Myth Monday: The Banshee (Irish Legend)
By Kara Newcastle
After the leprechaun, there is no mythological creature more closely associated with Ireland than the banshee. Lately more the stuff of plotlines for horror movies and shows such as Supernatural and Teen Wolf, the banshee is an ancient spirit, with versions of the creature dating back to well before the Roman invasion of the British Isles … with reports of her occurring even to this day.
The word “banshee” is the Anglicized spelling and pronunciation of the Irish Gaelic word bean sidhe, which generally translates as “woman of the fairy mound.” (A fairy mound is an old earthwork, typically a tomb or the remains of an old fort, said to be the dwelling place of the fairies.) In Irish mythology, the fairies, also called the Fair Folk, the Light Folk, the Bright Ones or Gentlefolk (the term “little people” is actually more of an American invention—the Irish would never dare call the fairies something so derogatory) are human-like entities that exist in a dimension parallel to our own. Typically fairies are invisible, but when they do choose to be seen or are accidentally noticed by people, they look like tall, slender, beautiful human beings. The nursery stories and movies would have you believe that fairies are whimsical wish-givers, but in truth, the fairies are capricious; they don’t care much for humans, finding them to be typically destructive and dishonorable. Most times, fairies would rather cruelly trick, kidnap and enslave or even outright kill humans than have anything to do with them.
However, exceptions have happened, and there are many stories of the Fair Folk being kind to and even falling in love with human beings. One example is the fairy Cliobhna, who fell in love with a man from Cork. After her lover drowned at sea, Cliobhna attached herself to their family. Other times a fairy seems to become attached to a family of great renown; the fairy queen Aoibheall of Craig Liath (Gray Rock) in County Muenster aligned herself with the famous hero Brien Boru (Brian the Blessed), the progenitor of the O’Brien clan.
Stories like this are frequently cited as reasons why certain Irish families (and certain Scotch-Irish families) have a banshee, while others suggest that the banshee was a virgin woman who died because having a family of her own, and has been allowed by some greater power to remain with her relatives in spirit. In County Antrim, the O’Neill family has a legend that Kathleen O’Neill was taken to the bottom of the lough (lake) as punishment for her father interfering with a fairy cow (yes, the fairies have cows, horses, pigs, dogs and cats) and was permitted to visit her family only when someone was about to die.
Generally, banshees attach themselves to prominent families, but there are also stories of banshees attaching themselves to the poor inhabitants of workhouses, a woman in County Dongeal becoming a banshee after going insane with grief when her husband drowned, and the banshee of Duckett’s Grove, created as a curse by a woman whose daughter died in an accident while out riding with her lover. Banshees are known to appear beside streams, along lonely roads, in abandoned locales, and have traveled all over the world along with their chosen family members … there are lots of stories of American banshees.
Because the banshee maintains such a close guard over her ancestors or chosen family, when a member dies or is about to die, she is overcome with intense grief. Sometimes she will physically manifest, sometimes she will remain invisible, but she is always heard, singing, crying, screaming in distress, or keening. “Keening” is an ancient funerary art practiced by the Celts and Gaels and performed by one or more women. The keening woman would lament loudly over the dead person, saying things such as listing their accomplishments in life, how much they would be missed and so on. Families would often hire professional keening women, called bean chaointe, and this likely had an influence on the banshee legend as well. (Or could it be the other way around?)
While it’s always agreed that a banshee would make herself heard, it’s not always agreed upon what she looked like when she did manifest. Different families and different regions of Ireland seem to have their own version of the banshee’s physical appearance, but it could be that of a beautiful young woman with white or red hair dressed in white or silver, a withered old hag with red eyes in a green cloak, or even a headless woman who was naked from the waist up—that one might cause anybody to drop dead of fright. Among the Scottish and several other northern European cultures, the banshee appears at a fjord or river, and is seen washing the often-bloody clothes belonging to the person who was about to die (this version is called the bean nighe.)
Sometimes the women are seen sobbing, tearing at their hair (though a few reports say that she’s actually combing her hair), or rush towards people with their mouth agape in a horrific shriek. There are some stories of the banshee standing beside the dying person, singing to them softly, as if to comfort them. They are seen in the bedrooms of the dying, pacing the hallways outside their rooms, walking the road towards the dying person’s home, or standing just outside the house. One contributor on a Reddit subboard told how their grandmother told them that their great uncle was walking home from the pub one night when he found a sobbing old woman outside his house. Feeling bad for the stranger, the man tried to invite her into the house, but when he turned back she had vanished. The commentator’s grandmother realized what had happened and hurried her brother to his bed. Three days later he passed away.
You’ve probably heard the story that if you hear a banshee then you were sure to die. This isn’t one hundred percent true, actually; nearly every version of the banshee legend says that almost anyone can hear a banshee, whether they’re the victim or not. The banshee is thought to cry out to let relatives of the dying person know that someone in their family was about to pass away. And as it turns out, the dying person didn’t have to be a family member—it could be a well-loved friend. A great example of this comes from the book Passing Strange by folklorist Joseph A. Citro. In the book, Citro documents the experiences of a wealthy Boston businessman (who asked to be kept anonymous) and a banshee who haunted him. The first time he heard the banshee in was early on a sunny morning when he was a boy, dozing in bed. A bizarre shriek startled him awake. He looked outside his window to see if an animal might have made the noise, but saw nothing. When he went downstairs to ask his parents, the boy was shocked to see his father in the kitchen, weeping. His mother took the boy aside and told him that his paternal grandfather had just died.
At that time, the boy knew nothing about banshees, and the whole event slipped from his mind until much later, when he heard the tale. He wondered about it, but put it out of his mind … until one morning in 1946. By now he was a young man in the Air Force, stationed somewhere in Asia when it happened. This time, he was dead asleep with the horrible howl jarred his awake, around six in the morning. Sitting up, he was suddenly overcome with grief and instinctively knew that his father had passed away, which was exactly the case.
The last time the man reported hearing the banshee’s cry was about seventeen years later, while on a business trip to Toronto. Again, the sound happened in the morning, but this time the man was wide awake and reading the paper when it happened. Recognizing the sound, the man was struck with fear and called home. He was assured that his wife, their son, and his brothers were all perfectly safe and healthy, but he still felt worried.
Later that day, he found out why; a good friend of his had been murdered. The date was November 22, 1963. His friend? It was John F. Kennedy.
Another story goes that the banshee only comes for men, or that only men are able to hear her. Again, this doesn’t seem to be the case, at least for some families; there are many stories of the banshee crying at the death of a female member of the family, and of women hearing her long before any of the men did. In the 1600s, English memoirist and cookbook author Lady Ann Fanshawne was staying with the O’Brien family when she claimed to have seen a banshee (this one said to be the soul of a drowned housemaid) floating outside her two-story bedroom window the night one of the O’Briens died. In her book Memoirs of Lady Fawshawne, she described the banshee as “a woman in white … with red hair and pale and ghastly complexion: … to me her body looked more like a thick cloud than substance, I was so much frightened, that my hair stood on end …” In the book True Irish Ghost Stories by John Seymour, the author collected a story from a woman whose family had several encounters with a banshee. When the woman’s mother was dying, the woman, her sister and their maid (and the next-door neighbors!) all heard the banshee, but her father, who was sitting in the room below, didn’t hear a thing.
To be sure, the legend of the banshee is creepy as all get-out, but it should be understood that the banshee does not cause death; she only sadly predicts it. Movies and urban legends like to spread the idea that the banshee is actively looking for people to kill, but in fact the banshee is a psychopomp figure—in other words, a protective entity that safely ushers the departed souls to the afterlife (much like Hermes, the Grim Reaper, etc.), but with the added benefit of giving the family a heads-up. And while no one who has a banshee in their family wants to ever hear it, there are a good deal of Irish people who are quite proud of the fact that they have one.
The only time a banshee seems to act out violently is when someone steals her comb; on occasion a banshee might accidentally drop her comb, and if a human walks away with it, she’ll chase them down and haunt them until they give it back. The offender will have to offer the comb back at the end of a pair of iron tongs, because the banshee will be so angry she might grab the thief’s hand and break it in retaliation. That’s why if you’re ever in Ireland exploring ruins where a banshee is said to reside, the locals will tell you not to pick up any lost combs!
As with a great many other once-obscure legends, the banshee is growing rapidly in popularity. She or versions of the banshee have appeared in shows like The Chilling Tales of Sabrina, Supernatural, Teen Wolf and Charmed, a slew of movies, and have popped up in comic books and video games too. In the paranormal investigative world, research has been conducted by Josh Gates in his former show, Destination Truth, by Ghost Hunters International, by our favorite dude-bros on Ghost Adventures (they visited the Hellfire Caves AND Leap Castle, which is stupid on oh so many supernatural levels), and by Amy Allan on Dead Files, though interestingly she found that one in a restaurant in New York State. With the renewed interest, we’re also seeing more and more reports of banshees and banshee-like spirits interacting with human today.
Oh, uh, and if your last name happens to be O’Brien, O’Neill, O’Grady, Kavanaugh, or O’Connor, you might want to pay attention to any weird screeching sounds you might hear. Just so you know.