When someone mentions a ghost, most of us think of cemeteries, haunted houses, and transparent figures draped in sheets. Likewise, the word “faerie” is linked with cute little figures with wings, and merry mischief. However, mention a Banshee, and people squirm. The Banshee, like a ghost, can represent death, but that is not her actual role in folklore, or in our lives.
She can appear transparent, and is the size of a living person. Nevertheless, like her fae counterparts, she is associated with a more magickal Otherworld.
Perhaps she is the link which shows us that the Otherworld is a vast place, inhabited by many kinds of beings, including faeries and ghosts.
The Banshee, in Irish the Bean Sidhe (pronounced “bann-SHEE”), means “spirit woman” or sometimes a spirit (perhaps a faerie) dressed in white. She is usually described as a single being, although there are many of them.
Your Irish Family’s Banshee
According to legend, one Banshee guards each Milesian Irish family. These are the families whose names start with O’ or Mac, and sometimes Fitz, though those prefixes have been dropped, particularly by American families.
There is a Banshee for each branch of these families, and the family Banshee can follow the descendants to America, Australia, or wherever the Irish family travels or emigrates.
The Banshee protects the family as best she can, perhaps as a forerunner of the “Guardian Angel” in Christian traditions. However, we are most aware of her before a tragedy that she cannot prevent.
Traditionally, the Banshee appears shortly before a death in “her” family.
The Banshee is almost always female, and appears filmy in a white, hooded gown. (The exception is in Donegal, Ireland, where she may wear a green robe, or in County Mayo where she usually wears black.)
However, if she is washing a shroud when you see her, she may merely signal a major life-changing event in your future. The way to determine this is to go home and burn a beeswax candle after seeing her; if it burns in the shape of a shroud, her appearance foretells death.
The Banshee’s Wail
The night before the death, the Banshee will wail piteously in frustration and rage. Her family will always hear her, but many others in the area will, too. For example, Sir Walter Scott referred to “the fatal banshi’s boding scream.”
One of the largest reports of this wailing was in 1938, when the Giants’ Grave in County Limerick, Ireland, was excavated and the bones were moved to a nearby castle. Those who heard the crying throughout central Ireland, said that it sounded as if every Banshee in Ireland was keening.
That wailing of many Banshees is unusual but not unique. There have been other reports of several Banshees manifesting together. When a group of Banshees are seen, it usually forecasts the dramatic illness—and perhaps death—of a major religious or political figure.
In Irish mythological history, the Banshee tradition may link to the fierce Morrighan as the “Washer at the Ford,” a legend of Cuchulain. In this story, the Morrighan appeared as a young woman who prepared for an upcoming battle by washing the clothing—or perhaps the shrouds—of those who would fight and lose.
Does the Banshee Cause Death?
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.”
Perhaps her appearance and wailing before a death are efforts to protect her family from a death or other tragedy that she foresees.
This is where we see the clearest link to what are popularly called “ghosts.” In many stories, the spirit appears to warn the living about danger, illness, or death. Gothic novels often feature a ghost whose appearance forecasts death.
Likewise, in the Sherlock Holmes story, the Hound of the Baskervilles howled before a family death.
In real life, my maternal grandmother and her siblings were individually visited by the spectre of their mother, to warn them of her imminent death in a hospital many miles away, and to say good-bye.
This level of concern for the living is consistent with many ghosts, as well as the Banshee.
Whether the Banshee is more correctly a “ghost” or a “faerie” is an discussion that may never be resolved. However, the Banshee provides clear evidence that the line between ghosts, spirits, and faeries is vague at best.
For more information about the Banshee, one of the best studies is The Banshee: The Irish Death Messenger by Patricia Lysaght (paperback, © 1986, Roberts Rhinehart Publishers, Colorado).