Are you of Irish, Scottish, or Welsh descent?
Is your clan name O’Grady, O’Neill, Caomhanachs, , O’Conchobhair, or O’Briain?
What about O’Grady, O’Neill, Kavanaugh, O’Connor, or O’Brien?
Then you may have a Banshee. Do not be alarmed: they’re not the screaming monster portrayed on World of Warcraft. I’ll explain the clan names in just a bit.
In Gaelic, she’d be called Bean Sidhe, Bean Sith, Bean Nighe, Bean Shidhe, Bean Shithe, or Bean Si. Perhaps now is a good time to point out that “si” in Gaelic is the “sh” sound. There are a few different takes on the Banshee and her duties, but ultimately they all deal with death.
The Banshee is a Faery woman associated most often with The Morrigan, Goddess of battle, war, and death (as well as many other things, including fertility, sovereignty, horses, and so on.). The Morrigan is a deity particularly close to my heart, and deserves a full post of her own. As an occasional messenger for The Morrigan, Banshees are often associated with ravens or owls. Modern mythologists speculate the Banshee’s wail is actually the cry of an owl, which is also considered a warning that Death is coming for someone.
Banshees are known mostly for two acts: wailing to warn of an impending death (or wailing immediately after the death occurs), and appearing in a vision to the doomed-to-die. Interestingly, in the older tales banshees also served a purpose similar to the Valkyrie in Norse myth: guides to the afterlife for those who died on the battlefield. I’d imagine that’s a large and stressful job, considering the number of souls on a post-war battlefield who wander about.
The most-told version of the Banshee’s appearance to a warrior is as The Washer at the Ford: a woman washing the bloody clothes of he who is about to die. IN this guise she’s called the Bean Nighe, the washerwoman. This is a direct link back to The Morrigan, who performed the same warning for Cu Chulainn in her myth cycle. Perhaps Cu Chulainn was such a hero his portend of death could only be delivered by a Goddess, not “just” a Banshee. In some tales, the Banshee work directly for The Morrigan, in others they’re just fulfilling their ancient function, as sensing and warning of death is their only purpose.
As the Banshee who wails to warn of an impending death, she’s often described as a sad, grey woman in grey or white clothes, nearly colorless in pallor. Sometimes she wears a red or green cloak. Sometimes she’s combing her pale hair. She could be gorgeous or ghoul, depending on the story (and as this IS a culture famous for storytelling, I expect her terrible or wondrous appearance directly coincides with the time of year, the audience, and the person for whom she wails).
As the Washer at the Ford, she’s sometimes a smelly, disgusting hag in tattered filthy clothes, sometimes a beautiful woman. In some areas the superstition lives, still, that should you find a comb on the road, leave it be: it’s likely a Banshee’s, and you do NOT want to catch her attention. She may or may not actively bring Death, but she certainly has Death’s ear, after all.
I’ve often wondered if she’s content with her purpose in this universe, constantly dealing with death and sorrow even when Death is a welcome visitor (as, occasionally, Death may become).
So where do the names come into play?
In Celtic funerary tradition, when a person dies a woman with a lovely voice would sing the lament: a song for the dead, a song of sorrow for those left behind who’ll miss the deceased’s presence in their lives. A tearful, wailing, keen of sadness. My personal favorite example is Morag’s Lament, from Rob Roy. This
It was believed that royal or lord’s families received their lamentations from Fairy women due to their importance. Of course, that could have been a way to inflate their own legend, but you just never know. Tradition says there were five clans who had a permanent banshee attached to their family (some lists expand to seven through intermarriage of clans)…indeed, those I listed. King James I of Scotland is reported to have heard the Banshee’s wail before he died in 1437.
The most recent reporting of a Banshee’s service? 1948.
My husband is of Irish descent…his family name is in that list.