The Banshee (pronounced /ˈbænʃiː/, BAN-shee), from the Irish bean sí ("woman of the síde" or "woman of the fairy mounds") is a female spirit in Irish mythology, usually seen as an omen of death and a messenger from the Otherworld. Her Scottish counterpart is the bean shìth (also spelled bean-shìdh).
The aos sí (people of the mounds, people of peace) are variously believed to be the survivals of pre-Christian Gaelic deities, spirits of nature, or the ancestors. Some Theosophists and Celtic Christians have referred to the aos sí as "fallen angels". They are commonly referred to in English as "fairies", and the banshee can also be described as a "fairy woman".
The bean-sidhe (woman of the fairy) may be an ancestral spirit appointed to forewarn members of certain ancient Irish families of their time of death. According to tradition, the banshee can only cry for five major Irish families: the O'Neills, the O'Briens, the O'Connors, the O'Gradys and the Kavanaghs. Intermarriage has since extended this select list.
The banshee can appear in a variety of guises. Most often she appears as an ugly, frightening hag, but can also appear as a stunningly beautiful woman of any age that suits her. In some tales, the figure who first appears to be a "banshee" is later revealed to be the Irish battle goddess, the Morrígan. The hag may also appear as a washer-woman, or bean-nighe, and is seen washing the blood stained clothes or armour of those who are about to die.
Although not always seen, her mourning call is heard, usually at night when someone is about to die. In 1437, King James I of Scotland was approached by an Irish seer 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 prophets 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.
Banshee in Irish mythology
In Irish legend, a banshee wails around a house if someone in the house is about to die. There are particular families who are believed to have banshees attached to them, and whose cries herald the death of a member of that family. Traditionally, when a citizen of an Irish village died, a woman would sing a lament (in Irish: caoineadh, [ˈkiːnʲə] or [ˈkiːnʲuː], "caoin" meaning "to weep, to wail") at their funeral. These women singers are sometimes referred to as "keeners" and the best keeners would be in much demand. Legend has it that, for five great Gaelic families: the O'Gradys, the O'Neills, the O'Briens, the O'Connors, and the Kavanaghs, the lament would be sung by a fairy woman; having foresight, she would sing the lament when a family member died, even if the person had died far away and news of their death had not yet come, so that the wailing of the banshee was the first warning the household had of the death.
In later versions the banshee might appear before the death and warn the family by wailing. When several banshees appeared at once, it indicated the death of someone great or holy. The tales sometimes recounted that the woman, though called a fairy, was a ghost, often of a specific murdered woman, or a woman who died in childbirth.
Banshees are frequently described as dressed in white or grey, and often having long, fair hair which they brush with a silver comb, a detail scholar Patricia Lysaght attributes to confusion with local mermaid myths. This comb detail is also related to the centuries-old traditional romantic Irish story that, if you ever see a comb lying on the ground in Ireland, you must never pick it up, or the banshees (or mermaids - stories vary), having placed it there to lure unsuspecting humans, will spirit such gullible humans away. Other stories portray banshees as dressed in green, red or black with a grey cloak.
Banshees are common in Irish and Scottish folk stories such as those recorded by Irish-American writer Herminie T. Kavanagh. They enjoy the same mythical status in Ireland as fairies and leprechauns. Banshees continue to appear in modern fiction that deals with mythology, folklore or the supernatural.
There is a similar spirit in Welsh folklore, known as the Hag of the mist.