The Definition and Etymology of Banshee [Video]

image of banshee with text saying the definition and etymology of banshee

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She is a pop culture icon who’s lent her name to comic book characters, video game vehicles, films (like The Banshees of Inisherin), TV shows, 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.

The banshee roams the Irish countryside, hovering just above the ground like a vapor, gliding over bogs, passing Stingy Jack and the Dullahan and other Irish spirits in the night, perhaps.

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.

Watch the video adaptation of this post on the Irish Myths YouTube channel:

(or keep reading below)

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 gods of Ireland who were defeated and driven underground by the invading Milesians (who represented the arrival of Celtic culture in Ireland). 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 (1888)

At the same time, it’s impossible to deny the characterization of the banshee as a ghost or spirit—an ethereal, wispy, semi-transparent female phantom. Just read this excerpt from author D. R. McAnally, Jr.’s book, Irish Wonders, also published in 1888:

“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 (1888)

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.

image created with DALL·E mini based on the prompt "banshee"
image created with DALL·E mini based on the prompt “banshee”

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 (1987)

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.

That last one immediately makes me think of Cú Chulainn, the “hound of Culann”, arguably the greatest champion from Irish mythology.

But I digress.

image created with DALL·E mini based on the prompt "banshee"
image created with DALL·E mini based on the prompt “banshee”

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 (1888)

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.”

source: The Gaelic Otherworld (1902)

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”).

Interestingly, the washerwoman iteration of the banshee has a parallel in continental Europe. In France, former home of the Gaulish Celts, we find Les Lavandières, a trio of washers or midnight washerwomen with roots in Celtic folklore. 

Other areas where the washerwoman tradition appears include Brittany, a famously Brittonic Celtic, rather than Gaulish Celtic, region of what is now modern-day France. The washerwoman appears there as the kannerezed noz.

Then there’s the Iberian Peninsula, former home of the Celtiberians, where we find several localized washerwomen traditions including:

  • Bruxas lavadeiras in Portugal 
  • Las Lavanderas in Cantabria 
  • As lavandeiras in Galicia
  • Les Llavanderes in Asturias

In some versions the washerwomen clean the burial clothes of those destined to die, while in other iterations it is the death shroud or burial shroud the washerwomen clean.

Moving on.

It’s worth noting that in some circles, Galicia and Asturias are considered part of the so-called modern Celtic nations, which are basically countries or regions, like Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany where Celtic culture still has a strong presence. Some question the Iberian inclusions because unlike with the aforementioned six Celtic nations, there hasn’t been a continuously spoken Celtic language in Galicia or Asturias.

The so-called "modern" Celtic nations, including Galicia and Asturias
The so-called “modern” Celtic nations, including Galicia and Asturias (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Then again, some people question the very premise of there being “Celtic” culture at all which is something I wrote about recently.

The bigger takeaway here is that we can see the connective tissue between the folkloric traditions of the Gaelic Celts—the Irish and Scottish with their banshees and bean-nighe—and the traditions of the broader Celtic world. The Britons. The Gauls. The Celtiberians.

All of them had feminine death figures who could be found hovering (sometimes literally and figuratively) around humans who were at death’s door.

And again that hints toward my earlier suggestion that the banshee’s origin story has more mythological significance than one might initially assume. 

Maybe, originally, the banshee wasn’t just a harbinger of death, but a goddess who had power over life and death.

It is no secret, of course, that many of the most important deities in Irish mythology, like Lugh, have cognates in Welsh mythology and Gaulish mythology, proving the interconnectedness of said mythologies.

Irish god Lugh and Welsh god Lleu are both descended from the Celtic god Lugus

To quote Ellis:

“The fact that one can see relationships and counterparts demonstrates that Irish mythology is not a separate entity from the rest of the Celtic world. In it we find echoes of a common Celtic mythological, religious and, perhaps, historical experience.”

source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology (1987)

Banshees are one of those echoes.

Editor’s note: this article is an excerpt from a longer essay, “What Is a Banshee? The Mythic Origins of Ireland’s Most Infamous Shrieking Spirit.”

Want to meet more monsters from Irish mythology? Check out…

Irish Monsters in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 3)

In the Ireland of myth and legend, “spooky season” is every season. Spirits roam the countryside, hovering above the bogs. Werewolves lope through forests under full moons. Dragons lurk beneath the waves. Granted, there’s no denying that Samhain (Halloween’s Celtic predecessor) tends to bring out some of the island’s biggest, baddest monsters. Prepare yourself for (educational) encounters with Irish cryptids, demons, ghouls, goblins, and other supernatural beings. Learn more…

Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy

“A thrilling romp through pubs, mythology, and alleyways. NEON DRUID is such a fun, pulpy anthology of stories that embody Celtic fantasy and myth,” (Pyles of Books). Cross over into a world where the mischievous gods, goddesses, monsters, and heroes of Celtic mythology live among us, intermingling with unsuspecting mortals and stirring up mayhem in cities and towns on both sides of the Atlantic, from Limerick and Edinburgh to Montreal and Boston. Learn more…

Want to learn the full story of Samhain? Check out…

Samhain in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 2)

Perhaps the most important holiday on the ancient Celtic calendar, Samhain marks the end of summer and the beginning of a new pastoral year. It is a liminal time—a time when the forces of light and darkness, warmth and cold, growth and blight, are in conflict. A time when the barrier between the land of the living and the land of the dead is at its thinnest. A time when all manner of spirits and demons are wont to cross over from the Celtic Otherworld. Learn more…

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.

Last thing, I promise:

Introducing the official Irish Myths YouTube channel. Same Celtic flavor, new bold format.

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