When you hear the word Banshee, you might picture a floating, wailing, eery-looking female spirit that haunts people to death. Or perhaps you think of keening women crying in lamentation.
Banshees are a cultural pillar in Celtic mythology. This woman of the fairies is known for mournful melodies and as a harbinger of death. Today, they have made their way into pop culture - appearing in comic books, TV shows, video games, and more.
There have been various interpretations of banshees throughout the years. Therefore, it can be challenging to find the roots in which the tale of the Banshee lies. Is it a ghost? A fairy? A demon? Are there friendly banshees? What exactly is a banshee?
Although her scream is a saga that has echoed through folklore for thousands and thousands of years, there is much more to understand about these Irish mythical creatures than what is portrayed in modern culture today. Hang tight because we'll uncover all you need to know about this supernatural songstress.
Today I'm delighted to publish a guest post by Richard from the Irish Gift Co, explaining the ancient origins of the Irish Banshee. So I'll hand you over to Richard.
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The Banshees of Inisherin
The movie The Banshees of Inisherin recently took the world, the Academy Awards, and the Oscars by storm, winning fame, nominations, and accolades, from adorning fans.
However, something that needed to be added to the movie (at least in a direct way) was the presence of a Banshee. Mrs. McCormack, in a sense, is the Banshee of Inisherin, as she warns Pádraic (Colin Farrell) that there will be death on the island. While she is never directly called a Banshee, it can be assumed that this is from where the movie gets its title.
Irish American Mom also recently touched on what a Banshee is in her recent article on Halloween and some Irish mythical figures (changelings are my personal favorite), but let's take a deeper dive into what exactly Banshees are and their origin!
What is a Banshee?
Banshee is derived from the Irish language and is sometimes spelled "bean sidhe." The name literally translates to "woman of the fairy mounds" and refers to the belief that the Banshee lived in the burial mounds of ancient Ireland.
The origins of the Banshee are unclear, but she is often associated with the Celtic goddess of death, the Morrígan, and she was said to appear as a harbinger of death (not unlike the role played by The Grim Reaper).
Banshees are Irish mythological creatures from Celtic and Gaelic folklore that generally appear in the form of a shrieking/singing woman with long grey hair or silver hair. She was sometimes referred to as the hag of the mists. They also feature in Scottish, Welsh, Norse and even American folklore.
Some believe that banshees can take many forms, including a beautiful young woman wearing a shroud, a headless woman holding a bowl of blood, and a fragile older woman with frightening eyes and long white hair.
In Irish legend, a banshee is said to be a fairy woman with ties to particular old Irish families. She appears at night to haunt her descendant's homes and screams to warn of the impending death of family members. Essentially, they are an omen of death. It's a common belief that every Irish family has its own Banshee, as Irish families have merged over time.
In Irish folklore, the Banshee was often portrayed as a beautiful, otherworldly woman with long, flowing hair and usually wearing a black cloak. However, she was sometimes depicted as having ghostly and witch-like features. This is the impression I have seared in my memory from childhood, worrying about whether the sound of cats fighting late at night was actually a Banshee announcing her presence to me.
I remember, as a child, hearing about Banshees and being convinced that they existed. Indeed, my parents had heard stories from relatives many years ago who listened to a Banshee's wail shortly before a loved one's death. I cannot be sure whether these were genuine beliefs of the generation before my parents or tall tales used to scare children.
Origins of this Mythical Woman
The first stories of the Banshee date back to an 8th-century tradition where women, also known as 'keeners,' were paid to sing a sorrowful song to mourn someone's death. They would accept alcohol as payment. Thus, they were condemned as sinners and banished to become banshees.
According to legend, Brigid, the Irish goddess of poetry and fertility, created keening. The practice was born from the tragic Second Battle of Moytura, otherwise known as Cath Tánaiste Maige Tuired.
It was a battle between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomorri. During the struggle, Brigid's son Ruadán perished. Upon discovering her son's corpse on the battlefield, Brigid wailed a sorrowful cry. A kind of poetic, mournful song to honor his demise.
Irish Superstitions About Banshees
Some Irish people have their own version of a Banshee of sorts. For example. my mother believes that a picture falling off a wall is a sign of death being near.
I recall her mentioning that it happened shortly before one of her relatives died. I first learned of this when a picture hanging on the wall fell while we sat together. I am not sure whether this is an Irish or a personal belief.
The Banshee is sometimes associated with a particular family or clan, and she only appears to announce the death of a member of that family.
The five ancient families of Ireland are closely linked to banshees. These clans include the O'Neills, O'Connors, O'Briens, O'Gradys and Kavanaghs.
She is said to be able to predict the future and to know when a person's time has come.
Despite her frightening reputation (who isn't afraid of a woman wailing at you or a family member due to impending death?), the Banshee is not necessarily seen as malevolent in Irish folklore.
Some stories portray her as a guardian or protector who is trying to warn people of danger (as is the case with Brian Boru, Ireland's most famous High King - more on that later) or to guide them to the Otherworld.
The Haunting Habits of Banshees
Now that we know what banshees are and where they come from let's learn more about their abilities and practices. As we've touched on before, banshees can take many feminine forms.
But mythology also tells us that they could also shapeshift their body to appear like other people, creatures, or even a ghost of a family member. She can appear in many different guises. She can take the shape of a weasel, stoat or hare, but is mostly depicted as an old hag, sometimes with red hair and wearing a green dress.
This explains why some claim the Banshee is a ghost, fairy, goddess, demon, and so on, as they are all the above.
The Banshee can alter her appearance based on her audience and her 'song.' And it doesn't always sound like the blood-curdling scream that most modern interpretations have led us to believe. In actuality, a Banshee's call can often sound hauntingly beautiful.
Irish folklore claims that banshees only attach themselves to a descendent and/or family member, specifically Ireland's "old families." She'll come out at night close to the family's quarters, but when spotted, she vanishes into a cloud of mist, creating a sound similar to a bird flapping its wings.
It is important to note that a banshee's scream doesn't cause death; instead, it serves as a warning of the imminent demise of a family member.
An Influential Figure in Irish Folklore
Regardless of her origin, the Banshee was believed to be an influential figure in Irish folklore. It was said that the sound of her wail could send shivers down the spines of even the bravest of men and that her appearance would cause feelings of impending doom.
Some believed that the Banshee could only be heard by those about to die, while others believed anyone who listened to her wail would die soon after.
In some parts of Ireland, it is believed that the Banshee can be placated by offering her food or drink.
Using food and drink to appease mythical creatures is a common theme in Irish culture.
In the recent horror movie set in Ireland - Unwelcome - the new arrivals in the village forget to give an offering of food to the evil fairies living in their back garden, with dire consequences!
Good vs. Evil Banshees
The Irish Banshee is commonly misinterpreted as solely an evil, hate-filled creature. However, there also are friendly banshees.
They are seen as women of peace with deep ties to their families who watch over their loved ones.
When banshees manifest themselves, they can appear as beautiful women, singing a hauntingly sad song out of love for their descendants, days before the death of a family member.
Did you know foxgloves are called lus na mban sidhe (pronounced luss nah man shee) in the Irish language, which means the plant of the banshee? So next time you see a fairy thimble or foxglove remember they're the flower of the infamous banshee.
In sharp contrast, we now only tend to have the hateful Banshee, who is quite terrifying. These banshees are women who had vendettas toward their families, appearing as frighteningly distorted evil spirits.
Their howls aren't sorrowful and beautiful like the more peaceful banshees. Instead, their piercing screams will chill you to the bone. And don't mistake their cries as a sound of grief, but rather the manic sound of celebration. A celebration, in fact, of the death of someone they absolutely loathed.
The story of the Banshee has been passed down through generations and has been adapted and transformed over time. Her image has appeared in art, literature, and popular culture. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Banshee became a popular literary subject, with many poets and writers using the figure as a symbol of death, foretelling, and mourning.
Banshee's In Literature
Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte: This classic novel features the character Cathy, who is said to have the ability to wail like a banshee. Her mournful cries are said to foretell the death of a loved one and add to the gloomy and foreboding atmosphere of the novel.
The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde: This novel features a character called Sibyl Vane. She is said to have the voice of a banshee, and her mournful wail is said to foretell the death of her lover, Dorian Gray.
Banshee's In History
The most famous person in Irish history who is believed to have heard the Banshee's wail was the great Irish warrior and Ireland's last High King, Brian Boru.
According to legend, the Banshee appeared to the family and wailed three times, foretelling his death in battle. The following day, he was killed while praying in his tent, and the family believed that the Banshee's wail had warned of his death.
The Legend of the Banshee
The cry of the Banshee is a piece of Irish mythology passed down for thousands and thousands of years. Many centuries ago, it was common to believe these tales.
If you have Irish heritage, why not ask your relatives what they believe about this feminine harbinger of death?
Whether you believe in this fascinating folklore or not, you've got to admit that it makes for a great story... and a quick way to send a shiver down your spine!
Of course, The Banshee is not the only mythical figure in Irish culture that still endures to this day. Leprechauns, fairies, and changelings all are recognized by Irish people. In fact, many farmers will not disturb large rock mounds in their fields for fear of disturbing a Fairy Fort, but that is a story for another day.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Mairéad -Irish American Mom
Pronunciation - slawn ah-gus ban-ock-th
Mairéad - rhymes with parade