DRAGON IN BOSNIAN TRADITION AND MYTHOLOGY
[Pick the date]
DRAGON IN BOSNIAN TRADITION AND
Ethnology | Rahid Esmerović
DRAGON IN BOSNIAN TRADITION AND MYTHOLOGY
A dragon is one of the original representatives of Bosnian mythology whose cult was widespread among our
Illyrian ancestors shaped in the belief of a black sky dragon who devours the sun or moon during an eclipse.
That's why an eclipse inspired hysterical fear from end of the world, and the Illyrian's tried to save themselves
banging on various metal buckets creating a dreadful noise in order to scare and chase away the dragon. The
black sky dragon among the Illyrian tribes was considered a god of evil and the belief was upheld until modern
times through various stories and legends.
The belief of our ancestors was preserved among the Bosnian people and that's why even today among the
elderly we can hear statements that claim that the eclipse is nothing else but a dragon devouring the sun.
That's why the elderly regularly warn people not to go anywhere during an eclipse, they should sit down and
wait for it to pass. Since a dragon is described as a large snake in Bosnian mythology we can see open hostility
of the sun and the snake. Namely, according to a belief from Central Bosnia when someone kills a snake the
sun stops in the sky and utters "May your hands be golden!", and if someone comes across a snake and doesn't
kill it the sun curses him with words "May your hands shrivel!".
An old Bosnian legend reveals that three sun's used to be in the sky, until a dragon ate two of them and the
third was saved by a swallow, which took it high into the sky. That's why a swallow and a dragon (snake) are
mortal enemies. As another legend mentions, the swallow saved mankind from a snake which went to god with
a wish to feast on humans. As soon as the swallow heard that, she managed to trick the snake into stretching
out her tongue and as soon as she did that, the swallow struck her tongue with her beak and split it into two
parts, the snake went to god, and she wasn't able to speak clearly which infuriated god who determined that
the snake shall feast on frogs and mice.
Among the Bosnian folk there are numerous beliefs and legends about snakes (dragon) as a confirmation how
much this animal represents a totem to our ancestors, it had a dominant role in the spiritual consciousness of
the Bosnian folk throughout history. Regardless of numerous legends the snake is after all considered as a
saviour of mankind which is best illustrated by the legend of Noah's ark and the mouse.
Bosniak women - the women that gave birth to dragons
One of the most mysterious Bosnian traditions is the one about the birth of snijet. Tabooed and of a holly
status, this tradition existed in Bosnia for centuries, until today where it only exists in stories and sayings of
older women. Some of them claim that they themselves gave birth to snijet or dragons.
The beginning of this tradition should be sought in the forefathers of the Bosnians, the ancient Illyrians who
saw the snake i.e. dragon as a central animal of their national and also religious cult. In favour of this the
ethnological records can be found among the Bosnians living in Montenegro and Albanians on Kosovo and
Albania, lands that once made up the vast Illyrian empire. We also need to mention another tradition which is
specifically connected to the Bosnian people and that is the one that mentions snakes entering and living inside
humans who happened to fall asleep outside, in the field or under a tree. This clearly points to the ancient
belief that snakes or dragons are directly connected to people and that physical permeations and mergers are
Mola hydatidosa or infanticide
The legend about dragons and their descendants which is called among the Bosnian folk snijet are an
inalienable part of the fascinating world of mythology of this country which sometimes seems so real and
tangible as in this sense. A long time before the twentieth century, when the ethnologists started gathering
ethnological data around Bosnia and Herzegovina, among the Bosnian folk one could hear, through an oral
tradition, a story that a woman gave birth to a snijet, a mysterious creature which was considered to be a baby
dragon. Since the ethnologists never saw a birth of a snijet they concluded that this is a phenomenon which is
called hydatidosa in medicine, a disease of the placenta where there are degenerative and proliferative
process's in the placenta, specifically in the part that stems from the fetus.
However the medical explanation doesn't mention the possibility of mola hydatidosa and the child being born
together or the possibility that the embryo develops into a fetus inside the diseased placenta. The same way,
when we look at the pictures of mola hydatidosa from a layman's perspective, we quickly ascertain that the
appearance and description of that disease have nothing in common with the claims made by the ethnologists
during their field work. The only similarities to the medical claims are the accompanying symptoms of profuse
bleeding after birth of the snijet, yet that phenomenon is common for most normal births, especially those in
the past. Namely, up until the last few decades of the past century, most childbirths were done at home,
individually or in the company of an experienced woman which is called a midwife, far from the hospital and
In such completely unprofessional conditions the tradition about the snijet was misused and women and girls
used it to hide abortions or the birth of deformed, retarded or extramarital children which they would kills right
after birth. Since the snijet has been tabooed from its beginnings each infanticide went unpunished. If
someone showed some interest for the childbirth the midwife would claim that "she had a snijet!" and that
would stop any further discussion.
But, such criminal behaviour and attitude recorded in isolated cases is not a justified reason to cease the
investigation about the snijet. Especially since the author of this text had the opportunity to meet an old lady
who vividly described her experience of giving birth to a snijet, which leaves little room for doubt.
God's punishment or blessing?
The ethnologists equated the word snijet to Ustilago maydis, because of the appearance, white colour and
shaped like a corn parasite. However, in some places there is a different opinion based on the white colour of
the placenta which uncommonly resembles an egg shell. The women usually described snijeti jaje i.e. carry
down an egg. With this interpretation we are getting close to the mythological theory of the birth of a dragon,
for which many legends claim that he actually came from a large egg.
There are a few versions of how a snijet is brought to this world. According to one of them if the woman has
intercourse during her menstrual cycle, and a child is conceived, God will punish her for that blasphemy and
she will give birth to a monstrous creation known as snijet. In the second version the woman is impregnated by
a dragon, when he sees her resting somewhere in the field after work or when he visits her while she is
sleeping. In a few ethnological publications we come across a few contradictions when it comes to the birth of
snijet, namely, while some parts of BIH experience snijet as God's punishment, others don't see anything bad in
it and claim that each Bosnian woman has given birth to snijet at least once in her life.
A woman can be pregnant with both a child and a snijet, which has catastrophic consequences for the fetus.
There were cases that a woman gives birth to a child with a dead snijet on its head, after which the child would
also die soon after. In the same way, if both are born alive, the folk belief is, that the child will die when the
snijet is killed or when it dies.
The dread that a woman will give birth to a snijet appeared if the birth process took longer than usual.
According to folk belief, snijet is delivered much harder than a normal child, the woman bleeds profusely and
recovers slowly. Influencing the woman's psychological state depended on the climate, especially if she gave
birth to a dead child. If the woman who gave birth to a snijet belonged to the part of the country that thought
it was punishment from God, she would go into deep depression and psychological crisis, spending most of her
days in bed. However if her surrounding saw snijet as a good thing (sevap) then her recovery would be much
faster and her psychological state stable.
Snijet can be born along a child or by itself. If that happens in most cases the baby would be born dead or
would die soon after birth. There were cases when the child survived but that happened only if the snijet didn't
come to life inside the woman's womb. When the snijet is alive inside the womb, it then attacks the child and
eats it, that's why the child is born with a deformity or disease. Apparently, the snijet bites and eats the child's
head, arm, leg or bites it on its back "and eats its entire lungs while it is still in the mother's womb".
According to the confessions of women that gave birth to a snijet or that witnessed such an event, the child
leaves the woman's body first followed by a snijet. Each woman, no matter the geographical location inside
Bosnia, describe the snijet identically: "Snijet resembles a mole, it's the same colour and size, except it doesn't
have any hair" or "Snijet mostly resembles a mole, it's black, has no hair on it, but everything else resembles a
mole, the nose, body and legs". This description is also interesting: "it looks like a black piece of liver that has
Escape from the mother
As mentioned earlier, snijet can be born by itself, or with a child, in a white placenta. If the pregnant woman is
only carrying snijet in her womb, then her pregnancy doesn't last for nine months, but three to four. But,
nevertheless, all through that short pregnancy she feels standard accompanying symptoms which are similar
during normal pregnancy.
In most cases snijet was born alive and as soon as it came out of the woman, it showed strength and a
developed instinct for survival, because according to the testimony of numerous women, "the moment it
comes out it runs away from people, you can't catch it, it runs like a mouse and climbs walls". If the pregnant
woman would give birth by herself, without anyone's help, which was frequent in the past, then the snijet
escaped without much problems and later it transformed into a dragon.
According to the statement of an old lady from Žepa, who gave birth to two snijet besides her eleven children,
sevap (good thing) is when someone gives birth to a snijet "it's as if the woman gave birth to two healthy
children". The same lady said the following: "a woman who gives birth to a snijet three times, has all of her sins
forgiven and after death she will go straight to heaven, that proves how happy God is when a snijet is born!"
Even though the birth of a snijet was tabooed for fear of judgement or ridicule of the environment, it was
treated with respect, besides the fact it was killed, which can be seen in the fact that it was forbidden to throw
a dead snijet into the garbage can, one needed to bury it wrapped in a cloth together with the placenta, under
a young tree or farmyard manure. Behind such a rule one can see the human fear of a dragon retaliation
because of the death of its cubs, therefore the wrapping inside a cloth and burying needed to hide such a deed.
Three suns and a dragon
According to folk belief of the Bosnian people when the Earth was created there were three suns until one day
a giant dragon swallowed up two and the third one was saved by a swallow. But, the dragon is immortal and he
lives in the large sea in the east. Every morning when the sun appears the dragon opens his mouth and flies
towards it, however he is prevented by an angel that strikes the dragon in the mouth with a thunder bolt and
the dragon returns back into the sea. As soon as the dragon recovers he flies out of the sea and blows in the
direction of the sun and then a wind is created form the mist and is dispersed all around the world.
Husein-Captain Gradaščević – the Bosnian dragon
Among the Bosnian people there were always those individuals whose supernatural powers were known to
many. One of the most famous Bosnian magicians, whose knowledge came from ancient Arabic teachings, was
Hadži-beg Rizvanbegović, the captain of Stolac, who lived during the end of 17th and beginning of the 18th
century. According to legend he was an educated man who was very lively who showed interest for astronomy
and the occult in his early age. At that time in his travels to Istanbul the captain of Stolac came across the
Ottoman translations of the old Persian books of magic which helped him open the door to the supernatural.
The occult power that he gained practicing the ancient rituals allowed him to influence the people around him
and the astrological practice allowed him to see into the future. How successful he was is shown by one of the
tales that say that he accurately predicted the date of his death. In his town, Hutovo, it was said that he had a
secret chamber in the tower where he would go to be alone in order to write magic and magical squares and to
call forth the Jinn.
The power that he enjoyed, both the magical and military, made him the most controversial person of the
time. The old scriptures describe him as a rigid man, very shrewd and often arrogant. And as it always happens
with great wizards, his fame didn't die with him but it spread through many folk tales and legends from which
one is still active today and that is that on the ruins of his town there are no snakes to be found anywhere.
Namely, all of them go around the ruined city of mystical powers.
Besides Hadži-bega Rizvanbegovića the occult history of Bosnia mentions Mujo Hrnjica, a very charismatic and
almost pagan character, with whom many stories and legends are identified. When his life is analysed in more
detail we get the full picture of the hero of pagan Bosnia, long before the appearance of monotheism. All
legends claim that Mujo was in contact with fairies, supernatural beings. The name Gorska vila is often
mentioned which is also called his stepmother and whose milk made Mujo a big and strong warrior. His occult
power is best described by folk songs where his communication and the benefit from it is described. It is also
believed that Mujo carried with him all his life, until death, an amulet made out of nine beads of wheat sown
into a red bag on the right side of his body.
It is interesting to note that the same amulet which alluded to Mujo Hrnjica was carried by numerous soldiers
coming from North-Western part of Bosnia during the last war (1992-1995) when Serbia and Montenegro
undertook genocide and an aggression on Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Historian and an archaeologist prof. dr. Enver Imamović, professor at the Faculty of Philosophy in Sarajevo,
confirmed to the author of the book "Zapisi i Hamajlije" by the journalist Ahmed Bosnić, that talismans and
amulets are an inseparable part of Bosnian tradition and that they are equally liked by both the Christians and
In the past decades- dr. Enver Imamović claims- that no house, i.e. no family could go without an amulet or
talisman . They were carried by villagers, merchants, civil servants but also royalty and caesarean employees,
soldiers and generals.... Everyone carried amulets and talismans, but their power and influence was dependant
on those who made them, because the level of spiritual education of the creators of amulets was diverse.
Probably the most famous amulet in BIH was the shirt-amulet of Husein-Captain Gradaščević, better known as
the Bosnian dragon, to whom a skilful Imam wrote various verses of the Qur'an on his linen shirt, chapters,
magical squares and circles. The property of this amulet was that the wearer of the amulet is protected from all
sorts of weapons. Since the construction of such an amulet was cumbersome it was very valuable and
As Husein-Captain Gradaščević was remembered in history as the defender of Bosnia from the Turks, the folk
belief was that mere mention of his name had magical and protective powers. The gate of the old castle in
Gradačac where the captain resided served as a motif for the amulet among the folk. Namely, on white tissues,
the women would sow the picture of the door on which there was a sword and a mace, while they repeated a
magical formula over and over again: "Benefactor of the people, for the defence of the people Husein-captain".
Such an amulet was apparently small and a poor version of the shirt-amulet for which it was believed that it
protected the wearer from any and every weapon and evil.