Bean Sí (Irish)
Bean Shìth (Scottish)
Bunworth Banshee, Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland by Thomas Crofton Croker, 1825
|Sub grouping||Aos sí
The banshee (// BAN-shee), from Irish: bean sí [bʲæn ˈʃiː] ("woman of the sídhe" or "woman of the fairy mounds") is a female spirit in Irish mythology, usually seen as an omen of death and a messenger from the underworld.
In legend, a banshee is a fairy woman who begins to wail if someone is about to die. In Scottish Gaelic mythology, she is known as the bean sìth or bean-nighe and is seen washing the bloodstained clothes or armour of those who are about to die. Alleged sightings of banshees have been reported as recently as 1948. Similar beings are also found in Welsh, Norse and American folklore.
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The story of the banshee began as a fairy woman keening at the death of important personages. In later stories, the appearance of the banshee could foretell death. Banshees were said to appear for particular Irish families, though which families made it onto this list varied depending on who was telling the story. Stories of banshees were also prevalent in the West Highlands of Scotland.
Banshees are usually seen by a person who is about to die in a violent way such as murder.
Although not always seen, her mourning call is heard, usually at night when someone is about to die and usually around woods.
The banshee can appear in a variety of guises. Most often she appears as an ugly, frightening hag, but she can also appear as a stunningly beautiful woman of any age that suits her. In some tales, the figure who first appears to be a "banshee" is later revealed to be the Irish battle goddess, the Morrígan.
In 1437, King James I of Scotland was approached by an Irish seer who was later identified as a banshee who foretold his murder at the instigation of the Earl of Atholl. There are records of several prophets believed to be incarnate banshees attending the great houses of Ireland and the courts of local Irish kings.
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 Kerry in the southwest of Ireland, her keen is experienced as a "low, pleasant singing"; in Tyrone in the north, as "the sound of two boards being struck together"; and, on Rathlin Island, as "a thin, screeching sound somewhere between the wail of a woman and the moan of an owl".
History and mythology
In legend, a banshee wails nearby when someone is about to die. There are some special families who are believed to have banshees attached to them, and whose cries herald the death of a member of that family. Most, though not all, surnames associated with banshees have the Ó or Mac prefix. They were also associated with the Airlie clan. Accounts of banshees go back as far as 1380 with 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. The Ban Si was also known to wail at the crowning of the true king. Such a cry was reported to be heard at the crowning of Brian Boru.
Traditionally, when a person died a woman would sing a lament (in Irish: caoineadh, [ˈkɰiːnʲə] or [ˈkiːnʲuː], "caoin" meaning "to weep, to wail") at the funeral. These women are sometimes referred to as "keeners" and the best keeners would be in high demand. Legend has it that for great Gaelic families – the O'Gradys, the O'Neills, the Ó Longs, the McCnaimhíns, the Ó Briains, the Ó Conchobhairs, and the Caomhánachs – the lament would be sung by a fairy woman; having foresight, she would sing it when a family member died, 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.
The Ó Briains' banshee was thought to have the name of Eevul, and was ruler of 25 other banshees who would always be at her attendance. It is thought that from this myth comes the idea that the wailing of numerous banshees signifies the death of a great person.
In later versions, the banshee might appear before the death and warn the family by wailing. When several banshees appeared at once, it indicated 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.
Banshees are frequently described as dressed in white or grey, often having long, pale hair which they brush with a silver comb, a detail scholar Patricia Lysaght attributes to confusion with local mermaid myths. This comb detail is also related to the centuries-old traditional romantic Irish story that, if you ever see a comb lying on the ground in Ireland, you must never pick it up, or the banshees (or mermaids — stories vary), having placed it there to lure unsuspecting humans, will spirit such gullible humans away. Other stories portray banshees as dressed in green, red, or black with a grey cloak.
In other mythologies
Stories of banshees can also be found in America in the late 18th century. The most prevalent of the American stories comes from Tar River in Edgecombe County, North Carolina. However, in this variation of the story, the banshee is simply a ghoul, as opposed to a sign of misfortune.
In the badlands of South Dakota, a banshee is said to wail upon a hill near Watch Dog Butte. Like other American tales of banshees, this legend does not connect her to any particular death (aside, perhaps, from her own).
Other Celtic cultures
In Scottish mythology, a similar creature is known as the bean nighe or ban nigheachain (little washerwoman) or nigheag na h-àth (little washer at the ford). In Welsh folklore, a similar creature is known as the Hag of the mist.
One explanation for the origin of the banshee is in the screech of the Barn owl (Tyto alba). The nocturnal hunter is known for its chilling screech and has long been associated with agricultural activities in Ireland, attracted to the rodent activity around grain stores and barns.
- The 1959 Disney movie Darby O'Gill and the Little People contains a scene where the title character encounters a pernicious banshee. (See note at end of this section, for information about banshee behaviour in American popular culture and how it differs from banshee behaviour in traditional Irish folklore.)
- The Real Ghostbusters episode "Banshee Bake a Cherry Pie?" depicts a banshee masquerading as an Irish pop singer and aiming to use its voice to take over the world.
- In Marvel Comics, "Banshee" was the code name of Sean Cassidy, an Irish member of the X-Men with superhuman sonic abilities that he used to fly with the aid of a glider suit as well as for offensive purposes. The codename is later carried on by his daughter, Theresa Cassidy, formerly known as Siryn, who possesses similar superhuman abilities. She later encounters the Morrigan who explains that she has been many women and has been known by many names. Theresa later becomes the Morrigan and the Banshee of legend.
- The 2010 horror movie Scream of the Banshee is about an archaeology professor who unearths a dangerous artefact, unwittingly releasing a monstrous banshee that kills with the power of its bone-splitting scream.
- The 1990s animated television series Gargoyles episode "The Hound of Ulster" is about Irish folklore and features a banshee as the main antagonist.
- In the American television series Charmed, the banshee are a rare breed of demons with distinctive white hair and a high-pitched scream – audible only to dogs and their intended victim – that can burst glass and blood vessels, killing a mortal, or turn a witch pre-disposed to emotional pain into a banshee. A banshee appears in the episode "Look Who's Barking" in season 3 of Charmed.
- A banshee can also be seen in Teen Wolf. Lydia Martin (one of the main characters in Teen Wolf) is a banshee who screams when someone is about to die, and she is in touch with the spirits all around the characters. She can hear voices, sense death, and can tell if someone has died in a place. She also has the ability to find dead bodies.
Note: "Banshee" (in Gaelic bean sidhe) originally meant "woman of the fairies". The banshees in old Irish folklore were often presented as grieving women who were keening (weeping/mourning) for the dead. This appears in the Darby O'Gill and the Little People DVD extra I Captured the King of the Leprechauns (originally a Walt Disney Presents or Wonderful World of Disney episode, telling viewers about the making of, and some of the folklore which inspired parts of, the movie Darby O'Gill and the Little People), in which the banshee is "keening for the young O'Brien" and is in no way a pernicious or threatening character, but merely seen as a dark or sad omen because she appears before people die. She does not cause deaths, she mourns for the dead (or, eerily, the soon-to-be-dead). The banshee in American popular culture (possibly starting with Darby O'Gill and the Little People, in which some characteristics of later American pop culture banshee behaviour can be seen) is typically a threatening and/or menacing figure who causes death and/or destruction (thereby taking on characteristics belonging traditionally more to the Morrigan than to the banshees).
- "Superstition". Western Folklore (Western States Folklore Society) 7 (4). October 1948. JSTOR 1497855.
- Wiffen, B. B., Choice Notes from "Notes and Queries", P.P. – London. – Notes and Queries, William John Thoms. p. 32
- Kellog, various (2001:745)
- Orchard, Andy (1997). Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend. Cassell. ISBN 0-304-34520-2
- Simek, Rudolf (2007) translated by Angela Hall. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. D.S. Brewer. ISBN 0-85991-513-1
- "Banshee". The Element Encyclopedia of the Psychic World. Harper Element. 2006. p. 62.
- Skinner, Charles M. "Myths and Legends of Our Own Land". J.P. Lippincott Company, 1896, p. 216.
- Knight, Jan (1980). A-Z of ghosts and supernatural. Pepper Press. p. 10. ISBN 0-560-74509-5.
- Monaghan, Patricia (2009). Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines. ABC-CLIO. p. 307. ISBN 978-0-313-34990-4.
- Westropp, Thos. J. (June 1910). "A Folklore Survey of County Clare". Folklore (Taylor & Francis, Ltd.): 180–199. JSTOR 1254686.
- Visual or oral Hallucinations of the Banshee may cause death especially in a person who is very sick and close to dying by destroying that person's confidence that he/she can survive, see Nocebo effect.
- 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".
- Owen, Elias (1887). Welsh folk-lore: A collection of the folk-tales and legends of North Wales. Felinfach: Llanerch. p. 142.
- "NestWatch 2012 Barn Owl – Tyto alba – Scréachóg reilige, from "NestWatch 2012",". 2012.
- Sorlin, Evelyne (1991). Cris de vie, cris de mort: Les fées du destin dans les pays celtiques (in French). Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica. ISBN 978-951-41-0650-7.
- Lysaght, Patricia (1986). The banshee: The Irish death-messenger. Boulder, Colorado: Roberts Rinehart. ISBN 978-1-57098-138-8.
- Briggs, Katharine (1976). An encyclopedia of fairies: Hobgoblins, brownies, bogies, and other supernatural creatures. New York: Pantheon. ISBN 978-0-394-73467-5.
- Evans Wentz, Walter Yeeling (1977). The Fairy-Faith in celtic countries, its psychological origin and nature. Gerrards Cross, Bucks.: C. Smythe. OCLC 257400792
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- MovilleInishowen.com: The Legend of the Banshee, Leo Bowes
- Irish Culture and Customs: Creepy Irish Creatures, Bridget Haggerty
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Banshee". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.