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by Janine Donnellan
It seems appropriate at this time of year as we move into the darker and colder months, to try to understand the nature of a misrepresented spirit who is as ancient as life itself; this spirit represents the death messenger and is referred to as the Banshee. As a child, I lived in close proximity to my Aunt who made sure that I was exposed to all of the proper understandings of our Irish folklore and ancestry. As a young child I spent many an interesting evening listening to my Aunt tell scary tales of ghosts and supernatural beings, of headless horsemen and of course my favourite the Banshee. I can remember hiding under the bedclothes at night while my aunt would tap on the bedroom window and cry and moan outside in the side passageway; these tales were probably the reason why I was afraid of the dark for many years.
It is said that the Banshee is a persona of the celtic goddess, the
Morrigan, who was known to stand in a river and wash the entrails of
those about to die in battle while singing a most charismatic song.
Warriors in battle, who could hear her singing, were destined to die.
There is nothing quite so terrifying as the cry (or keening) of the
Banshee, for to hear her cry is an omen of death. She is known
throughout Britain and Ireland by many names, including Badbh,
Cyoerraeth, the Washer Woman, the Bean Nighe and Bean Sidhe. The
Banshee, which literally means fairy woman, has been portrayed as both
a frightening old woman with glowing red eyes and a beautiful woman
with a veiled face.
As the Bean Nighe, or the Washer Woman of the Scottish Highlands, she
is a terrifying creature. In Wales she is known as the Cyoerraeth, and
will tap on the windows of those about to die. Rarely seen, which is a
blessing, as she is quite frightening. Belief in the Banshee is still
very common in Ireland today and her cry is even heard among Irish
An omen that sometimes accompanies the Banshee is the coach-a-bower
(coiste-bodhar) an immense black coach, mounted by a coffin and drawn
by a headless carriage man. This was another favourite story that my
aunt would tell and strange as it may seem in 1987 I had a very bad
case of the flu and should have been hospitalized. I can recall on one
particular night when I felt I was at the critical point of my illness,
I heard a carriage driven by horses gallop down my street and then stop
in front of my house. As you can imagine I was absolutely terrified
that I was going to die and from that point on I became
determined that I was going to recover.
Despite her grim reputation, seeing or hearing a Banshee is not what
actually causes the death. In fact, the Banshee is traditionally a very
kind woman. As poet and historian W. B. Yeats commented, “You
will with the banshee chat, and will find her good at heart.”
I don’t think that I could engage the Banshee in a friendly
chat but I understand that although her appearance can be frightening,
the Banshee is only doing the family a service by forewarning
the immanent death of a loved one.
Lysaght, Patricia (1986). The Banshee: The Irish Death Messenger.
Roberts Rinehart Publishers..
Briggs, Katharine (1976). An Encyclopedia of Fairies. Pantheon Books.
Image from http://bagiacchi.elfwood.com/The_Cry_of_the_Banshee.2558090.html