Friday, June 17, 2011

Freaky Friday: the Banshee

Today's Freaky Friday creature: the banshee.

Also goes by bean sidhe (fairy woman or woman of the mound), bean-nigde (washing woman), bean chaointe (keening woman), Washer of the Shroud, Washer at the Ford, Washer at the Banks, Dames blanche

The legend of the banshee may be traced back to an old Irish tradition. During a funeral, a woman (know as a "keener") would sing a lament, or caoineadh, for the deceased. When a member of the five great Gaelic families died, they were said to be lamented by a fairy woman. The fairy woman, with supernatural insight, would know if a family died even if they were many miles away. The fairy's lament would be the first indication they would recieve of the death.

The banshee was often described as an old woman or hag. She could also appear as a lovely young woman, or dignified matron. These three appearances mirror the three aspects of the the Celtic goddess of war and death: Badhbh, Macha and Mor-Rioghain. She is sometimes said to carry a comb, which she runs through her long hair. If a traveler found a comb on the ground, they should never pick it up. If it belonged to a banshee, she would steal the person away. The comb imagery may have been borrowed from stories of mermaids, and incorporated into the banshee legend. She could also appear as a crow, weasel or hare (animals associated with witchcraft in Ireland).

Hearing a banshee's wail (or keen) would foretell a death in the family. Actually seeing the banshee would foretell that person's own death. If several banshees sang their lament together, it signaled the death of someone of great importance.

The wail is discribed in several ways, depending on the region. In the southwest of Ireland, in Kerry, her wail is described as a "low, pleasant song." However, in Leinster, her keening was sharp enough to shatter glass. Other areas describe it as two boards being struck together (Tyrone, in the north), or a screeching sound like a cross between the wails of a woman and an owl (Rathlin Island).

Another portrayal of the banshee is of a woman washing bloody clothes or graveclothes. The clothes belonged to someone about to die. Passersby must not be seen by the washerwoman. If they are noticed, they must help her with her washing. If they do this correctly, the washerwoman will grant three wishes. However, if done wrong, she will instantly kill him or her. In Scotland, if a person can move between the washerwoman and the water, she will grant three wishes in exchange for three questions truthfully answered.

The banshee has a rich history. For more information, check out my sources at:
Wikipedia - Banshee
Monstropedia - Banshee


Alison said...

Thanks for doing banshees for me! This is so fascinating. I didn't know any of it. Great feature.

Lisa said...

@Alison - You're welcome! It was fun learning about them. :)