Whom Do Banshees Visit? Visitation Rites of the Banshee [Video]

image of three encircled banshees, visitation rites of the banshee

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If you haven’t checked out parts one and two of my banshee series, which are, respectively, the definition and etymology of banshee—that’s part one, and the physical and sonic characteristics of the banshee—that’s part two, I absolutely encourage you to go back and get the full story before you continue.

Or you can just keep chugging along with what you’ve got right here, which is the third installment of what is (at least for now) a three-part series on the banshee.

In it, we’ll be exploring who(m) banshees visit.

Turns out banshees don’t haunt households willy-nilly.

They don’t prey on any old people approaching their expiration dates but instead focus their efforts on frightening the descendants of specific families.

More on that later.

But first: I’m going to do a quick banshee recap. (Skip ahead to the next section if you already know your stuff.)


The banshee.

Is she a demon? A spirit? A fairy? Actually she’s pretty much all of those things combined.

A banshee is a supernatural being from Gaelic (a.k.a. Goidelic) Celtic folklore who warns of the impending death of someone in a household.

In some accounts she is a hideous, howling hag, hovering at the window.

While other descriptions paint her as a youthful beauty (sometimes the ghost of a family member) a child whose cherubic chant welcomes chieftains to the churchyard.

The banshee’s name is derived from the Irish bean sídhe which translates literally to “woman of the hills.”

However, it’s important to note that a sídhe is not just any old hill.

When the gods of Irish mythology, the Tuatha Dé Danann, were driven underground, each came to occupy a sídhe.

The gods grew smaller and smaller in popular imaginations, literally and figuratively, until they became the aes sidhe…the people of the hills.

Otherwise known as fairies.

Given this divine connection, and the banshee’s infamous vocalizations, it’s possible that the banshee’s origin lies with the Irish goddess Brigid.

A goddess of fertility, hearth fires, and poetry, amongst other things, Brigid’s cult was significant and she was believed to visit the hearths of her worshippers, leaving footprints in the ash.

Irish mythology tells us that when Brigid’s son died in battle, the goddess invented a nasally, high-pitched singing style known as keening, which features eerie moments of silence as well as outbursts of weeping. 

This mourning practice, which persisted into early modern Ireland, may help explain how a goddess associated with life could be reimagined as a harbinger of death.

A spirit-demon-fairy with a penchant for performing for those about to perish.

Whom 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 (1888)

Yikes. Banshees don’t mess around. 

The Banshee Appears by R. Prowse (1862)
The Banshee Appears by R. Prowse (1862)

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…”

source: The Banshee (1920)

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.”

source: The Banshee (1920)

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.”

source: The Banshee (1920)

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…

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.

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