The Eco-Friendly Dryads of Slavic Fantasy Literature

It should come as no surprise that dryads, the spirits of trees, are eco-friendly.  But did you know they play important roles in Slavic fantasy novels? 

Angelina Gerus, Kristina Kachur and Elena Kaplich are Philology students from the Belarus State University.  At the Our Mythical Hope conference in Warsaw in May 2017, they presented their work on the Dryads that appear in Polish and Belarussian literature.  I’m very pleased to share their work here: a text, and a link to a very beautiful poster they produced for the conference: Dryades (1).  Life, like Dryads, is elusive and slippery, and so it has taken us some time to make this post.  As you read, think about the trees, and the spirits that linger among them . . . Elizabeth Hale

Dryads in Slavic Fantasy Literature

Dryads are among the best known nymphs and were frequent figures in ancient Greek and Roman literature. Many ancient authors (from Callimachus to Ovid) mention them, in various situations and with different purposes.


In our poster we examined how the character of dryads is interpreted in works such as “The sword of destiny” by the great Polish fantasy writer Andrzei Sapkowski, and “The faithful enemies” and “The trap for a necromancer” by the Belarusian fantasy writer, Olga Gromyko.

Andrzej Sapkowski is a popular contemporary Polish novelist. “The Witcher”, an action role-playing computer game known worldwide, is based on his works. Sapkowski’s novels are greatly awarded and have been translated into 19 languages. The Sword of Destiny is translated from original to English by David French.

Olga Gromyko is a Belarussian author well-known in the Post-Soviet area. Her novels, which are peculiar mythological transformations of the Slavic world, belong to humorous and heroic fantasy.

Dryads in Modern Youth Literature

In these novels we noticed that the tree as mythopoetic type is in demand in modern youth literature. Dryads as the personification of trees symbolize virginal nature, and the use of such characters in texts often appeals to a young reader to be eco-friendly.

Here are some points about how dryades teach young readers to be eco-friendly:

First, by attractive appearance. These woodland goddesses are described as incredibly good-looking young women. They personify nature’s beauty that is too unique and valuable to spoil. That leads adolescent readers to admire environment, encourages their attempts to set up contact with it and to save its integrity.

«Although she was petite and    slender, the trunk seemed thinner still. Geralt did not understand how he could have failed to notice her arrival. Her garment … had effectively camouflaged her. Her hair, tied back by a black scarf at her brow, was olive-colored, and stripes painted with walnut ink streaked her face» (A. Sapkowski, The sword of destiny).

Obviously, it’s a reflection of the image appeared in the antique tradition. Let us compare how in “Metamorphoses” (VI, 453) Ovid describes the dryades’ beauty:

“Richly robed in gorgeous finery, and richer still her beauty; such the beauty of the Naides (Naiads) and Dryades (Dryads), as we used to hear, walking the woodland ways”.

Second, they are perfect mentors and facilitators for children. Dryads’ solicitous attitude to children teaches the reader that he or she can trust the nature and feel safe in harmony with it. According to Sapkowski, they sometimes raise normal, human children as dryads. The emphasis here should be on the fact that this trait, kid-friendliness, is not so much processed in the ancient authors’ works:

«… dryades love little children and are perfectly capable of looking after them» (O. Gromyko, The Trap for a Necromancer).

Third: dryads’ militancy. In case of danger, nature can stand up for itself. According to Sapkowski, they are known for their amazing archery skills (they can easily kill a human from the distance of 200 feet), as well as their love of the trees, forest and music. Therefore Statius (in “Thebaid” IV, 259; trans. Mozley) calls them “Forest-queens” and Valerius Flaccus (in “Argonautica” I, 105; trans. Mozley) – “woodland goddesses”.

«If you catch the moment when the dryad is inside and begin to hack at the ash with an axe, then the blood will not flow from it, but an angry hag will come out and punch you in the eye without hesitation» (O. Gromyko, The Faithful Enemies).

The next point is their ecological lifestyle. With their own example dryades show how to treat environment: not to kill animals, not to cut the trees and do anything that can spoil the nature and ruin the balance.

«That’s the way the dryads live, and   that’s how they construct their homes. A dryad never hurts a tree by cutting or sawing. They know nevertheless how to grow the branches to form shelters» (A. Sapkowski, The Sword of Destiny).

It’s strongly connected with the theory of the dryades’ integrity with trees. But Sapkowski’s interpretation goes forward and becomes more physical and material than the initial concept: now the tree is not soul as much as habitation. It’s noticeable in confrontation with Callimachus (“Hymn IV to Delos”, 75; trans. Mair):

“Goddesses mine, ye Mousai (Muses), say did the oaks come into being at the same time as the Nymphai (Nymphs) [Dryades]? The Nymphai rejoice when the rain makes the oaks to grow; and again the Nymphai weep when there are no longer leaves upon the oaks”.

Dryads, Humans, and the Delicate Balance of Ecology

Last is dryads’ relations with humans.
The consumer attitude towards nature leads to a violation of the ecological balance, which is symbolized by the war of people against dryads. Ecofriendliness teaches to the mutual respect and equal partnership. This is a brand new course, because a modern person perceives nature no more from the mythological standpoint, that was actual in the antiquity. A dryad now isn’t a lovely living-in-forest girl, who evokes gods’ and people’s delight and admiration. Now it’s nature in the whole: every lake, tree or flower that may suffer from human activity.

«Such an entity hurts our pride, irritates us and keeps us awake,        as we are, we humans, the owners of the world. We can tolerate in this world some elves, dryads or naiads, provided these creatures stay discreet. Accept our will, Sovereign of Brokilone, or perish» (A.Sapkowski, The Sword of Destiny).

«The slanting rays of the setting sun glided along the white foliage, not piercing it, but filling the crowns with a soft golden glow. Smooth trunks as majestic columns propped up the dome of a living temple, and in the sad rustling of falling ash keys I seemed to hear a distant, melting laughter of the old Dryad» (O. Gromyko, The Faithful Enemies).


Ecological literacy is an issue of the day. Modern youth literature introduces the concept to its audience by recognizable and attractive characters: dryades, who encourage young readers to attentive and careful treatment of nature/environment.

– Angelina Gerus, Kristina Kachur, Elena Kaplich



Watch out for the beast! Pandora and Hadestown

 Anna Mik is an expert in chasing mythical beasts, and has discovered two curious ones for our Saturnalian summer.  One appears in a picture book, Pandora and the other in a hit Broadway musical, Hadestown.  Anna  is a PhD student at the University of Warsaw  Faculty of Artes Liberales, and a research assistant in the Our Mythical Childhood project.  Her PhD topic is The Mythical Other: the Study of the Animal in  Children’s Reception Culture.  Read on, to find the mythical beasts at the heart of these beautiful texts. 

— Elizabeth Hale

Watch out for the beast!

This year I have started to work more with classical culture – it came rather naturally as I also have started the work in “Our Mythical Childhood” project. Many cultural texts came to me – or came back – and gave me the opportunity to look at them in a new, often unexpected way.

The main approach in my research is that of animal studies, as I try to track all the mythical creatures that have been lost in the contemporary world. One that I have found recently was wearing a disguise not easy to unravel. The other one – was not even an animal in the literal way. Both of them I would like to evoke for this year Saturnalia on Antipodean Odyssey – as I’m sure it’s a safe space for all creatures.

Pandora the lonely vixen

My first text is a discovery of the year 2017 – a picture book Pandora  by Victoria Turnbull. She tells a story about the lonely vixen – the Pandora of the title – who lives “in a land of broken things.” In her world, seemingly a wasteland with no life in it, everyday she tries to “keep swimming” and organises her time by fixing all the things that has been destroyed. In one scene she sews a teddy bear together, which might be a symbolic way to show her deep longing for  company. Suddenly her dream comes true – a blue bird with a broken wing appears in her world. It too needs fixing – and Pandora is very good at it. They develop an unique connection.

Pandora, box, bluebird: a scene from Victoria Turnbull’s beautiful book

As the bird gets better and starts to fly, it brings Pandora something in return – seeds and pieces of plants from far-away lands. Everything seems to be perfect – until one day the bird does not come back. Pandora gets depressed and all hope is lost from her world. But not for long. The seeds and plants that the blue bird previously brought, now begin to grow, bringing back life in the land of broken things. At the end Pandora even hears the song sang by her friend. Hope grew slowly, but has never been truly lost.

The beast of Hadestown

The second beast that I would like to call in is America presented in Anaïs Mitchell’s album (that then expanded to a musical project) Hadestown (2010). Each song is sung by different characters (Hades, Persephone, Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes, Fates, etc.) that corresponds with each other in telling a not yet complete story (that is presented in the musical based on this album).

The album of Hadestown — Orpheus and Eurydice in TrumpAmerica???


Ruled by Hades and Persephone, fought by love of Orpheus and Eurydice, the world of consumerism and destruction is a rather sad diagnosis of the contemporary reality of the United States and the American Dream.

The story starts with a rather happy event – a planning of the wedding of probably the  most tragic couple in Greek Mythology – Orpheus and Eurydice (click here to hear the song). The girl decides to go to Hadestown – a land of prosperity and work opportunities, since Orpheus and his music are not enough to provide for both of them. Her decision is necessary, but tragic – the work that she will be forced to do is never-ending in Hadestown.

Just like Sisyphus, everyone there is not truly happy, but at the same time realises that this is the best they can get – poverty is much, much worse. The song “Why We Build the Wall” sung by Hades now has a new meaning. Back in 2010 it was simply a symbolic phrase describing the necessity of separation of poor and rich. After the presidential election in 2016 in the USA the song gained a new meaning, and president Donald Trump appears to be a modern Hades. His Hadestown (Trumptown?) called America, is a mythical beast, that certainly must be tamed.

Those two examples of a modern mythical menagerie are not obvious. They are not like sirens or centaurs that we can directly relate to the classical tradition. But with much appreciation for reception studies, this is what can re-read in the texts using classical tools, discovering that antiquity is the world that we still live in.

–Anna Mik