Other Kin: The Banshee
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 Books, 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