Melusine or Melusina is a figure of European folklore and mythology, a female spirit of freshwater in a sacred spring or river.
She is usually depicted as a woman who is a serpent or fish from the waist down (much like a mermaid). She is also sometimes illustrated with wings, two tails, or both.
Her legends are especially connected with the northern and western areas of France, Luxembourg, and the Low Countries. The House of Luxembourg (which ruled the Holy Roman Empire from AD 1308 to AD 1437 as well as Bohemia and Hungary), the Counts of Anjou and their descendants the House of Plantagenet (kings of England) and the French House of Lusignan (kings of Cyprus from AD 1205–1472, and for shorter periods over Armenia and Jerusalem) are said in folk tales and medieval literature to be descended from Melusine.
One tale says Melusine herself was the daughter of the fairy Pressyne and king Elinas of Albany (now known as Scotland). Melusine’s mother leaves her husband, taking her daughters to the isle of Avalon after he breaks an oath never to look in at her and her daughter in their bath.
The same pattern appears in stories where Melusine marries a nobleman only after he makes an oath to give her privacy in her bath; each time, she leaves the nobleman after he breaks that oath. Shapeshifting and flight on wings away from oath-breaking husbands also figure in stories about Melusine.
According to Sabine Baring-Gould in Curious Tales of the Middle Ages, the pattern of the tale is similar to the Knight of the Swan legend which inspired the character “Lohengrin” in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival.
The most famous literary version of Melusine tales, that of Jean d’Arras, compiled about 1382–1394, was worked into a collection of “spinning yarns” as told by ladies at their spinning coudrette.
He wrote The Romans of Partenay or of Lusignen: Otherwise known as the Tale of Melusine, giving the source and historical notes, dates, and background of the story. He goes into detail and depth about the relationship of Melusine and Raymondin, their initial meeting and the complete story.
The tale was translated into German in 1456 by Thüring von Ringoltingen, which version became popular as a chapbook. It was later translated into English c. 1500, and often printed in both the 15th century and the 16th century. A prose version is entitled to the Chronique de la Princesse (Chronicle of the Princess).
It tells how in the time of the Crusades, Elynas, the King of Albany (an old name for Scotland or Alba), went hunting one day and came across a beautiful lady in the forest. She was Pressyne, mother of Melusine. He persuaded her to marry him but she agreed, only on the promise—for there is often a hard and fatal condition attached to any pairing of fay and mortal—that he must not enter her chamber when she birthed or bathed her children. She gave birth to triplets. When he violated this taboo, Pressyne left the kingdom, together with her three daughters, and traveled to the lost Isle of Avalon.
The three girls—Melusine, Melior, and Palatyne—grew up in Avalon. On their fifteenth birthday, Melusine, the eldest, asked why they had been taken to Avalon. Upon hearing of their father’s broken promise, Melusine sought revenge. She and her sisters captured Elynas and locked him, with his riches, in a mountain.
Pressyne became enraged when she learned what the girls had done, and punished them for their disrespect to their father. Melusine was condemned to take the form of a serpent from the waist down every Saturday. In other stories, she takes on the form of a mermaid.
Raymond of Poitou came across Melusine in a forest of Coulombiers in Poitou in France and proposed marriage. Just as her mother had done, she laid a condition: that he must never enter her chamber on a Saturday. He broke the promise and saw her in the form of a part-woman, part-serpent, but she forgave him. When, during a disagreement, he called her a “serpent” in front of his court, she assumed the form of a dragon, provided him with two magic rings, and flew off, never to return.
In The Wandering Unicorn by Manuel Mujica Láinez, Melusine tells her tale of several centuries of existence, from her original curse to the time of the Crusades.
Melusine legends are especially connected with the northern areas of France, Poitou, and the Low Countries, as well as Cyprus, where the French Lusignan royal house that ruled the island from 1192 to 1489 claimed to be descended from Melusine.
An oblique reference to this was made by Sir Walter Scott who told a Melusine tale in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802–1803) stating that:
“ the reader will find the fairy of Normandy, or Bretagne, adorned with all the splendour of Eastern description. The fairy Melusina, also, who married Guy de Lusignan, Count of Poitou, under condition that he should never attempt to intrude upon her privacy, was of this latter class. She bore the count many children, and erected for him a magnificent castle by her magical art. Their harmony was uninterrupted until the prying husband broke the conditions of their union, by concealing himself to behold his wife make use of her enchanted bath. Hardly had Melusina discovered the indiscreet intruder, than, transforming herself into a dragon, she departed with a loud yell of lamentation, and was never again visible to mortal eyes; although, even in the days of Brantome, she was supposed to be the protectress of her descendants, and was heard wailing as she sailed upon the blast round the turrets of the castle of Lusignan the night before it was demolished. ”
The Luxembourg family also claimed descent from Melusine through their ancestor Siegfried. When in 963 A.D. Count Siegfried of the Ardennes bought the feudal rights to the territory on which he founded his capital city of Luxembourg, his name became connected with the local version of Melusine.
This Melusina had essentially the same magic gifts as the ancestress of the Lusignans, magically making the Castle of Luxembourg on the Bock rock (the historical center point of Luxembourg City) appear the morning after their wedding.
On her terms of marriage, she too required one day of absolute privacy each week. Alas, Sigfrid, as the Luxem-bourgish call him, could not resist temptation, and on one of the forbidden days, he spied on her in her bath and discovered her to be a mermaid. When he let out a surprised cry, Melusina caught sight of him, and her bath immediately sank into the solid rock, carrying her with it. Melusina surfaces briefly every seven years as a beautiful woman or as a serpent, holding a small golden key in her mouth. Whoever takes the key from her will set her free and may claim her as his bride. In 1997 Luxembourg issued a postage stamp commemorating her.
Martin Luther knew and believed in the story of another version of Melusine, die Melusina zu Lucelberg (Lucelberg in Silesia), whom he referred to several times as a succubus. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote the tale of Die Neue Melusine in 1807 and published it as part of Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre. The playwright Franz Grillparzer brought Goethe’s tale to the stage and Felix Mendelssohn provided a concert overture “The Fair Melusina,” his Opus 32.
Melusine is one of the pre-Christian water-faeries who were sometimes responsible for changelings. The “Lady of the Lake“, who spirited away the infant Lancelot and raised the child, was such a water nymph. Other European water sprites include Lorelei and the nixie.
“Melusina” would seem to be an uneasy name for a girl-child in these areas of Europe, but Ehrengard Melusine von der Schulenburg, Duchess of Kendal and Munster, mistress of George I of Great Britain, was christened Melusine in 1667.
The chronicler Gerald of Wales reported that Richard I of England was fond of telling a tale according to which he was a descendant of a countess of Anjou who was, in fact, the fairy Melusine. The Angevin legend told of an early Count of Anjou who met a beautiful woman when in a far land, where he married her. He had not troubled to find out about her origins.
However, after bearing him four sons, the behavior of his wife began to trouble the count. She attended church infrequently, and always left before the Mass proper. One day he had four of his men forcibly restrain his wife as she rose to leave the church. Melusine evaded the men and clasped the two youngest of her sons and in full view of the congregation carried them up into the air and out of the church through its highest window.
Melusine and her two sons were never seen again. One of the remaining sons was the ancestor, it was claimed, of the later Counts of Anjou and the Kings of England.