Sixteenth century Theologian Martin Luther has referred to Melusine unfavorably several times as a succubus and nineteenth century composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote a concert overture titled “The Fair Melusina”. These days, images of Melusine are still seen in the Vendée region of Poitou, western France, where one can drink Melusine-brand beer and eat Melusine-style baguettes. In Vouvant, paintings of her and her sons decorate the “Tour Melusine,” the ruins of a Lusignan castle guarding the banks of the River Mère, where visitors of the tower can lunch at the Cafe Melusine nearby. The image of Melusine is so famous and enduring that, perhaps without knowing her by name, we still recognize her image today as the logo for Starbucks Coffee.
Melusine is the spirit of fresh water – usually depicted as a woman who is a serpent or fish from the waist down. She is also frequently illustrated with two tails. The legends of Melusine are especially connected with the northern and western areas of France, Luxembourg and the Low Countries. Her name derives from Mère Lusine (“Mother of the Lusignans”), connecting her with Cyprus, where the French Lusignan royal house that ruled from 1192 to 1489 claimed to be her descendants. The legend of Melusine, therefore, is related to the territorial and dynastic expansion of her descendants beyond Lusignan across the Mediterranean to distant Armenia during the crusades (1095 – 1291).
One day, at the time of the Crusades, Elynas, the King of Albany, went hunting and saw a beautiful lady in the forest. The lady’s name was Pressyne. Elynas persuaded her to marry him and she agreed. However, Pressyne demanded a promise from him that he must never enter her chamber when she birthed or bathed her children.
The couple lived happily for some time until Pressyne gave birth to triplets. When, as one would expect to happen in these stories, her husband broke his promise, Pressyne left the kingdom, together with her three daughters, and traveled to the lost Isle of Avalon where her daughters — Melusine, Melior and Palatyne — would grow up.
On their fifteenth birthday, the eldest daughter, Melusine, asked her mother why she separated them from their father and took them to Avalon. After hearing of their father’s broken promise, Melusine sought revenge. She rallied her sisters and the three sisters captured Elynas and trapped him in a mountain. When she heard what her daughters have done, Pressyne punished them for their disrespect to their father. She condemned Melusine to take the form of a fish from the waist down every Saturday. In other versions of the legend, Melusine was condemed to take on the form of a serpent on Saturdays.
Some time later, history repeated itself when, while out hunting in the forests of the Ardennes, Raymondin, Lord of Forez in Poitou, a poor but noble gentleman, met the beautiful Melusine who was sitting beside a fountain in a glimmering white dress. Raymondin, who was so taken by her beauty and her amiability, fell head over heels in love with her. Melusine agreed to marry Raymondin on the condition he promises not to attempt to see her on Saturdays when she would go into seclusion.
Over the following years, the region of Poitou blossomed under Melusine’s directions. Melusine oversaw the building of cities and castles including her own seat, the Château de Lusignan. This connection between Melusine, with her fairy heritage, and the growing prosperity and fertility of the region of Poitou may have been one of the foundations of our modern construct of the benevolent fairy godmother.
During this time of prosperity, Melusine bore Raymondin ten sons – some of whom were said to be marked with strange signs and deformities because of their mixed heritage. All of Melusine’s sons would later become kings and tyrants. Through the heritage of the sons of Melusine, the elements of mythology are blended with history to align the supernatural founder of the dynasty of Lusignan with the aspirations of late feudal society. The practice of claiming descent from a supernatural being, even from gods and goddesses, has already been done by many leaders throughout the world, from the ancient Roman Emperor Augustus who claimed to be descended from the war god Mars to the ancient emperors of China who claimed to be descended from a divine dragon. By weaving the mythology of the supernatural from the folklore tradition into the royal lineage, the myths and the powers of Melusine can therefore be ascribed to the family name to add glamour and legitimacy.
With such ambivalence about Melusine’s background and her activities on a Saturday, tensions arose as suspicions of infidelity were planted in Raymondin’s mind. Curiosity overcame Raymondin and, one Saturday, he spied on his wife through the keyhole. He saw with his own eyes how the lower part of Melusine’s body took on animal qualities.
Unlike her mother before her, Melusine forgave her husband and stayed with him. However, one day in a heated argument, Raymondin blamed her for their children’s deformities and called her a monster. Despised by her husband, the heartbroken Melusine developed wings and jumped through the window, leaving a human footprint on the stone.
Melusine never forgets her children as she comes back at night to milk her babies in human form. As her sons grew older, Melusine would still return periodically to keep watch over her sons, flying around the castle crying mournfully. She was never far away from her beloved family as she is sometimes heard wailing at night, especially when the castle changes leadership. Her lineage continues in many parts of Europe and the Mediterranean as her sons became kings of new lands.
In the Luxembourgian legend of the story, Melusine was the wife of a noble knight, Count Siegfried, who lived at Koerich Castle. Although the legend is similar, this version tells us what happened to Melusine after she left her family. The legend says that, every seven years, Melusine appears in human form in the upper world above the cliffs, asking the passers-by to redeem her. If this does not happen, the white figure soars over the city crying, “Not for another seven years!” then sinks back into the cliffs.
One day, a courageous soldier who had traded shifts with a comrade was standing guard on the cliff-top at midnight. Melusine appeared to him in the form of a beautiful maiden and asked him to redeem her. She told him that it would be a difficult, but not impossible, task. However, she said that he should not attempt it if he thought that he might not succeed, because if he failed she would sink three times deeper into the earth. While she was speaking, a mighty rumbling sound arose from around the cliffs, causing the soldier to fear that they were about to collapse.
The soldier promised to do whatever he had to do to fulfill Melusine’s wish. Melusine then told him that, every night at the stroke of midnight for the next nine days, he would have to appear behind the altar of the Dominican Church. After he had done this nine times, on the tenth evening Melusine herself would appear to him in the form of a fiery serpent with a key in her mouth. He would have to take the key from her mouth and throw it into the Alzette River, thus accomplishing her redemption.
For eight nights the soldier stood behind the appointed altar at midnight, but he arrived late on the ninth night and did not see the fiery serpent that he was told would be waiting for him. Returning to his quarters, the soldier heard such howling and screeching from the cliffs that he thought all the wild animals were fighting one another in the air. However, no one else heard the noise. The howling was Melusine’s cry of anguish and she has not been redeemed even to this day.
A paper by Nikos Chausidis traces the development of “Mother Earth” iconography. The part that concerns us is that of the “zoomorphised female figure,” which is an archetype consisting of a birth-giving goddess whose lower anatomical features are represented by creatures of the lower earth – snakes or fish.
Many of the illustrations of the fish-legged Mother Earth are medieval depictions of creatures that are often identified as Sirens or two tailed mermaids. In classical mythology, the Sirens – famed for luring sailors to their death with their irresistible song – were usually taken to be a half-woman/half-bird. However, the Sirens’ association with the sea were highlighted, especially in the Christian era, by depicting them as half-woman/half-fish as fish also symbolize the lower realm.
Melusine is distinguished from the Sirens by having her origins in fresh water instead of salt water. The use of the image of Melusine is usually considered as a symbol of eloquence in its positive aspect. This is presumably in deference to the seductive song of the Sirens centuries before. The connection between Melusine and fertility is sometimes underlined by the bulging female abdomen that often features in the representations of her. The two tails, which are usually shown folded towards the mermaid’s head, are transformations of the legs of the earth goddess which are spread either in sexual relations or in childbirth.
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, much of Europe was in a state of turmoil. The plague of 1348 killed at least one third of the population. Peasant revolts in France, England, and Flanders, and the Great Schism undermined the social stability. With one pope in Rome and another in Avignon from 1378 to 1415, the religious stability of Europe at the time was also threatened.
Also during this period, the French monarchy was having difficulty producing male heirs. In 1316, both Louis X and his infant son died, leaving his country without a male heir and only his four-year-old daughter, Joan, to succeed him. Twelve years later, Charles IV died childless, therefore ending the senior branch of the Capetian line. Charles’ closest male relative, King Edward III of England, the son of Charles’ sister, created a pretext for the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), which would destroy much of the countryside of Western France for the next 116 years.
In response to this climate of uncertainty and disorder, a feeling of nationalism and amour du pays (“love of country”) arose. A corresponding national mythology to fill the void of powerful ideologies was therefore revisited to create a sense of stability. With this in mind, the French, apart from studying their origins more closely, also used symbols to represent the idea of France, such as the three lilies, the winged deer, and the Tree in the Garden of Paradise which represents the French territory.
It was within this context of identity-formation and the revisitation of the national mythology and symbolism that the poetic romance, Mélusine or Le Roman de Parthenay, was written by Coudrette for Guillaume l’Archevêque, lord of Parthenay, based on an earlier prose version of the tale by Jean d’Arras (1393). L’Archevêque traced his ancestry to the Lusignans, an aristocratic family with landholdings in western Poitou. This genealogical romance were meant to be a historical account and describes the founding of the Lusignan family by the main character, Melusine, a matriarchal fairy who built many towns and castles in the region.