banshee

Faeries, Elves, and Other Kin

October, 2010

The Call of Death

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school, where children strove
At recess, in the ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

Or rather, he passed us;
The dews grew quivering and chill,
For only gossamer my gown,
My tippet only tulle.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then ’tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.

By Emily Dickinson

The most well-known of the fairy women both in Ireland and Scotland has to be the Banshee or Bean Sídhe. She is known throughout Scotland, Ireland and Wales by many names, including Badbh, Cyoeraeth, the Washer Woman, the Bean Nighe and Bean Sídhe. The Banshee, which literally means fairy woman, has been portrayed as both a frightening old woman with glowing red eyes (due to centuries of crying) and a beautiful woman with a veiled face. She is associated with death, funerals and mourning and has been called the “Death Messenger” or the “Lady of Death”. She is always in mourning and wailing for those about to die. Sometimes she is also known as the “White Lady” and is usually described as pale-skinned with long hair and wearing grey or green. She is often ethereal.

The banshee is often associated with a particular family and serves as their link to and messenger from the Other World. Usually these were seen as friends of the family. The banshee is not limited to one area, but migrates with her family no matter where they may choose to relocate.  In Ireland she is the ancestress of the old aristocratic families, the Irish clans. It was even considered something of a status symbol to have a banshee attached to your family! According to tradition, the banshee can only cry for five major Irish families:  the O’Neills, the O’Briens, the O’Connors, the O’Gradys and the Kavanaghs. Intermarriage has since extended this select list. When any death or misfortune is about to occur in the family, her unearthly wails will be heard.

More often heard than seen, there is nothing quite so terrifying as the cry (or keening) of the banshee, for to hear her cry has become an omen of death. Keening is an Irish word to describe the wailing that women used to do over the body of a deceased person to ward off evil spirits. Therefore she is also known as the bean chaointe: the wailing woman. Her mourning call is usually heard near woodlands, at night when someone is about to die.

Though her appearance can be frightening, the banshee does not bring death but warns that death is near. I.e. she foretells a death in the family. Her warning gives the family a chance to prepare for that which is to come. The death that she announces does not necessarily have to be a violent death:  it may simply be a case where a family member is about to die of old age. The banshee mourns the loss of the loved one and serves as an escort to ensure that the deceased family member passes safely to the other side.

To hear more than one banshee singing at a time is very rare and is said to indicate the death of a great person.

Initially the banshee would appear to mourn the dead. As time went on, the tales changed so that she began to foretell death. In some stories she would make an appearance when someone was on their death bed. In others her appearance or wail would foretell an unexpected death or disaster. Over the years the legend of the banshee appears to have changed. What was initially a fairy tribute to a family member has become more of a bad omen to be feared.

Origins of the Irish Banshee

The first is that she is the ghost of a young woman who was brutally killed and died so horribly that her spirit is left to wander the world watching her family and loved ones, warning them when a violent death is imminent.

This particular type of Banshee appears as an old woman in rags with dirty grey hair, long fingernails and sharp pointed rotten teeth. Her eyes are blood red and filled with so much hatred and sorrow that to look into them will cause instant death. The Banshees mouth is permanently open as she emits a long and painful scream to torture the souls of the living.

However, the banshee is also called badhbh chaointe, which clearly indicates her connection with Badhbh, the Irish word for scald crow, but more interestingly also the name of one of the Celtic war goddesses who would shriek over the battlefields in the form of a crow. Thus it is said that the origins of Banshee lie with the celtic goddess, the Morrighan, who was known to stand in a river and wash the entrails of those about to die in battle while singing a most enchanting and mesmerizing song. Warriors in battle, who could hear her singing, were destined to die. The Morrighan, who has been portrayed as both a beautiful, yet deadly, warrior goddess and an old hag; is one of the goddesses of the Tuatha dé Danaan.

The Washer Woman of the Highlands

In Scotland we find the dreaded Bean Nighe, the Washer at the Ford or the Washer Woman of the Scottish Highlands: a terrifying creature. She may be seen at midnight washing the death shirt of someone about to die. Usually the person who meets her knows that it is his own fate that she foretells. As she washes she sings a dirge:

“Se do leine, se do leine ga mi nigheadh”

(It is your shirt, your shirt that I am washing).

According to other folk tales, if one happens upon her while she is washing the bloody clothing of those about to die and she happens to see them, she will lash out at them with her laundry and break both of their legs. However, if one hides at the spring where she comes to wash and surprises her, they can demand three wishes. For those even more daring, it is said that to sneak up on the Bean Nighe and to nurse from her breast will make them her foster child. She will then be obligated to give gifts such as second sight or the ability to prophesize.

A much kinder relative of the banshee is known as the Bean Tighe in the Highlands of Scotland. The Bean Tighe attaches herself to a particular household and serves as the fairy housekeeper. In some places she is known as the Glaistig Uaine, the Green Lady, who is often sighted in the rooms and the grounds of the old castles of the Scottish clans, keeping watch over everything. There is also the wilder type of banshee found in more remote places. This type of banshee wanders through the woods and over the moors at dusk, luring travellers to their doom.

The Welsh Hag of the Mist

In Welsh folklore, a banshee-like entity is referred to as the Cyoeraeth or Gwrach-y-Rhibyn and will tap on the windows of those about to die. Rarely seen, (which is a blessing, as she is quite ugly and frightening) she has long black hair and black teeth and cries in mourning for those about to die. Often invisible, she can sometimes be seen at a crossroads or stream when the mist rises. If it is death that is coming, the name of the one doomed to die will be heard in her “shrill tenor”. The misfortune may be coming to the person hearing her voice, or to someone in their family.

The many guises of the banshee

As mentioned before, the Banshee can appear in a variety of guises, most often as an ugly, frightening hag; but she can also emerge as a beautiful woman of any age. When she is portrayed as the Morrighan in some tales, the hag appears as a washer-woman who cleans the blood stained clothes of those who are about to die. The Banshee may also appear in a variety of other forms, such as that of a crow, hare and weasel, mostly any animal associated in Ireland with witchcraft. Banshees are frequently described as either old or beautiful women dressed in white, green, black, grey or silver; often having long, grey, silver or fair hair which they brush with a silver comb. Alternatively, when they cover their hair and face, they appear wearing a veil or a shroud. There have also been instances of a banshee appearing as a deathly pale woman with long red hair dressed in a white dress or even as a headless woman naked from the waist up and carrying a bowl of blood.

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. This is an example of the banshee in human form. There are records of several human banshees or prophetesses attending the great houses of Ireland and the courts of local Irish kings.

Conclusion

We may conclude, then, that the remnants of the old pagan Gaelic religion can still be found in the fairy lore of Scotland and Ireland, with gods and goddesses being remembered as the guardian ancestors of the clans. In fact, all the clans once claimed descent from a particular deity. The old gods still appear in local tales, as kings and queens of fairy palaces or as guardians of lakes so they are still very much part of the land and the folk memory of the people. However, belief in the sídhe has been steadily diminishing, not least through the decline of the number of Gaelic native speakers. Many folk tales, after all, were only told and passed on in Gaelic.

It is sad that many people are no longer interested in what used to be their native language and in their folk legends and rich mythological tradition. The fairies are the elemental powers of the land and the standing stones of the Celtic culture. Yet, while the stories behind her presence, appearance, and purpose vary, the tradition of the banshee as the signal of death remains fixed in Celtic culture up to this day, from the Irish counties to the folklore of Scottish and Welsh shores.

Sources

The Cry of the Banshee by Deanna on April 15th, 2010

http://www.youriris h.com/banshee. Htm

Banshee, Harbinger of Death

http://www.newworld encyclopedia. org/entry/ Banshee

Banshee by Frazetta, Frank

http://www.wyrdolog y.com/fairies/ celtic/index. html

Fairy Women Of Scotland

www.empathys.co.uk/129.html

Faeries, Elves, and Other Kin

March, 2010

Other Kin:  The Banshee

BANSHEE-SPIRIT


The banshee, from the Irish bean sídhe meaning “faerie woman” or “woman of the faerie mounds,” is a troublesome being when it comes to classification.  Although it would seem the banshee should clearly be classified as a faerie based on the meaning of the name alone, it isn’t that simple, although the banshee is clearly of the same “Other World” to which the faeries belong.

The origin of the banshee may be the Morrigan herself, a triple Goddess and one of the Tuatha Dé Danann.  Banshees have been called a “Badbh,” the death and battle aspect of the Morrigan, and legends say if a warrior heard the Morrigan’s song, he was destined to die in battle.  The Morrigan was also said to wash the entrails of those about to die in a stream and to choose only the loveliest maidens to become banshees.

When the Tuatha Dé Danann were defeated in battle by the Milesians, they agreed to retreat and dwell underground in the sídhe, the earthen burial mounds found throughout the Irish landscape.  They became the aes sídhe, a powerful, supernatural race comparable to the faeries or elves.  Today we use the word sídhe to refer to both the mounds and the people of the mounds.  However, the word correctly refers specifically to “the palaces, courts, halls or residences” only.  Thus does the classification of the banshee as a faerie become problematic if the meaning of bean sídhe is changed to be simply “woman of the mounds” and if the women of the mounds are comparable to the faeries, but are not actually faeries.

It is tradition in an Irish or Scottish village for a woman to sing a lament at the funeral of someone who has died. The keening of these women is said to be a combination of a wild goose’s screech, a wolf’s howl and the cry of an abandoned child, mimicking the banshee’s wail.  Legend says a “faerie” woman will sing this lament for Irish and Scottish families of pure Milesian descent, or only for the O’Grady, O’Neill, O’Brien, O’Connor, and Kavanagh families, or for families gifted with song and music.  The family may know the name of their banshee and the banshee may even follow the family overseas, despite the prohibition that the banshee cannot cross running water (a prohibition shared by many faerie entities).  Some families, however, believe their banshee is the spirit of a dead friend or family member, often a virgin, sometimes a murder victim, usually someone who died young.

The banshee may appear in various forms, including:

  • An old woman dressed in green with a grey cloak
  • A deathly pale woman dressed in white with long, wild red hair
  • A beautiful woman, veiled in white with long white hair
  • A shimmery, silvery woman with long, beautifully abundant silver-grey hair
  • A headless woman, naked from the waist up
  • A tall white veil in the shape of a woman with long grey hair

One visual aspect these forms share (except for the headless woman, of course) is eyes fiery red from weeping.  The banshee may appear crouched beneath trees near the house, flying past the dying person’s window, or while combing her long hair.  She may appear with the cóiste bodhar, the faeries’ hearse, an immense black coach with a coffin in it.  She may not appear at all, only be heard.

Hollywood has spread the misconception that the banshee’s voice causes death; far from it.  The banshee wails when a person is about to die or has died.  When several keen together, it foretells the death of someone very great or holy.  The banshee is actually a comfort to the family rather than an omen of ill; the banshee signals the passing of the soul and often acts as a personal escort.  This concept is illustrated in the tale, “Banshee Comes for Dying Man,” collected by Eddie Lenihan, a master Irish folklorist.  The latch on the back door lifts and the door opens of its own accord three times while a woman (banshee) cries in the back yard and the old man of the house is dying upstairs.  When they stop trying to close the door, the old man dies and the crying fades off, up the hill, leading his spirit into the Other World.

Spirit or faerie?  The banshee seems to straddle the line of being partly both.  And like any being of the Other World, her nature is dual.  Let to go about her business, she is benign and even helpful, a part of the cycle of life and death.  Interrupt her, though, and pay the penalty, as did one cheeky young man who grabbed the shoulder of “The Barefield Banshee” while she was combing her hair; she “hit him a slap across his face and set him flying.”  As told to Lenihan, “When they healed up the four scars were there, the mark o’ the four fingers…stayed with him for as long as he lived.  That boy went strange after.”

    Bibliography and Works Cited/Recommended Reading:
    Briggs, Katharine, An Encyclopedia of Faeries, Pantheon , 1976
    Dubois, Pierre, The Great Encyclopedia of Faeries, Simon & Schuster, English Translation 1999
    Franklin, Anna, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Fairies, Paper Tiger, 2002
    Illes, Judika, Encyclopedia of Spirits, Harper One, 2009
    Lenihan, Eddie, Meeting the Other Crowd:  The Fairy Stories of Hidden Ireland, Penguin Putnam, 2003
    Moorey, Teresa, The Fairy Bible, Sterling Publishing Co., 2008

Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banshee, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aos_s%C3%AD

Faeries, Elves, and Other Kin

December, 2008

Faeries, Elves, and Other Kin: The Woman of Peace and the Spirit of the Air (Bean sidhe (Banshee)

Announcing mortal’s deaths with her keening cries

Piercing throughout the night rising and falling like the oceans waves

White Lady of Sorrow spirit of the air

Mourning and forewarning the ancient Celts and their decedents with her unearthly cries

Woman of peace, her voice blending in with the mournful cries of loved ones left behind

The Faery woman contrasts against the nights black skies

Eyes red from crying, her face pale

Cloaked in a raiment of grayish-white clinging to her tall slender frame

Her hair of silver and gray streaming down to the ground

Yet in all her mourning she is graced with a mode peace

Unseen she attends the rites of the beloved deceased

Where ever the old Irish families have gone across oceans and land

She follows her mortal family never forgetting her ties of blood to man.

~ Michele Burke (2008).

Whatever the Banshees origins, in one of three different guises she appears: a raddled old hag, a young woman, or a stately matron. It is in these guises that the triple aspects of the Celtic goddess of death and war, i.e. Macha, Badhbh, and Mor-Rioghain.) She is usually seen wearing either a winding sheet or grave robe of the unshriven dead, or a grey hooded cloak The Scottish counterpart of th banshee may also emerge as a washer-woman, and is apparently seen “washing the blood stained clothes of those who are about to die. In this guise she is known as the bean-nighe (washing woman)” (Hidden Ireland, n.d.).

Coming In December:

Water-Faeries:  providers of food, nourishes of crops, and takers of lives.

Bibliography and works cited:

Hidden Ireland, (n.d.). The Banshee. Retrieved November 24, 2008, from

http://www.irelandseye.com/animation/explorer/banshee.html