The Proto-Indo-European Origins of Mélusine by Christopher Boa

The Proto-Indo-European Origins of Mélusine by Christopher Boa

Beyond the scope of bedtime stories and fantastical literature, the likes of faeries and other mythical creatures are seldom invoked in contemporary contexts. In spite of this, there exists one such being who links concepts as modern as the Royal Family of Luxembourg, the Starbucks® Logo, and the de jure Canadian Head of State: she is Mélusine, the medieval ancestor to – and fabled guardian of – the Poitevin House of Lusignan. Mélusine’s widespread influence on occidental architecture as well as her courtly relationship that founded the Lordship of Lusignan are most elaborately described in Andrey Lebey’s Romance of the Faery Melusine, translated by Gareth Knight. Akin to surviving legends surrounding her exploits in Western Europe, Mélusine takes on many forms throughout the Romance, be it that of a serpent, a bipedal siren, or – most notably – that of an exceptionally beautiful human. Tainted by the values of a population dominated by Christian influence, Mélusine’s legend is also inevitably altered and written off as a depiction of a demon to deter the proliferation of heretic Pagan ideas in the Occident. As a result, the exact nature of her non-human side has perplexed scholars for centuries. Nevertheless, by virtue of her established bloodline, dynamic physiology, and her inten- tions as illustrated in the Romance, the otherworldly half of Mélusine’s identity must be an amalgam of several preternatural creatures of Indo-European myth.

Despite her superficial appearance, it is impossible to classify Mélusine without considering her semi-human, semi-fantastical genealogy. Attested to in Chapter 18 of the Romance, Mélusine and her sisters, Mélior and Palestine, are triplets conceived by an obscure figure named Pressine and her human groom Elinas, “a valiant, [widowed] king in Albany” (Lebey 112). While the former has no known ancestors mentioned in the Romance, the latter – whose extratextual historicity is unclear – would have descended from one of two overarching royal families of what is today considered Scotland (Corbishley 80). Given that neither the matrilineal royal bloodline of the Picts nor the ancestry of the Hibernian Scoti kings contain any recorded faery intermingling, it is safe to assume that Mélusine’s paternal progenitor is a pure-blooded homo sapiens (Bannerman 71–94; Nayland). Conversely, Mélusine’s mother, Pressine, seems to have spawned into the human world from the void of Albany’s unmolested woods. In the same manner as the freshwater faeries of Brythonic lore, she first appears to the King as an unaccompanied damsel in the wilderness, notably in the vicinity of a fountain. Her “melodious voice, […] that seemed more like birdsong than that of a human,” telekinetically enchants, lures, and immobilizes King Elinas, as though he were overtaken by a siren-like creature, rendering him unable to ascertain whether “he lived on the same plane as the beautiful [Pressine]” (Lebey 112). Reluctant to accept the King’s hasty marriage proposal, the autonomous humanoid only took Elinas’ hand in marriage when he vows to never lay eyes on her when she eventually delivers their children (Lebey 114). This particular type of conditional promise that entails detrimental consequences if broken – known as a geas – is often imposed on a man by an otherworldly female being in Goidelic folklore (MacKillop 249). While Catholic clergymen would have been quick to classify Pressine’s illusory seduction of King Elinas as the manoeuvre of a demonic succubus, their semi-human triplets do not exhibit any of the monstrous deformities that would have been a by-product of infernal intercourse (Nichols 142–143; Pynsent 606). Even Elinas’ spiteful firstborn son remarks that they are “the three most beautiful girls ever seen” (Lebey 115). That said, the attributes of Mélusine’s maternal relatives align most closely with the aforementioned faeries present in Celtic myths that are derived from the polytheistic, Indo-European migrants that populated the Occident long before the arrival of Christianity (Matasović 67).

In addition to her faery genetics, Mélusine also exhibits physical characteristics that are common to the many derivations of the Proto- Indo-European freshwater spirit. Via her origin story in the Romance, Lebey elaborates on Mélusine’s pre-existing legend as the founder of Lusignan by attributing her other, aquatic form to a curse placed on her by Pressine. Thus, Mélusine’s punishment for exacting irreversible revenge on her human father is to, “from the waist down, become a serpent” every week on the Sabbath, reminiscent of the mythical Hellenic siren (Lebey 117; Matasović 48–53). Moreover, when Raymondin impulsively reveals her inhuman nature to the Court of Lusignan, Mélusine forever loses her maiden half and takes “the form of a winged serpent,” reminiscent of another mythical being of Scythian origin (Lebey 144–147). Since serpentine imagery and ambivalent metamorphosis are intertwined with the Judaeo-Christian ideas of demonic trickery, it is evident that the rather Pagan tale of her own courtly relationship with a human, named Raymondin, was maculated by ecclesiastical influence. Consequently, Mélusine’s ten sons are famously attested to have each manifested varying degrees of deformities, allowing the Clergy to impose an anti-heretic narrative on her, erroneously labelling her a succubus (Lebey 103–104). Although Mélusine’s transformation is integral to her overall legend, it is important to note that she was not always cursed with this semi-serpentine physiology in the Romance. Six days out of seven, she resumes her livelihood in the humanoid form that she possessed since birth. The human onlookers at her wedding witness the unrivaled beauty of her “pure oval […] face, so regular and smooth, […] that [it] recalled […] the antique statues of nymphs,” some even stating “that she represented Nature” (Lebey 48). This seemingly figurative juxtaposition between Mélusine and known Hellenic deities of the natural world reasserts the original Indo-European inspiration behind the Lady of Lusignan.

Whereas Mélusine’s anatomical parameters are ambiguous by design, her behaviour and intentions throughout and beyond the Romance contradict those of Judaeo-Christian demons. In the eyes of the Catholic Church, Mélusine and her sisters would quickly be classified as diabolical for having committed patricide in response to their mother’s lamentations about the promised wealth they would never have. However, since they are raised on the secluded Lost Isle of Avalon, Pressine’s young and naïve daughters have been isolated from all forms of human civilization until that very moment and do not comprehend the consequences of their actions in the mortal world (Lebey 115). Duly punished, Mélusine is cursed with immortality in a serpent’s body unless she can find a human groom so loyal that he would “never dream of seeing [her] on th[e] night” of her weekly transforma- tion (Lebey 117). Thus, she decides to make use of her preternatural gifts of nature to bless an ill-fated Raymondin with love, wealth, and prestige, so long as he does not transgress this geas, following in the footsteps of her faery mother. With her non-linear temporal perception and God like omniscience, Mélusine trains her obedient knight to conceal the accidental murder of his uncle, to expose the wrong-doings of others, and to diplomatically manipulate relations with neighbouring fiefs in his favour (Lebey 35–40, 83–97). Meanwhile, without ever seeking recognition, Mélusine clandestinely establishes villages for her rapidly increasing population, erects beautiful churches and castles from Aquitaine to Brittany, and exponentially extends the borders of Lusignan such that there would be ample land over which her ten future sons could rule (Lebey 98–101). This behaviour is pivotal to the classification of Mélusine as a being that exists beyond the binary of heaven and hell, as it contradicts the Christian notion that unnatural abilities inevitably tempt their wielder to rise in fame and power (Revised Standard Catholic Edition, Matt. 4.1–11). Instead, in occidental folklore, faeries – even those with benign intentions – were depicted as very secretive folk (Almqvist 13–69). Their very nomenclature in Celtic languages imply that they are “silent” neighbours that exist parallel to the natural world, meaning that they conceal their identities and avoid confronting and interfering with human civilization as much as possible. Likewise, Mélusine’s bivalent identity as a human and a hidden natural deity allows her to make a substantial difference in the lives of her loyal subjects and her family, all while selflessly allowing any recognition of her power to be eclipsed by her husband’s valour. Even after her unfortunate final transformation into an airborne, serpentine guardian, Mélusine reportedly continues to warn her cherished descendants of impending danger to this day (Lebey 147).

Through the analysis of Mélusine within and beyond André Lebey and Gareth Knight’s Romance, it can be concluded that Mélusine’s preternatural identity is indeed a composite of several cognate beings derived from millennia-old Proto-Indo-European myths. Even after generations of oral and written tradition, Mélusine’s pedigree, ambiv- alent physiology, and generous persona permeate through the filters of ecclesiastical redaction and preserve the elements of bygone cultures for generations to come.


Works Cited

Almqvist, Bo. “The Mélusine Legend in the Context of Irish Folk

Tradition.” Béaloides, vol. 67 1999. Print.

Bannerman, John, “The Scottish Takeover of Pictland.” Eds. Dauvit Broun & Thomas Owen Clancy. Spes Scotorum: Hope of Scots. Saint Columba, Iona and Scotland. T & T Clark, 1999.

Corbishley, Mike, et al. “The Kingdoms in Britain & Ireland.” The Young Oxford History of Britain & Ireland. Oxford University Press, 1996.

Lebey, André. The Romance of the Faery Melusine. Translated by Garreth Knight, Skylight Press, 2011.

MacKillop, James. A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Matasović, Ranko. “A Reader in Comparative Indo-European Religion.” University of Zagreb Faculty of Philosophy, 2018, mudrac.ffzg. hr/~rmatasov/PIE%20Religion.pdf. Accessed 6 June 2022.

Nayland, Carla. “The Female Royal Line: Matrilineal Succession Amongst the Picts?” Historical Articles on Early Medieval Britain, 2009, htm. Accessed 1 June 2022.

Nichols, Stephen G. “Melusine Between Myth & History: Profile of a Female Demon.” Melusine of Lusignan: Founding Fiction in Late Medieval France. Eds. Donald Maddox & Sara Strum Maddox. Athens: U Georgia P, 1996, pp.137–164. Print.

Pynsent, R.B. “The Devil’s Stench & Living Water: A Study of Demons & Adultery in Czech Vernacular Literature of the Middle Ages & Renaissance.” The Slavonic & Eastern European Review, vol. 71, no. 4, 1993, pp. 601-630. Print.

The Holy Bible. Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition, Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd, 1966.

Comments are closed.