We’re all familiar with the two-legged mermaid that’s part of the Starbucks logo. But did you know that there is an old legend behind it?
The two-legged mermaid is called a melusine, and she’s a water spirit in European lore. There are quite a few stories about her, but the most famous one has to do with the Lusignan family in France.
Comte Raymondin of Poitiers was hunting in the forest one day and found himself lost. While trying to find his way out of the forest, he came upon a clearing with a beautiful fountain in the middle of it, and beside the fountain stood a pavilion, outside of which two handmaidens were tending to their lady. Raymondin thought that the lady was beautiful, and he ventured forth to ask her if he could drink from the fountain. She allowed him to, and after spending some time with the lady, he fell in love with her, and asked her to marry him. The lady – whose name was Melusine – consented to marry him, but only on the condition that she be left alone in her bedroom every Saturday. Raymondin, eager to marry her, agreed to this, and she and her ladies returned with him to his castle.
Melusine was a very wealthy woman in her own right, and she had a very splendid castle built for Raymondin. After they married, Melusine bore Raymondin three sons, all of whom had some sort of physical imperfection. Raymondin’s brother thought all of this to be very strange, and one day he suggested to Raymondin that they spy on Melusine and see what she did in the privacy of her bedroom the following Saturday. The next Saturday, they hid themselves in her bedroom to spy on her as she took her bath, and they saw that instead of legs, she had a green serpent’s tail. When she sensed that she was being watched and saw her husband and his brother in her bedroom, she let out a horrible cry and, taking the form of the dragon, flew out of the castle window, never to be seen again. Still, she was considered the matriarch of the Lusginan family, or the Mere de Lusignan. Even if she was not seen, she still protected her descendants, and every time something horrible was about to happen to someone in the Lusignan family, she would wail throughout the castle to herald its arrival.
Medieval writer Jean d’Arras adds a sort of prelude to the tale. Melusine’s mother, Pressyne, was found in a forest by the King of Scotland, much in the same manner as her daughter was discovered by Raymondin. She married the King on the condition that he would not enter the room when she gave birth to her children. Yet, soon after she delivered triplets, the delighted king forgot his agreement and entered the bedroom. Pressyne took her daughters and left the kingdom to raise her daughters in Avalon.
When the girls – Melusine, Melior, and Palatyne – were old enough, their mother told them the story of the unfortunate circumstances of their birth and their father’s betrayal. Melusine, wanting to exact revenge on her father, recruited her sisters in capturing him and locking him inside a mountain. When Pressyne found out about this, she was enraged, and each of her daughters was punished. Melusine was punished the worst out of all of them since the idea had been hers to begin with: she would take the form of a serpent, or a mermaid in other versions of the story, from the waist down every Saturday.
While the link to the Lusignan family is perhaps one of the most famous of the tales, the story does show up in different parts of Europe. The melusine became a figure in heraldry, and still she remains a common figure in modern culture because of her association with the Starbucks logo.
D’Arras, Jean. Le Livre de Melusine.