Slovenia’s Dragons: From myth to reality

Many centuries ago, a man and the woman he loved killed a dragon to avenge his dead army. With the beast’s death, a city was born.

Fast forward to today and the presence of that beast is still felt all over the city. You can see him on manhole covers, on the city emblem, even on the crest of the local football team. If this level of reverence was not enough, you will see giant dragon statues glaring down at you from all four corners or a bridge called the Dragon Bridge — teeth-baring, fire-breathing beasts, with wings spread wide as if ready to take flight.

One of the dragons adorning Dragon Bridge in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

The magical creatures took several centuries to travel from the pages of ancient books to every corner of the city. This story is about the birth of Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia, a land of dragon folklore.

Jason and the Dragon Explosion

Once upon a time, a Greek hero was sailing across Europe with his army of Argonauts. Jason had won the Golden Fleece in a competition set by King Aetees, but had also smuggled away the King’s daughter Medea, the two being in love with each other. In a bid to escape from the King’s army, Jason and the Argonauts fled across the Black Sea and Danube River on their ship and entered the Ljubljanica River. But this river was small and the water was shallow. The army disassembled their ship to carry it on their shoulders until they reached the Adriatic Sea.

But the winter had set in, and a heavy snowstorm was blowing. The army was forced to settle on the banks of the river, while Jason and Medea enjoyed their few romantic moments a few miles away. Little did the army know, that they had invaded the dragon’s lair, awakening the giant beast.

One night, the river split into two and the dragon emerged from under the water and burned down all the camps, killing more than half of the army. Some soldiers jumped into the river to save their lives. Jason, determined to kill the dragon, set out with Medea to find its lair. They crossed the river, the forest, and reached a wide opening, where the branches of the trees were slightly burnt. They knew this was the dragon’s den.

Medea, who was known for her knowledge of witchcraft, started singing a spell as she entered the den. The spell put the dragon to sleep. Jason then tied the dragon’s mouth with a heavy chain and stuffed his nostrils with huge rocks. Suffocated, the dragon woke up. Unable to breathe fire, the fire collected in his belly and the creature burst into a huge ball of fire and flames, parts of his flaming body flying all over the city. This was the first time the city of Ljubljana saw ‘fireworks.

St. George, the Dragon-Slayer

Another legend tells the story of St. George and the mountain dragon in the city of Slovenske Konjice. It is said that Konjiske Mountain used to be hollow with a huge lake inside, which was home to a wicked dragon. The villagers were scared that the dragon’s roar and fire would make the mountain explode and that the lake would flood their homes. The Lord of the village made a deal with the dragon to sacrifice six virgins every year so that he would not harm them. One year, it was the turn of the Lord’s beautiful daughter — Marjetica. Our hero, St. George, rushed to the mountain on a white horse and killed the beast with his sword. The dragon’s blood turned into a river, which now flows through the middle of this town. A church was built to honor St. George and his horse is the town’s symbol. A dam was built on the spring of the lake beneath the mountain, and is named Gospodicna, meaning the ‘unfortunate virgins’.

It is no wonder that with such tales, dragons are revered as beasts of power and strength in the country. It is said that whenever a pure virgin walks down the Dragon Bridge, the tail of the dragons twitches in respect (which, of course, has never happened).

FROM MYTH TO REALITY

But Slovenia is not all tales and stories. There is a mention in ancient literature that ties all dragon legends in Slovenia to their actual existence, giving birth to ‘baby dragons’ of today. Polymath Janez Vajkard Valvasor, the first Slovenian to be inducted into the Royal Society of London, wrote a 15-volume encyclopedia in the year 1689, which has the first mention of dragons in ‘The Glory of the Duchy of Carniola’. He wrote about baby dragons leading to the unusual behavior of a spring near the town of Vrhnika, close to Ljubljana. Every day, the flow of the spring would be the strongest in the morning, then the force would reduce, and then it would pick up strength again at midnight.

Baby Dragons inside Postojna Caves in Slovenia.

Villagers told Valvasor that a dragon lived in a cave beneath the spring and explained that whenever the water filled the cave and reached the dragon’s neck, he would shift around uncomfortably until the cave emptied, thus disrupting the flow of the spring. But Valvasor was not convinced. The villagers said that after every heavy rain, baby dragon-like creatures would wash up on the ground, which explained the existence of the giant beast underground. In the 19th Century, when the rail network reached Slovenia and tourists started flowing in, villagers would capture these salamanders when they would wash up over the ground and sell them as souvenirs to tourists.

BABY DRAGONS TODAY

If you still feel these stories were weaved merely to attract tourists, you will be stumped to know that these baby dragons still live in the caves in Slovenia. Postojna and Skocjan caves in Slovenia are home to a bizarre species known as the ‘human fish’ or ‘baby dragons’ — that live 400 feet underground in pitch black darkness, never having seen the sunlight. The white, eel-like olms are believed to live for over 100 years and can survive between 8–14 years without any food. These pale, flesh-colored, fetus-like creatures are vertebrates with pink gills. They have no eyesight due to the lack of sunlight and rely on sound and smell to hunt. What has caught the fancy of scientists all over the world are the coming of new baby dragons into our worlds. A female olm living inside the aquarium in Postojna caves laid eggs in 2016 that hatched later that year, giving birth to the first Slovenian ‘dragons’ in front of the human eye.

Olm egg.

Do you need any more reason to visit this mystical Dragon Land?

Eternal escapist, in love with books, football, and long drives. Follow me on IG @ komorebi5

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