While writing my blog post about The Little Mermaid last week I couldn’t help but thinking of Melusine. Melusine’s story is very alike but also so different that she deserves a blog post of her own. Like Ariel, she has a fishtail, but unlike Ariel she doesn’t belong in the sea, but in sacred springs and rivers. Besides that Melusine has been an inspiration for writers, musicians, video games, and even coffee companies.
The chance that you see Melusine every day without realising that it’s her is quite big. Starbucks might have based its company name on a character in Moby Dick, the logo is a water-fairy called Melusine (I would include a picture here but I’m assuming that you’re all familiar with Starbucks logo and I don’t want to get sued).
Now, as a writer with a severe caffeine addiction, I could probably talk about coffee all day, but in this case Melusine is definitely more interesting.
The birth of Melusine
The earliest version of the story was probably penned by Welsh writer Walter Map who lived during the 12th century. Map spend a lot of his time in Paris, and even met Thomas Becket there. In his work De nugis curialium (of course it had to be in Latin) he recounts a very Melusine-like story. It’s all about a mother-in-law who witnesses her daughter-in-law changing into a dragon while she’s taking a bath.
I don’t want to give away too much of the story at this point, but what stands out here for me, is the fact that our ancestors have been sharing myths and legends with each other from very early on. As a side note this might be why our folkloric stories and traditions are so rich.
Moving on, the version that made Melusine famous is unquestionably the one which Jean d’Arras wrote down in the 14th century, and he probably wasn’t doing it for free.
John, Duke of Berry (pictured) had asked Arras to write a book called ‘The Noble History of the Lusignans.’ The Lusignans were a noble family based around Poitou. They had lots of inlfuence during the 14th and 15th centuries in Europe and the Levant.
John of Berry (nicknamed John the Magnificent) wanted to tell the world that he came from a noble line, that his title as Duke was deserved, and that his blood was far better than that of his subjects (he must have had a huge ego).
The only question is how? Simple! Claim to be descended from a faerie. D’Arras was very well aware of the purpose of the text that he was about to write, and included dates and historical notes to make the story more believable.
The story: how Melusine got a fishtail
As with so many family tales, the story starts before Melusine was born. One day the king of Scotland went hunting when he stumbled across a beautiful woman in the forest. She wasn’t just any lady, but a faerie called Pryssene. It doesn’t take the king long to fall in love with her and he goes down on his knees after exchanging only a few words. Pryssene agrees to his marriage proposal, but there’s one condition: he must never enter her chamber while she gives birth or bathes the children. This doesn’t seem like a very big sacrifice, so the king promises her to do as she asks.
And, yes! You’ve guessed it! The king broke his promise. He spied on his wife while she was giving birth to triplets. Pryssene was heartbroken, but she had no other choice and ran away to the Isle of Avalon. There she raised her three girls Melusine, Melior, and Palatyne. As the girls grew older they started to learn more about the outside world, and wondered why they were being brought up secluded from the world of men.
Pryssene grew tired of all those questions and told them who their father was and why he wasn’t there for them. Melusine was angry. The only thing she could think of was revenge.
When she was fifteen she and her sisters traveled to her father’s kingdom. They thought he should be punished for breaking his promise and used their magical powers to lock him up in a mountain with all of his wealth.
Pryssene was furious when she found out. She punished her daughters with a curse. From now on Melusine would take the form of a serpent (or a mermaid) every Saturday.
Melusine decides to explore the outside world (her sisters aren’t really mentioned anymore from this point forwards).
The story: Melusine meets her one true love
Raymond of Poitou is out hunting in the forest of Coulombiers. He can’t believe his eyes when he spots a beautiful girl sitting beside a fountain. For Raymond it’s love at first sight. As Melusine sits there in her shiny white dress he asks her to marry her. She says yes, but there’s one condition: he must never enter her chamber on a Saturday.
That doesn’t seem like a very big sacrifice, so Raymond agrees. The wedding takes place soon after and the years that follow are years of prosperity and plenty. There’s never a bad harvest, and Melusine spends her time building cities and castles. She gives Raymond ten sons and it seems like nothing can put an end to this fairy tale.
But people are people, and people love to gossip. Raymond’s advisers start to question his wife’s mysterious background. Tales of infidelity and deceit fill the castle and reach Raymond’s ear. For what else could she be doing every all alone every Saturday?
Raymond is determined to find out (I’m surprised that it took him that long). Next Saturday he sneaks on tip-toe to his wife’s chamber and watches trough the keyhole. He can hardly believe his it as he sees Melusine sitting in a tub, half-human, half-serpent.
Later, they have a terrible fight in front of the whole court. A shouting-match ensues, but then there’s a dreadful silence. Raymond had just called her ‘a serpent.’ It doesn’t take Melusine long to realise what has happened. She transforms into a dragon and flies off.
According to some legends she came back to see how her boys were doing, but according to others she was never seen again.
Some of her sons became noble and just kings. Others grew into power-hungry bullies. And then there were those who had to live with malformations as a constant reminder that their mother was a faerie.
What I love most about this legend as a writer is the fact that the story has an open ending.
I could be rational here, and say that it’s just a story, but I don’t really feel like being rational. Who knows what happened to Melusine after she transformed into a dragon? Did she return to the safety of Avalon? Is she keeping a close watch on our human world as the centuries fly by? And where are her sisters?
The house of Lusignans weren’t the only ones who claimed to be the descendants of a faerie. Richard I of England, better known as the Lionheart, was convinced that the same blood as Melusine ran through his veins, so did the House of Luxembourg.
Melusine inspired Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué to write his mermaid based novella Undine. The poet George Trakl wrote a poem entitled ‘Melusine’ in which he pities her fate, and a siren in the video game The Withcer has been named after her. And then there’s Starbucks.
Perhaps the real beauty of this tale lies in the fact that this faerie has inspired creators from many different ages and fields for centuries. It’s one of those tales that will never die.
Have you ever heard of Melusine? Were you familiar with the original story? And what will you be thinking next time you pass the Starbucks logo?
Let me know in the comments below! And don’t be afraid to call me out if I have made any mistakes.
Note: all images used are in the public domain. Contact me if you want to know more about them.