In Irish folklore, the Bean Sidhe ("woman of the mounds") is a spirit or fairy who presage a death by wailing. She is popularly known as the Banshee.
Aka : Washer of the Shrouds, Washer at the Banks, Washer at the Ford, Cointeach, Cyhiraeth, Cyoerraeth, Gwrach y Rhibyn, Eur-Cunnere Noe, Bean sidhe, Bean Chaointe, the Bean-nighe, Kannerez-Noz
Ireland, Scotland, Germany, France.
The word is derived from the Old Irish ben síde, modern Irish bean sídhe or bean sí, (bean, woman, and sidhe, being the tuiseal ginideach or possessive case of "fairy" which means a female dweller of a sidhe, or fairy mound). In east Munster and Connaught she is called a "bean chaointe" (a female keener) and sometimes confused with the "badhb" ( a more dangerous, frightening bogey).
Whatever her origins, the banshee chiefly appears in one of three guises: a young woman, a stately matron or a raddled old hag which corresponds to the triple aspects of the Celtic goddess of war and death, namely Badhbh, Macha and Mor-Rioghain.
When seen, she is wearing the clothes of a country woman, usually white, but sometimes grey, brown, green or red. She often have long, fair white, blond hair which they brush with a silver comb as she laments, a detail scholar Patricia Lysaght attributes to confusion with local mermaid myths. This comb detail is also related to the centuries-old traditional romantic Irish story that, if you ever see a comb laying on the ground in Ireland, you must never pick it up, or the banshees, having placed it there to lure unsuspecting humans, will spirit such gullible humans away.
In Cornwall she is said to have long black teeth and in Scottish islands very long breasts.
The Banshee may also appear in a variety of other forms, such as that of a crow, hare and weasel, or any other animal associated in Ireland with witchcraft.
Banshees were common in Irish and Scottish folk stories such as those written down by Herminie T. Kavanagh. They enjoy the same mythical status in Ireland as fairies and leprechauns. They are also known in German culture as "Washer women" and in France as "Dames blanches".
When these oral narratives were first translated into English, a distinction between the "banshee" and other fairy folk was introduced which does not seem to exist in the original stories in their original (Irish or Scottish) Gaelic forms. Similarly, the funeral lament became a mournful cry or wail by which the death is heralded. In these tales, hearing the banshee's wail came to predict a death in the family and seeing the banshee portends one's own death.
The banshee is a solitary creature without male counterpart who never partakes in communal human or fairie social enterprise. When multiple Banshees wail together, it will herald the death of someone very great or holy. The Scottish version of the Banshee is the Bean Nighe.
The banshee visits a household and by wailing she warns them that a member of their family is about to die. At times she is seen in lonely places, beside a pool or stream, washing the linen of those soon to die, and folding and beating it with her hands on a stone in the middle of the water. She is then known as the Bean-nighe, or washing woman; and her being seen is a sure sign that death is near.
The Banshee's keening (mourning wail) is heard at night prior to a death. In some parts of Leinster, her wail can be so piercing that it shatters glass. In Kerry, the keen is experienced as a "low, pleasant singing"; in Tyrone as "the sound of two boards being struck together"; and on Rathlin Island as "a thin, screeching sound somewhere between the wail of a woman and the moan of an owl".
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.
- In Ireland and Brittany they are an omiportent, foretelling death, either one's own or a death in the family. The washerwomen wash either graveclothes (Brittany) or the bloodied shirts of those about to die (Ireland).
- In Scotland, however, if one can get between the washerwomen and the water, they are required to grant three wishes in exchange for three questions answered truthfully. There is also a tradition in Scotland of a single washer at the ford, the goddess Clotha, who gives the River Clyde its name.
- In Wales and Cornwall a passerby must avoid being seen by the washerwomen. If they do get seen however, they are required to help wring out the sheets. If they twist the sheets in the same direction as the washerwomen, the individual's arms will be wrenched from their sockets and they will get pulled into the wet sheets and killed instantly. If, however, they twist in the opposite direction, the washerwomen are required to grant the person three wishes.
- The washerwomen rarely appear in England, although lonely pools are often haunted by some supernatural creature, which may have derived from the same original root.
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.
In Mull and Tiree islands in Scotland, she is said to have preternaturally long breasts, which are in the way as she stoops at her washing. She throws them over her shoulders, and they hang down her back. Whoever sees her must not turn away, but steal up behind and endeavour to approach her unawares. When he is near enough he is to catch one of her breasts, and, putting it to his mouth, calls herself to witness that she is his first nursing or foster-mother. She answers that he has need of that being the case, and will then communicate whatever knowledge he desires. If she says the shirt she is washing is that of an enemy he allows the washing to go on, and that man's death follows; if it be that of her captor or any of his friends, she is put a stop to.
The banshee can also be caught and mastered and made to communicate her information at the point of a sword. Also, whether she is a ghost or a faerie, she may be able to be harmed by cold-forged iron and repelled by salt.
Banshees are known to 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.
Long ago, when a citizen of an Irish village died, a woman would sing a traditional lament or caoineadh (pronounced kweenyah) at their funeral. These women singers are sometimes referred to as "keeners". Some scholars affirm it might be the origin of the myth.
Traditionally, the banshee can only cry for five great Gaelic families: the O'Gradys, the O'Neills, the O'Briens, the O'Connors, and the Kavanaghs. These families had a fairy woman associated with them, who would make an appearance after a death in the family to sing this lament. Tales recount how, when the family member had died far away then the appearance or, in some tales, the sound of the fairy keener, might be the first intimation of the death.
Aiobhill is the banshee of the Dalcassians of North Munster, Cliodna of the MacCarthys and other families of South Munster.
In 1437, King James I of Scotland was approached by an Irish seeress or banshee who foretold his murder at the instigation of the Earl of Atholl. There are records of several human banshees or prophetesses attending the great houses of Ireland and the courts of local Irish kings.
In about the middle of the nineteenth century lived the Reverend Charles Bunworth of Co. Cork. Mr. Bunworth became deathly ill. His wife was not too worried because it looked like his health was improving.
A servant of the household knew his master was going to die. He heard the dreaded wail along with several others. He tells his story;
“As I came through the glen at Ballybeg, she was along with me screeching and keening, and clapping her hands, by my side every step of the way, with her long white hair falling about her shoulders, and I could hear her repeat the master’s name every now and then as plain as ever I heard it. When I came to the old abbey, she parted from me there, and turned into the pigeon field next to the berrin ground, and folding her cloak about her, down she sat under the tree that was struck by lightning, and began keening so bitterly that it went through one’s heart to hear it.
Mrs. Bunworth dismissed this as superstition because her husband's health was getting better.
A few nights later a low moaning accompanied by the sound of clapping was heard outside of Mr. Bunworth’s window. Two men visiting the house immediately ran outside to find the source of the sound. They found nothing and heard only silence. Meanwhile the people still in the house kept hearing the wailing and moaning and clapping. This continued for hours. All the while Mr. Bunworth began slipping away. He was dead by the morning.
Theories about origin and existence
It is believed that the myth of the Banshee developed due to the Irish tradition of the lament; women would sing a lament (known as “keeners”) for the dead at funerals, and for some in the village, this song would carry through the air and become the first signal that someone had died.
The imagery of the Banshee is probably inspired from the Celtic goddess Morrigan. In a poem from the 8th century, she is described as washing spoils and entrails.
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.
Last but not least, the banshee is believed to be the "spirit of the family", an ancestral spirit appointed to forewarn members of certain ancient Irish families of their time of death.
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.
Art / Fiction
Banshee is one of the “Monster in My Pocket” series.
- Sorlin, Evelyne (1991) (in French). Cris de vie, cris de mort: Les fées du destin dans les pays celtiques. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica. ISBN 978-951-41-0650-7.
- Evans Wentz, Walter Yeeling (1977). The Fairy-Faith in celtic countries, its psychological origin and nature. Gerrards Cross, Bucks.: C. Smythe. OCLC 257400792
- Lysaght, Patricia (1986). The Banshee: The Irish Death Messenger. Roberts Rinehart Publishers. ISBN 1-57098-138-8.
- Briggs, Katharine (1976). An Encyclopedia of Fairies. Pantheon Books. ISBN 0-394-73467-X.
- Jaqueline West, "The Banshee" (e-text)