Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Who was Melusine? Water Fairy, Mermaid or Serpent?

Photo of Starbucks Coffee Bag
Have you ever looked at the Starbucks logo and wondered who or what that mythological creature was on it? Some say she is a mermaid, some say she is a siren and others a sea nymph. In actuality the beautiful maiden that is shown with a crown upon her head and two mermaid-like tails is none other than a "Melusine."

What is a Melusine, you ask? Let's go back in time to see the origins of this mythological creature whose tales date back to the Medieval times.

In ancient stories the tale of Melusine (sometimes Melusina) is spoken in reference to a water fairy who was stricken with a condition of being half-woman and half-fish (or serpentine) every Saturday. The tales were fabled to have started around spinning wheels, meaning that women were gossiping and telling stories while working.  As the story went, for long as Melusine's husband didn't see her on that one particular day of the week, all would fair well for everyone. As most fairy tales or legends usually go, nothing ever goes according to plan.

Two-Tailed Siren (15th Century)
Melusine, the daughter of Pressina a full-fledged water fairy and the daughter of a mortal man, King Elinas (or King Helmas) wasn't always a mermaid/serpentine creature. According to the myth and legend stories, she was stricken with this ailment or condition after her mother found out what Melusine did to her father, King Elinas.

King Elinas had met Pressina at the "fontaine de la soif" (Fountain of Thirst) and fell madly in love with her instantly. He then asked for her hand in marriage. Pressina agreed to marry the king under the condition that he never enter into her chambers during or just after childbirth. Shortly after the marriage she became pregnant with triplets and soon thereafter gave birth to three daughters Melusine, Melior, and Plantina. King Elinas' curiosity got the best of him after his elder son (from a previous marriage) insisted that he go in and see his wife and new babies. Pressina was so overcome with sadness because her king had broken his promise, that she takes the babies and runs away off to a hidden island, Cephalonia.

When the daughters are teenagers, Pressina takes the girls to look upon their father's realm. She tells the girls about the promise their father broke and Melusine decides to seek revenge against her father. She convinces her two other sisters to help her kidnap their father and imprison him inside of a mountain. Once Pressina finds out about this, she becomes very upset and punishes Melusine by telling her that she will become a half-fish/serpent creature every Saturday for the rest of her life.

Melusine goes on living in the forest until one day she stumbles across Raymondin,-Count of Anjou (some stories say Duke of Aquitaine), who had been very distressed due to accidentally killing his uncle during a boar hunt. He was unsure what to do, and since having come across Melusine, she promised him that she help him obtain riches, wealth and power to which he could never imagine and offered advice how to go about explaining the accidental death he caused of his uncle to his family. The new found companion he found in her, helped ease his grief. He was so pleased with Melusine's help that he asked her to be his bride. She agreed under one condition,  that he could not see her in her chambers on Saturdays, no matter what.

He agreed to the silly request and they were married at once. Melusine helped him gain power to the kingdom and build up the city of Poitou and newly built Lusignan, where Melusine became the mother of the Lusignan line. She even had the castle built in Lusignan and ruled over the land graciously and lovingly to her people.
Raymondin and Melusine

Over time the happy couple had in upwards of at least 10 children (most of which were born with a deformity of some sort). It was obvious due to the time span of so many children being born that they had been married for at least 10 years or more when Raymondin became pressured by family members about Melusine's odd Saturday activities. It became more curious when they mentioned that she didn't like to attend Mass at their Cathedral and Raymondin started wondering what she may be doing in her chambers by herself.

In a fit of jealousy (thinking she may also be cheating ) he peeked through the keyhole in the door to her chambers and sees her bathing in a tub. She appeared as beautiful as ever from the waist up, but from the waist down her fish or serpent-like body splashed around with a fierce tail.  Raymondin couldn't believe his eyes but never did he mention this to anyone until their son Geoffrey burned down the Church. He felt that Geoffrey was a bad soul and had perhaps inherited it from his wife, Melusine. He then accused her of being a "Faulse Serpente."  Melusine then is so distraught over the fact that Raymondin not only knew of her secret, thus he broke his promise, but also that he announced it to everyone of what she really was. Some books say Melusine then turned into a serpentine creature  or dragon and flew away, while I read another state she jumped out the window in her fish-like state and swam away into the river. She was said to visit her children in the night in human form but other stories claim that she was a bad omen, for if you saw her flying around crying out that meant an impending death in the land.

Jean D'Arras Book
 In French history, many royals all the way back to the days of Charlemagne have claimed to have descended from Melusine's family lineage. In fact, the Plantagenet families, Angevin lineage and the House of Anjou and Vere still claim lineage that date back to the story of Melusine. Amazingly, while researching this story I realized that I was learning about tales my own ancestors had spoken of, as my mother's family genealogy dates back to the royal families lines of Europe, including the all of the families spoken about  in many of these centuries old stories who claim ancestry to Melusine.

Author, Jean D'Arras wrote his major work Chronique de Melusine in 1393 after being commissioned to do so by the Duke of Berry. According to history the Duke of Berry was so fascinated with the story of Melusine, that his sister Marie (Duchess of Bar/Berry) told D'Arras to record all the information that he could find on Melusine to please her brother the Duke.

D'Arras spent numerous years researching and collecting information which followed William de Portenach's previous stories of Melusine. In 1478, D'Arras' last work Le Liure de Melusine en Fracoys was published posthumously.

According to the book, "The Serpent And The Swan: The Animal Bride In Folklore And Literature," the name "Melusine" was used by D'Arras and Couldrette as an abbreviation of the words 'Mere des Lusignan' or 'Mother of the Lusignans.'  Many other derivations of the name Melusine were suggested pairing the fairy story with Greco-Roman deities and even Celtic origins.

Melusine - Thüring von Ringoltingen

Another thought argued by Markale was the latinization of the greek words, "Melas-Leuke" meaning "Black and White."  So, pretty much the story of Melusine is one that defines double-nature meaning she was human and animal, good and evil, both male and female. The male and female part is weird, I know, but according to the stories the fact that she was fish-like or serpent-like gave the idea of her upper half being more feminine while her lower half was more phallus-like. 


In history, there proves to be a woman by the name of Melisende (or Melesende). Upon researching my family ancestry I had discovered that I am a descendant of Melisende and I also happen to be a descendant of her husband,  Fulk V- Count of Anjou. According to legend that King Richard I (Lion Heart) had made comments of his ancestor Fulk III (Fulk's grandfather) saying "We come from the Devil, and to the Devil we shall go."- meaning that because the story of Melusine had been attached to evil, cursed or even perhaps the spawn of the devil that the family bloodlines were tainted.

It was said that the Plantegenet line, Angevin, Vere and Anjou lineage all went back to the Melusine story. Even prior to the marriage of Fulk V and Melisende there had been rumored legends of ancestry to a mythical fairy that resembled Melusine's story. The names Melisende and Melusine sure sound a lot alike. Perhaps the actual name of Melusine in the story hadn't been conjured up for a few generations and then later on through stories passed on down generations later the names of actual people mixed together with the legend to create a leviathan of a story that old folklore is made of.



According to historical evidence, Melisende was born the daughter of King Baldwin II of Jerusalem (whose ancestry came from Rethel, France) and her mother was Morphia (daughter to Prince Constantine I of Armenia). Baldwin deferred to King Louis VI of France to recommend a Frankish vassel for his daughter's hand. He then in turn recommended a rich crusader and military commander, and possible a threat to Louis VI himself, the Count of Anjou, Fulk V.

Melisende married Fulk Anjou V (Count of Anjou) and bore a son Baldwin III whom the King wanted to to make heir to the throne.  In 1131 upon the untimely death of her father, Melisende became Queen of Jerusalem and co-ruler with her husband.  Contemporaries of Melisende who did rule during the same time included Urraca of Castille, Empress Matilda (wife of Geoffrey, son of Fulk V-Count of Anjou) and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

She proved to be a mighty ruler and a very strong minded and intellectual woman. She watched over her son and helped him rule over the land, although not without complications. Her strong will and "matriarchal" tendencies truly left a legacy of her motherly care and determination to take care of her son and her people no matter what, even at the cost of upsetting her son's feelings.

Personally, I think that if there is a connection to Melusine (half human/half animal) and to half-Armenian, half-French, Queen Melisende it is one of ignorance on the part of the peoples. History shows that Melisende was a human being, not a mythological creature or fairy. She was a strong willed and independent woman who knew what she wanted and did what she needed to protect her people and her family.

I know that in today's day in age that is respected as an independent spirit, but mind you, this was the late medieval period and men didn't like women to be rulers of kingdoms, speaking their mind and calling shots. Thus, I could see how the rumors or story telling could play into the fact that a half-blood woman (mixed European with Middle-Eastern) with a strong will could be thrown into a story as a half human-half animal creature who called the shots and was "evil" or "magical" in a sense. Its a shame that women couldn't be given the credit for having a brain in their head and the guts to speak their mind at that time and era.

Quite possibly the story and fables of this water fairy, nymph, mermaid, whatever you want to call "Melusine" may have very well originated with Queen Melisende. Over the hundreds of years and all the fables, legends and lore of this mythical fairy or "Dames Blanches" that were told for so long, that the real story of Queen Melisende was forgotten and a fictional one was created.


According to symboldictionary.com :

"A MELUSINE is a typical illustration of a twin-tailed siren or mermaid

This creature is associated with numerous stories and legends, and is imbued with symbolic meaning in alchemy. The most common iteration of the siren is as Melusine, a creature from medieval legend.

Melusine (sometimes, Melusina) was, according to legend, beautiful woman with a disturbing tendency to transform into a serpent from the waist down while bathing; it is the discovery of this nature that triggers calamity. 
Alchemal Siren (Melusine)
As the story is most often told, the cursed maiden is discovered in the forest by Raymond, the Duke of Aquitaine, who begs her to marry him. She agrees, on condition that he never disturb her on a Saturday, when she bathes. Raymond eventually grows suspicious of his young wife, and spies on her- and his shocked reaction to her true appearance reveals his betrayal to Melusine, who transforms herself into a dragon and departs in a shrieking fury. This story can be viewed as a metaphor for sexuality, and the contradictory duality of the female nature as viewed through medieval eyes.

The same dual-nature symbolism is also at work in alchemy, which employs the siren as a more benevolent emblem of enlightenment- the siren of the philosophers. Alchemically, the siren’s two tails represent unity -of earth and water, body and soul- and the vision of Universal Mercury, the all-pervading anima mundi that calls out and makes the philosopher yearn to her."

French Heraldry -Melusine

So in ending, yes, many tales tell of Melusine as a two-tailed mermaid and in others a more with a serpentine-like tail. Either way, Melusine was a water nymph or fairy and had some sort of magical powers in order to offer her love the wealth and prestige of a royal kingdom. I am sure the next time you pick up a cup of coffee, frap or even just hot cocoa at Starbucks you will never look at the fair maiden "Melusine" the same way again!

In my next article I will go deeper into the origins of Mermaids and the mythology behind it.

J'aime Rubio (2012) All Rights Reserved

Medieval France: An Encyclopedia
by:William Kibler
Melusine of Lusignan: Founding Fiction in Late Medieval France
by: Donald Maddox
The Serpent and the Swan: The Animal in Folklore and Literature
by: Boria Sax
Melusina- by: Jean D'Arras
The Shame Of All Her Kind: A Genealogy of Female Monstrocity and Metamorphosis From The Middle Ages Through Early Modernity- by:Maria Frangos
Melusine The Serpent Goddess in A.S. Byatt's Possession and in Mythology
by:Gillian M.E. Alban
Dragon Legacy: The Ancient History of an Ancient Bloodline
by: Nicholas De Vere, Tracy R Twyman
Symbol Dictionary.com

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