by Patrick O'Brien
Copyright 2007 © myexistenz
Angel of Death
Stories from my childhood . . .
The Banshee (pronounced /ˈbænʃiː/, BAN-shee) from the Irish bean sídhe [bʲæn ˈʃiː] (“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.
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 referred to the aos sí as “fallen angels”.
The story of the bean-sidhe began as a fairy woman keening at the death of important personages. In later stories, the appearance of the banshee could foretell the death. Banshees were said to appear for particular Irish families, though which families made it onto this list varied depending on who was telling the story.
The banshee can appear in a variety of guises. Most often she appears as an ugly, frightening hag, but can also appear as a stunningly beautiful woman of any age that suits her. In some tales, the figure who first appears to be a “banshee” is later revealed to be the Irish battle goddess, the Morrígan. The hag may also appear as a washer-woman, or bean-nighe (washing woman), and is seen washing the blood stained clothes or armour of those who are about to die.
Although not always seen, her mourning call is heard, usually at night when someone is about to die and usually around woods. In 1437, King James I of Scotland was approached by an Irish seer or banshee who foretold his murder at the instigation of the Earl of Atholl. This is an example of the banshee in human form. There are records of several human banshees or prophets attending the great houses of Ireland and the courts of local Irish kings. In some parts of Leinster, she is referred to as the bean chaointe (keening woman) whose wail can be so piercing that it shatters glass. In Kerry in the southwest of Ireland, her keen is experienced as a “low, pleasant singing”; in Tyrone in the north, as “the sound of two boards being struck together”; and on Rathlin Island as “a thin, screeching sound somewhere between the wail of a woman and the moan of an owl”.
The banshee may also appear in a variety of other forms, such as that of a hooded crow, stoat, hare and weasel – animals associated in Ireland with witchcraft.
In Irish legend, a banshee wails nearby if someone 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: caoineadh, [ˈkɰiːnʲə] 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’Briens, O’Gradys, O’Neills, 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, 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.
Banshees are common in Irish and Scottish folk stories. 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.
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