Banshee
An Irish supernatural being of the wraith type. The name
derives from the Gaelic bean si and implies ‘‘female fairy.’’ She
is usually the possession of a specific family, to a member or
members of which she appears before the death of one of them.
T. F. Thistleton Dyer, writing on the banshee in his book The
Ghost World (1898), states
‘‘Unlike, also, many of the legendary beliefs of this kind, the
popular accounts illustrative of it are related on the evidence
of all sections of the community, many an enlightened and
well-informed advocate being enthusiastic in his vindication of
its reality. It would seem, however, that no family which is not
of an ancient and noble stock is honored with this visit of the
Banshee and hence its nonappearance has been regarded as an
indication of disqualification in this respect on the part of the
person about to die. ‘If I am rightly informed,’ writes Sir Walter
Scott, ‘the distinction of a Banshee is only allowed to families
of the pure Milesian stock, and is never ascribed to any descendant
of the proudest Norman or the boldest Saxon who followed
the banner of Strongbow, much less to adventurers of
later dates who have obtained settlements in the Green Isle.’
Thus, an amusing story is contained in an Irish elegy to the effect
that on the death of one of the Knights of Kerry, when the
Banshee was heard to lament his decease at Dingle—a seaport
town, the property of those knights—all the merchants of this
place were thrown into a state of alarm lest the mournful and
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Banshee
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ominous wailing should be a forewarning of the death of one
of them, but, as the poet humorously points out, there was no
necessity for them to be anxious on this point. Although,
through misfortune, a family may be brought down from high
estate to the rank of peasant tenants, the Banshee never leaves
nor forgets it till the last member has been gathered to his fathers
in the churchyard. The MacCarthys, O’Flahertys, Magraths,
O’Rileys, O’Sullivans, O’Reardons, have their Banshees,
though many representatives of these names are in
abject poverty.
’’ ‘The Banshee,’ says D. R. McAnally [in his book Irish Wonders
(1888)], ‘is really a disembodied soul, that of one who in life
was strongly attached to the family, or who had good reason to
hate all its members. Thus, in different instances, the Banshee’s
song may be inspired by different motives. When the Banshee
loves those she calls, the song is a low, soft chant giving notice,
indeed, of the close proximity of the angel of death, but with
a tenderness of tone that reassures the one destined to die and
comforts the survivors; rather a welcome than a warning, and
having in its tones a thrill of exultation, as though the messenger
spirit were bringing glad tidings to him summoned to join
the waiting throng of his ancest[o]rs.’ To a doomed member of
the family of the O’Reardons the Banshee generally appears in
the form of a beautiful woman, ‘and sings a song so sweetly solemn
as to reconcile him to his approaching fate.’ But if, during
his lifetime, the Banshee was an enemy of the family, the cry
is the scream of a fiend, howling with demoniac delight over
the coming death agony of another of his foes.
‘‘Hence, in Ireland, the hateful ‘Banshee’ is a source of
dread to many a family against which she has an enmity. ‘It appears,’
adds McAnally, ‘that a noble family, whose name is still
familiar in Mayo, is attended by a Banshee of this description—
the spirit of a young girl deceived, and afterwards murdered by
a former head of the family. With her dying breath she cursed
her murderer, and promised she would attend him and his forever.
After many years the chieftain reformed his ways, and his
youthful crime was almost forgotten even by himself, when one
night, as he and his family were seated by the fire, the most terrible
shrieks were suddenly heard outside the castle walls. All
ran out, but saw nothing. During the night the screams continued
as though the castle were besieged by demons, and the unhappy
man recognised in the cry of the Banshee the voice of
the young girl he had murdered. The next night he was assassinated
by one of his followers, when again the wild unearthly
screams were heard exulting over his fate. Since that night
‘‘hateful Banshee’’ has, it is said, never failed to notify the family,
with shrill cries of revengeful gladness, when the time of one
of their number has arrived.’
‘‘Among some of the recorded instances of the Banshee’s
appearance may be mentioned one related by Miss Lefrau, the
niece of [Richard] Sheridan, in the memoirs of her grandmother,
Mrs. Frances Sheridan. From this account we gather that
Miss Elizabeth Sheridan was a firm believer in the Banshee,
and firmly maintained that the one attached to the Sheridan
family was distinctly heard lamenting beneath the windows of
the family residence before the news arrived from France of
Mrs. Frances Sheridan’s death at Blois. She added that a niece
of Miss Sheridan made her very angry by observing that as Mrs.
Frances Sheridan was by birth a Chamberlaine, a family of English
extraction, she had no right to the guardianship of an
Irish fairy, and that therefore the Banshee must have made a
mistake. Then there is the well-known case related by Lady
Fanshawe who tells us how, when on a visit in Ireland, she was
awakened at midnight by a loud scream outside her window.
On looking out she saw a young and rather handsome woman,
with dishevelled hair, who vanished before her eyes with another
shriek. On communicating the circumstance in the morning,
her host replied, ‘A near relation of mine died last night in the
castle, and before such an event happens, the female spectre
whom you have seen is always visible.’
‘‘This weird apparition is generally supposed to assume the
form of a woman, sometimes young, but more often old. She
is usually attired in a loose white drapery, and her long ragged
locks hang over her thin shoulders. As night time approaches
she occasionally becomes visible, and pours forth her mournful
wail—a sound said to resemble the melancholy moaning of the
wind. . . . Oftentimes she is not seen but only heard, yet she is
supposed to be always clearly discernible to the person upon
whom she specially waits. Respecting the history of the Banshee,
popular tradition in many instances accounts for its presence
as the spirit of some mortal woman whose destinies have
become linked by some accident with those of the family she
follows. It is related how the Banshee of the family of the
O’Briens of Thomond was originally a woman who had been seduced
by one of the chiefs of that race—an act of indiscretion
which ultimately brought about her death.’’
The banshee is not confined to Ireland, since she is also the
subject of folktales in the highlands of Scotland, where she is
known as bean-nighe, or ‘‘little-washer-by-the-ford.’’ She is said
to be seen by the side of a river, washing the blood from the
clothes of those who will die. (See also Fairies)
Sources
Lysaght, Patricia. The Banshee. Dublin, 1986.
McAnally, D. R. Irish Wonders. 1888. Reprint, Detroit Grand
River Books, 1971.
O’Donnell, Elliot. The Banshee. London, 1919.
Yeats, W. B. Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. London
Walter Scott, [1888].