Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

The Tuesday Essay

On Melusina, and on women in love Add to ...

The story of Melusina is told in many countries, from the Celtic west of Europe to Germany and the Nordic countries; there even seems to be some Native American versions. Rewritten, she appears in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and in Hans Christian Anderson's story of the Little Mermaid (and so to Disney!) and in the legend of Undine or Ondine.

The story is much as Elizabeth Woodville tells it in The White Queen. A girl, herself the daughter of a water fairy, meets with a knight in the forest (different families and different forests feature in different parts of Europe) and they agree to marry - but she tells him he can never visit her in her chambers on Saturday, the day she is cursed to always take the form of a serpent or a fish from the waist down.

After having children together and a happy marriage, he breaks the interdict and sees that she is not entirely human. In some versions she knows at once that he has seen her and goes away immediately. In others he pretends not to know, but the truth bursts from him when their monstrous sons kill each other. In some versions he dies without her, in others he lives on sorrowing, or she haunts the house where they were happy.

In the rewritten versions he leaves her, preferring a mortal woman, but in one wonderful old telling her response to this is to stretch her foot through the ceiling of his wedding banquet. In Ireland, Melusina is the banshee calling over the castle to warn of a death. In France, she is one of the Dames Blanches, the White Ladies who haunt the forests and trick mortals with riddles and dances and foretell deaths by crying outside houses. In Germany she is a being of the forests as well as of water.





Melusina's roots may be even more ancient. Legends of water women and the sirens go back to Homer; drawings of mermaids are found in ancient Egypt and Assyria. Sabine Baring-Gould, the folklorist, suggested that Melusina could be a Celtic version of an even more ancient legend. She survives, even today, in the stories around springs and wells that are now designated as Christian sites. Undeterred by sanctification, she is renamed St. Melusina in Baringen, Germany, where they shake the crumbs from the Christmas Eve feast over the bushes so that Melusina may eat.

The legend was first written down in 1393 (Jean d'Arras, La Noble Hystoire de Luzignen) as part of the history of Chateau Lusignan, the house she is said to have built for her husband. She is often described as a master builder: She could erect a house in a single night with an army of fairy workpeople. But the buildings were always flawed, just as her children were always malformed. J. E. Cirlot ( A Dictionary of Symbols) suggests she is an intuitive genius both "prophetic, constructive and wondrous, and yet at the same time is infirm and malign."

Melusina's significance goes even further than this powerful folklore. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung took an interest in her role in alchemy. Here Melusina is a manifestation of Luna - the element of dark, cold, water, and spirit, and as such she makes the alchemical union with her opposite: Sol, the source of warmth and light. The union is known by alchemists as the "chymical wedding," which signified to Jung the union of body and spirit, consciousness and unconsciousness.

I won't pretend to understand this except at a level of wonderment, but I must admit to having a sense of shock when I read the words "Luna and Sol often appear as White Queen and Red King" a year after I had finished my novel on Melusina's descendant and titled it The White Queen. The internet site goes on: "Note these colours' corresponding stages of transmutation; the symbol of this relationship is a rose." A rose, indeed: The people called Elizabeth Woodville's grandson Arthur "the rose of England."





The story of Melusina ... came to signify for me the difficulty that women have living in a man's world - almost as if women are beings of another element




I had originally come across the Melusina myth very early in my research for The White Queen when I was looking for some element in the stories of Elizabeth, or in her parents, to inspire me or help me imagine her. The discovery that Elizabeth's mother Jacquetta traced her family back to the myth of Melusina was tremendously exciting for me and led me to research the myth and even visit the Chateau Lusignan near Poitiers, France.

The suggestion that I make in the novel that Jacquetta believed in her other-worldly ancestry is a likely one. Certainly she believed in witchcraft and was indeed captured, tried and found guilty of practising magic. It was said that she was caught with some little lead figures for charming, and that the marriage between her daughter and the king was brought about by his enchantment. The scenes I created of her and Elizabeth calling up mist, whistling up wind and summoning rain are all imaginary but seemed to me to be what one would do in such circumstances - especially if one thought it might work! In a world where there was little science, there was faith in magic and trust in what we would now call superstitions.

My re-telling of the story of Melusina throughout the novel developed as it went on and came to signify for me the difficulty that women have living in a man's world - almost as if women are beings of another element. Melusina knew that being a mortal woman is hard on the heart, hard on the feet. She knew that she would need to be alone in the water, under the water, the ripples reflected on her scaly tail now and then. Her husband promised her that he would give her everything, everything she wanted, as men in love always do. And she trusted him despite herself, as women in love always do.

The connection between a mighty archetype and my novel has been inspiring and sometimes overwhelming. When I read of the legend of Melusina with the house that she built with its fatal flaw, and her sons who could not survive, I think of Elizabeth Woodville and the house of York, which was built but could not last, and her missing sons. While writing this novel I have found elements of history that I can research, some of fiction that I can create, and beyond both these: some deep mysteries which, if I listen, and wait - and if I am lucky - may come to me.

Philippa Gregory will be making two appearances in Canada this fall on her tour for The White Queen: in Toronto on Sept. 17 at Royal St. George's College, 120 Howland Ave., 7 p.m., $5 at www.ticketweb.ca or 1.888.222.6608; and in Victoria on Sept. 28 at Alix Goolden Performance Hall, 907 Pandora Ave., 7:30 p.m., $10 (with $5 toward the purchase of the book) at Bolen Books.

Follow us on Twitter: @GlobeBooks

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories