983), p. 173 and Prut (1991), p. 133 apud Barbu Slătineanu (1895–1959), son of Alexandru Slătineanu. In Romanian: "Zmeu cu trup de pasăre , coadă de şarpe şi cap de om".
  9. ^ a b Sainéan, Lazare (June 1901a), "Les géants et les nains d'après les traditions roumaines et balkanique", Revue des traditions populaires, 16 (6): 296; —— (1901b), "Terminologie folklorique en roumain", La Tradition, 11: 227. Also cited in "Front Matter", American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 4 (1): 164–165, January–March 1902, JSTOR 658922.
  10. ^ Ion G. Sbiera and Albert Schott [de], cited by Moldován (1897), p. 188
  11. ^ Moldován (1897), p. 188.
  12. ^ Murgoci (1926), p. 321.