According to legend, Ljubljana was founded by the Greek mythological figures of Jason and the Argonauts, who had stolen the Golden Fleece from King Aetes. While returning home across the Black Sea and up the Danube, Sava and Ljubljanica Rivers, they stopped at a large lake in the marshes near what would become Ljubljana. The lake was the dwelling place of a monster, later Ljubljana’s dragon, which Jason fought and killed.
There are two other, slightly more realistic versions of the dragon’s origins. The patron of the Ljubljana Castle’s chapel is Saint George. He is often portrayed killing a dragon with a spear. The dragon in this legend symbolises paganism, the older religions that had to submit to Christianity. In Slavic mythology, the animal is an illustration of the god Veles. The dragon symbol could also have evolved from the decoration on the medieval city coat of arms, which had initially represented only the city walls or gates. The Baroque movement moved the tiny animal, made as a decoration above the coat of arms, into the emblem, where it eventually overgrew the tower and the other symbols.
From History to Pop Culture
While the dragon remains, a prominent figure on Ljubljana’s coat of arms, it also adorns the top of the Castle tower and has been depicted as part of the emblem in a number of buildings owned by the city. Furthermore, it has its own bridge, built across the Ljubljanica River between 1900 and 1901. Dragons guard the four corners of Zmajski most (Dragon Bridge), one of Ljubljana’s better examples of Art Nouveau architecture.
Since the Second World War, the symbol has grown into a something of a pop cultural and corporate image. It has been used widely in different ways and by different companies: on the labels for bottles of Union beer, as the name of a battery factory or as the prize for fashion achievements. It was even depicted on the pack of the famous Filter 57 cigarettes. Its name is used for many sports clubs, a kindergarten, a dry cleaner and a well-known confectioner, Zmajčkov butik (The Little Dragon Boutique). On the banks of the Ljubljanica River, you can embark on the boat bearing the name Ljubljanski Zmaj (Ljubljana Dragon) which will take you on a ride from the centre of Ljubljana to the spring of Ljubljanica near Vrhnika.
The Mascot and the Secret Code
Ljubljana also uses the dragon as a means of city promotion. A visitor to the city can take part in The Dragon’s Secret or The Dragon Code adventure. These programmes are great opportunities to explore the city step by step, interact with locals and decipher different puzzles (depending on the programme) one by one. These adventures are great for both smaller groups as well as for larger ones practising teambuilding.Last but not least, the dragon is the official mascot of the Union Olimpija basketball team, entertaining and encouraging every home game they play. The giant green dragon, played by Miha Kiselak, a member of the Dunking Devils acrobatic basketball team, is a great attraction especially in the new hall in the recently built sports park Stožice. People cheer and dance and take pictures with him, and generally find satisfaction in visiting even if the game itself was not to their liking. “Green Dragons” is, incidentally, also the name of the supporters of the Olimpija branch of sport clubs in Ljubljana.