As we move into the darkest months of the year, it seems fitting to visit a spectre as ancient as life itself – the Banshee. A banshee is a female spirit in Irish mythology who heralds the death of a family member, usually by shrieking or keening. Her name is connected to the mythologically-important tumuli or “mounds” that dot the Irish countryside, which are known as side (singular síd) in Old Irish.
The banshee can appear in a variety of forms. Perhaps most often she is seen as an ugly, frightful hag, but she can also appear as young and beautiful if she chooses. In some tales, the figure who first appears to be a banshee or other cailleach (hag) is later revealed to be the Irish battle goddess, the Morrígan.
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 ravens have often been seen as harbingers of gloomy news.
The Ua Briain banshee is thought to be named Aibell and the ruler of twenty-five other banshees who would always be at her attendance. It is possible that this particular story is the source of the idea that the wailing of numerous banshees signifies the death of a great person. The tales sometimes recounted that the woman, though called a fairy, was a ghost, often of a specific murdered woman, or a mother who died in childbirth.
The banshee tradition occurs throughout Ireland and parts of Scotland. The gaelic terms used most frequently to describe the banshee are the “bean-si” (a female dweller of a side, or fairy mound), the “bean chaointe” (a female keener, a term found in some parts of Leinster) and the “badhb” (referring to a more dangerous, frightening banshee). 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 Dé Dannan, from whence the fairy folk are descended.
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.
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 colours 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 “banshees’ 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.
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 honouring both the living and the dead.