Melusine is a Continental fairy, usually a spirit of fresh water in a sacred spring or river. Her origins are in Brittany and Normandy, both known for their close cultural ties to the Blessed Isles and their close proximity, although she is also associated with Cyprus. Typically, she is shown as a woman who is a serpent or fish from the waist down. She may also be shown with wings, two tails, or both. It has been proposed that her legend involves bastardised elements of the Otherworld, due to the Breton connections with Cornwall and Norman connections with the Channel Islands.
The extended version of her story, with elements accreted over centuries, is as follows.
In the time of the Crusades, the King of Scotland came across a beautiful lady in the forest while hunting. He asked her to marry him but she would only agree if he promised that he would not enter her chamber when she birthed or bathed her children. And, as is the way with tales of fairy wives, he broke that taboo shortly after she gave birth to triplets, three girls including Melusine. The fairy woman and her three daughters left Scotland and returned to the lost Isle of Avalon where the girls grew up.
On their fifteenth birthday, Melusine asked why they had been raised on Avalon when they did not belong there – perhaps a reference to them being half fairy amongst fairies. Their mother told the girls of their father’s broken promise and they decided to seek revenge for the perceived slight. The three eventually captured their father and imprisoned him in a mountain (see: King Under The Mountain). When their mother heard about this, she punished them for their disrespect of their father. Melusine in particular was condemned to take the form of a serpent or a fish from the waist down every Saturday.
The cycle was then repeated when a suitor came across Melusine in a forest and proposed marriage. Just as her mother had done, she agreed if he could keep to a condition. In her case, the condition was that he must never enter her chamber on a Saturday. Of course, he broke the promise and saw her in her not-quite-human form. She forgave him but the reason that fairy women impose such conditions became clear when he later exposed her secret to in public during an argument.
Melusine, also known as Melusina, has been used as a device in many folktales and characterised in a number of ways. However, the point of interest is that she has been cited as an ancestress for three important families:
- The Lusignan family who went on to rule Cyprus claimed her suitor was their ancestor Raymond de Poitou.
- Count Seigfried of Luxembourg was said to have married Melusina when founding the city. His descendant, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, was accused of witchcraft and plotting to put her son-in-law on the throne. She was married to Richard Wydeville, 1st Earl Rivers (1st Creation) who claimed descent from the Earls of Devon (see below).
- Richard de Redvers, the ancestor of the Earls of Devon (1st Creation), had obscure origins and his descendents alleged he was the child of Melusine. His descendant Isabella de Forz was considered particularly uncanny because of the connection.
Although the tale may have been an adaption of Blessed Isles’ traditions used to explain Otherworld origins or incidences of second sight or the Allergy, the Continental tales seem to focus on the female lines inheriting uncanny abilities, which does not happen.