Shapeshifting Dragons

I sometimes see people wonder if the idea of a dragon that can take on a fully human appearance is a modern fantasy invention. Or solely inspired by (East) Asian dragons, which are almost invariably noble and frequently appear human. Because European folklore is more well known for “dragon slayer tales”, in which the dragons are purely beastly. But! Slavic folklore absolutely has dragons who are capable of transforming themselves into (beautiful) humans!

The dragons from Slavic fairy tales still have typical “western” dragon characteristics (wings, scales, claws, maw), but they often act far more human than animalistic. They frequently live in castles, use weapons, sometimes even ride horses, write letters, or get married to humans. And some are described as fully shapeshifting into humans:

Dawn, Evening, and Midnight (Afanasev, 1866, trans. Guterman, 1946)

Three princesses are abducted by a whirlwind and three brave brothers Evening, Midnight and Dawn set out to find them. Dawn finds the youngest princess in an underground realm in a castle. She greets him, feeds him, gives him strengthening magic water and then: “At this moment a wild wind arose, and the princess was frightened. ‘Presently,’ she said, ‘my dragon will come.’ And she took Dawn by the hand and hid him in the adjoining room. A three-headed dragon came flying, struck the damp earth, turned into a youth.” The princess puts sleeping potion in the dragon’s wine, picks the lice from his hair (implies he is still human) until he falls asleep. She calls Dawn and he cuts off the dragon’s three heads (implies he’s full dragon again) and burns the body. He then rescues her sisters from a six- and twelve-headed dragon. The three princesses marry the three brothers.

The Footless Champion and the Handless Champion (Afanasev, trans. Guterman)

Two champions, Marko and Ivan, decide to steal a priest’s daughter to be their sister and housekeeper. Once they go on a week long hunt and when they return the girl looks ill and thin. “She told them that a dragon had flown to her every day and that she had grown thin because of him. ‘We will catch him,’ said the champions. (…) About half an hour later, the trees in the forest suddenly began to rustle and the roof of the hut shook: the dragon came, struck the damp earth, turned into a goodly youth, sat at table, and asked for food.” Ivan and Marko seize him and thrash him until he begs for mercy, promising to show them the water of life and the water of death. He tries to trick them into jumping into the lake of death, so they throw him in “and only smoke was left of him.” They do bring the priest’s daughter back home before carrying on with their other adventures. [The concept that a dragon’s presence can drain a maiden of her life force shows up in other stories too, but in this particular context it almost seems like the dragon is just? eating her portion of the food? Also the fact that she was abducted from her home by the two supposed heroes and the dragon is only visiting and asking for lunch really puts this into a weird perspective.]

King Bear (Afanasev, trans. Guterman)

A tsar’s son and daughter are abducted by the King Bear but eventually escape with the help of a magical bullock who conjures a lake of fire that the bear cannot cross. They live by its shore for a while in a fine house and Ivan hunts for their food. “Meanwhile Princess Maria went to the lake to wash clothes. As she washed, a six-headed dragon came flying to the other shore of the lake of fire, changed into a handsome man, saw the princess, and said to her in a sweet voice: ‘Greetings, lovely maiden!’ ‘Greetings, good youth!’ ‘The old wives say that in former times this lake did not exist; if a high bridge spanned it, I would come to the other side and marry you.’ ‘Wait! A bridge will be here in a trice!’ answered Princess Maria and waved her towel. In that instant the towel spread out in an arc and hung above the lake like a high and beautiful bridge. The dragon crossed it, changed into its former shape, put Prince Ivan’s dog under lock and key, and cast the key into the lake; then he seized the princess and carried her off.” When Ivan finds his sister missing and his dog locked up he goes to ask help from Baba-Yaga, finds the dragon, kills him, and takes his sister home. [This story ends with the standard “they began to live happily and prosper”, but it really seems like Ivan should have asked Maria if she was even in need of rescuing.]

So there we are! Proper folklore roots for all our mysterious strangers with a hint of scales around their flickering eyes~