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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 (first published: 1829)
It’s quite the story.
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What Do Banshees Look Like?
Now let’s home in on the description of the banshee Lady Fanshawe 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 (1919)
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 (1920)
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.
From the daughters of Airitech transforming into wolves to Étaín transforming into a bejeweled, music-making fly to Tuan Mac Cairell transforming into a salmon to St. Patrick transforming into a deer to any number of Ulster Cycle heroes (and villains)—including Cú Roí mac Dáire, Amergin mac Eccit, Iliach, and even Cú Chulainn himself—transforming into giants, there are a plethora of examples of such mythological metamorphosis in action.
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 (1888)
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 (1888)
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 (1920)
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 (2015)
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.
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.”
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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.