Thursday, May 7, 2015


Few mythological figures are as shrouded in mystery and misinformation as the banshee. Most popular culture depicts them as evil, and often times as men. Banshees are neither.

To fully understand banshee's it's perhaps best begin with a bit of ancient Irish and Scottish Funeral Traditions. In Ireland and Scotland Keening, that is a wailing sorrowful song was an important part of saying goodbye to someone who had passed on. Because of this women would often be hired to keen a poem of lamentation for the deceased, that is until the Catholic church outlawed such practices. The fact that such practices were outlawed seems to indicate that there was some magical or pagan element in the practice of keening beyond simply morning for the dead. After all many different places in Europe had their own unique funeral songs and styles, and only in rare cases did these get banned by the Church.

The movie Darby O-Gill depicts the banshee as a fearsome ghost.

The Banshee is simply a fairy which loves people so much that they keen (and clap their hands as was a traditional part of morning) when someone is about to die. Their eyes are red with crying. The mere fact that they are so often seen crying for a person who is going to die should be a clear indication that they aren't evil, but overly sympathetic to the plight of certain people. Overtime their association with death did cause fear and ultimately led to the  current thinking about them in Hollywood. That, however, is an evolution which occurred because people lost touch with their traditional roots, rather than an original idea. 

So What Was the Banshee?

Banshees were ancestral spirits of specific families. As a general rule only important (noble) families had a banshee attached to them. Though there are exceptions to this. The banshee was oftentimes the spirit of a woman who died without children and became a sort of patron aunt of a family. 

Lady Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde states that "Sometimes the Banshee assumes the form of some sweet singing virgin of the family who died young, and has been given the mission by the invisible powers to become the harbinger of coming doom to her mortal kindred. Or she may be seen at night as a shrouded woman, crouched beneath the trees, lamenting with veiled face; or flying past in the moonlight, crying bitterly: and the cry of thus spirit is mournful beyond all other sounds on earth, and betokens certain death to some member of the family whenever it. is heard in the silence of the night."

Banshees would also act as guides into the afterlife. She would "draw nigh at the time of death, and bear the soul to its fairy home." (Yes originally people went to fairyland when they died).

Okay, so the banshee appears to be an ancestral spirit. One which in addition to crying for the death of a loved one can at times help their family. They'll give the gift of poetry, help the heads of families with decisions, and occasionally give babies blessings. In one tale the banshee of the mountain advices a man named McKineely on how to free a woman from the tower she's been shut up in. The banshee then fairies him to the island the woman is on and uses Druidic magic to put the guards to sleep.

This isn't the whole story, however, as there were, however, also two hills in Aberdeenshire Scotland where the banshee like being appears to have been the tutelary deities of the land. Those passing through the area would leave them bread in return for safe travel. Whether this points to a remnant of an older tradition, is unique to the area, or is the result of confusion about the nature of banshees vs tutelary spirits I can't say. 

In another case a banshee appears to be a living spirit which was carried away into fairy land; I was also shown a small cottage in which a girl named Olla had lived. She was carried off by the fairies, and her wailing was heard before the death of her mother, and again before the death of several members of her family. A farmer, or even a labourer, may have a banshee attached to his family—a little white creature was the description given to me by a woman who said she had seen one; others say that banshees are like birds.

In this case banshees aren't fairies at all, but people who live with fairies (though this distinction is often fuzzy as people seem to be able to become fairies).

Yet in a story told by Yeats in "Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry" it seems that the banshees very closely resemble fairies and have their own courts which they rule over. In this story a piper encounters a fairy who tells him;

"There's a great feast in the house of the Banshee, on the top of Croagh Patric tonight," says the Púca, "and I'm for bringing you there to play music, and, take my word, you'll get the price of your trouble."

"By my word, you'll save me a journey, then," says the piper, "for Father William put a journey to Croagh Patric on me, because I stole the white gander from him last Martinmas."

The Púca rushed him across hills and bogs and rough places, till he brought him to the top of Croagh Patric. Then the Púca struck three blows with his foot, and a great door opened, and they passed in together, into a fine room.

The piper saw a golden table in the middle of the room, and hundreds of old women (cailleacha) sitting round about it. The old woman rose up, and said, "A hundred thousand welcomes to you, you Púca of November (na Samhna). Who is this you have brought with you?"

"The best piper in Ireland," says the Púca.

One of the old women struck a blow on the ground, and a door opened in the side of the wall, and what should the piper see coming out but the white gander which he had stolen from Father William.

"By my conscience, then," says the piper, "myself and my mother ate every taste of that gander, only one wing, and I gave that to Moy-rua (Red Mary), and it's she told the priest I stole his gander."

The gander cleaned the table, and carried it away, and the Púca said, "Play up music for these ladies."

The piper played up, and the old women began dancing, and they were dancing till they were tired. Then the Púca said to pay the piper, and every old woman drew out a gold piece, and gave it to him.

"By the tooth of Patric," said he, "I'm as rich as the son of a lord"

- So what does all this mean?

Ireland didn't have a single comprehensive folk religion. Rather there were many ideas about banshees. The one common thread is that they were female fairies who had a close connection to specific families or places. In a way they can be thought of as people who entered the fairy world but couldn't let go of their human families.