As an Irish author and teacher of Irish history, I have always been intrigued by the rich mythology and folklore of Ireland, naturally. Among the many supernatural beings that populate the world of Irish mythology, the Banshee holds a special place in the hearts and minds of the Irish people.
In this blog post, I will explore the fascinating world of Irish folklore and belief through an examination of the Banshee, the death messenger of Irish mythology.
What is a Banshee?
A Banshee – Ban Sidhe, or Bean Sí, is a supernatural being that is said to herald the imminent death of a member of a particular family. The term means ‘woman of the fairy mound/Otherworld’ or ‘woman of the fairies’ in Irish, Bean Sí.
The Banshee is understood therefore to be a fairy woman who is attached to certain families, perhaps through an ancestral or land connection, and is often depicted as an old woman with long hair and a cloak (although she does many different forms in Irish folklore).
As a harbinger of death, her wailing cry is said to be heard before the passing of someone from the family she is attached to. This mysterious figure has been the subject of countless legends and stories throughout the centuries, and her role in Irish culture and tradition continues to captivate people to this day.
She may indeed be the most popular member of our ‘Good Neighbours’, the Othercrowd!
The Origins of the Bean Sí
Some believe that she is a fairy woman, as noted above, while others believe that she is a ghost. The line between the two is often blurred when it comes to our folk beliefs here in Ireland. For example:
My brother and Richard O’Connell heard the banshee one night as they were coming from Geosh about a month ago when one of our neighbours was dying. His name was John McGrath. The banshee is supposed to be heard after the Os and Macs. A lot of people heard her before and after his death.
This is a story told to me by my mother. As she was near Brien’s house a long time ago she saw the banshee. She was combing her hair and caoining. The following day her uncle died.
There was a neighbour of ours coming from Aglish and as he passed underneath our house he saw a ghost. It was my aunt who died in America that night. They were great friends before he went to America. The man that saw her is dead now. His name was Matt Sullivan. A few days after we got a telegram to say she was dead.The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0643, Page 175: Mountstuart, Co. Waterford
Still others believe that she is a manifestation of the Goddess Morrigan, which comes to us via a roundabout route of associations between the Badb, the Washer at the Ford, the Fairy woman Aoibheall (who is the O’Brien Banshee), the Cailleach, and our own Goddess Morrigan, who sometimes appears as the ‘lean and nimble hag’, and definitely proceeds in female form out of the Otherworld, as the mood takes her.
This relationship is tenuous, however, and personally (as a Priest of the Morrigan) I always treat the Banshee, and the Morrigan (in any role or function) as entirely separate entities.
The Significance of the Banshee in Death Rituals
The Banshee plays an important role in death rituals in Irish tradition, and we do have a whole lot of death rituals here.
While Banshee beliefs differ from place to place across Ireland, and changed over time – even travelling with the diaspora – studying the traditions and beliefs of this important figure in the Irish Fairy Faith offers a unique insight into the development of fairy beliefs in Ireland.
In traditional Irish culture, women played an important role in death rituals. They were responsible for preparing the body for burial, washing and dressing it, and laying it out for the wake. Women were also expected to keening, a practice of wailing and lamenting for the deceased. This ritual was believed to help the soul of the deceased pass on to the afterlife.
The connection between Banshees and the Wake traditions are strong, as can be seen in the following folklore record:
There was a wake one time not far from my home in Gartan. A man leaving the wake at a late hour was greatly startled to hear a crying and a moaning over a burn [stream] near the wake house. It was supposed to be a banshee. The man became afraid and did not like to go any further so he returned again to the wake house and waited there until some of the other neighbours were ready to leave.
The local people say that when a banshee is heard near where there is a wake it means that in a short time there will be another death in that family. It so happened that in about a week from the time of that wake another member of the family died. The local people are even yet afraid to pass that burn at a late hour. They say it is haunted, and that they get an eerie feeling when passing the burn at night.The Schools’ Collection, Volume 1072, Page 279: Losset, Co. Donegal
As you can see from this, the Banshee was said to appear before the death of a family member or someone close to them, wailing and lamenting in a way that mirrored the keening of the women. This led to the belief that she was a messenger of death, warning the family of an impending loss.
But the significance of the Banshee goes beyond just a warning of death. In Irish folklore, she is often depicted as a powerful and independent figure. Whether viewed as a fairy woman, an ancient goddess, an ancestral spirit, or a local ghost, the Banshee is always seen as a force to be reckoned with.
This portrayal of the Banshee as a powerful and independent woman is significant in a culture where women’s roles were often restricted to the domestic sphere. It offers a glimpse into the possibility of female autonomy and agency in a society where such ideas were not commonly accepted.
The wailing and keening may also have been connected to the magical powers of the Widow, a figure who was otherwise powerless, but held her own through the use of the Widow’s Key, or the Widow’s Curse, which was a magical form of resistance against oppression in nineteenth century Ireland.
>>> Learn more about the Widow’s Curse Here
Today, the Banshee continues to hold significance in Irish culture. While the traditional death rituals have largely disappeared, the idea of the Banshee as a messenger of death and a powerful female figure persists. She is often used in modern storytelling and media as a symbol of Irish identity and mythology.
Modern Portrayals of the Banshee
The Banshee remains a popular figure in Irish folklore, with modern portrayals in literature, art, and film. Many contemporary writers and artists continue to draw inspiration from the Banshee, exploring her many meanings and guises in their work.
Limerick Legend Blindboy Boatclub even included a sexually aggressive Banshee in his first collection of short stories. (Listen to his Podcast Here, it’s an amazing slice of genuine Irish culture!)
This supernatural figure continues to hold a significant place in the culture today, and her significance remains as powerful as ever.
The Banshee is a fascinating figure in Irish mythology and folklore, and her many meanings and guises offer a unique insight into the complexity of Irish folklore and belief. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced practitioner, exploring the world of the Banshee can help deepen your understanding of Irish folklore and belief.
If you’d like to learn more, why not enroll in our online course, “The Banshee: An Exploration of the History and Folklore of Ireland’s Death Messenger,” taught by Dr. Gillian Kenny, and discover the mysteries of the Irish Bean Sí for yourself?
2 thoughts on “Unveiling the Mysteries of the Banshee: An Exploration of Irish Folklore and Belief”
[…] Irish Fae have even become a little mixed up with ghosts and death traditions, as can be seen with the Banshee, a particular type of Fairy in Irish […]
[…] with my family on my father’s side. We come from the O’Brien clan and according to this article from Irish Pagan School our Banshee is “the Fairy woman Aoibheall.” I like that […]