It’s good to be a god-king. This explains the popularity throughout ancient history of autocrats tracing their genealogy to one divinity or another. Anglo-Saxon kings claimed descent from Woden (Odin); the Ptolemies claimed to be descendants of the sun god Ra; Alexander the Great claimed descent from Zeus; Mayan Kings claimed descent from the Mayan gods; Japan’s 3rd Century imperial family claimed descent from the gods who created Japan. Everybody knows those pantheistic gods got around, and as (1) birth control had not yet been transformed into a lucrative industry, and (2) hey, what good is it being a god if it doesn’t get you girls, they no doubt sired many semi-divine children, who like any child of privilege, figured they rightfully deserved to be in charge. Along comes monotheism with its judgmental father gods, aversion to licentiousness, and decidedly restrictive divine dating pool, and no self-respecting monarch is claiming to be the son of a deity anymore. Suddenly, all the kings are descended from all too human culture heroes of antiquity: the Hashemite kings of Jordan, Alaouite kings of Morocco, and the Aga Khans all claim to be descendants of the Prophet Muhammad; The Japanese imperial family claims descent from the historically verifiable Emperor Ōjin; Everybody and their brother claimed to have been descended from King David; a wide variety of European monarchs claimed to be descended from Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, or the royalty of Troy; Most of Central Asia claims descent from Genghis Khan (this one actually turns out to be more or less true—a 2003 genetics study reported that about 1 in 200 men alive today are direct descendants of Genghis Khan, who obviously took his raping and pillaging seriously). Clearly, we learn and we grow, which makes the Merovingian Dynasty, a royal family that first united what we would recognize as France in the 5th Century A.D., all the more puzzling. The semi-legendary founder of the Merovingian Dynasty, a nice Gallic chap named Merovech, also was reportedly the son of a sea monster called a Quinotaur.
So, 5th Century Gaul was a fairly messed up place. This is generally the default when empires fall apart, as all the folks who were previously united in their hatred of the central authority or foreign oppressor, proceed to clubbing each other over the head for a bigger piece of the remaining pie. By 476 A.D., the Western Roman Empire had pretty much ceased to exist, and the last vestiges of the Roman province of Gaul (heavily pacified and Romanized during the heyday of the Roman Empire, and relatively peaceful for roughly 500 years, having been utterly subdued by Julius Caesar by 58 A.D.), fell to a loose confederation of Germanic tribes called Franks in 486 A.D. The problem with a loose confederation is, well, its looseness. Petty conflicts tend to erupt into full blown civil wars involving an abundance of sharp, pointy things, for the same reason that sectarian violence is often particularly vicious, that is, when two groups ostensibly share a common overall ideology, but differ on minor doctrinal points, those relatively small differences are magnified, since gosh darn it, Stalinists and Trotskyists are both communists, but those darn Trotskyists keep insisting on international proletarianism over first internally strengthening Russia, and as good Marxists they should know better. Purges ensue. You catch my drift. When everybody shared a common distaste for the Romans, they all managed to get along. Exit the Romans, and tiny doctrinal, cultural, and ethnic perspectives begin to loom large, particularly when deciding who was going to be the next big boss. The Frankish tribes of the Sicambri, Salians, Bructeri, Ampsivarii, Chamavi and Chattuarii started to fight amongst themselves. Chlodio (392-448 A.D.), King of the Salian Franks, already had a big chunk of Roman Gaul in his possession when the Roman Empire started to fall apart, but he still managed to get himself killed in a battle with Roman general Flavius Aetius prior to the complete collapse of Roman authority in Gaul. Chlodio had a son, or rather his queen did, by the name of Merovech (died 457 A.D., regarded as the first Merovingian king and after which the Merovingian Dynasty is named), who’s grandson Clovis I (481-511 A.D.) united all of what we recognize as France under Merovingian rule. And here’s where it gets weird. Merovich was the offspring resulting from an unpleasant encounter between Chlodio’s queen and a sea monster variously described as a Quinotaur or bistea Neptuni quinotauri similis (“Beast of Neptune that resembles a quinotaur”) during a seaside holiday. Much like the mythological Minotaur, the Quinotaur (literally the Latin for “bull with five horns”) had the head and torso of a bull, but instead of proper legs, boasted a gigantic fish tail, a kind of “Beefcake of the Sea”.
The first written account noting the odd parentage of Merovech is from the Chronicle of Fredegar, the primary source of what we know about Frankish Gaul, written by a Burgundian named Fredegar (alive sometime around 660 A.D., and about which very little else is known), who clearly had access to a lot of court documents. The other main documentary source we have for Frankish history is Gregory of Tours’ (538-594 A.D.) Hisotria Francorum, and he sparingly mentions Merovech only to name him as father to Cilderic I (who was himself the father of Clovis I, and only then to cast aspersions at Cilderic’s descent from Chlodio, although if Merovich was actually the Son of Chlodio’s wife and a sea monster, Gregory may have been on to something). This means that between about 550-660 A.D., some thought was being given by the local scholarly set as to the origins of Merovech and the Merovingian Dynasty. While the Merovingians were not to be supplanted by those nasty Carolingians until 752 A.D., the last Merovingian king to actually wield any real power was Dagobert I (died 639 A.D.), after which local Frankish tribal strongmen (affectionately known as “mayors of the palace”) began to squabble over who would assume the mantle of kingship, once the inevitable removal of the Merovingians had been engineered.
It is said that, when Chlodio was staying with his wife on the seashore in the summer, his wife went to the sea around noon to bathe and a beast of Neptune resembling the quinotaur sought her out. Right away, she conceived by either the beast or her husband and afterwards gave birth to a son called Merovech, after whom the kings of the Franks were later called Merovingians” (Chronicles of Fredegar, c.660 AD, III, 9).
One could facetiously come to the boringly obvious conclusion, as many historians do, that the folks who were gearing up to usurp the Merovingians were engaging in the tried and true tradition of demonizing their royal predecessors (or suggesting that they were not actually descendants of mythological hero figures) in order to justify a good beheading and legitimize their assumption of power. Now, I have nothing against historians. In fact I credit them with a bold career choice, given the high expectation for an intellectual, yet financially impoverished lifestyle, but sometimes they are just so mind numbingly literal. In the case of Merovech, the Merovingian’s themselves claimed that Merovech was descended from both the beastly aquatic Quinotaur and mundanely terrestrial Chlodio, although the mechanics of such a genetic aberration involving two fathers are not entirely elucidated. We can surmise that things got a little squishy. At any rate, the Merovingians seemed to embrace not only their aquatic origins, but reveled in being identified as “Sorcerer Kings”. Merovech himself was evidently no slouch, since he was rumored to have fought alongside Flavius Aetulius during the strategic defeat of Attila the Hun’s invasion of Roman Gaul at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains (451 A.D.)—one of the last military successes of the crumbling Western Roman Empire, which is probably good, since otherwise we would all be part of the Greater Expanding Sphere of Hun Prosperity these days. This odd origin story for the Merovingians is no doubt why the conspiracy theorists love them, including the notion that the Merovingians are part of a dubious bloodline related to Mary Magdalene (through a secret marriage to Jesus), from which the eschatologically-minded think the Antichrist will be spawned. Something to do with fish symbolism and the Christ figure I believe, and of course popularized by Dan Brown and the shady dude played by French actor Lambert Wilson called “The Merovingian” in The Matrix. The proposed genealogy and nefarious activities of the Merovingians just get stranger from there including the suggestion that the entire dynasty was the result of the mating between the Israelite tribe of Benjamin and aliens from Sirius, engaged in covert contact with reptilian extraterrestrials, not to mention association with Freemasonry, the English House of Windsor, and the Stuarts (incidentally, some of the wackiest notions involve Princess Diana’s Merovingian-Stuart ancestry). Even though a decidedly unpleasant tough guy named Charles “The Hammer” Martel (who modestly never took the title “King of France”) pretty much ended the notion of Merovingian rule, and is credited with being the father of the Carolingians (by the way, Charlemagne was a Carolingian, so they have a bit of street “cred” themselves), the mythos of the Merovingians has persisted to this day. While I love a particularly paranoid conspiracy theory, and occasionally welcome the idea of the End Times, mostly since I would no longer have to pay my mortgage or property taxes, the most interesting aspect of the Merovingian Dynasty seems to be its anomalous support and encouragement of the folklore surrounding it’s foundation by a monster. The “divine right of kings” was a fairly well-established principle early on in human history, but I don’t believe anyone has then or since really gotten behind the idea of the “monstrous right of kings”. One might be tempted to observe that when you can no longer claim to be descended from a god, the next best thing is to be descended from a mythological monster, who doesn’t have the sort of boring cachet of a cultural hero, but does impart a certain supernatural significance to a royal dynasty struggling for legitimacy. I imagine the conversation going something like, “Oh yeah, your father was the chieftain of the Chamavi Franks? Mine was a freaking sea monster. Boo-ya. Step off, son, unless you’re looking for a supernatural beat down”.
Power is a funny thing, and as Fyodor Dostoevsky wisely observed, “Power is given only to those who dare to lower themselves and pick it up. Only one thing matters, one thing; to be able to dare!” And the Merovingian’s, in a world where an empire that had lasted for a thousand years was rapidly disassociating, dared to seize upon a terrible sort of confirmation of their right to rule that reflected the ethos of the Dark Ages, that is, the toughest guy took charge–but just because you were the son of the meanest Frankish warlord on the block, it didn’t suggest some pre-destined right to rule. We humans want our leaders to be larger than life, and frankly, endowed was some supernatural gift to guide the course of history, preferably in a direction that maximizes our own significance. When the gods seem to have cast disfavor on the previous administration, and the roster of gods to choose from (nice work, Christianity) is dwindling, what is a barbarian king to do? Well, first you open up a can of whoop ass and start stomping your neighbors. Then, if you expect your children to inherit your position, you endow them with sacral mystique (and if you can’t get a god as a progenitor, a monster will do). Starting a dynasty is hard work. It’s why I’ve never tried it. In the 5th Century, Christianity was still pretty new as a state religion in the grand scheme of things, but people understood monsters, in so far, as they were wise enough to be afraid of them, and the Machiavellian strategy is to make them fear you, rather than love you. Although, to be on the safe side, we should probably leave room for the possibility that Papa Merovech was a singularly fearsome fish and that the Merovingians (who acknowledged their monstrous ancestry, but didn’t spend a lot of time on the issue) were following Lao Tzu’s advice to, “govern a great nation as you would cook a small fish. Do not overdo it.”
Gregory, Saint, Bishop of Tours, 538-594. History of the Franks. New York: Octagon Books, 1916.
Murray, Alexander Callander. “Post vocantur Merohingii: Fredegar, Merovech, and Sacral Kingship”. After Rome’s Fall ed. Murray. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964.