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This article is about the banshee of Irish folklore. For other uses, see Banshee (disambiguation).
Bunworth Banshee, "Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland", by Thomas Crofton Croker, 1825

The banshee (/ˈbænʃ/ BAN-shee), from Irish: bean sí, pronounced [bʲæn ˈʃiː] ("woman of the barrows") is a female spirit in Irish mythology. Traditionally a kind of siren of death she tends to act or call locally. The Banshee is always fearfully expected, and imagined as an ugly, hysterical fairy or shrieking hag who appears in the dead of night, calling in frenzy to take the soon to die from their family and home.

Similar beings are found in Scottish, Welsh and Norse mythology.


The banshee is often described as wearing white or grey, usually with long, pale hair brushed with a silver comb. 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 banshee (or mermaids – stories vary), having placed it there to lure unsuspecting humans, will spirit such gullible humans away. Other stories portray the banshee as dressed in green, red, or black with a grey cloak.[1] A possible explanation for her origin is in the screech of the barn owl (Tyto alba).[2] She acts as a nocturnal hunter, and is known for her chilling screech and has been long associated with agricultural activities in Ireland, attracting to the rodent activity around grain stores and barns.

The banshee appears in a variety of guises, but usually as an ugly, frenzied hag. In some tales, the figure who first appears to be a banshee or other cailleach is later revealed to be the Irish battle goddess, the Morrígan.


Traditionally when a person died a woman would wail a lament (in Irish: caoineadh, [ˈkɰiːnʲə] or [ˈkiːnʲuː], caoin meaning "to weep, to wail") at the funeral. These women are 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 O'Briens 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. In later versions, the banshee might appear before the death and warn the family by wailing.[note 1] When several banshees appeared at once, it indicated the death of someone great or holy.[3] 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.[4]


Description by Philippe Semeria

The Ua Briain banshee was thought named Aibell and the ruler of 25 other banshees who would always be at her attendance.[5] It is thought that from this myth comes the idea that the wailing of numerous banshees signifies the death of a great person.[5]

Most, though not all, surnames associated with banshees have the Ó or Mc/Mac prefix, or last names Power or Oswald. It is known that Banshee's first name commonly start with a C or a K for example, C/Kleo or C/Kiara . [6] indicating their name is native to Ireland, not descended from invaders. They were also associated with the Airlie clan.[7] Accounts reach as far back as 1380 to the publication of the Cathreim Thoirdhealbhaigh (Triumphs of Torlough) by Sean mac Craith.[5] Mentions of banshees can also be found in Norman literature of that time.[5]

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 her keen is experienced as a "low, pleasant singing";[citation needed] 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".[citation needed] 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.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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.


  1. ^ "Banshee". The Element Encyclopedia of the Psychic World. Harper Element. 2006. p. 62. 
  2. ^ "NestWatch 2012 Barn Owl – Tyto alba – Scréachóg reilige, from "NestWatch 2012"". 2012. 
  3. ^ 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
  4. ^ Briggs (1976), pp. 14–16: "Banshee"
  5. ^ a b c d Westropp, Thos. J. (June 1910). "A Folklore Survey of County Clare". Folklore (Taylor & Francis) 21: 180–199. JSTOR 1254686. 
  6. ^ Monaghan, Patricia (2009). Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines. ABC-CLIO. p. 307. ISBN 978-0-313-34990-4. 
  7. ^ Knight, Jan (1980). A-Z of ghosts and supernatural. Pepper Press. p. 10. ISBN 0-560-74509-5. 
  8. ^ Owen, Elias (1887). Welsh folk-lore: A collection of the folk-tales and legends of North Wales. Felinfach: Llanerch. p. 142.

Further reading[edit]

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