If you have read The White Queen or watched the miniseries of the same name, you have heard of Melusine. In those stories, Jacquetta Woodville was descended from the mythical goddess and had otherworldly powers from her, which she passed onto her daughter, Elizabeth. (And they were terrible at it as everything rebounded on them because they totally forgot the Rule of Three, but I digress). However, Melusine was a popular myth in medieval times. There are several versions of the story, but the meat of the story is the same.
A young nobleman gets lost in the woods while hunting and comes upon an extremely beautiful woman in the woods near a sacred spring. In some stories, she is one among three and some she is alone, but she is always very beautiful and singing in an unearthly way. The nobleman falls madly in love and begs the young woman to be his wife on one condition. The young man must never disturb or look upon her on a Saturday when she bathes. He agrees and they marry and have many children. In some stories, the children are perfect and in others they always have something monstrous about them. As time passes, the nobleman gets curious about what exactly his wife is doing on her Saturdays away and goes to spy on her. What he sees is that she because a serpent from the waist down. He is horrified and cries out, and she sees that he has broken his promise. Melusine leaves never to return to her husband. Her parting words were, “But one thing will I say unto thee before I part, that thou, and those who for more than a hundred years shall succeed thee, shall know that whenever I am seen to hover over the fair castle of Lusignan, then will it be certain that in that very year the castle will get a new lord; and though people may not perceive me in the air, yet they will see me by the Fountain of Thirst; and thus shall it be so long as the castle stands in honour and flourishing–especially on the Friday before the lord of the castle shall die.”
In some stories, the nobleman in question is Elianas, the King of Albany or Scotland, in others it is Raymond, Count of Pointers. One legend combines the two and says that Elianas married a girl fey girl named Pressine, who laid the don’t spy on me bathing condition on the marriage. Elianas broke it, and Pressine took Melusine with their other children to Avalon. She grew up and traveled to the Black Forest, and that of Ardennes, and at last she arrived in the forest of Colombiers, in Poitou. There she met Raymond and the little drama played out again. The castles she is associated with are many- Lusignan and Luxembourg on the Bock rock. The story was first written down in 1393 by Jean d’Arras, secretary to the Duke of Berry, received orders from his master to collect all information attainable with reference to Melusina, probably for the entertainment of the sister of the duke, the Countess de Bar. He called his work Le Roman de Mélusine, was translated into English about 1500, and often printed in the 15th and 16th century. Stephen, a Dominican monk related to the Lusignans, reworked d’Arras’ work and popularized it. The legend became so popular that the ruling families of Luxembourg, Rohan and Sassenaye altered their official family trees to claim descent from Melusine. The Plantagenets were said to be descended from Melusine as well, and she was said to be the source of their legendary temper. Emperor Henry VII also bragged he was descended from Melusine. Later, Melusine became a potent symbol of Luxembourgish unity and culture against the German aggressors in World War I and World War II.
So where did the legend originate? The story is said to be a metaphor for the medieval view of female sexuality- the duality of the virgin and the whore. But there are older connections. There are legends of “Dames Blanches” or White Ladies, in the woods of Normandy and Lorraine. Nature spirits that lived near caves and natural springs. It is believed Melusine may be derived from them. There are similar legends in both Germany and the Netherlands. There are also ties to the Irish Banshee as well.
No matter the source, the story of Melusine has intrigued people for generations.
Sources available on request