The sound was so piercing I had to cover my ears. Yet, like an eery lament it stabbed at my heart. Strangely, fear started building and threatened to suffocate me.I turned to Uncle to discern the source and asked, wincing, “Scree-ech Owl?”
The legend of the Banshee finds its home mostly in the countries of the United Kingdom:Ireland, Wales, Scotland, England, and Norse. However, the legend and even sightings have come to Europe,America and Canada. For centuries, the Banshee- a female faery spirit,has been recognized as a mourner and foreteller of death.Her keening and wailing is her trademark but the sight and even the thoughtof her has struck terror in adults and children alike. There are several personifications and presentations of the Banshee.
The name itself comes from the Irish word (Bean si)-woman of the barrows or female who lives in the ‘sidhe’ or faery mound and she is also depicted as a female spirit in Irish mythology.But as time has marched on, the Banshee has become portrayed as a harbinger of the imminent death of an individual. She also has been personified as a witch-like evil female spirit and a figure of horror in her own standing. We will now explore her many faces, names and attributes.
The Call of Death
The banshee as an old crone
According to Irish legend the Banshee wails or ‘keens’(from the Irish word caoin) meaning to weep or wail at the funeral of a loved one. The best ‘keeners’ were often well sought after to preside and wail at family funerals.At that time the measure of a person’s or family’s standing in the community could be seen in the number of mourners and keeners and the depth of their mourning. The Banshee legend had it that for the death of a member of an important Irish family the faery woman would lament and keen at their funeral. Sometimes she would wail if the family member was far away, announcing the death or imminent death of the relative. In this way she would act as a foreteller of the death. And in some versions of the Banshee legend,this forewarning and foretelling of deaths became her purpose as she no longer just mourned and keened at the funerals of the deceased. It was said that if several banshees were involved in the wailing, it would indicate the death of a great or holy person.
It was said that the banshee was mainly associated with the original Irish families- those that began with O’ or have the Mc/Mac prefix or the “Airlie” clan.Other family names have also been included, such as Power, Oswald or Kavanagh. She has been indicated to follow these families in her loyalty, to far-off countries and through mixed marriages.
As much time went by, in some locals, the description of the banshee developed into the ghost of a murdered woman or a woman who died in childbirth. In the extreme, she became a horrific figure who’s wailing and keening would eventually kill her victim, or she was betrayed as an evil persona who would actually snatch children from families. She is always painted as a solitary female figure, in spirit form, without a male counterpart.
She can be seen in many guises: As a wee woman or crone or a beautiful young woman.But in modern times she is seen as a dreadful figure, come to take your life or the life of a loved one. Oftimes, she is wearing a grey cloak or the winding sheet or grave robe of the dead. She may also be seen as a washer woman (Bean-nighe) keening and wailing as she washes the blood stained clothes of those who are about to die.Her hair is either described as long and white, blonde or even auburn.The banshee makes her appearances mostly in the location of the birthplace of the unfortunate soon-to-be-deceased.Her clothes are often those of a countrywoman and can be white, grey, brown or red. White, grey or brown are the colours of mourning,while red signifies magic and the occult.
The spirit of the banshee
Sometimes she is seen combing her long hair as she keens and laments and legend has it that the finding and touching of such a comb will mean certain and immediate death. Often her disturbing and piercing wailing is heard without anyone actually seeing her. And sometimes, when she moves away, a bird-like fluttering sound follows her. This sound has given rise to the belief that the Banshee woman can manifest as a crow and has also become associated with the primitive Celtic goddess Badb. She was the goddess of war who frequently appeared with a crow.
In different locals and as the legend grew and developed, the banshee has assumed many forms and characteristics. Has she ever been seen? There are many reports in many countries, over the ages, of sightings and meetings with the banshee. She has even been sighted in human form.
The most famous sighting was in 1437 in Scotland, when King James I of Scotland had a close encounter with an Irish seer or prophetess who warned him of his death at the instigation of the Earl of Atholl.
In several countries there are tales of people encountering the banshee. Today the legend of the banshee leans further to the macabre in that she is no longer satisfied with just foretelling a death.She has transformed into a witch-like spirit creature with piercing wails, who is eithera child snatcher or a horrific brand of grim reaper.
“Beware the banshee- she’d best take you than me.”
*Photo credits: (All three screenshots above were taken from YouTube. )
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I have lived in Ontario, Canada all of my seasoned life and am comfortable both in its cities and in its rugged northern country.
When I realized I wasn't going to make it as a famous actress with a large following, I turned my efforts into my early inclination-freelance and creative writing. It has proven a satisfying career move and a compelling one. Thanks for meeting me here where I live- on the keyboard.