What is a Banshee?
It’s a dark night in Ireland, and the forests are filled with mist. A bloodcurdling wail slices open the silence—and it is followed by more cries. You might think that the anguished cries are coming from a dying person, and in a way, you would be right. These are the cries of the ghostly Banshee, meant as a warning that death approaches.
Despite their good intentions, Banshees don’t look like the friendliest of creatures! They can appear as withered old hags or supernaturally beautiful women. They wear shadowy grey cloaks or silvery shrouds over red or green dresses. Their hair, which can be red or a pale color that “shimmers like wildfire,” is long and windblown. And their eyes are always inflamed from weeping.
The Scottish bean nighe, which are often considered Scottish banshees, can be identified by a few unusual signs: their breasts droop, they have only one nostril, and their feet are webbed like a duck.
Banshees may seem ghoulish, but they have no record of being violent or even mischievous. Their dark appearance probably comes from the tragedy of their own lives; many people believe they are the spirits of women who were murdered or died in childbirth. Others believe they are fairy queens who were driven underground by the arrival of humans.
Given their own sad history, it’s not surprising that Banshees are hypersensitive to sadness in other people’s lives, nor that their expression of grief has taken on supernatural powers.
Banshees are also capable of deep devotion. Each Banshee serves a specific family and will spend centuries trailing the children of that family. They are also deeply devoted to their country, Ireland, and will attach themselves only to families who are descended from Celts, not Normans or Saxons.
Finally, there are clues that suggest that Banshees are attracted to wealth and nobility. Some legends claim that they only serve the ancient Celtic noble families: the O’Neills, the O’Briens, the O’Connors, the O’Gradys, and the Kavanaghs. Others claim that, before the death of an important leader, multiple Banshees will come together in mourning.
Banshees are best known for their premonitions. They always appear shortly before the death of someone in their designated family. In a few stories, they have spoken out to tell exactly who would die and how. In most cases, they simply wail—but the Banshee’s wail, in and of itself, is a powerful message. It can be heard for miles and always chills the hearts of the people who hear it. Some stories have described glass windows shattering when hit by the high, plaintive notes of the Banshee’s song.
The bean nighe has a slightly different way of sending her message. Rather than wailing, she appears by a river, washing bloody clothes or armor in the water. She is also more talkative than her Irish cousin, the Banshee, so she tends to give more specific details about the death that is waiting just around the corner.
Before there were spectral Banshees wandering the hills of Ireland, there were real women who did their job for them! These women, called “keeners,” were hired to grieve either at a funeral or outside of a house where someone was expected to die. Their wailing songs inspired other people to grieve for the dead as well.
Historical records show that keeners were active around the eighth century. Sometime after the eighth century, their popularity began to fade, but their legend lived on in the form of Banshees.
By the fourteenth century, Banshee lore was in full swing. They can be found in Irish, Scottish, and Norman literature during that century. By the fifteenth century, belief in Banshees was so widespread that even the King James I of Scotland reported encountering one of them!
Today, the Banshee is still a well-known figure. She is liable to pop up around other ghosts, witches, and goblins for Halloween. She has also appeared in some fantasy shows and movies, including Scooby Doo, Teen Wolf and Banshee.