The Other Starbucks Mermaid Cover-Up

There’s something fishy about the Starbucks logo. Aside from the obvious, I mean. I know the black and white lady inside the green circle is supposed to be a mermaid and, yes, mermaids are half-fish, half-woman, but I meant that there’s something else fishy about it. In other words, I smell a cover-up. Aside from the obvious cover-up, I mean. I know that the original logo featured the mermaid’s bared breasts and, yes, they got covered up in later redesigns of the logo. But something else is being covered up. In other other words, I smell a rat.*

Here is the official history of the Starbucks logo, as found on Starbucks.com’s FAQ page.***

When we were originally looking for a logo for Starbucks in 1971, we wanted to capture the seafaring tradition of early coffee traders. [...] We pored over old marine books until we came up with a logo based on an old sixteenth-century Norse woodcut: a two-tailed mermaid encircled by the store’s original name, Starbucks Coffee, Tea, and Spice.

And here is the same story embellished a bit in company co-founder Howard Schultz’s 1997 book Pour Your Heart into It: How Starbucks Build a Company One Cup at a Time where it goes something like this:

[Fellow Starbucks founder] Terry [Heckler] also poured over old marine books until he came up with a logo based on an old sixteenth-century Norse woodcut: a two-tailed mermaid, or siren, encircled by the store’s original name, Starbucks Coffee, Tea, and Spice. That early siren, bare-breasted and Rubenesque, was supposed to be as seductive as coffee itself.

Now, here’s the problem with this tidy little origin story: there’s no such thing as a 16th-century Norse woodcut. Don’t believe me? Try the following Google search:

“Norse woodcut” -Starbucks

As you can see, it returns a paltry 40 results, almost all of them just spam sites that clipped the phrase from Starbucks’s site or an article about the coffee company, and those hits that aren’t spam are all just obliquely referring to Starbucks without using the name.

Why can Google find us no non-Starbucksian “Norse woodcuts”? Because by the time woodcut images on paper arose in medieval Europe, around 1400 give or take a decade, there weren’t any people left that you could properly call “Norse”.**** Indeed, at that point the Norse hadn’t been a going concern for a couple of centuries. A “Norse woodcut”–much less a “sixteenth-century Norse woodcut”–makes about as much sense as a Pictish steam engine, a Carthaginian novel, or a nineteenth-century Roman illuminated manuscript.  And yet even though the phrase “sixteenth-century Norse woodcut” is so much nonsense, as far as I can tell, nobody has seriously challenged Shultz’s account of how the logo came to be.

Michael Krakovsky, aka the DeadPr0grammer, has come the closest to debunking the story.  Back in 2005, in an entry called “How the Starbucks Siren Became Less Naughty,” he pointed out that the original Starbucks logo–the brown and white “cigar band” logo with the un-covered-up mermaid–bears a striking resemblance to an image found in the English language edition of J.E. Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols.

As you can see from the side-by-side view, there’s no doubt that the Starbucks siren was based on this very image–same curve to the tails, same shape to crown, same pot-belly, same pattern to the scales. But in the Dictionary of Symbols it’s labeled “15th Century”, with no mention of a “Norse” origin.  Presumably the DeadPr0grammer figured that both Cirlot and Heckler independently discovered the image, perhaps even in the same “marine book” that Heckler claimed he pored over.

[The following section updated and revised ~6:00PM EST 09-01-10.  Thanks to all the readers who sent along info, especially Judy Shoaf, who provided the vital final clue.]

The only problem with that theory is that Cirlot’s 15th-century twin-tailed siren isn’t from a “marine book” at all.  She’s from an early German printed book, Das Buch von einer Frawen genant Melusina, a translation of Jean d’Arras’s Roman de Melusine, a book which could very plausibly be called one of the first best-sellers of the the early years of the printing press.  There are dozens of editions and runs of the the Roman de Melusine in half a dozen languages across Europe throughout the last quarter of the fifteenth century and on into the sixteenth.  Many of these fifteenth-century editions are luxuriously illustrated, some with nearly one-hundred different woodcuts throughout.  This particular siren comes from a genealogy at the front of the 1480 edition printed in Augsburg by Johannes Bamler.

Bamler included a genealogy because the Roman de Melusine is essentially the origin myth of the House of Lusignan, close relatives of the Plantagenet line of English kings.  Melusine tells the story of how the first male of the Lusignan line, Raimondin, met a beautiful woman at an enchanted fountain in the forest.  After extracting a promise that he never try to find her on a Saturday, this woman, Melusine, gave him all her love and great wealth as well, promptly married him, and later bore him eleven sons.  Naturally, Raimondin couldn’t leave well enough alone, tracked her down on Saturday and found her back at the magic fountain where she had reverted to her true form, a twin-tailed siren or serpent-lady.  Nevertheless, Melusine remained the patron of the house of Lusignan, watching over her descendents and guiding their fates from afar.

The only question that remains, I suppose, is why the founders of Starbucks thought that anyone would believe them when they claimed they had originally used a sixteenth-century Norse image. The most charitable explanation I can come up with is that someone at Starbucks HQ back in those early days had a half-remembered encounter with the Swedish (not Norse) historian Olaus Magnus’ sixteenth-century history of the Northern or Nordic (not Norse) peoples, the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, which was issued in several editions in multiple languages throughout Europe and first illustrated with German woodcuts in its Latin edition published in Rome. You can easily find reproductions of images from the various editions of Magnus’s Historia, and there is a section on mermaids in the text, so it’s possible that Heckler or someone else saw a two-tailed mermaid from one edition or another in a collection of medieval art.  It’s possible, but not likely.

Twin-tailed mermaids (or sirens) appear in lots of non-Norse non-Scandinavian woodcuts from the fifteenth and sixteenth-centuries as well.  So again it’s also possible that Heckler came across one of these and mistakenly identified it as a Norse woodcut… for some reason.  The Hortus Sanitatis (1491), for example, has a woodcut image of a two-tailed mermaid that is often included in discussions of the Starbucks logo:

But if it really was one of these other woodcut mermaids that inspired the logo, Heckler and Schultz would need to explain why they subsequently decided to give her a crown like Melusine’s.  The generic medieval woodcuts of mermaids you’re likely to run across in copies of Olaus Magnus, or in natural histories like the Hortus Sanitatis, or in the other various bestiaries, monstrorum historia, nautical maps and marine documents from the Middle Ages almost never have crowns.  Only Melusine, the royal progenitress of the Plantagenet kings, is typically crowned.*****

If medieval studies teach us anything, it’s to be extra cautious with origin stories.  Just as there was almost certainly no conveniently named Trojan refugee Brutus who founded Britain (nor Turkus Turkey, nor Francus France), no sword in the stone that elected a Welshman the king of all England, no Donation given by Emperor Constantine of all his earthly power to the Catholic Pope, and no shape-changing serpent lady Melusine to sleep with the Count of Anjou, there was almost certainly no “sixteenth-century Norse woodcut” floating around Seattle in 1971.  It’s far more likely that three businessmen and coffee afficianados searching for a symbol for their new coffee shop in Pike Place Market turned to the American edition of The Dictionary of Symbols–which, incidentally, was first published in that same year, 1971. But the urge to clean things up and make them more inspiring than they were is simply irresistible where one’s origins are concerned.

*A rat that smells like a covered up fish.**
**Possibly covered up by rats.
***I know. Who knew companies still had FAQ pages? How late nineties.
****In general, when you use the word Norse, you mean either 1) the pre-Christian Scandinavians or 2) the various peoples who spoke one of the dialects we today lump under the “Old Norse” language heading. The Scandinavians were Christianized by the end of the eleventh century, and by the beginning of the thirteenth you really should be speaking of the Icelanders, Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, et. al instead of the “Norse”. As a written language, “Old Norse” held on until the middle of the fifteenth century or so, but the people writing it probably wouldn’t have considered themselves “Norsemen”.
*****Melusine was also adopted by alchemists as a symbol of fertility and transformation, so you do see crowned mermaids in alchemical texts as well.  To my knowledge, though, there aren’t any Scandinavian (much less Norse) alchemical treatises illustrated with woodcuts.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Judy

    I think that the Cirlot illustration may be from an incunabule, Das Buch von einer Frawen genant Melusina (Augsburg: Bamler, 1480), based on Jean d'Arras's Melusina. This is cited in th eBulletin of the New York Public Library 22, "Census of 15th-century books" from 1918. Cirlot's diccionario de simbolos captions what is probably the same image on p. 420 of the Diccionario de simbolos "Sirena. Melusina… J. Bamler, Ausburgo 1480."
    Both items found via Google Books. The Googlebooks version of the Spanish Cirlot does not show the picture but it fits with the less informative caption of the English version, and also with the subject matter of the Bamler book cited in the Bulletin.

  • Got Medieval

    Awesome, detective work, Judy. I just realized I was looking at the revised and expanded edition of Cirlot's Diccionario, which doesn't include the Bamler book. If anyone out there has a copy of the 1st Spanish ed, mystery is probably solved.

  • Lars

    The Munich Digital Library has a few editions.

    http://www.digitale-sammlungen.de/index.html?c=suchen&l=de

    Right now I am checking this:

    Couldrette: Das abenteürlich buch beweyset vns von einer frawen genandt Melusina Augsburg 1474

    And the only pic this far:

    http://mdz12.bib-bvb.de/~zend-bsb/wasserzeichen-projekte.php?seite=00107&id=00026689&webrumpf=/sub/db/public_html&bibl=bsb

    I am reading on…

  • Lars

    Couldrette: Dis ouventurlich buch bewiset wye von einer frouwen genant Melusina [Basel] [ca. 1474/75]

    Picture here:
    http://drp.ly/1E1o92

    :-/

  • bhán

    I am so glad to find your blog and this post – I'd wondered why everyone called the Starbucks logo a mermaid when she was clearly Melusine.
    The same image is carved on several walls in the village where my mom lives near Toulouse (far from the sea). The earliest records for these row-houses (including my mom's) are only from 1597 though, the town was sacked in the 1570's and older records were lost.
    I am glad the newest version I saw in Seattle recently is less censored than the silly one that looks like a woman holding two fish.
    ..Siobhán

  • Pamela Patton

    That is good work indeed. Of course the original twin-tailed mermaid motif occurs much earlier than this; you can find it in Romanesque sculpture throughout the Mediterranean and even in Roman Pompeii. I’ve heard the origin is Etruscan but haven’t looked that far.

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  • celestial elf

    Really Interesting Post,
    for contrast here is my Mermaid Queen machinima film
    http://youtu.be/YBKZG6Fc7aE
    Bright Blessings ~

  • mike

    wow, this seems to have bothered you alot. dont you think that maybe when they saw the symbols book they might have thought its an easy way to find a logo. in this case maybe they just didnt want to worry about being charged for copyrighting and made up the story to make it look like they found it elswhere. in any case it worked and it took like 30 years before someone really cared eh!

  • Brandon Foster

    Let me define the history of the Norse through its progression of language (since the people became so wide spread as to touch the Mediterranean, America, and Siberia).
    Three obvious changes in the language are distinguished as follows:
    Primitive Norse lasted between 100 and 500 c.e.
    Viking Norse lasted between 500 and 1100 c.e.
    Literary Norse lasted between 1100 and 1500 c.e.
    Literary Norse showed adoption of the Latin alphabet (and abandonment of Runes but for Thorn and eth) and the growth of literature published in Old Norse.
    By the time of Literary Norse, the language had split up into Western and Eastern Dialects, and formed the western- Old Icelandic, Old Norwegian; the eastern- Old Swedish, Old Danish.
    Snorri’s Edda was written in the time of Literary Norse and wrote it in Old Icelandic- a term often considered synonymous with Old Norse or Norse.
    It is fair to say Norse is a word used to classify old Scandinavia. Woodcuts in Europe become developed in 1400- when the Germans refined the art and were making involved woodcuts with cross-hatching by 1475. Between 1400 and 1500, Old Norse was spoken and written in four different dialects and in contact with the Germanic people who had adopted and developed woodcutting in Europe. A Norse woodcut could then exist. It would be better called Scandinavian, Northern Germanic, or Late Norse, rather than Norse (which is an incredibly vague).
    However, I think it is fair to assume the reference derived from a mix up between Western and Northern Germanic influence. If indeed the inspiration was pulled from German translations of Romaine de Melusine, then it is a simple mistake for someone not invested in Scandinavian or Germanic studies to confuse Norse (as containing the concepts of Old Scandinavia, Old Northern German, Old German) with Mittelhochdeutsch (spoken between 1100 and 1400, similar to the span of Literary Norse) or with Westgermanisch.

    Sources:
    Introduction to Old Norse by E.V. Gordon Second Edition 2009
    -Dialects and timelines of Old Norse on page 265, notes 1 through 3

    Herkunftswörterbuch by Duden (part 7 of their dictionary series) 2001
    - Classification of West German and the timeline of Mittelhochdeutsch on page 9 part II- Sprachangaben

  • toni

    interesting

  • http://twitter.com/Bamftiger Bamftiger

    Select conspiracy of choice, insert synchromystic gobbledygook, and away we go.

  • Aniyah

    Well that was a very good bio about starbucks. But now you got me thinking that Starbucks is hiding something and yes mermaids are real:) dont say there not proof and they are ugly things

    • Vannessa

      Gooooooooooooooooooood I loooooove yooooooou she famous Aniyah is related to Aliyah the singer :)love your aunts songs

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  • ashish

    Why mermaid is chosen as logo fir star
    bucks for selling coffees.

    • Jackson Wuzer

      We are trying to point out, this us not a mermaid but a demon like creature named Melusine, they have two different tails.

      • Tracy Setterfield

        Melusine is not a demon, where did you get that? if you read the first story of Melusine in french called Le Roman de Melusine, you would know that she is half human, half snake and has nothing to do with demons…only catholic church proclaimed she’s demon, because of her nature, as they did with everyone they didn’t like…

  • 4 way

    The logo came from the Bible. It was a lady named siren that sung to sailors getting then warm and comfortable with her… And as soon as she got you comfortable she killed you! Know your logos people.. I hope this helps

    • Jackson Wuzer

      4Way, can you elaborate whether the bible describes a mermaid, or a Melusine creature? They are two different symbols.

  • Jackson Wuzer

    Excellent work Carl! I was wondering when someone was going to uncover the more recently covered Melusine on the Starbucks label. So mermaids traditionally have one tail, and Melusine has a serpent, or twin tails, right?

  • Jackson Wuzer

    What we should really be worrying about is just what us about to take place for control of the last of the oil. A one hundred year supply is nothing, considering it took millions of years to produce the oil. We could end up back in the 18th century if we’re not careful. Can we really afford a congress that costs more for so much less? Without regard to the party, we need people who will act.
    These little babies we cherish today are going to be faced with a nightmare. I doubt the fight for the last of the oil is going to delay until ninety-nine years, it’s going to be much sooner than that. We saw yesterday that China has purchased the last of the American renewable energy tech companies in America.
    These are two words everyone should learn now: Passive House!

  • Tracy Setterfield

    so why did they choose Melusine for their symbol, didn’t get it? what’s the story that connects Melusine with founders of starbucks?

  • Just an thought

    There’s actually another theory that has yet to be discovered her name is OSHUN she’s a Osha from Santeria. It’s said she’s the melusine you speak of and other have in many years. Regardless her day of the week be Saturday! And he offerings do include coffee. Ask me? Offering to her for success in their company!

  • blablathingy

    The only thing fishy about starbucks is how bad their coffee tastes. Sour. You could call it fishy but I’d be inclined towards calling it the lutefisk (if you insist on sticking with the Norse theme) of coffees. Clean your pipes starbucks. And put the tits and bellybutton back in your logo, where ever it came from. Otherwise, find an imaginary prickless Norseman to use to sell your quasicoffee.

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  • Joe

    Who cares?!

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