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The Fearsome Romanian Zmeu

Updated: Jan 12, 2020

Welcome to the Vade Mecum, a sort of guide book to the fanciful and curious worlds of D. Lieber. In this blog series, D. talks about all the little bits and bobs of research information she stumbled upon while writing her books. From folklore to mythology to science and history, it all finds a place here.


On the first ever edition of Vade Mecum, I want to talk about the Zmeu (pronounced Zzmeh-oo), the fearsome shapeshifting dragon from Romanian folklore.

According to my research, the zmeu is a humanoid dragon with very human desires. He can fly, breathe fire, has enormous strength, and can shapeshift. His favorite passtime is to kidnap beautiful women to try to "marry" them. A unique feature of the zmeu as opposed to other dragons is that he has a precious stone on his forehead that glows brightly.

An interesting tid bit I learned while researching is that "zmeu" used in modern Romanian refers to a kite, as in fabric pulled over a frame and attached to a string to fly.

When the zmeu shows up in Romanian folktales, it's because he's going to get defeated by a great hero. Often, that hero is Făt-Frumos (literally beautiful child, but effectively Prince Charming).

In one folktale entitled Greuceanu, which was collected by Petre Ispirescu (he's like Romania's version of the Brothers Grimm), some zmei (plural of zmeu) stole the sun and the moon.

Well, that was my knowledge of zmei before I started writing my time travel paranormal romance Once in a Black Moon. I wanted to keep as true to the folklore as I could, though I did veer ever so slightly.

The zemu in my story is named Grigore. He is a snarky asshole that readers seem to like for some reason...

Grigore can shapeshift and breathe fire. He can fly and, in his dragon form, has the gem on his forehead. In his human form, he has raven black hair and eyes that glint gold in the firelight. But be careful if you meet his eyes! He has a hypnotizing gaze that is quite effective at making you forget everything but him.

But Grigore is under a spell, controlled by our Romanian fae/hultan Mitica to stop him from causing chaos. Grigore was defeated by Făt-Frumos and was ordered executed by the wizard council, known as the zgrimties in my story. Mitica stepped in on his behalf, saying that he would take responsibility for Grigore, giving him a chance to repent and change his ways.

It's Grigore's backstory that truly splits from folklore. In my novel, he was once a fae, who deeply loved another fae. When she broke his heart, he vowed destruction on the world. So he "stole the sun and moon." As he puts it, "I conjured the darkest of clouds. For an entire season, the sky was the blackest night. Nothing grew, and no rain fell. And everyone suffered as much as I."

Well, obviously the zgrimties and the fae couldn't allow him to cause such suffering. They tried to dispel his blight, but he was too powerful. So they cursed him instead. They attempted to turn him into a balaur (another type of Romanian dragon, which is more easily controlled). But his magic was too strong, and he was turned into a zmeu instead.

That's all I can say without giving away too much of the story. But, if you want to read more about Grigore, and my other characters of Romanian folklore, check out Once in a Black Moon.

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    D. Lieber has a wanderlust that would make a butterfly envious. When she isn’t planning her next physical adventure, she’s recklessly jumping from one fictional world to another. Her love of reading led her to earn a Bachelor’s in English from Wright State University.

    Beyond her skeptic and slightly pessimistic mind, Lieber wants to believe. She has been many places—from Canada to England, France to Italy, Germany to Russia—believing that a better world comes from putting a face on “other.” She is a romantic idealist at heart, always fighting to keep her feet on the ground and her head in the clouds.

    Lieber lives in Wisconsin with her husband (John) and cats (Yin and Nox).

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