A banshee (// BAN-shee; Modern Irish bean sí, from Old Irish: ban síde, pronounced [bʲan ˈʃiːðʲe], "woman of the fairy mound" or "fairy woman") is a female spirit in Irish mythology who heralds the death of a family member, usually by shrieking or keening. Her name is connected to the mythologically-important tumuli or "mounds" that dot the Irish countryside, which are known as síde (singular síd) in Old Irish.
The banshee is often described in Gaelic lore as wearing red or green, usually with long, disheveled hair (usually described as red or orange, and yellow in medieval times described to shimmer like wild fire). She can appear in a variety of forms. Perhaps most often she is seen as an ugly, frightful hag, but she can also appear young and beautiful if she chooses. In some tales, the figure who first appears to be a banshee or other cailleach (hag) is later revealed to be the Irish battle goddess, Morrígan.
In Ireland and parts of Scotland, a traditional part of mourning is the keening woman (bean chaointe), who wails a lament - in Irish: Caoineadh, [ˈkɰiːnʲə] (Connaught dialect) or [ˈkiːnʲuː] (Ulster dialect), caoin meaning "to weep, to wail". This keening woman may in some cases be a professional, and the best keeners would be in high demand.
Irish legend speaks of a lament being sung by a fairy woman; she would sing it when a family member died or was about to die, even if the person had died far away and news of their death had not yet come, so that the wailing of the banshee was the first warning the household had of the death.
She also predicts death. If someone is about to enter a situation where it is unlikely they will come out of alive she will warn people by screaming or wailing. Hence why a banshee is also known as a wailing woman.
It is often stated that the Banshee laments only the descendants of the pure Milesian stock of Ireland, sometimes clarified as surnames prefixed with O' and Mac, and some accounts even state that each family has its own Banshee. One account, however, also included the Geraldines, as they had apparently become "more Irish than the Irish themselves".
When several banshees appear at once, it indicates the death of someone great or holy. The tales sometimes recounted that the woman, though called a fairy, was a ghost, often of a specific murdered woman, or a mother who died in childbirth.
The Ua Briain banshee is thought to be named Aibell and the ruler of 25 other banshees who would always be at her attendance. It is possible that this particular story is the source of the idea that the wailing of numerous banshees signifies the death of a great person.
Most, though not all, surnames associated with banshees have the Ó or Mc/Mac prefix - that is, surnames of Goidelic origin, indicating a family native to the Insular Celtic lands rather than those of the Norse, English, or Norman invaders. Accounts reach as far back as 1380 to the publication of the Cathreim Thoirdhealbhaigh (Triumphs of Torlough) by Sean mac Craith. Mentions of banshees can also be found in Norman literature of that time.
In some parts of Leinster, she is referred to as the bean chaointe (keening woman) whose wail can be so piercing that it shatters glass. In Scottish folklore, a similar creature is known as the bean nighe or ban nigheachain (little washerwoman) or nigheag na h-àth (little washer at the ford) and is seen washing the bloodstained clothes or armour of those who are about to die. In Welsh folklore, a similar creature is known as the hag of the mist.
- Dictionary of the Irish Language: síd, síth - "a fairy hill or mound" and ben
- T., Koch, John (2006-01-01). Celtic culture : a historical encyclopedia. ABC CLIO. p. 189. ISBN 9781851094400. OCLC 644410117.
[Its occurrence] is most strongly associated with the old family or ancestral home and land, even when a family member dies abroad. The cry, linked predominantly to impending death, is said to be experienced by family members, and especially by the local community, rather than the dying person. Death is considered inevitable once the cry is acknowledged.
- Lysaght, Patricia; Bryant, Clifton D.; Peck, Dennis L. Encyclopedia of death and the human experience. SAGE. p. 97. ISBN 9781412951784. OCLC 755062222.
Most manifestations of the banshee are said to occur in Ireland, usually near the home of the dying person... but some accounts refer to the announcement in Ireland of the deaths of Irish people overseas... It is those concerned with a death, at family and community levels, who usually hear the banshee, rather than the dying person.
- Scott, Walter (1836-01-01). Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft. Harper & Brothers. p. 296.
- Cashman, Ray (2016-08-30). Packy Jim: Folklore and Worldview on the Irish Border. University of Wisconsin Pres. p. 145. ISBN 9780299308902.
- O'Sullivan, Friar (1899). "Ancient History of the Kingdom of Kerry" (PDF). Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society. 5 (44): 224–234 – via JCHAS.
- Yeats, W. B. "Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry" in Booss, Claire; Yeats, W.B.; Gregory, Lady (1986) A Treasury of Irish Myth, Legend, and Folklore. New York: Gramercy Books. p. 108. ISBN 978-0-517-48904-8
- Briggs (1976), pp. 14–16: "Banshee"
- Westropp, Thos. J. (June 1910). "A Folklore Survey of County Clare". Folklore. Taylor & Francis. 21: 180–199. JSTOR 1254686.
- Owen, Elias (1887). Welsh folk-lore: A collection of the folk-tales and legends of North Wales. Felinfach: Llanerch. p. 142.
- Sorlin, Evelyne (1991). Cris de vie, cris de mort: Les fées du destin dans les pays celtiques (in French). Academia Scientiarum Fennica. ISBN 978-951-41-0650-7.
- Lysaght, Patricia (1986). The banshee: The Irish death-messenger. Roberts Rinehart. ISBN 978-1-57098-138-8.
- Briggs, Katharine (1976). An encyclopedia of fairies: Hobgoblins, brownies, bogies, and other supernatural creatures. Pantheon. ISBN 978-0-394-73467-5.
- Evans-Wentz, Walter Yeeling (1977). The Fairy-Faith in celtic countries, its psychological origin and nature. C. Smythe. OCLC 257400792.