A banshee is one of many spirits of Irish and Scottish folklore. Banshees are common in Irish and Scottish folk stories, and enjoy the same mythical status in Ireland as fairies and leprechauns. The modern understanding of a banshee as a grotesque, angry female spirit that flies in the air at night, terrifying people with her shrieking is something of a misnomer. The banshee is understood by the people of Ireland and Scotland as an omen of death and a messenger from the afterlife who would appear and wail under the windows of a house where a person was about to die. Such tales indicate the belief in the spirit world and the existence of spiritual beings, whether spirits of people who have died young, or of beings entirely of spiritual origin, who can communicate with human beings.
The term Banshee is an Anglicization of the Irish bean sídhe or bean sí, which translates as “fairy woman”: bean: woman, and sidhe: the genitive case of “fairy.” The Scots Gaelic version of the name is Bean Nighe—”fairy washer woman.”
The shriveled hag with long, unkempt white hair, wearing a funeral robe is only one of several different forms in which a banshee may appear, although this is the most common form the creature takes. The hag may appear as a washer-woman, washing the blood stained clothes or armor of a person about to die. She can also appear as a young woman with a beautiful, if slightly un-earthly, appearance. Whatever her age, though, she is almost always portrayed as having long hair and wearing long flowing robes of similar color.
The most distinctive feature of the banshee is her cry. It has been described differently, from a low moan to a loud shriek. Most often it is said to be a loud, sad lamenting that has not startled, but saddened those who heard it. The banshee’s cry has always been understood to herald death.
Scottish Bean Nighe
Since the Scottish name Bean Nighe is derived from the Old Irish language, the fairy washer woman of Scotland may well be related to the Irish banshee, yet the two creatures are different in several details. According to John Gregorson Campbell, a folklorist working in Scotland in the latter half of the nineteenth century and whose work was published posthumously in 1900 and 1902: “A bean shìth is any otherworld woman; the bean nighe is a specific otherworld woman.”
The Scottish Bean Nighe is described in some tales as having one nostril, one big protruding tooth, webbed feet, long hanging breasts, and as being dressed in green. As the “Washer at the Ford,” she wanders near deserted streams where she washes the blood from the grave-clothes of those who are about to die. It is said that Mnathan Nighe (the plural of bean nighe) are the spirits of women who died giving birth and are doomed to do this work until the day their lives would have normally ended. A mortal who is bold enough to sneak up to her while she is washing and suck her breast can claim to be her foster child, and as a result gain a wish from her.
In the ancient Celtic epic The Ulster Cycle, the Morrígan (a Celtic war goddess) is seen in the role of a Bean Nighe. When the hero Cúchulainn rides out to war, he encounters the Morrígan as a hag washing his bloody armor in a ford. From this omen he realizes this battle will be his last.
The banshee first appeared in very old Gaelic legends. When several banshees appeared at once, it indicated the death of someone great or holy.
Traditionally, when a citizen of an Irish village died, a woman would sing, otherwise known as “keen,” a lament at their funeral. Music in those times was often connected to the spirits and fairies that were believed to inhabit the woods. It is said that on occasion a fairy woman would begin “keening” before news of the death of a person who had died far away had reached their family. Thus, the wailing of this banshee was the first they heard of the death of a loved one.
According to legend, the six noteworthy families of Ireland—the O’Neills, O’Donnells, O’Connors, O’Learys, O’Tools, and O’Connaghs—each had a woman spirit who would act as the harbinger of death; having foresight, she would appear before the death, weeping. It was believed that the banshee sang such a sad song because she was a friend of the family.
Banshees in literature and popular culture
When the 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 stories in their original (Irish or Scottish) Gaelic forms. 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 portended one’s own death.
Yet, the banshee is still one of a handful of mythical creatures that, although widely known over a diverse geographical area, is not commonly seen outside of folklore. Gaelic oral traditions passed down for centuries, written down only in the last five hundred years, are the most common place to find the banshee, such as the fourteenth century Chogaidh Gaeil are Gall. Such traditions changed over time to include poems, limericks, nursery rhymes, and superstitions that have carried on to the twentieth century, although actual belief in such creatures is scarce at best.
Today, the best places to find stories of banshees are in anthologies of Irish and Scottish lore. Some contemporary authors, such as Terry Pratchett in the novel Reaper Man employ banshees, but on the whole the banshee is not used frequently in literature or art. Certain pop-cultural activities, however, such as role-playing and video games, include the banshee among their mythical creatures.