In the past decade or two, the ancient Far-Eastern astrological calendar has been gaining in popularity all around the world. In this calendar each year is marked by an ancient totem, an animal real or fabulous. This calendar, widely used in China, Japan and Korea, did not coincide with the one used in the west. That is why the years of rabbits, dogs, tigers, dragons and other creatures begin, by the western calendar, in February or March. The Year 2000 of the Christian Era is marked as the Year of the Dragon in the oriental calendar. But we are not going to discuss here the specific features of oriental calendars, neither are we going to offer horoscopes based on these calendars. Instead, let’s have a look at the Dragon, as it stands in the oriental and occidental traditions. In the Far East, the Dragon is a noble and sublime creature, master of all the four elements of the ancient oriental religions and philosophies, patron of state power and wisdom.
We, Europeans, regard the dragon as a wicked monster, enemy of man that plays dirty tricks on us, swallowing entire herds of cattle, destroying crops in the fields and fortified towns by vomiting fire on them, stealing princesses, and challenging knights to fierce fights. In other words, the European tradition reflected in fairytales and myths treated the dragon as quite an anti-social and even “criminal” creature. Many Ukrainian fairytales feature Zmiy Horynych (“Serpent the Woe-Bringer”), a creature mighty nasty and bad-tempered. By the end of a fairytale Zmiy is usually deprived of his head (three heads, or six heads, or even twelve heads) by a gallant bohatyr (“warrior”,”knight”). But in the pre-Christian, very ancient times, Ukrainian mythology treated the dragon-serpent as a protector either of the Cosmic Egg from which everything in this world has sprung, or of the Cosmic Tree which in the Slavic mythology was divided into three parts: the realm of the heaven, the realm of the earth, and the realm of the nether world. And the dragon-serpent was the ruler of the nether world. Since time immemorial, there have been known in Ukraine Cyclopean earthen fortifications, dubbed Serpent Walls. They snaked long distances across the land protecting the ancient land-tilling population of Ukraine from nomadic invasions, similarly to the Great Chinese Wall. Later generations forgot the original purpose of the earthen walls that had lost much of their height and protective purpose, and made up fairytales and legendary stories connected with them. There was, for example, a legend about Kuzma-Demyan the Blacksmith Empowered by God: Kuzma was the first one to forge a plow (according to one of the stories the metal he used was gold) and taught people how to plow the land. The Wicked Serpent came to wreak havoc upon the land, stumbled upon Kuzma’s smithy, but had time to do a lot of damage before Kuzma grabbed the Serpent’s evil tongue with his mighty tongs, harnessed him into the plow and began plowing the land.
Kuzma drove the Serpent on, the plow moved on leaving a deep furrow and high earthen walls on both sides stretching for miles. Thus they went along the Dnipro River all the way to the sea. There the Serpent rushed to the water edge to quench his terrible thirst and his sides burst, as he drank too much. That’s how, the legend tells us, the Serpent Walls were created. Fairytales, legends and myths live very long. In the twentieth century, in St Petersburg there lived a poet who sung his wife in his poetry: “From the Serpent’s lair, From Kyiv Town fair Have I taken a spouse, A veritable witch, not a mouse...”

The poet was Nikolay Gumilev, a brilliant officer of the Imperial Navy, head over hills in love with his wife, Hanna Horenko, who hailed from Kyiv. She herself became a poetess, one of the leading representatives of the “Silver Age” of Russian literature, and took the penname of Anna Akhmatova. Gumilev was shot by the Bolsheviks, these destroyers of people and of culture, for alleggedly plotting against their bloodthirsty regime. Many remarkable men were in love with Anna Akhmatova; the famous French painter, Italian-born Amedeo Modigliani, painted her portrait. Akhmatova must have told her husband many fairytales and legends that she had heard in her childhood in Kyiv, and his poem, several lines of which we have quoted above, may have been inspired by these stories. There was a place in Kyiv called “The Serpent’s Cave” (located in the part of town known as Kurenivka). As late as in the nineteenth century, visitors to Kyiv were shown a place in Kurenivka, where back in the times of Prince Volodymyr the Great (the one who in the tenth century brought Christianity to Kyiv) a monstrous dragon was said to have lived, horrible to look at. The dragon kept making raids on Kyiv suburbs until a stalwart named Mykyta Kozhumyaka (“the Dresser of Rawhides”) bravely faced the monster and slew him. Another fairytale? Yes, but Mykyta’s grave was also one of the sights of old Kyiv shown to the curious visitors. Could there be something to this story than just a flourish of fairy-tale imagination?

By Andriy Hlazovy