A Predator’s History


Happy Halloween, everyone!

Let’s talk about zmeys.zmey

A zmey (змей, sometimes inaccurately translated as “dragon”) is a creature from Balkan mythology. They fly, they have scales, they can shape-shift, and they like to either eat or have sex with humans.

I’ve wanted to do something with zmeys (zmeyove, if you want to be pedantic about plurals) for a long time, but finally a conversation with Melissa Walshe got me off my butt and writing some thoughts about what it would mean to be an obligate anthropophage.

Let’s say I (a zmey) need to eat 1 pig a week to survive (assuming no other sources of meat), that gives me 52 pigs a year. A pig is about the mass of a human, so a ratio of about 1 zmey to 50 humans is a good estimate of the predator dynamics of this situation. Dunbar’s number (for humans) is between 150 and 200 people, which sets the limits of a traditional human settlement (i.e. a village or a tribe), which could support a family of three to four zmeys. So you got your mommy zmeyka, daddy zmey, and two little baby zmeycheta.

Zmeys should have an instinctive distrust of anyone outside their nuclear family (and want to drive off their older children as they have more babies). So they don’t have much culture. They can’t cooperate or learn from each other, but they have to be much smarter than humans (individually and as a village) in order to hunt effectively. A long lifespan and a certain ruthlessness (psychopathy?) wouldn’t hurt either.

For their prehistory, zmeys live in small family units widely scattered with their human herds. But in some places, the land is rich enough to support high enough populations of humans, that more than eight zmeys can come together in one place. They exchange ideas, and kick off the agricultural revolution as the next step in the domestication of humans.

Human and zmey populations boom, but zmeys really aren’t built to live together, and start to go to war (giving us our mythology about gods using humans to settle their disputes). War continues until someone invents writing. Now, zmeys can live at great distances from each other, but still share ideas through letters. Zmeys very quickly develop high technology, using it to build up human populations even higher (resulting in the dawn civilizations: Indus, Mesopotamia, Minoa, Egypt, Yellow River).

Things are looking great until a human rebellion uses those weapons against the zmeys, and the resulting war causes a population crash that destroys zmey (and human) civilization. Coming out of the catastrophe into early classical history, the zmeys’ policy becomes cryptic. They hide themselves and their technology from humans, preying upon and manipulating their cattle from the shadows. Many of the “great men” of history are zmeys.

Thus things go until the discovery of the New World, and its population of zmeys who split off from their Old-World brethren before the population crash, and still take an active part in human politics (there are no native zmeys in Australia, and sub-saharan Africa is a monastic retreat, FYI). The resulting war obliterated the New World zmeys and their prey populations, but necessitated “controlled sharing” of zmey secrets with their human cattle in Europe, resulting in the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and the Industrial revolution.

Now that the dust is finally settling, the much larger, much more heavily networked population of zmeys is considering its next step. What’s that going to look like?


Thanks to Peter Watts for finding a plausible evolutionary history and biology for  “vampires” and to Melissa Walshe for thinking about their ecology a bit more. Gene Wolfe also deserves some credit for reverse-engineering the idea of zmeys.

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