Melusine the Serpant Goddess in A. S. Byatt's Possession and in Mythology
Gillian M.E. Alban, ©2003, Lexington Books
WITHIN THE DUAL LOVE STORY of A. S. Byatt's Possession, dramatized in the recent film directed by Neil LaBute, there are profound layers of significance. One involves the serpent woman Melusine, about whom Byatt, through her character Christabel LaMotte, writes an epic poem. The book Melusine the Serpent Goddess in A. S. Byatt's Possession and in Mythology pursues the tale of this snake woman Melusine back into French medieval legend and beyond, considering her avatars in ancient myth. Melusine, Dahud, and Lamia are all examples of the prepatriarchal aquatic goddess emerging from the primal waters of the earth. In ancient times, before men knew their role in paternity, woman was seen as the creatrix of new life, potent in the life cycle of humans as well as in animal and vegetable life. She was worshipped widely in such rituals as the "holy marriage" in which she was regarded as immortal, while man as her consort or son had to die and enter the earth. Her symbol was the snake, which regularly renews its life by shedding its old skin and emerging newly born, thus sharing woman's regenerative qualities.
The legend of Melusine shows her erotically inspiring force when she meets Raimondin by the fountain in Brocéliande, Brittany, and he falls helplessly in love with her. Their marriage establishes a powerful and fruitful dynasty, whose branches stretch through Europe and the Middle East. This marriage is exemplary of the ancient holy marriage of goddesses like Ishtar or Inanna to Tammuz or Dumuzi, Isis to Osiris, and Asherah to Yahweh. This mother creator is also seen in the Akkadian Tiamat, the Pelasgian Eurynome, as well as in the agricultural bounty represented by Demeter. Later tradition shows her in the snake goddess Atargatis of Syria, personified in the legendary Queen Semiramis. Thus the avatars of this goddess go back to various myths of ancient Sumeria, Egypt, Canaan, Crete, Greece, Syria, and the Celts.
In patriarchal times this goddess becomes the enemy, and is vilified and demonized, her very life giving shape as snake coming to epitomize evil. Far from being a source of life, she and her snake is inverted into a monstrous threat to life, when she is transformed into the demon or dragon of Greek and Hebrew accounts. Thus Delphyne, the dragon defeated by Apollo, only leaves her name in the oracle which he appropriates for himself. Others like Echidna, Scylla, and Lamia show how much views of ophidian women have changed since Eurynome was believed to have created all; these creatures have become monstrous enemies that must be destroyed. Greek tradition splinters the goddess into many emanations, particularly one of whom, Athena, carries traces of the cursed ophidian goddess, as seen in her alter ego Medusa with her snake hair.
The Semitic form of this story relegates the previously powerful snake deity of prehistoric gylanic cultures to a tempter in the garden who must be crushed underfoot and blamed for original sin. This book deconstructs the Adam and Eve story of Genesis, as well as the crime of Cain, representative of the ancient agricultural societies who were overcome by the rival herdsman societies of Abel. It brings to light the Old Testament worship of the goddess Asherah who was present in the temple for hundreds of years alongside the male Yahweh.
This study uncovers the antecedents of Melusine and her fellow snake women, as known from ancient legend and retold by Byatt in Possession and elsewhere. This tale of the serpent goddess illustrates much of the veneration once felt for women, thereby sweeping away limiting assumptions about the female sex, restoring to them the dignity afforded to women of old. It shows women not as the second sex but rather the effective and primary gender, thus making a forceful statement about her power and creativity which is of great relevance to us now in the twenty-first century.
I AM DELIGHTED to welcome readers to a fascinating study of myth and literature about Melusine...Not only has [Gillian M.E. Alban] expanded and clarified the presentation of mythological sources, but she has also very effectively woven through these sources golden threads of literature, seeking to repair the intricate tapestry of goddess tales that had been persistently unraveled and altered by subsequent patriarchal revisions. As the biblical curse in Genesis condemned the serpent to crawling on its belly, so too have other versions dragged the ophidian goddess through the dirt, reducing her to elemental status or defining her splendor as evil and monstrous. Alban rescues her and returns her to the times and tales that loved her so that readers can better appreciate what she represents.
[Alban]’s reconstruction of the female images of divinity helps re-establish the balance lost through the hierarchical dualism of patriarchal societies. I am particularly impressed by her presentation of what Eisler has called the “gylanic” character of goddess cultures. Such “partnership societies,” both Eisler and Gimbutas have argued, eschew the hierarchy, dualism, and exclusivity of later patriarchies.
Gillian Alban has collected and connected centuries of stories we may never have heard — what a gift she has given us!...In the following pages you will read of “the aquatic, ophidian, and avian goddess, snake, winged serpent, or dragon, also woman [who] is seen in the legend of Melusine” that has been manifested in our stories, whether myth or literature or both. Hopefully, studies such as Gillian’s will continue to familiarize a contemporary audience with the earlier versions of myths that supported gylanic communities in hopes that this expanded understanding of herstory and hisstory—as versions of our common story—can help us shape a better future for every marriage of body and soul that constitutes our individual and communal lives.
Thelma shinn richard
professor of english and women's studies, arizona state university
“GILLIAN ALBAN AND OTHERS identify Melusine as an avatar of a primitive “serpent goddess,” the archetypal figure of a half-snake, all-powerful female deity who appears in the religious pantheons of Vedic India, Mesopotamia, the Near East, and early Mediterranean civilizations including the Minoans and Greeks” (p. 59). “Alban describes the image of the woman possessed of a phallic serpent tail as representing a ‘parthenogenetic sexuality,’ entirely complete and self-contained” (p. 89). “As Alban and others have proposed, the serpent representation works to vilify a female figure whose power might otherwise be unlimited and uncontainable, a semantic horror to any patriarchal system of value” (p. 96).“Indeed the entire [Melusine] story can be interpreted – and has been, by Alban and others – as the patriarchal appropriation of a powerful, formidable, primal serpent-goddess to explicate the fortunes of a medieval dynasty where the men have all the interesting opportunities” (p. 129)