from the Irish bean sí
("woman of the síde
" or "woman of the fairy mounds
") is a female spirit in Irish mythology
, usually seen as an omen of death and a messenger from the Otherworld
. Her Scottish
counterpart is the bean shìth
(also spelled bean-shìdh
The aos sí ("people of the mounds", "people of peace") are variously believed to be the survivals of pre-Christian Gaelic deities, spirits of nature, or the ancestors. Some Theosophists and Celtic Christians have also referred to the aos sí as "fallen angels". They are commonly referred to in English as "fairies", and the banshee can also be described as a "fairy woman".
The term banshee
is an anglicization of the Irish bean sídhe
or bean sí
, or the Scots Gaelic bean shìth
, - both meaning "woman of the fairy mounds" or "woman of peace". Both names are derived from the Old Irish ben sídhe
: "woman", and sídhe
: "of the mounds". Some consider the bean nighe
("washer-woman") the Scottish counterpart of the Irish banshee. However, bean shìth
is the linguistic and mythological equivalent, appearing in a number of different roles and situations in folklore and mythology. The bean nighe
is a specific type of bean shìth
. In Scottish Gaelic, bean shìth
can also be spelled bean-shìdh
in Irish, and Sìth
in Scots Gaelic, also mean "peace", and the fairies are also referred to as "the people of peace" - Aos Sí
Banshees in history, mythology and folklore
In Irish legend, a banshee wails around a house if someone in the house is about to die. There are particular families who are believed to have banshees attached to them, and whose cries herald the death of a member of that family. Traditionally, when a citizen of an Irish village died, a woman would sing a lament (in Irish
, [ˈkiːnʲə] or [ˈkiːnʲuː], "caoin"
meaning "to weep, to wail") at their funeral. These women singers are sometimes referred to as "keeners
" and the best keeners would be in much demand. Legend has it that, for five great Gaelic families: the O'Gradys
, the O'Neills
, the O'Briens
, the O'Connors
, and the Kavanaghs
, the lament would be sung by a fairy woman; having foresight, she would sing the lament when a family member died, even if the person had died far away and news of their death had not yet come, so that the wailing of the banshee was the first warning the household had of the death.
In later versions the banshee might appear before the death and warn the family by wailing. When several banshees appeared at once, it indicated the death of someone great or holy. The tales sometimes recounted that the woman, though called a fairy, was a ghost, often of a specific murdered woman, or a woman who died in childbirth.
Banshees are frequently described as dressed in white or grey, and often having long, fair hair which they brush with a silver comb, a detail scholar Patricia Lysaght attributes to confusion with local mermaid myths. This comb detail is also related to the centuries-old traditional romantic Irish story that, if you ever see a comb lying on the ground in Ireland, you must never pick it up, or the banshees (or mermaids - stories vary), having placed it there to lure unsuspecting humans, will spirit such gullible humans away. Other stories portray banshees as dressed in green, red or black with a grey cloak.
They are common in Irish and Scottish folk stories such as those recorded by Herminie T. Kavanagh. They enjoy the same mythical status in Ireland as fairies and leprechauns. Banshees continue to appear in modern fiction that deals with mythology, folklore or the supernatural.
One example of banshees appearing in more modern stories is Harry Potter. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling, during a Defense Against the Dark Arts class with Remus Lupin, a boggart was released, showing students' worst fears. Seamus Finnigan, an Irish student, saw a banshee. In this case, the banshee was not at all beautiful, but had green skin and long black hair that reached the floor. Its howl was horrible.
Banshees were mentioned again in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when a horrible screeching noise was heard, and Seamus Finnigan noted that it sounded like a banshee.
- Sorlin, Evelyne (1991). Cris de vie, cris de mort. Les fées du destin dans les pays celtiques. Academia Scientiarum Fennica, Helsinki. ISBN 951-41-0650-4.
- Lysaght, Patricia (1986). The Banshee: The Irish Death Messenger. Roberts Rinehart Publishers. ISBN 1-57098-138-8.
- Briggs, Katharine (1976). An Encyclopedia of Fairies. Pantheon Books. ISBN 0-394-73467-X.
- Evans-Wentz, W. Y. (1966, 1990). The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. Citadel.