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Definition: Banshee (Irish bean sídhe, ‘woman of the fairy mound’) from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

In Irish folklore, a female spirit who announces her presence by shrieking and wailing under the windows of a house when one of its occupants is close to death.

Summary Article: Banshee
from Encyclopedia of Death and the Human Experience

The banshee is the Irish supernatural deathmessenger par excellence. Regarded as a family messenger of death, this female spirit is said to cry when a member of Irish family is about to die, at home or abroad. Belief in a female supernatural being foreboding death is an ancient cultural inheritance in Ireland. In the literature of early Ireland in the Irish language such beings appear in the context of imminent death, and the motif has persisted through the centuries in Irish poetry and prose.

A supernatural female foreboder of death has also appeared in works in the English language in Ireland for a couple of centuries. In Castle Rackrent published in 1800, Maria Edgeworth notes that in the previous century the great Irish families had a Banshee, but their presence was no longer evident. In representing the banshee as an element of past belief on the part of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, Edgeworth makes no mention of the persistence of belief in such a being among the people at large in her time—something which she was likely to have been aware of in view of her knowledge of the beliefs and customs of the peasantry.

Other writers also make mention of the banshee in the course of the 19th century, but their accounts are general in nature and often strive to provide an antiquarian-type interpretation of the belief. Few of these analysts acknowledged that rich and varied oral traditions of the banshee were current at the time of writing, in both English and Irish languages, which would have added substance to their accounts and provided a clear picture of the complex nature of the belief. Thanks to the efforts of the Irish Folklore Commission and its successor institutions, a large body of such traditions was amassed in the course of the 20th century, and field work continues to complement and corroborate them in the 21st century. It is thus possible to explore the richness of ideas about the banshee prevalent in the oral traditions of the Irish people in the 19th and 20th centuries, and to assess the role that these traditions played in the lives of those who held the belief. Such a substantial and varied body of source material also enables researchers to determine the main components of the banshee belief in Ireland in recent centuries, to assess regional variation in the traditions concerning her, and to explore her manifestations and roles in earlier centuries.

The names attached to supernatural beings are usually important indicators of the main traits associated with them in the oral traditions of the people. The names can also point to regional variation in traditions about such supernatural beings, and they can be of assistance in trying to determine the age, origin, and functions of the belief concerning them.

Irish Tradition and the Banshee

The Irish supernatural death-messenger is known by a variety of names in different parts of the country. The most common term, found throughout Ireland, is bean sí (anglicized “banshee”), meaning “woman of the otherworld,” clearly indicating that she is considered to be of female gender and of supernatural origin. In view of the wide distribution of this appellation for the supernatural death-messenger and because it is found in areas where other local terms are prominent, it can be assumed that it has been the most common and most widespread name for this supernatural being for many centuries.

In parts of southeastern Ireland the banshee is also known by various dialect forms of the word badhbh, the name of a goddess, usually a goddess of war, appearing in medieval Irish literature, while in the South Midlands she is called badhb chaointe “keening or lamenting badhb,” an appellation reflecting her origin and role behavior. The distribution pattern and various dialect forms of the word badhbh indicate that these terms are of appreciable use in the areas where they have been recorded.

The remaining traditional name for the banshee is bean chaointe, “keening woman,” a term that is heard in parts of counties Tipperary, Limerick, and Mayo and may once have been more widespread. This name refers specifically to supernatural being's role behavior—lamenting—and may have been influenced by a similar designation for a human woman who lamented the dead. It may also have given rise to the idea found occasionally in the oral tradition that the banshee was, in origin, a former human keening woman who was obliged to continue keening after death because of some misdemeanor in this life. This explanation is not very prominent, however, and despite the appellation bean sí/banshee, neither is the idea that she is one of the fairy folk. Tradition-bearers clearly distinguished between the banshee, who is depicted as a solitary being and a messenger of death for certain families, and the fairies, who are regarded as social beings with a range of activities and relationships that does not include the foreboding of death, and they are also not particularly attached to families, or indeed, human beings in general.

Actually the question of the origin of the banshee has only occasionally been raised by traditionbearers. Yet, the idea that she is connected in a special way to particular families—as an ancestral figure—is a central aspect of the traditions concerning her.

The banshee is said to follow certain families; that is, her connection with them extends from generation to generation. These were particular noble Irish families, and she was said to follow their chieftains or heads. She is also connected to land, patrimony, and identity, thus echoing the poetic evocation of the connection of the sí-bheanor bean sí with noble Gaelic, or Hiberno-Norman families in the 17th century when confiscations and plantations by the English government led to fundamental changes in land ownership in Ireland and in the ethnic, religious, and linguistic profile of much of the country in that century.

Thus traces of an ancestral female figure, with vestiges of the role of a patron goddess, would appear to be discernible in the oral traditions of the death-messenger. Such traces are, of course, older than the 17th century, and analogies can be suggested with other foreboding or lamenting female figures in medieval Irish literature who were concerned for the fortunes of specific noble families or individuals. In the 8th-century prose tale Táin Bó Fraích, the impending death of the hero Fraoch mac Idath is announced by the cries of otherworld women, while the goddess Mór Mumhan laments over the grave of her mystical spouse Cathal mac Fionghuine. In later texts his own death is foretold to Brian Ború, High King of Ireland, at the battle of Clontarf 1014, by Aoibheall of Craig Liath, patroness of the Dal gCais sept (clan), County Clare.

Other traits of the death-messenger of modern folk tradition also support this analogy with female sovereignty figures of medieval literature: her appearance both as an old woman and, to some extent also as a tall, vigorous, beautiful young woman, and her washing activity. The latter trait is found in the folklore of parts of western Ireland, particularly in 20th-century oral tradition of County Galway, where the death-messenger is portrayed as a washerwoman beetling clothes in a stream on the eve of the Battle of Aughrim 1691—an activity attributed to the war goddess badhbh, said to forebode violent death in battle by washing the bloodstained garments of those fated to die.

It is probable, therefore, that the death-messenger of modern folk tradition originated from the idea of a patron goddess with a variety of contrasting attributes and functions, including the foreboding and announcement of death. It is the former trait, that of death-foreboder, which is emphasized in the death-messenger tradition, and throughout Ireland she is popularly said to perform that function by crying and lamenting.

The most outstanding characteristic of the banshee in her role as herald of death is her sound. This is usually described in the oral tradition as a female-type inarticulate cry full of sorrow and grief for the person about to die. The banshee is thus thought to be well disposed to the dying person, and her behavior is generally considered to be nonviolent and human-like. So strong was the belief in the death-messenger-as a foreboder of death, it was generally accepted that if a seriously ill person was “followed” by the banshee that he was fated to die once she had cried; in fact, some people held that such a person could not die until the manifestation of the supernatural death-messenger had occurred.

Contemporary View of the Banshee

The dominant popular image of the banshee is as a female figure who always appears alone. She is imagined to be a small old woman, dressed in a long white cloak, with long white hair, which she is almost invariably combing. This image of an old woman probably springs from her connection with death, her perceived ancestral connection with the family she follows, and her role as an outdoor or nature being. The combing motif, which has given rise to an oral legend about how the banshee lost and recovered her comb, also links the banshee with otherworld women similarly depicted in connection with death in medieval Irish literature.

The betwixt and between times—midnight, dawn, and dusk—are the times particularly associated with the manifestation of the death-messenger. These dark and gray hours are especially associated with supernatural beings connected with death, and they are also times when light and sound conditions favor supernatural interpretations of phenomena to which natural interpretations would be given if they occurred in the daytime. Thus, if someone were known to be seriously ill, the supernatural death-messenger would easily spring to mind if an unexplained plaintive cry was experienced at these times.

Most manifestations of the banshee are said to occur in Ireland, usually near the home of the dying person. The cry might also be located near unusual nature formations, like hills or rocky eminences, which appear to have stirred people's imagination and would have been prominent landmarks in the locality.

The death-messenger is often heard near water, such as at wells, lakes, and rivers. The latter formations were also often prominent landmarks in localities or formed boundaries between farms, parishes, or even counties. Because sound travels along water, once it has been associated with the death-messenger it is easy to imagine that the supernatural being who was imagined to emit the sound was also located near to water.

The banshee usually appears in Ireland, but some accounts also refer to the announcement in Ireland of the deaths of Irish people overseas, thus acknowledging deep family roots in the old country. This is especially the case in relation to death in the United States, a country to which Irish people emigrated in large numbers in the 19th and 20th centuries.

It is those concerned with a death, at family and community levels, who usually hear the banshee, rather than the dying person. This is in accordance with the general belief that the dying person does not experience the death-messenger. It also reflects prevailing attitudes toward death and dying in traditional Irish society, in which the care and attention of the dying person and the arrangement of the obsequies were the responsibility of the family and the community.

Despite the almost inevitable weakening impact of changing attitudes toward death in Ireland, on beliefs and customs traditionally associated with the final crisis in life, belief in the banshee as a foreboder of death in certain families seems to have retained a fairly tenacious hold on people's imagination. Such a deep-rooted and obviously significant belief is likely to remain part of the Irish cultural inheritance for ages yet to come.

See also

Deities of Life and Death, Hospice, Contemporary, Popular Culture and Images of Death, Symbols of Death and Memento Mori

Further Readings
  • Breatnach, R. A. The lady and the king. A theme of Irish literature. Studies. An Irish Quarterly Review 42 : 321-336., 1953.
  • Herbert, M. (1992). Goddess and king: The sacred marriage in early Ireland. In Fradenburg, L. (Ed.), Women and sovereignty (pp. 264-275). Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Lysaght, P. The banshee's comb. The role of tellers and audiences in the shaping of redactions and variations. Béaloideas. Journal of the Folklore of Ireland Society 59 : 67-82., 1991.
  • Lysaght, P. (1996). Aspects of the earth goddess in the traditions of the banshee in Ireland. In Billington, S. & Green, M. (Eds.), The concept of goddess (pp. 152-165). London: Routledge.
  • Lysaght, P. (1996). The banshee. The Irish supernatural death-messenger (Updated ed.). Dublin, Ireland: O'Brien Press.
  • Lysaght, P. (1998). A pocket book of the banshee. Dublin, Ireland: O'Brien Press.
  • Mac Cana, P. Aspects of the theme of king and goddess in Irish literature. Études Celtique 7 : 71-114, 356-413., 1955-1956.
  • Mac Cana, P. Aspects of the theme of king and goddess in Irish literature. Études Celtique 8 : 59-65., 1958-1959.
  • Mac Cana, P. (1973). Celtic mythology. London: Hamlyn.
  • Lysaght, Patricia
    Copyright © 2009 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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