The Banshee, Banchee, or bean sí, is a female spirit-like-creature in Irish mythology, usually seen as an omen of death and a messenger from the underworld.
In legend, a banshee is a fairy woman who begins to wail if someone is about to die. In Scottish Gaelic mythology, she is known as the bean sìth or bean nighe and is seen washing the bloodstained clothes or armor of those who are about to die. Alleged sightings of banshees have been reported as recently as 1948. Similar beings are also found in Welsh, Norse, and folklore of the United States.
A banshee, or Bean Sidhe, is a creature 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 and Explanations
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
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.
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.