The Tale of Two Tails, or the Mirror & Melusine

Apparently, my previous posting, about mermaids and their mirrors, wasn’t particularly liked by the forces of water; just as I finished it, we had a mini-flood in the house, not as large as the Noah’s one, but enough to occupy us for half a day sorting out the mess. I can’t even imagine what they will throw on us after my story about melusines!

A small intro into Elementary Forces, and their Mirrors,  before I venture into a story about tese these (semi)aquatic creatures.

As we all know, there are basically four elementary forces: Fire, Water, Air and Earth. There exist more sophisticated ontologies, of course, but let’s start from the for-dummy level first, before moving into all these quantum perplexities.

My post about mermaids was just about Water forces (they are presented in a lower left corner of my small infographic above). We have harpies in the Air, but I know nothing about use of mirrors by harpies (but now when I will, there is box to place this knowledge in).

With Fire the things are even worser, I dont even who could act as a female representative of this force. Dragons? They are often she-dragons; but I’ve never seen the dragons with mirrors. Fire, light, the sun – these are all important concepts in the studies of mirrors, but they are usually pwned by the masculine figures.

[After I wrote my posting in Russian, I was suggest to consider salamanders who allegedly don’t burn in fire; interesting, though I also know nothing about salamanders and mirrors.]

But I have some difficulties with Earth; it presents a (land) mass of nuances and complications.  There are, of course, many classical Earthly creatures (such as female centaurs or she-giants), but there are lots of transitionary, boundary, marginal classes. For example, who’s Meduse? She did play a role in the stories reflective (although, a victimized one). Or – closer to the subjects of the today’s posting – who are the Melusines?

Melusine (or sometimes meluzine) are the spirits of water: not of every water, but land water, fresh water, that is, the water of the rivers, lakes and other similar water bodies (as oppose to the salty water of the seas and oceans). The picture above is their most typical representation, as mermaids – but the two-tailed mermaids.

believe that their initial formfactor was more complex, but capitalism rottens everything, as we know, and it did so with pure creatures too – just look at their disembodiment at the Starbucks’ logo over time:

But as I said, in the beginning was different; I found a few images that are apparently from some medieval manuscripts (although I didn’t manage to find attributions):

(In fact, the last one is a contemporary remake, and only a lookalike of the medieval illumination).

On all of them a melusine is not even in the river, but in some sort of artificial basins or buckets with water. And their lower parts look more like a tail of snake, not fish. What is also interesting that on all of them someone is spying on the melusine.

All these details are the echoes (or the illustrations) of the old stories about melusines, that widely circulated in the Middle Ages, but since then were mostly forgotten.

The short and simple version of the story goes like that: once a king found a beautiful girl in the woods, fell in love and offered her his hand. The girl agreed, but only with one condition, the the king will never see her swimming (or in general naked, in some versions). The king agreed, and they live happily ever after, and thanks to the new queen got very rich and/or won some important victories, something of that sort.

That was all nice and good, until the moment when the king broke his promise, and looked at the bathing wife. He saw in water she grows a tail (which means that she is a melusine, not human). When she discovers that her secret is revealed, she runs away (or fly away even) and – in a mild forms nothing happens, except the king is upset, but in hard-core horror modifications the king loses all his wealth and/or the crown and/or dies. Bad, bad things happen, if in short.

(I’d like to note here that mirror hasn’t play any particular role in the story. It could have; for example, the king could have been peeking through it at the wife/melusine, or, alternatively, the melusine could have tracked him using the mirror. It would be interesting twist, but not, no traces of these things in the story).

Of course, there were numerous far more complex versions of the story, too; even the basic Wikipedia site presents a lot of variations of this legend. I personally like the one where the mother punishes her daughter by converting her to the melusine (this is the version with Persina and her three daughters); so very psychoanalytical!

With time these stories become become books – one of the first one was Roman de Mélusine (or Mélusine ou la noble histoire des Lusignan), written in French by some Jean d’Arras at the end of 14th century. The book was later translated to German by Thüring von Ringoltingen, and published under the title Erzählung Melusine (The Story of Melusine).  There were also several collections of stories published that including this one too.

I found a small film based on one of such versions. It’s not a film even, but a compilation of the illuminations – they are in French, but ‘the pictures tell the story’ relatively well:

Again, lots of interesting folkloristic materials, but what about the the mirrors? They are not present in these stories, and yet the mirrors start frequently appearing in the hands of melusines:

And if on the pictures above it is not completely clear whether these melusines or ‘just  mermaids’, the next engraving leaves no doubts:

The next bas-relief depicts an absolutely canonical melusine, with her tail spreading in both directions:

This two-sided tail is the key feature of melusine (here we also see a mirror and  comb in her hands). Again, it would be great if she would hold two mirror! What a twist it would be! Alas.

Like mermaids, melusines also done have the mirrors on every single pictures, very often they go mirror-less:

And like mermaids, melusine often had (and played) various musical instrument – here, for example, melusine is with a pipe:

I guess, this is yet another case of the shifts in meaning: first, it was sirens who swim (and sang songs), then mermaids started to do the same. Melusine live in water, like mermaids, and so they have to sing (and play music) as well. Oh, yeah, and let them  have the mirrors, too.

I recently came across an excellent collection of the melusines’ images. Unfortunately, there are no mirrors, but they have a wide variety of musical instruments.  These images are also not just beautiful, but rare and in some sense quite unique – these are the wooden panels on a ceiling in the Church of St. Martin, in a small Swiss town of Zillis (canton Graubünden). Apparently, this is one of the very few surviving painted ceilings in Europe:

There are a few beautiful melusines among these panels:

They have an amazing bestiary in general, including several transitional creatures, sort of half-melusines and half-something; I guess, it’s really worth visiting the place at some point. 

Such a hybrid nature is present not only among the panels of this church, of course, it was characteristic for many pictures of that time, and we have a wide variety of female-snakes, female-dragons, and female-yet-god-knows-what-else creatures (I wrote God-knows, but I as well use Devil-knows; the general consensus was that  despite the legendary kindness, melusine were still considered evil and diabolical beings (Martin Luther, for example, authoritatively stated that they are succubuses):

(notice the fishes in he hands; these fishes can eventually migrate to shells, both could also become the ‘combs’ and the ‘mirrors’).

For example:

This is a small vignette on the margins of a very old manuscript, presumably of the first third of the 13th century:


I mentioned already that these tiny figures had been often intertwined with the text, so you can often see a small zoo hidden between the lines:

One of the creatures here is a female snake (or a dragonkin of some sort); she holds  a mirror and a comb, and very much resembles the Siren with a Mirror:


When getting closer to our times, everything becomes even more complex and confusing (I almost wrote “unfortunately”, but of course not, it ‘fortunately’ becomes more complex).  The already twisted myths about melusines are also getting wrapped into various Christian interpretations, then further enhanced (and enchanted) with a variety of Greek and Roman mythology, and later, of course, with all this Jungian hodgepodge.

This above picture, for instance, is of the melusine on the stairs, but a Divinity Dragon from the Oedipus Aegyptiacus, one of the most authoritative works on the history of magic (this edition is approximately from the mid-17th century).

So, it’s unlikely that I will be able to cover all these complexities with one simple narrative, and instead will have to dig through various myths and stories; which is good, more postings ahead!

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