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:
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.