The name Melissena Martinakios probably doesn’t come to mind when thinking about famous princesses- in fact it’s a good bet that 99.9% of the population has never even heard of either of those names. Most of us, however, can’t start the day without her.
Melissena was a Byzantine princess of the mid-9th century (that’s about as specific as it gets- details of her life are frustratingly elusive) and it’s probably safe to say that she won’t be getting the Disney treatment anytime soon. Her grandfather was the emperor Michael I Rangabe, an Armenian with Khazar blood (an eastern Russian people who converted to Judaism in the 8th century), but it was her grandmother Procopia who was the interesting one. Procopia was not only the daughter of a previous emperor (Nicephorus I), but she could also trace her ancestry on her mother’s side all the way back to the Han Dynasty of China. This was quite the prestigious coup for old Michael, and considerably raised the value of a marriage into the imperial family. The crown prince Theophylaktos was already married so he was off the market, but his wife had just given birth to a daughter. The infant Melissena was now the most eligible bachelorette on the international stage.
But not for long. Her grandfather Michael I Rangabe abdicated after only two years on the throne and the rest of the family fell with him. Theophylaktos was castrated to ward off any future threats to the new dynasty and Melissena was presumably packed off with the rest of the female members of the family to a convent. When she came of age she married a Viking named Inger who was serving in the Varangian Guard. It was a long way to fall for someone who had once had the crowned heads of Europe eyeing a match with her. Inger, of course, had a different perspective. He was quite pleased with himself- as were his fellow Vikings. A group of them traveled to France where they met with the Frankish king Louis the Pious and boasted of their Khazar princess. It wasn’t every day a woman with such prestigious twin lineages came along, and the union of the Scandinavian and the Byzantine/Han royal families caused quite a stir among the medieval elite. After that, however, the historical trail runs cold. Melisenna’s ultimate fate is unkown.
About a century later a legend was being told in France of a beautiful woman named Melusine. According to the story she was a powerful sorceress who had fallen in love with a noble man. The lower part of her torso was made up of twin serpent or fish-like tails- a fact which she could only conceal for six days of the week. Eventually the husband found out, and the heartbroken Melusine disappeared never to be seen again.
So what does this have to do with the 21st century? Well, Melusine became quite the popular figure to have in crests- the Bavarian towns of Isen and Zusamaltheim both feature her. In 1971 a young history teacher by the name of Zev Siegl decided to use it for the logo of his new coffeeshop and as a result Melusine is now one of the most well known brands in the world.
Of course Melusine may or may not be a garbled version of Melisenna. But who knew Starbucks might have a Byzantine pedigree?