Bulgarian folklore is filled with tales about dragons (zmei, male and lamia, female) who lived in forest and mountains in caves, holes, or cracks in rocks. Serpents or carp would turn into dragons if they were not seen by humans for forty years. Therefore, dragons often had characteristics of various other creatures: snakes, fish, birds, and even humans. Flashes of lightning, shooting stars, large clouds, and rainbows were ways dragons manifested themselves.
The lamia is what we typically consider a dragon to be: dangerous and malicious. She does not appear as a human like the zmei. Some tales describe her as a “huge lizard with a dog’s head. Her mouth is so big that it can swallow a whole man and her body is covered with yellow scales. The Lamia also has wings, four legs, sharp claws, and a long tail.” Some had three, seven, or nine heads.
The zmei, however, who often was depicted as a man with wings under his arms. was more kind. He often fought against the lamia when she appeared as a storm or hail to destroy crops. The zmei didn’t abduct a maiden to harm her. Instead, it is because of his great love for her. He often tries to entice her to marry him, telling her of the riches she will have. If persuasion fails, the zmei restorts to abducting the maiden while she performs the horo dance in the village. However, the dragon’s marriage to a human always meets with misfortune. The bride suffers depression and is ostracized from the community.
One tale tells of a girl who married a dragon she met at his well. After a few years, she wanted to visit her family. Unfortunately, she had grown a dragon’s tail. Wanting to appear normal to them, she kept trying to bite it off. When she heard the songs of friends she had once known, she became frantic and died when her heart burst with the effort of removing the tail. The girls buried her by the well. Every year thereafter they performed a buenetz dance, not the traditional circle horo dance. In the buenetz, they dance in a snakelike fashion in honor of the dragon maiden.