What's yours? Tall Latte Extra Shot To Go? Or De-Caff Skinny Cappuccino? We all know what it is. What it means. Whether you like the coffee or not, the brand is so powerful that is has spawned its own language. It's trade marked logo has become ubiquitous, instantly recognisable, like Coca Cola but even more potent because there are no words. It is one of those signs, accepted and recognised without anyone thinking too much about what is actually depicted.
It is a bicaudal, a melusine, a mermaid holding her tails. In legend, the fairy Melusina married Guy De Lusignan, Count of Poitou under condition that he would never intrude upon her privacy. She brought him great wealth and happinesss and bore him many children but, inevitably, he broke the taboo, spied on her while she was bathing and discovered her secret. She transformed into a dragon and was never seen again, although she is supposed to act as the protectress of her descendants.
|Melusine's secret discovered, from Le Roman de Mélusine by Jean d'Arras, ca 1450-1500. Bibliothèque nationale de France|
This legend of a creature, half woman, half fish, sometimes with one tail, sometimes with two, occurs in different parts of France, Germany and the Low Countries and was used to some effect by Philippa Gregory in The Lady of the Rivers and The White Queen. These versions all have a roughly similar story, one of secrets and the breaking of prohibitions, and are medieval in origin. Images of the two tailed mermaid, however, are far older. She can be found in churches all over Italy and France - on marble pavements, above doorways, up pediments and pillars. Some of the oldest are Byzantine and date to the 6th Century A.D.
|Byzantine Floor Mosaic (c. 500) Cathedrale de Pesaro (le Marche)|
|Cathedrale di santa Maria Annunciata, Otranto (Puglia)|
And she's here in Britain, too, frequently under seats as misericord carvings, often holding a looking glass and comb, which are also the essential props of her sister, the mermaid.
|Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-on-Avon|
Seeing a mermaid, one tail or two, was not good news for any mariner. They were creatures of intense ill omen.
Then up there came a mermaiden, a comb and glass all in her hand "Here's to you my merry young men for you'll not see dry land again"
Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens
The mermaid, her two tailed sister and their feathered Greek cousin, the Siren, were associated with the death and destruction of men. Their origins are almost certainly pre-Christian, rooted in the worship of water spirits and goddesses associated with rivers, lakes and the sea. Their presence in Christian places of worship could suggest that they still needed to be propitiated. The churches that contain examples of these strange and fascinating images are often, although not always, near the sea. The mermaids were also probably there to offer a different kind of warning: against women in general (they're all like that down there really - look at that Melusine), lust in particular and sins of the flesh.
The two tailed mermaid is the subject of differing legends and has a fascinating history. Her most modern incarnation continues the tradition: