The Secret Life of Melusine: Mysterious Mermaid & Serpent Mother of European Nobility
Melusine is the spirit of fresh water, usually depicted as a woman who is a serpent or fish from the waist down, much like the mythical mermaid. She is also frequently illustrated with two tails. 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.
The Starbucks Logo: Melusine and her two tails; Deriv ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Sixteenth century Theologian Martin Luther 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.
Tour Mélusine ( Public Domain )
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).
The Fairy and the King: The Legend of Pressyne, the Mother of Melusine
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.
The woman took her children to the lost Isle of Avalon ( CC BY 2.0 )
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 condemned to take on the form of a serpent on Saturdays.
Melusine with a horn - wooden panel from St.Martin's Church in Zillis, Switzerland ( CC BY 2.0 )
The Mermaid and the Gentleman: The Legend of Melusine, the Mother of Kings
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…
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Top Image: Painting of a mermaid by Elisabeth Jerichau Baumann, 1873. ( Public Domain )