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.
Thelma shinn richard
professor of english and women's studies, arizona state university
I was surprised to receive a request early in 2002 from Gillian Alban to read and comment on her manuscript, Melusine the Serpent Goddess in A. S. Byatt’s Possession and in Mythology, since I had had no previous contact with the author. I was impressed, however, that she was seeking critiques even after her work had been accepted and was scheduled for publication in 2003. Because I appreciated such scholarly humility and dedication, I agreed to read the manuscript and sent her my comments.
I was even more surprised to hear from Gillian again with a request to read her revised manuscript prior to publication and, if I agreed, write a foreword. My earlier critique had been, I felt, somewhat harsh, suggesting extensive revisions. I knew she had consulted other scholars as well, so I was curious to see what revisions she could have made in the few months between our contacts.
After completing that second reading, I am delighted to welcome readers to a fascinating study of myth and literature about Melusine. I have greatly admired Gillian’s diligence in further research and revising the manuscript. Not only has she 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.
Gillian’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. Worship of the goddess did not demand denigration of the male; rather, the female superiority of the Melusine mythologem reflects these gylanic communities as registering humanity’s appreciation for the immanence rather than the transcendence of the spiritual. In and of our lives, not after and above our lives, weaves the threads of these cultural and biological foremothers. Later patriarchal revisions of goddess tales that define Melusine and her sisters as seeking souls by marrying human men clearly reflect the dualism that divides body and soul as female and male, evil and good, devil and god, enemy and friend. Unlike the serpent that sheds its skin to be born again in the flesh, the ophidian goddess was destined in these tales to be cut to pieces, her wings clipped, her gifts stolen, and her message of immanence obliterated from the pages of life.
Storytelling, however, has been as much a province of women as of men, although women’s versions have been dismissed as “old wives’ tales” or demoted to folklore, just as their divinity has been denied and their goddesses shrunk to fit a fantasy world of fairies. Inspired by A. S. Byatt’s reclamation of the Fairy Melusina in her novel Possession, Gillian tracked this alternative literary tradition as well as the mythology of the goddess. As she explains in her introduction, “Byatt actually creates a circle of repossession by telling this tale . . . of the dispossession of the female, and the restoration of her force through knowledge of her ancient dignity.” Alluding to this and other “wonder tales” through which Byatt has revived goddess traditions and balanced gender issues in her fiction, Gillian turned first to various literary versions of Melusine and then to the many writers, male and female, who have also paid homage to these reviled female images of divinity.
This book is the result of Alban’s successful quest into myth and literature to resurrect the immanence of the spiritual in human life and, with that resurrection, to help free us of crippling “dualism, restoring us to our full heritage and liberating us at the start of this new century. Thus the mythic dissociation or split of sensibility across the limen or threshold of body and spirit, male and female, is restored and made whole.”
The way we tell the tale, as Byatt and Alban show, can change the ways we see the world, although the ingredients in the recipe remain the same—“the tree, the fruit, the fountain, the woman, the grass, the serpent.” Gillian’s study identifies the two weapons, language and image, that can most completely destroy our acceptance of ourselves and of others. What destroys our souls is when we are seen and named by someone we love as beastly, as in Raimondin’s naming of Melusine. How do we retain our souls in our mysterious bodies as we try to survive within the larger mysteries of life? While patriarchal tales have denied women souls, men too have lost their souls in Faustian quests for truth and the resultant despair when possessed or dispossessed of such truth. Not surprisingly, therefore, myths establish interdictions to protect fallen goddesses, while writers like Byatt turn to art, to language and image, to reclaim lost souls and forgotten tales of immanence.
The mystery of myth is in its recognizable truths, but when the agenda of the storyteller distorts the art of myth and twists it into shapes that make us strangers to ourselves, myth then becomes a hegemonic weapon of culture, and men and women both become its victims. Literature is also a kind of mythmaking, and artists are known for challenging the values of their societies. As St. Augustine has explained, “the present of things past is the memory; the present of present things is direct perception; and the present of future things is expectation.” In what Czeslaw Milosz has called “our only homeland,” the homeland of language, we can improve our memories of the past by sharing our stories, hence increasing the possibilities when imagining our common future. We need to know more than just the empowered tales, or we will only recreate the past that those tales have shaped. Gillian Alban has collected and connected centuries of stories we may never have heard— what a gift she has given us!
The next step beyond identifying and dissipating the curse put on women—by remembering with the earliest versions and deconstructing later versions of the myths—is to imagine where the quest could lead us given enough time and space to generate our own stories. As Byatt’s final observation in Possession suggests, the questing human consciousness may make connections in its own time and place that remain unknown to history but imaginable to the Romancer, as Ash seems to have done with Maia. We are all a part of the quest, and the story is indeed never-ending, coiling around our communal lives and our mysterious world and into our mouths, providing the words of our ongoing story of humanity.
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.
JULIE MARNEY, University of Edinburgh, Scotland
Published in European Journal of English Studies, 20 August 2006
volume 10, no. 01, pp 97-110
An investigation of female mythological ﬁgures throughout literary history is an engaging and thoughtful idea. This book, which focuses on the occurrence of serpent goddesses, is a well-researched and broad ranging critique. It sets out to provide a historical context for a reading of Melusine, the serpent goddess, as she appears in A. S. Byatt’s Possession, and it does this enormously well. The image of ‘the snake woman or mermaid, who metamorphoses between being woman, snake and dragon’, as Alban describes her (p. 1) is traced back from Byatt’s novel, through Ted Hughes’s muse, and Keats’s Lamia, to a detailed exploration of French legend, and the encounter of Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Alban continues the exploration in the cultures of the Sumerians, the Egyptians, the Cretans, the Anatolians, the Romans, and the Greeks, with chapter eight focusing on the mythologies of Artemis and Persephone. The mythology surrounding this ophidian goddess is carefully and illuminatingly discussed.
According to Alban, the serpent goddess should be reinterrogated as a feminist ﬁgure. As such, the book attempts a re-visioning and reterritorialisation of the herstory of the goddess. Alban seeks ﬁrst to rescue the myth of the serpent goddess from her appropriation by a patriarchal culture, which has reworked her creative power into a mythology of destruction, and she then seeks to re-vision the snake-woman image as a feminist icon. Unfortunately, it is in this area of feminist argument and debate that the book is ultimately disappointing. Alban fails to communicate how her approach is positioned within the ﬁelds of feminist and literary criticism. This is rather ironic considering the inspiration for the study is Possession, a novel of piercing observations about such ﬁelds of academic study. In this area, no real consideration is given to the thrust of the analysis, and, as such, this intelligent book is a frustrating read. In terms of the feminist debate of the book, Alban does not go far enough or deep enough, and the argument fails to be rigorous enough.
Any exploration of the snake-woman that fails to acknowledge the signiﬁcance of Hélene Cixous’s image of the monstrous, laughing Medusa, as this study does, is problematic – especially when given the feminist debate that forms the centre of both works. Cixous’s essay, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, also seeks to repossess the snake-woman ﬁgure: ‘You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing’ (Marks, Elaine and de Courtivron, Isabelle, eds. New French Feminisms. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1981. 255). This feminist re-visioning of female mythological ﬁgures is essential, as Adrienne Rich outlined in her essay ‘When We Dead Awaken’: ‘Re-vision – the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction – is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival’ (‘When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.’ On Lies, Secrets and Silence. New York: Norton, 1979. 40). This act of re-visioning, which Alban calls a repossession, forms the centre of the snake-woman investigation, but never fully articulates the history of feminist re-visioning into which the study falls.
Although this study could be more thoroughly engaged with the feminist debate, it nevertheless articulates an anxiety around the categorisation of images of women into the easy dichotomies of profane, demonised, sexualised, monsters on the one hand, and sacred, idolised, virginal femininity on the other. It is in this way that Alban’s repossession of the snake-woman mythology feels particularly timely. The recent popularisation of the latter image of ‘the sacred female’ by Dan Brown’s best seller The Da Vinci Code, relies on images of woman as the nurturing yin to the patriarchal destructive yang, and reafﬁrms the mythology of the sacred feminine as the natural and nurturing foundation, the ‘chalice’, of all creation. Such easy bifurcation of the sexes into naturalised, behavioural signiﬁers of dichotomised gender traits is at best problematic in a post-Cixousian world. Alban’s ‘act of survival’, her repossession of the ideology of the dichotomised sacred or monstrous female is particularly pertinent while such mythologisation continues. Such re-visioning was also undertaken in Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera. Anzaldua’s text also celebrates the creative power of female mythological iconography, whilst relishing the element of such mythology that has made woman at once the force of creation as well as the monstrous threat to patriarchal domination. Alban’s intelligent text falls into this lively debate on women’s literary history and iconography, and, as such, provides an illuminating and engaging reading of the history of Melusine, the serpent goddess, and the need for her repossession.
“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)