The Banshee

Castle at WexfordWhen 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 does not cause 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.”

I believe that 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).

38 thoughts on “The Banshee”

  1. I was wondering if banshees had names..
    If people suspected they were a cirtain person, because of the fact they used to be women.
    are there any complete stories?
    who was the first banshee?
    Is there evidence of banshees existing?
    just wondering…

  2. Olivia, there are some excellent sociological studies of banshees, including Patricia Lysaght’s book, The Banshee.

    I’m sure that they have individual names, but I’ve never heard them called anything except by the general term, “banshee.”

    Having heard a banshee, I have no doubt about their existence. It was a chilling experience.

  3. Back in 1999 I lived in a converted pub over the river from Carlisle castle. The house was haunted and the 7 of us living there all experienced various ghostly encounters. One that stood out for me was what I would describe a bachees wail. Myself and boyfriend at the time experienced the wail at night twice, with a few mintues apart. It was definatley a female and a sound very difficult to describe as it was like a silent slow scream and both times she came close to our ears inbetween us, but we were in the dark and neither of us saw her. Do you think this could be what is described as a banchee.? No-one died in either of our families at that time but the house was very haunted so it was possibly related to someone that had died there.

  4. Joanna,

    Since I’ve heard the banshee’s cry, I think you might be describing it. It’s anguished to the point of being almost silent. It’s definitely slow.

    Remember, the banshee wails because she sees a tragedy that she can’t prevent. However, nothing in life is necessarily set in stone, so perhaps someone else was successful at preventing the tragic event the banshee saw.

    When I heard the banshee, the event was avoided, too. I’m still not sure how, but the most likely outcome did not occur… to the relief of everyone involved.

    — Fiona

  5. The Banshee doesn’t always make a terrible anguished crying/moaning sound . . . it is sometimes a very eerie singing that carries on the breeze . . . it’s quite unnerving.

  6. Tara,

    You’re right, but to list all the possible words describing individual Banshee’s keening… well, it’d be a very long article.

    The cry is sometimes described as keening, coming from the Irish word caoin, which — as my research suggests — was originally used to describe the sound… and only that sound.

    Every Banshee is unique. Each of them will make a different kind of sound but — as you said — it’s always unnerving.

    Cheerfully,
    Fiona

  7. John Irving makes allusion to a Banshee in his book A Prayer for Owen Meany. Although this book is a work of fiction, and based on something of a supernatural occurence, the reference to the Banshee by a celebrated author tends to give credibility to the existence of such a being (to me, anyway).

  8. A few nights ago I was also awoken by a banshee,at least I believed it was. At first I thought I had simply screamed in my sleep but then while I was slowly examining the darkness of my room I heard it again. In fact it wasn’t just me but everyone sleeping in my house had heard it and came into my room. I suppose in a way it would be more comforting to believe it was a banshee then trying to figure out what else could sound like a woman screaming, dog growling, and owl hooting all at the same time.

  9. What a great description of the very weird sound of a banshee!

    Of course, I’m sorry you and your family heard it. Just remember: It doesn’t always predict an unavoidable tragedy. In my own life, I heard the banshee and changed a few plans — remember, it can be something small that simply takes you on a different route, literally or figuratively — and a potential tragedy was avoided.

    A 1% change in your daily routines means close to a full-circle life change over the course of a year.

    In addition, it’s not just personal tragedy. It could be something local, if you ask people who live in your town if they heard “a weird noise” recently. People may have heard it at different times, or may not have heard it yet, if it’s something significant, locally. That could be anything from a factory closing to an elected official facing a significant difficulty to… well, it varies from region to region.

    Mostly, you’ve given a great description. I describe mine as a screeching violin combined with the noon whistle at a factory, but I like your description better.

    Fiona Broome

  10. I’m trying to find out the name of the O’Connor banshee. I’ve been researching and have found the O’Brien banshee is Eevul, and the O’Neill banshee is Maeveen. If anyone has info on the O’Connor banshee, I’d greatly appreciate it!

  11. Hello, Katy,

    I’m not sure where you found that information, but there isn’t just one banshee for a particular surname. Think of banshees like guardian angels: Every household has one of their own, so it’s not reasonable for every one of them to have the same name.

    In addition, there is no Irish name “Eevul” (“evil”) or Maeveen, per se, because there’s no letter V in the traditional Irish language.

    In other words, the person who gave you that information is telling you a tall tale. You’ll be well-advised to raise an eyebrow at anything else that person tells you.

    Even the O’Connor name isn’t really “O’Connor.” It’s O Conchobhair or O Conchuir, and it’s a name used by six distinct family lines. Here’s one family history: http://www.araltas.com/features/oconnor/ and to learn more about the O’Conor dynasty in general, Wikipedia will keep you busy for days: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:O%27Conor_dynasty

    Sincerely,
    Fiona Fitzgerald Broome
    http://faeriemagick.com/

  12. This website was extremely helpful but what i cant rap my head around is, why does she discise herself if she truelly is “kind at heart”? but other than that i got all of my answers thank you very much
    Sincerly,
    Kat

  13. Hi, Kat,

    I don’t have a problem with her being disguised or wearing a costume. After all, plenty of people enjoy costumes as Halloween, even though they’re kind at heart. So, I don’t see anything wrong with her enjoying costumes (or disguises) every day.

    There are plenty of traditions where someone kind chose to disguise himself or herself. Fairy tales are full of people — like fairy godmothers — who pretended to be old and poor, just to see if the girl (or boy) was generous enough to be worthy of reward.

    I think this all fits together perfectly, but maybe that’s just my outlook.

    Cheerfully,
    Fiona

  14. On a cold night in January of 1978, I was taking a walk to get away from my cruel brothers. As I walked past my house, I heard a woman sobbing with such depth of emotion that I had to stop and listen. It then turned into the sound of a cat calling to be let in. Aweek later,my house burned down.

  15. Yes, I heard the wail like a banshee a few minutes before my mother died..she is mostly irish desent

  16. I believe I have heard it, possibly seen it. Sounds like a mix between a whine from a large dog and a wierd bird like chirp. Are they angels? Or are they demons?

  17. I too have heard a banshee….the evening before a death. It terrified me….and I do not scare easily.

  18. What I do not know is the Irish connection. I was lying beside my boyfriend in the second floor bedroom and heard the banshee very late night just below the bedroom window. I was frozen with fear…I wanted to look out the window but could not bring myself to. The very next day my boyfriend wasvtragically killed

  19. Diana, I’m not sure if banshees are uniquely Irish. They may have counterparts in other folklore. I hope to research this more completely in the upcoming months.

    Also, I’m so sorry to hear about your experience and your loss. If a banshee wails, it’s because she can’t prevent the tragedy. And, if she can’t… well, most humans can’t, either.

    Sincerely,
    Fiona

  20. I was woken up out of a dead sleep the other night by a banshee screams I immediately got a sinking feeling ..in the past when she has visited bad things have happened and deaths. This time five deaths and very bad news with a job and the irs ..my experience is when she comes its deaths and a string of bad news which feels like months

  21. Hey. I was wondering if you could kill a banshee? I haven’t got time at the moment to read all of it. I skimmed, but anyway-
    Can you kill a banshee? Or would it predict its own death?

  22. I saw her last week and I’m absolutely terrified. My research has led me to believe I was either visited by a Gaistlig or a Banshee.
    She didn’t appear to be washing a shroud, she was just there, watching the city from the roof tops, a woman wearing long green robes about 12 foot tall.
    She made me feel uncomfortable, I felt as though her intentions weren’t clear.
    I’m quite scared now, I had not considered that she could be a banshee.

  23. Hello, Heather!

    Don’t panic. If you can think of her as a “guardian angel” kind of figure, that may help.

    Honestly, I’m amazed that more people aren’t seeing banshees right now. It’s a volatile environment, emotionally, and I expect that many people have banshees watching out for their families.

    A figure that large, and on top of a building…? I’d assume she’s guarding the community.

    Any malicious energy form (or impulse) is likely to sense her and flee. Banshees do not suffer fools gladly. If she takes action, you may not even hear about it. She’s operating on a different level than, say, the police (or gardai).

    In fact, if you think of the police as those who step in as soon as they see something criminal happening, and “first responders” are there as soon as it has happened… Well, the banshee is sort of a “pre-responder.” She does what she can to halt anything bad, before it happens.

    Banshees protect people. They’re around us much of the time, and — especially in green robes — she’s probably a loving and caring guardian spirit.

    Seeing one can be a sign of the times. Maybe she’s manifesting as a quiet (but significant) reminder that she’s there as a protector.

    Or, it could mean that you’re especially sensitive to the fae world, so you see banshees.

    But, seeing one doesn’t mean that you’re in danger. (It’s always smart to avoid obviously risky decisions, but — beyond that — I wouldn’t be unusually concerned.)

    I believe that banshees are always there, but we either don’t see them or don’t notice them.

    Sincerely,
    Fiona

  24. I had an issue today that startled me terribly. My bedroom often gets exstremely hot to I leave the window open during the day. While hanging pinecone bird feeders in my backyard, I thought I could hear talking from my room. At first, I disregarded it as the television, which I’d left on. By, the voices seemed to get closer to the window. One voice of deep and scratchy and the other was lighthearted and soft. The deeper voice was asking for something, raising his voice at the other. The lighter voice kept denying, saying that they didn’t know and they couldn’t have it. Then, the deeper voice threatened the lighter voice, saying that they’d “hurt the family”. After that, it sounded like something large fell. It startled me so I ran inside to find that my candle on my windowsill had fallen over. Some of my practitioner friends say that it may have been a banshee. If so, is there any way to coax her into revealing herself and speaking to me? I’m a fairly new witch so I’m still learning.

  25. Alena, my best advice is to thank your banshee for protecting you. Then, let her know that you’re open to her friendship, if she would like that. Say this out loud.

    That’s all you need to do. Banshees seem to prefer to work in isolation, and I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of one communicating to her family directly, unless it was an emergency.

    So, she may be a spirit/faerie/protector who prefers to be your silent bodyguard and shield.

    Cheerfully, Fiona

  26. So a few nights ago, I’ve noticed upon gradually coming out of deep sleep that I’ve been wailing in my sleep. It’s slow, soft and it lingers and will continue until I actually open my eyes/become conscious again.

    It started to happen after an encounter with a banshee in a quite a vivid dream I had a while back. She had a tattered dress, and her hair drooped over her face. However, when she flipped it back and revealed her face to me, her face was my face. It was like a reflection of myself just more bruised and beaten and she…I?…looked tired. She immediately screamed after revealing herself to me and that’s when I woke up, and every time I would try to go back to sleep and envision the hallway in which she lingered, my body would jerk away as if it didn’t want me back there. I don’t why but the whole thing is just unnerving to me. I was just wondering if this could be anything banshee related? Or if the dream meant anything significant? Or, why I may be wailing like a banshee in my sleep.

  27. Hello, recently read this. I was wondering if there is somehow a list of families from the ones visited by the banshee. I am of Irish origin and reading about banshees freaked me out. Knowing about which families of Irish origin have a banshee would cure my anxiety.

  28. Patricia, I’m not sure why you’d be freaked out by having a family banshee. The banshee is a protector, and — as far as I know — there is no reliable list of families that have banshees. (There may be a list of families that have reported a banshee, but that won’t be a list of every surname with banshee connections.)

    Having a banshee is like Cinderella having a fairy godmother. The banshee is a good entity. Hearing (or seeing) her is just her effort to alert you to danger.

  29. My family and I (we’re Norwegians but have distant Celtic ancestry) were camping in the mountains of Beara in Ireland a couple of years ago. In the dark of night my sister went for a solitary walk along this wild road and was startled to hear a high-pitched female cry carried on the wind; she identified it as a psychic impression. She didn’t know about the banshee phenomenon until I told her of it later. It wasn’t linked to a death, but it eventually turned out that we had been in grave occult danger at the time, a tragedy only barely averted. For this reason I believe the banshee’s scream, combined with various other ominous signs, presented a warning for us.

    As for parallels to banshees in other ethnic traditions… Well, as a Nordic I could mention that in the aspect of ancestral guardian spirits, the old Norse tradition believed in female spirits called Disir, and families would have as associates a number of these entities.

  30. Fascinating! I’m glad you were able to avoid tragedy.

    Also, thanks for the information about the Disir. I’m going to look into that, as these kinds of parallels interest me (of course), but they also provide cross-cultural support for the idea that these are universal entities, interpreted (and named) slightly differently by regions.

    Sincerely, Fiona

  31. I saw a banshee standing on my porch this morning as I was driving out for work. I actually stopped to see what my wife wanted thinking it was her, pale white skin and red hair. The image vanished as I started to get out of the car.
    I went to work and started to get violent sick, along with the heaviest pit in my stomach. Got worse over the first hour, so I came back home. The closer to home, the better I felt.
    I have always paid heed to being a “seer” because of my mother, paying attention to gut feelings, but today is first time since I was seven or eight that I have seen the White Lady. First time I can remember that she came with such forebodings.
    The sound? Deafening silence, nothing making usual morning noises but a whispering song I couldn’t quite make out in my ears until I was back in my driveway.

  32. I’m 11 and my Great Grandmother is Irish so I worked out I’m 8/1 Irish I’m I still protected and also I admire you by your amazing mind! I also love mythical creatures!!!

  33. It’s interesting. I got a weird “dream”, it’s was more like a trance, in which I saw a beautiful redhaired girl with white clothes crying about something. She stopped when I took her in my arms, she really resembles to those descriptions. Nice work by the way, please keep it up.

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