Spirits of Legend and Fantasy: Banshees

When we listen to Irish legends, we often hear about leprechauns. However, leprechauns are only one of many spirits of Ireland. One, much more frightening and morbid, but arguably more interesting creature of legend is the banshee. These ghost-women appeared in many Irish folktales and are as much an element of Ireland’s history as their tiny green-clad counterparts. The following should teach you the basics of what you need to know about banshees.

What Is a Banshee?

A banshee, or Bean Sidhe, is a fairy from Irish folklore whose scream was an omen of death. Her thin scream is referred to as “caoine,” which translates to “keening.” It is said that a banshee’s cry predicts the death of a member of one of Ireland’s five major families: the O’Grady’s, the O’Neills, the O’Briens, the O’Connors or the Kavanaghs. Over time as families blended, it was said that most Irish families had their own banshee. It is also said that the banshees followed their families as they emigrated from Ireland to other places across the globe, though some stayed behind to grieve at the original family estate.

Various versions of the banshee have been described, from a woman with long, red hair and very pale skin to an older woman with stringy, gray hair, rotten teeth and fiery red eyes. She is often depicted with a comb in her hair and this has led to an Irish superstition that finding a comb on the ground is considered bad luck. It is believed that a single banshee can take on any of these forms and shift between them, much like the goddesses of Celtic folklore. Other forms of the banshee include the Bean Nighe and the washer woman, both more attributed to Scotland than Ireland. The Bean Nighe is said to be the ghost of a woman who died during childbirth and would be seen wearing the clothes of the person about to die while the washer woman is dressed like a countrywoman and is cleaning bloody rags on a river shore.

Origins of Bnashees

It is unknown precisely when stories of the banshee first were told, but they can be traced back as far as the early eighth century. It is believed they were based on an old Irish tradition where women would sing a lament to signify one’s passing. This too was referred to as keening. As many keeners accepted alcohol as payment, which the church frowned upon, many have speculated it was these keeners who were punished in the eyes of God and were forced to become banshees. Another factor that likely contributed to the superstitious legend is the cry of the barn owl. In ancient battles, owls would screech and take flight if they noticed an army approaching, which would forewarn the defending army.

History And Mythology of Banshees

There have been several reported banshee sightings, but it is said that if a banshee becomes aware of a human’s presence watching her, she will disappear into a cloud of mist. When she does, it is accompanied by a fluttering sound like a bird flapping its wings. The Irish do not believe the banshee causes death, but merely warns of it. Although during the Middle Ages it was said that the banshee would also protect the souls of those of good heart and deed after they had passed on. The Bean Sidhe is also said to have a sister – the Lianhan Sidhe – who would win the love of mortal men and use it to destroy them.

Stories of Banshees

Many see banshees as entertaining folk lore while others genuinely believe in their existence. Had evidence of banshees consistently coincided with death by long-term illness or other easily-foreseeable causes, there likely wouldn’t be as much support. However, there had been reports of drowning and other sudden deaths of perfectly healthy individuals in the weeks following what was thought to be the sound of a banshee’s cry. The most famous example of this is King James I of Scotland who was murdered soon after he reported having been approached by a strange Irish seer.

The Banshee, Celtic Death Messenger

As we move into the darkest months of the year, it seems appropriate to visit a a spectre as ancient as life itself - the death messenger or Banshee.

Throughout history and across cultures there are stories and myths of beings that forewarn of human death. Just as the joy and desire to live is innate to most humans, so is the fear and dread of death. Seeing a ghost is not as alarming as the chilling knowledge that "as I am, so you shall be". Because mankind lives at the behest of the beautiful sometimes cruel powers of Nature, a prophecy of death returns a bit of order to those struggling to see a tapestry of cosmic or divine purpose.

In past centuries (and even today) humans look for signs of eccentricities of domestic time to portend the snipping of the thread of human life. Clocks chiming irregularly or stopping, roosters crowing at night, candles melting in winding sheets or bees swarming at doors or windows to accompany a soul in flight. Birds perching at windowsills or housetops such as owls, robins and ravens have often been seen as harbingers of gloomy news. In Scotland, the "bean-nighe" or washing woman is seen by travelers around pools or fjords washing the shrouds of those who are about to die, singing a dirge or crying. The bean-nighe will tell for whom she is keening and also the fate of those travelers who would dare to ask her. The bean-nigh is thought to be the ghost of a woman who died in childbirth. The feminine gender of this grieving spirit is a theme found again in the exclusively Irish form of the "bean-si", or banshee.

The banshee tradition occurs throughout Ireland and nearby islands. The gaelic terms used most frequently to describe the banshee are the "bean-si" (a female dweller of a sidhe, or fairy mound), the "bean chaointe" (a female keener, a term found in east Munster and Connaught) and the "badhb" (referring to a more dangerous, frightening bogey). Although "bean-si" implies an Otherworld or fairy being, the banshee is a solitary creature without male counterpart who never partakes in communal human or fairie social enterprise. Speculation also links the banshee with the mystical race Tuatha De'Dannan, from whence the fairy folk are descended. There is little folk evidence to support Christian explanations that the banshee is a devil who wails for the souls that are lost to her as they ascend to heaven, or that they are familial guardian angels or souls of unbaptized children or even the souls of women who committed the sin of pride in life.

The mourning of the deceased is not just the affair of surviving relatives in Ireland. In years past, the measure of a person's respect and stature in the community could be seen in the number of mourners at a funeral and the breadth of their grieving. Professional women keeners, often old women, were paid in drink to weep at the graveside of eminent figures in the community. The Church frowned upon the entanglement of these often alcoholic women and their funerary services, perhaps giving rise to another theory that banshees are the ghosts of professional keeners doomed to unrest as a result of their insincere grieving. Interestingly, this does touch on a basic component of the banshee legend: that banshees follow certain families. If banshees are the ghosts of deceased keeners, their accompaniment is probably due more to a sense of loyalty than a sense of guilt.

More likely the banshee should be thought of as the "spirit of the family", a spirit who attends to the family in a time of transition. The banshee is described as a wee woman with long white, blond or even auburn hair who appears in the vicinity of the birthplace of the soon to be deceased. When seen, she is wearing the clothes of a country woman, usually white, but sometimes grey, brown or red. The former hues represent the colors of mourning while red is associated with magic, fairies and the supernatural. In some accounts she is seen combing her hair as she laments. She is heard more often than seen, wailing as she approaches the abode in the late evening or early morning, sometimes perching on the windowsill two to three hours or even days before a death. As she moves off into the darkness witnesses describe a fluttering sound, such as the sound made by birds flying at night. Hence, the mistaken belief that banshees manifest as birds such as the crow. The inaccurate association with crows is probably due to confusion of the banshee with the primitive Celtic goddess Badb, the goddess of war who appeared frequently in the form of a crow.

Banshees also wail around natural forms such as trees, rivers, and stones. Wedge shaped rocks known as "banshee's chairs" are found in Waterford, Monaghan and Carlow. Although there have been reports of banshees accompanying Irish families who emigrated to the Americas, it appears the banshee more often grieves for an emigrant at the ancestral family seat in Ireland. Stories are told of the misfortune visited upon men who interfered with the banshee by taking her comb or challenging her. These tales point up the value of courteousness towards women, the avoidance of drink, violence and late hours.

There is historical precedence for the banshee's appearance as a female spirit. In Genesis, Eve delivers the apple to Adam. In the Christian myth, Mary delivers Christ unto the world, in ancient Greece women prophesied the message of the gods to mortals who sought their divine purpose at the Oracle of Delphi. Women "deliver" children into the world. As death is as natural as life, it is appropriate that the banshee, a feminine shade, provide the message which ushers a soul along on its journey.

The announcement of the banshee was heard by non-relatives and friends, not usually by close family members of the dying. With this warning, friends from far and near would travel to the failing individual knowing it was the last chance to say goodbye. Upon being told of the banshee's pronouncement, surviving family members could admit the finality of the situation and accept the support of the community that had gathered around them. The visitation of the banshee gave the tribe the opportunity to talk openly about the death with family members and thereby ease the mourning process. Although human death is inescapable, the foreknowledge of such an event does provide advantages, to the soon-to-be-deceased, the survivors and the community -- thereby honoring both the living and the dead

The Legend of the Irish Banshee

Banshee, (in Gaelic, bean-sidhe means 'Faerie woman' or 'woman of the Faerie mound'. There are many legends about the Banshees and just how evil they are supposed to be.

Some of the legends depict the Banshee as the ghost of a young woman who was brutally killed, and her death was so horrible that her spirit is left to wander the world, as she watches over her family and warns them if a violent death is imminent.

Another type of Banshee manifests as a dirty old woman wearing rags, with unkempt grey hair, talon-like fingernails and sharp pointed rotten teeth. It is said that to look into her blood red eyes of hatred will cause instant death. This Banshee's mouth is always open as she continually lets out a long, mournful scream to torture the souls of the living.

It is told that there are some Banshees that particularly enjoy taking a life. She will stalk her victim while letting out a scream to the point that the person either goes insane or dies of fright. It has also been told that some Banshees rip many a brave man apart with their bare hands. These are the type of Banshees that are portrayed in horror films.

In Ireland they have a much more tame view of the Banshee. She attaches herself to families, usually with an O or a Mac in the surname, such as O'Brien or MacRaghnaill, and she fore-tells of a death in the family.

Irish legend shows that the Banshee does not bring death but warns that death is near and to give the family time to prepare. The imminent death is not necessarily violent and may be a family member who has lived more than 100 years of age. She is there to escort that loved one safely to the other side.

Many stories have been passed down through generations, especially from the families of 'O's and 'Mac's. One such story has been told of an uncle, walking home one cold and windy night, and was probably three sheets to the wind. When he arrived home, he said that he had tried to comfort an old woman dressed in black with a veil over her face, who was crying outside the house. Every time he went over to her she moved away and kept pointing at the house.

Everyone in the household knew immediately that this old lady represented imminent death and sent the uncle to bed. Needless to say they were too afraid to look for themselves. Three days later the uncle died peacefully in his sleep. The children of the house used to beg to hear the story of the night the uncle tried to invite the Banshee in for tea.

Sometimes the Banshee may only be heard wailing but, when she decides to appear, she may take the form of the following:

An old woman dressed in black with long grey hair and covering her face with a veil.

An old woman with long white hair, red eyes and dressed in a green dress.

A deathly pale woman with long red hair dressed in a white dress, sometimes a shroud.

A beautiful woman wearing a shroud.

A beautiful woman with silver-white hair wearing a long shimmering silver dress.

A headless woman naked from the waist up and carrying a bowl of blood.

No one wishes a visitation from a Banshee, no matter how alluring she may appear. She is there for only one reason - to notify the family that they should start making plans for a funeral.

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