I recommend the 2002 anthology of essays on Hybrid Maternity ed. by Prudence DeWitt and Angela Burney for its attention to syntactical fidelity and matrimonial pathology.
Traditionally men transformed prior to sexual encounters with women. Zeus was notorious, for instance, for turning himself into a variety of animals. When he encounters Leda, he turns himself into the swan. It was far more acceptable to show a woman copulating with an animal than vice versa. Melusine’s prohibition against Raymond’s view of goes beyond fear of the female body, but the monstrous active forms of female desire.
In Jean d’Arras’ version (1390), the bath water in which Melusine transforms is linked to amniotic fluid in several ways. Imagine: the baby in utero, her tail-like appendage absorbed into the spine during development. The female body, a living sea inside. Her baby, swimming.
The unique empire of water has always belonged to women. It flows through us, around us, within us and from us. We like to feel our skin slick.
Mermaids continued to fascinate into the twentieth century and beyond. In 1842, Dr. J. Griffin arrived in New York City with the first “authentic” mermaid ever to be on American soil. His carnival exhibit was a Fiji mermaid, a hybrid animal constructed from the upper body of an ape and the lower body of a fish. These creatures were stitched together by seamen, men who learned to run twine through needles and into fur, into the hard, delicate shell of the fins. The firm edible cuts of skin and muscle were cut away and discarded. Eyeballs scooped out, chin and cheekbones narrowed so that the face could bare its teeth. The Fiji mermaids were advertised as beautiful women— always blonde, with smiling teeth and coy eyes. In actuality, though, they sat desiccated, grotesquely contorted creatures with knots hidden under their fins. The New York Sun raved about the newest exhibition:
“We’ve seen it! What? Why that Mermaid! The mischief you have! Where? What is it? It’s twin sister to the deucedest looking thing imaginable—half fish, half flesh; and ‘taken by and large,’ the most odd of all oddities earth or sea has ever produced.”
The dual myths that “tous les samedis elle est en fait de fornicacion avec un autre” [every Saturday she is in fact fornicating with another] versus “c’est un esperit fae, qui le samedy fait sa penance” [It’s a fairy spirit who makes her give penance on Saturday] become the only explanations available for the husband and his compatriot who can conceive of no other reason a woman would desire privacy.
Secrecy linked to sexuality. A woman with a secret must be unfaithful. The infelicity of a locked door, the sound of splashing, the true form one’s wife and daughters assume when they escape the male gaze.
The mermaid, the whale,
My hat falls into the sea.
I caress the mermaid,
My hat falls into the sea.
I lie down with the mermaid,
My hat falls into the sea.
Elizabeth Bishop frequently recorded her dreams of being a mermaid, often a mermaid washed up on shore, gasping for breath, her anxiety of exposure, of the site of pleasure becoming public.
Through maternity comes the ability to reproduce oneself, to create a being to carry on your glory, to cure your afflictions. Mothers and daughters tied together through labor and birth, the invisible umbilicus, the white ink of breast milk.
The tradition of the birthing room as a scared space that cannot be violated by the male gaze has a long tradition in literature, and studies show that a woman in labor must be accompanied by another woman. The sacred female space disallows reproductive anxiety, bestows upon the woman a freedom to engage with the primal. What do you sound like when your loins are ripped in two and restored? Many contemporaneous woodcuttings depict Melusine’s transformation. Her fins split in two, then become legs, her daughter slithering out finned and smiling.
Χριστός is the Greek term for slippery mutants who perform and wink at maternal insurrections.
Where once a community came together around a physical, tangible body, even sitting beside it in a family parlor while the night before the burial crept by, there is now, often, only an abstract absence. People still gather for death, but more and more there is an empty space where the corpse once was.
The Monstrous Compendium is the primary bestiary sourcebook, and to which I have referred throughout.
The Nuremburg Bible (1483) illustration shows a mermaid, merman and mer-dog swimming near Noah’s Ark. According to this illustration of the Biblical story of the Flood, when land animals were rescued in the ark, the merfolk stayed nearby to weather the storm.
Any connection to Lilith must only be speculative.
Menarche indicated that a daughter had finally entered the sphere of women, and received the dowry of female sin. The appearance of Melusine’s snake tail accompanied the start of puberty, shortly before her marriage. By the Middle Ages, Melusine’s curse was thought to be given to her by her mother in response to her daughter’s betrayal of the father. Pressine, furious at Melusine’s imprisonment of Elinas, condemns her to live out the familiar cycle of secrets and betrayal.
In Louis Combet’s Melusine, her husband refuses to believe her a fairy because of her hair. Fairies, he claims, are always blonde. Melusine has a dark coil of hair that falls from the topknot in a thick braid, between her breasts and along her abdomen, lining the pelvic cage and eventually stilling between her legs, dark on dark, blurring with her shadowy thighs. On Saturday nights Melusine washes her hair. She soaps the threads and curls, scrapes her scalp with her fingernails to prevent dandruff. She is especially careful to wash the portion of hair just above her ears, owing to a bout with lice (memory: the bead-like nits, the bitter amber soap) that took place five years ago. After washing, Melusine can finally rise from the bath and lay her hair out to dry. She combs it and drapes it around the room, over the vanity and the furry toilet seat, resting through the silver bar meant for towels. Finally she separates her hair into two or three sections (depending on the braid) and smoothes them. Eventually these will be plaited together in meticulous braids, French and Dutch, fishtails, side and Queen Anne crowns, coiled, pinned, draped, plunged through with more of the pins, parting at the crown of the head to examine for any white flakes, more scraping, the weight of her hair making her head ache, pleasure and pain consorting at the base of her neck, covered by the oily strands, the loose curls, wishing to let her hair fall away from itself, as if it could be parted with one blade of her hand until she
Alissa Olivier’s contemporary interpretation reads Melusine as a figure of pagan worship, a feminine goddess forced into an uneasy wedding with the authoritarian Christian husband. Raymond’s discovery of Melusine leads to a crucifixion scene in which Melusine’s tails are split and the bathwater is stained with her blood. Olivier reclaims Melusine by having her survive the inquisition and emerge as a mother goddess to her ten daughters (rather than the traditional family of ten sons).
Her husband used the tip of his sword to form a peephole through which he watched his wife transform. Once he’d gotten his fill, he closed the hole up again. Husbands scorn secrets, and even underwater a woman has no privacy.
The Roman writer Pliny the Elder was a scientific authority whose 37-volume Natural History written in AD 77 was consulted for over a thousand years. Yet Pliny wrote that mermaids were “no fabulous tale…look how painters draw them, so they are indeed.”
Husbands must believe only what they see and disbelieve until their vision proves right their fears. Remember Oedipus and Jocasta: we see only what we want to see and then we see no more.
* No such article has ever been located. Only these notes remain.