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She is a pop culture icon who’s lent her name to comic book characters, video game vehicles, TV shows, American fighter jets, and more.
Her signature shriek—her scream, her cry, her wail, her howl—is the stuff of legend. (Literally.)
She is the banshee. A supernatural songstress whose mournful melodies precede impending death.
You’ve heard of her, yes?
There is some unknowable magnetism pulling the banshee toward that house in the distance, toward her target. She clatters against the shutters, peers through the window. And she screams. And her scream twists and morphs into a nasally, high-pitched dirge, punctuated by bursts of weeping.
Hovering at the window, the banshee calls an old man to his death. She is a siren spirit of doom singing exit music for a life.
Or at least that’s one interpretation of the folkloric being known as the banshee.
Turns out, there is much more to this character than is depicted in modern popular accounts. Indeed, there is a rich history of alleged banshee encounters in Ireland and Scotland, as well as long-standing debates over what the banshee looks like (hideous crone or youthful beauty?) and which families (direct descendants of Milesians only?) can expect a visit.
The Definition of Banshee
First things first. What is a banshee?
I mean, is it a ghost? A spirit? A wraith? A demon? A fairy? In a word…yes. It is all of those things. But there’s some nuance to be found in defining “banshee”, naturally. So here’s my best attempt at crafting a comprehensive definition:
A banshee is a supernatural being from Gaelic (a.k.a. Goidelic) Celtic folklore that takes the form of a shrieking—or sometimes singing—woman. Often associated with particular families, banshees warn of the impending death of someone in a household.
In the Irish tradition, the banshee is believed to be a remnant of the reign of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the old gods of Ireland who were defeated and driven underground by the invading Milesians. Each member of the Tuatha Dé Danann subsequently went on to occupy a mound or hill known as a sídhe. Thus, the once-gods became known as the aes sídhe (modern: aos sí, meaning “people of the hills”), and were relegated to fairy status.
To quote Irish poet Irish poet W. B. Yeats:
“[T]he pagan gods of Ireland–the Tuath-De-Danān–robbed of worship and offerings, grew smaller and smaller in the popular imagination, until they turned into the fairies…”source: Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry
At the same time, it’s impossible to deny the characterization of the banshee as a ghost or spirit—an ephemeral, wispy, semi-transparent female phantom. Just read this excerpt from author D. R. McAnally, Jr.’s 1888 book, Irish Wonders:
“The Banshee is really a disembodied soul, that of one who, in life, was strongly attached to the family, or who had good reason to hate all its members … The Banshee is of the spirits who look with interested eyes on earthly doings; and, deeply attached to the old families, or, on the contrary, regarding all their members with a hatred beyond that known to mortals, lingers about their dwellings to soften or to aggravate the sorrow of the approaching death.”source: Irish Wonders: The Ghosts, Giants, Pookas, Demons, Leprechauns, Banshees, Fairies, Witches, Widows, Old Maids, And Other Marvels
McAnally’s definition strips the mythology away from the folklore, a recurring theme as Ireland and Scotland underwent Christianization. Under this folkloric interpretation, banshees are not ancient Irish pagan gods living on as fairies, but the ghosts of dead family members.
Alas, I propose a third explanation for the banshee’s origin, one that combines the divine with the spectral:
What if the banshee was originally imagined as the ghost of a goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danann, a powerful goddess associated with life and death (and cemeteries) and regarded as the inventor of the high-pitched singing style—keening—that has been used to such great effect in banshee lore?
Yes, I have someone specific in mind. Have you guessed her yet? (Starts with a B…)
I’m going to save the big reveal for later. Skip ahead if you must, I understand. In the meantime, there’s a more pressing matter to which we need to attend, one that will help us to better understand the nature of the banshee:
Why do we call a banshee “a banshee”?
How did she get her name?
The Etymology of Banshee
The English word banshee is derived from the Irish bean sídhe, which, according to historian Peter Berresford Ellis, translates literally to “woman of the hills”.
In modern usage, however, bean sídhe has come to mean “‘woman of the fairies”. This makes sense given that the aforementioned term sídhe, which once referred to fairy dwellings, has become synonymous with the fairies themselves.
And while many of us tend to think of the banshee as more of a ghost or ghoul or spirit, her name belies the fact that she is technically (at least according to Irish linguistic tradition) a fairy. Ellis confirms the banshee’s fairy status in his own definition of “bean sídhe”:
“After the gods went underground and were, in popular folk memory, transformed into fairies, a banshee became a female fairy attached to a particular family which warned of approaching death by giving an eerie wail.”source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology
The bean sídhe–spelled ban sith in Scots Gaelic but pronounced the same–is one of many fairies from Gaelic folklore to follow the “[word] + sídhe/sith” naming convention. There’s also a beautiful enchantress called the leannán sídhe, a giant black cat called the cat-sìth, and a green hound called the cù-sìth.
But I digress.
While the fairy hill-based etymology for banshee is widely agreed upon today, historically there have been a variety of interpretations. As D. R. McAnally, Jr. explained:
“The name of this dreaded attendant is variously pronounced, as Banshee, Banshi, and Benshee, being translated by different scholars, the Female Fairy, the Woman of Peace, the Lady of Death, the Angel of Death, the White Lady of Sorrow, the Nymph of the Air, and the Spirit of the Air.”source: Irish Wonders
The “Angel of Death” translation screams of Christianization, which is to be expected, of course, given that the Church spent centuries trying to retcon the origins of the familiar fairies of Irish and Scottish folklore, explaining them away as fallen angels.
Other translations, as noted by Victorian ghost hunter Elliott O’Donnell in her 1907 book, The Banshee, include “A Woman of the Faire Race”, “The Woman of the Barrow”, and “The Woman of Sorrow”.
Meanwhile, up in the Scottish Highlands, the banshee—ban-sith—is more commonly known as the bean-nighe (“washerwoman”). Or rather, the bean-nighe is the most popular type of ban-sith. To quote from folklorist John Gregorson Campbell’s 1902 book, The Gaelic Otherworld:
“A bean shìth is any otherworld woman; the bean nighe is a specific otherworld woman.”
This Scottish banshee, who is known to wash the grave-clothes of a person who is near death, also goes by the diminutives nigheag bheag a bhroin (“little washer of the sorrow”), nigheag na h-àtha (“little washer at the ford”) and ban-nigheachain (“little washerwoman”).
What Do Banshees Look Like?
One of the earliest first-hand accounts of an encounter with a banshee comes from Lady Anne Fanshawe (1625 – 1676), who lived in Ireland during the Cromwellian conquest (or what I call the “WolfWalkers period”). The banshee in question appeared to Lady Fanshawe while she was staying at the home of Lady Honor O’Brien. And I quote (and get ready, this is a big quotation):
There we stayed three nights. The first of which I was surprised by being laid in a chamber, when, about one o’clock, I heard a voice that wakened me. I drew the curtain, and, in the casement of the window, I saw, by the light of the moon, a woman leaning into the window, through the casement, in white, with red hair and pale and ghastly complexion: she spoke loud, and in a tone I had never heard, thrice, “A horse ;” and then, with a sigh more like the wind than breath she vanished, and to me her body looked more like a thick cloud than substance.
I was so much frightened, that my hair stood on end, and my night clothes fell off. I pulled and pinched your father, who never woke during the disorder I was in; but at last was much surprised to see me in this fright, and more so when I related the story and showed him the window opened.
Neither of us slept any more that night, but he entertained me with telling me how much more these apparitions were usual in this country than in England; and we concluded the cause to be the great superstition of the Irish, and the want of that knowing faith, which should defend them from the power of the Devil, which he exercises among them very much.
About five o’clock the lady of the house came to see us, saying she had not been in bed all night, because a cousin O’Brien of hers, whose ancestors had owned that house, had desired her to stay with him in his chamber, and that he died at two o’clock, and she said, “I wish you to have had no disturbance, for ’tis the custom of the place, that, when any of the family are dying, the shape of a woman appears in the window every night till they be dead.
“This woman was many ages ago got with child by the owner of this place, who murdered her in his garden, and flung her into the river under the window, but truly I thought not of it when I lodged you here, it being the best room in the house.”
We made little reply to her speech, but disposed ourselves to be gone suddenly.source: The Memoirs of Lady Fanshawe
It’s quite the story.
Now let’s home in on the description of the banshee Lady Famhawe gives us. She’s clad in white, with red hair and pale skin. The banshee’s body is like a “thick cloud”.
The Banshee’s complexion?
Some two centuries later, we find another description of the banshee, this one provided by Lady Jane Francesca Wilde in her 1919 book, Ancient Legends of Ireland.
In Lady Wilde’s interpretation, banshees appeared differently based on whom they were visiting.
Sometimes the Banshee assumes the form of some sweet singing virgin of the family who died young, and has been given the mission by the invisible powers to become the harbinger of coming doom to her mortal kindred.
Or she may be seen at night as a shrouded woman, crouched beneath the trees, lamenting with veiled face; or flying past in the moonlight, crying bitterly: and the cry of this spirit is mournful beyond all other sounds on earth, and betokens certain death to some member of the family whenever it is heard in the silence of the night…
The size of the banshee is another physical feature that differs between regional accounts. Though some accounts of her standing unnaturally tall are recorded, the majority of tales that describe her height state the banshee’s stature as short, anywhere between one foot and four feet. Her exceptional shortness often goes alongside the description of her as an old woman, though it may also be intended to emphasize her state as a fairy creature.”source: Ancient Legends of Ireland
O’Donnell agrees with Lady Wilde’s interpretation that the banshee’s appearance exists on a spectrum—with beautiful women on one end and demon-monsters on the other. And I quote:
“Some Banshees represent very beautiful women—women with long, luxuriant tresses, either of raven black, or burnished copper, or brilliant gold, and whose star-like eyes, full of tender pity, are either dark and tearful, or of the most exquisite blue or grey; some, again, are haggish, wild, dishevelled-looking creatures, whose appearance suggests the utmost squalor, foulness, and despair; whilst a few, fortunately, I think, only a few, take the form of something that is wholly diabolical, and frightful, and terrifying in the extreme.”source: The Banshee
Yeah, it’s a broad spectrum. But the idea that a banshee could effectively shapeshift or otherwise transform her body in order to appear like different people/creatures is a pretty common trope in Irish mythology.
So if we’re still operating under the assumption that the original, archetypal banshee was based on an Irish goddess, the shapeshifting power actually fits. What’s more, we can now bridge the gap between the banshee’s differing characterizations—re: ghost/spirit vs. fairy/goddess—by acknowledging that the banshee can sometimes appear as the ghost of a family member.
What Do Banshees Sound Like?
Just as the banshee can alter her appearance based on the composition of her audience (for lack of a better word), so too can she alter her song. Despite what pop culture interpretations of the banshee have led us to believe, the banshee’s vocalizations are not always akin to nails-on-a-chalkboard or a choir of demons. Indeed, sometimes the banshee’s call is quite beautiful. As D. R. McAnally, Jr. explains:
“[I]n different instances, the Banshee’s song may be inspired by opposite motives. When the Banshee loves those whom she calls, the song is a low, soft chant, giving notice, indeed, of the close proximity of the angel of death, but with a tenderness of tone that reassures the one destined to die and comforts the survivors; rather a welcome than a warning, and having in its tones a thrill of exultation, as though the messenger spirit were bringing glad tidings to him summoned to join the waiting throng of his ancestors.”source: Irish Wonders
Isn’t that lovely?
Granted, on the other hand…
“If, during her lifetime, the Banshee was an enemy of the family, the cry is the scream of a fiend, howling with demoniac delight over the coming death-agony of another of her foes.”source: Irish Wonders
Ah, yes. There it is. That famous, blood-curdling cry of the banshee. O’Donnell describes it thusly:
“[The banshee] announces its advent in a variety of ways; sometimes by groaning, sometimes by wailing, and sometimes by uttering the most blood-curdling of screams, which I can only liken to the screams a woman might make if she were being done to death in a very cruel and violent manner.”source: The Banshee
And when reading that description, it’s hard not to think of keening.
What Is Keening? (Why Are Banshees So Good At It?)
Derived from the Irish word caoineadh, which means to cry or weep, keening was a mourning practice that persisted into early modern Ireland. It is similar to a chant, only performed with a strained, nasally voice.
Keeners punctuate their melodies with bursts of weeping as well as moments of silence. The results are both incredibly sorrowful and undeniably eerie—perfect banshee music, to be sure.
Now, according to legend, keening was invented by the Irish goddess of poetry and fertility, Brigid (a.k.a. Brigit, a.k.a. Brígh). Not to be confused with St. Brigid of the fifth and sixth centuries, the Brigid of Irish mythology is a triune goddess with cognates in both Brittonic mythology (as Brigantia) and Gaulish Celtic mythology (as Brigindo).
As the daughter of the Dagda, the father of the gods, Brigid holds an exalted position among the Tuatha Dé Danann. Her cult was significant, and her ancient Irish worshippers held one of their four cross-quarter day feasts—their major holidays—in her honor: Imbolc.
Here’s how folklorist and professor Juilene Osborne-McKnight describes the Brigid-Imbolc connection:
“Because lambs are the origin of the holiday, it was dedicated to Brighid/Anu/Dana, a three-faceted goddess and protector of everything creative. The primary figure of the trinity was Brighid; she protected ewes, hearth fires, poetry, blacksmiths, pregnant women, and midwives. In ancient times, it was believed that she would visit and bless the hearths of the people, leaving her footprints in the ashes. Because Imbolc signified spring and a return to light, the festival utilized candles and hearth fires as symbols of hope.”source: The Story We Carry in Our Bones: Irish History for Americans
Hmm. So we’ve got a goddess known for her sorrowful singing and for making house calls? Sounds a lot like a banshee to me. Only…mirrored. Because, to be fair, Brigid blessed hearths to promote fertility; banshees haunt hearths to welcome death.
Now, if only there were some sort of inciting incident; an event that could have led to Brigid turning to the proverbial dark side and going full banshee mode…
During the Second Battle of Moytura (Cath Tánaiste Maige Tuired), in which the Tuatha Dé Danann fought those pesky, loathsome Fomorri (a.k.a. Fomorians), Brigid’s son Ruadán fell in battle. Upon discovering her son’s body on the battlefield, Brigid, heartbroken, sing-cried (cry-sang?) a poetic lament commemorating his life.
That is how the keen was born.
And, perhaps, that is how the banshee was born as well.
Who Do Banshees Visit?
If learning about the haunting habits of banshees has got your spine tingling and your knees knocking, good news:
Statistically, you’re probably immune. Or rather, if such a being as a banshee truly exists, it’s unlikely she’ll ever pay you and yours a visit…
Unless, of course, you’re Irish—but not just Irish. (And I promise I’m using the word “just” in the gentlest of ways here).
Irish folklore dictates that banshees will only attach themselves to members and/or descendants of Ireland’s “old families”, as D. R. McAnally, Jr. calls them. Or “families of the pure Milesian stock, and never ascribed to any descendant of the proudest Norman or boldest Saxon,” to quote Scottish poet and novelist Sir Walter Scott.
Sooo yeah. There’s this whole blood purity and ancestry component to banshee lore, too. And as Sir Walter Scott alluded, that lore is rooted in Irish mythology.
The Milesians were the last race of invaders to settle in Ireland, conquering the Tuatha Dé Danann and sending them underground.
Yes, you heard that right: the Milesians—the forerunners to Ireland’s modern human population—were responsible for literally and figuratively burying the goddess Brigid and her divine kin.
I mean, if I were Brigid, I’d hold a grudge.
And folklore tells us that banshees are the ultimate grudge-holders. To quote D. R. McAnally, Jr.:
“The Banshee attends only the old families, and though their descendants, through misfortune, may be brought down from high estate to the ranks of peasant-tenants, she never leaves nor forgets them till the last member has been gathered to his fathers in the churchyard. The MacCarthys, Magraths, O’Neills, O’Rileys, O’Sullivans, O’Reardons, O’Flahertys, and almost all other old families of Ireland, have Banshees, though many representatives of these names are in abject poverty.”source: Irish Wonders
Yikes. Banshees don’t mess around.
Now, according to Elliot O’Donnell, the whole banshees-only-haunt-pure-blooded-Irish-people interpretation is is overkill. Or as she puts it:
“I do not believe that the Banshee would be deterred from haunting a family of historical fame and Milesian descent—such as the O’Neills or O’Donnells—simply because in that family was an occasional strain of Saxon or Norman blood…”
However, she concedes that there needs to be at least some “Celtic Irish” origin for the family:
“[O]n the other hand, I do not think the Banshee would ever haunt a family that was not originally at least Celtic Irish—such, for instance, as the Fitz-Williams or Fitz-Warrens—although in that family there might happen to be periodic infusions of Milesian blood.”
Lady Wilde gives the most leeway when theorizing who is eligible for a visit from the banshee. In her estimation, one need not be Irish—a gifted musician or poet could also qualify.
O’Donnell, for her part, scoffs at this idea:
“In my opinion, to be haunted by the Banshee one must belong to an Irish family that is, at least, a thousand years old; were it not so, we should assuredly find the Banshee haunting certain of the musical and poetical geniuses of every race all over the world…which certainly is not the case.”
A Parting Gift
So, how are we feeling?
Are you relieved that a banshee visitation is, statistically, unlikely?
Or are you bummed that you’ll probably never get to see, or hear, a banshee yourself?
Well, I’ve got some good news if you fall into that latter camp:
Banshees sometimes travel abroad!
According to O’Donnell, banshees that have attached themselves to “the most ancient of Irish families” will travel when, “and only when”, they accompany those families abroad. Still, if some of those old families moved to the States, or to Australia, or to the UK, and so on, welp, there you go. Thanks to the Irish diaspora, there could be banshees all over the world.
So regardless of where you live and roam, the next time you’re lying in bed and hear the clatter of an errant shutter followed by a faint, sorrowful cry, don’t be too quick to blame the wind…
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More the listenin’ type?
I recommend the audiobook Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes by Philip Freeman (narrated by Gerard Doyle). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 7.5-hour audiobook for free.