The Banshee

The Banshee

This week we will talk about one of the most famous (or infamous) Irish legends….The Banshee.

A banshee is a female spirit in Irish mythology who heralds the death of a family member, usually by wailing, shrieking, or keening. The word banshee comes from the Irish bean sí (pronounced ban-shee) which translates as woman of the fairy mounds. She can appear in a number of guises, as a young beautiful woman, a stately matron or as an ugly frightening hag. She is usually dressed in a grey or white hooded cloak. While not always seen, her mourning cries can be heard usually at night when someone is about to die. Those who claim to have seen her describe long hair which she runs a comb through, similar to tearing the hair out in anguish.

In 1437, King James I of Scotland was approached by an Irish seeress or banshee who foretold his murder at the instigation of the Earl of Atholl. This is an example of the banshee in human form. There are records of several human banshees or prophetesses attending the great houses of Ireland and the courts of local Irish kings. 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, the keen is experienced as a “low, pleasant singing”; in Tyrone 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”. The banshee may also appear in a variety of other forms, such as that of a hooded crow, stoat, hare and weasel – animals associated in Ireland with witchcraft.

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