You may have heard the saying, “Wailing like a banshee” – a simile that has its origins in 19th century Celtic mythology. But do you actually know what a banshee is? Some say she’s an unsettled spirit, others say she’s a creature, and still others say she’s part wild animal. In this post, you’ll learn all about the banshee, including banshee origins, meanings, mythology, and legends. Plus, the infamous banshee scream…
Table of Contents
- What is a banshee?
- What does the banshee look like?
- Banshee Scream
- Banshee Origins
- Manifestations of the Banshee
- The Banshee Curse
- Banshee Meanings and Symbolism
- Banshee Mythology and Legends
- Japanese Banshee Mythology
- Banshee in Norse Mythology
- Banshee in Arthurian Mythology
- Is the banshee real?
- Banshee Sightings
What is a banshee?
The word banshee (bean sí or bean sídh in Irish and ban sith in Scots Gaelic) translates to “woman of the fairies.” The Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology describes the banshee as a “female wraith of Irish and Scottish Gaelic tradition thought to be able to foretell but not necessarily cause death in a household.”1
It’s commonly believed that the banshee is a member of the fairy folk, or Tuath de Danaan. As the legends go, the fairies have been hiding in the forts and forests of Gaelic lands ever since they were invaded by the Vikings in the 700s.
The banshee is said to be the ancient spirit of a fairy woman. She is known to appear or be heard shortly before the death of a member of certain families and their descendants, which we’ll get into in more detail below.
Though not everyone can see or hear the banshee, those who do certainly never forget. Indeed, the banshee is said to forewarn the death of a family member with her otherworldly screech.
Is the banshee the Grim Reaper?
If the banshee calls before someone dies, is she like the Grim Reaper? In short, the answer is no. The banshee is an entity who warns that death is near. Whether you view that as something positive or negative is up to you! But the banshee is not a “reaper of souls.”2
What does the banshee look like?
The banshee’s form is a well-disputed matter by those who claim to have seen her. Some say she appears as a buoyant and beautiful spirit. They profess that she is a radiant and fair-haired fairy who carries a silver comb with which to brush her long, glistening hair.
Still others claim she takes on the form of a bewildered and ancient hag.
Those who live in the west of Ireland claim the banshee is a white-haired woman. But more than that – she is terrifying, with unnaturally long nails and eyes the color of blood. According to the legend, she stands at the foot of the bed at night, brushing her long locks all the while wailing grievously with a vacant and sorrowful expression. To look into her eyes is to welcome death – or so we are told.
Some claim to have seen the banshee in animal form, such as that of a hooded crow, a stoat, a hare, a weasel, or a black dog. It should be noted that all of these animals have been associated with witchcraft in Celtic mythology.
Whether beautiful or hideous, most legends concur on a few aspects of the banshee, including that she:
- Always appears as a woman or in the form of feminine energy.
- Comes from a supernatural source.
- Is able to shapeshift into different manifestations.
While seeing a banshee can have an indelible effect on one’s mind, it’s the sound of the banshee that is her most disturbing trait. Known as a loud wailing that can be heard for miles, the banshee’s scream is the unmistakable sound of pain and heartache turning into bloodthirsty revenge. In fact, according to Scottish legends, hearing the banshee means there will be a death in one’s family. (However, it should be noted that seeing the banshee is a sign of your own impending demise…)
The earliest known legends of the banshee date back to the Celtic world of the 8th century. In those times, local women might be paid to cry or mourn the dead. The Celts of old believed this wailing could help the deceased cross-over to the afterlife.
The wailing women were known as “keeners.” They were often looked down upon because they tended to like their payment in alcohol. Some believed the keeners themselves would become banshees in the afterlife, roaming the Earth as eternal lost souls.
Manifestations of the Banshee
Mórrígan, the Phantom Queen
Another possible origin of the banshee legend is the story of Mórrígan, also known as Morrígu or the Phantom Queen. She was the ancient Celtic goddess of war and fate and was said to fly over battlefields helping the warriors she favored. According to one legend, Mórrígan was present at the death of Cú Chulainn, the mighty son of the Celtic gods.
Just as Christians have the Holy Trinity that includes the Father, the Son, and The Holy Spirit, the Celts saw a trinity in Mórrígan. She embodied a trio of sisters named Badb, Macha, and Anand – each who represented a distinct aspect of the goddess. Furthermore, the Celts of old believed that Mórrígan was a shapeshifter who could take on different forms. This may explain how the banshee is also said to assume different manifestations.
A Light-hearted Fairy Queen
Not all banshee stories describe an eerie, unsettled creature, however. Like the mermaid, who was sometimes described as hideous and at other times beautiful, some depictions of the banshee describe her as enticingly lovely and playful. Some legends even say she is an immortal fairy queen, who comes out from hiding to play tricks and cause devilment, just for the fun of it.
An Unsettled Ghost
Over time, the banshee’s reputation has evolved from a mischievous spirit to a malevolent one. According to some Celtic tales she is the spirit of a young girl who was murdered. Once she took on her spirit form, she lingered to warn her family and others of imminent, violent death.
Some stories describe her as an evil spirit who seeks out her victims and drives them insane with her piercing scream. Other tales depict her as a monstrous being, capable of tearing her victims apart with her callous claws – an image commonly portrayed in modern-day media.
The Banshee Curse
In many stories about the banshee, she is connected to nobility. Some say she is the spirit of a noblewoman who passed. In one story, she is the spirit of a dead princess. According to the legend, with her special powers, the princess spirit gave the Scottish wizard Coinneach Odhar (whose name means “the one who sees”) the Blue Stone of Destiny in exchange for his honor.
As the story goes, the mysterious blue stone gave the wizard the gift of clairvoyance. Henceforth, Coinneach Odhar came to be known as Scotland’s Nostradamus.
However, as these things go, receiving gifts from the banshee always comes with a heavy price. In fact, those seeking her favor were often forewarned. Nevertheless, Coinneach Odhar could not resist the promise of the powers granted by the blue stone. Unfortunately, he made a devil’s bargain. While working for the Countess of Seaforth, Coinneach Odhar was thrown into a barrel of boiling tar because the countess was displeased with his predictions.3
Spirit of the Nobility
Because the banshee was associated with the nobility and important families of the time, to see or hear her was a confirmation high social status.
Some say the banshee is a spirit with close ties to her people, and her only wish is to watch over and protect them. They see her as a beautiful and nomadic soul who sings sorrowful and haunting melodies to demonstrate concern for those she loves. Nevertheless, to hear her scream could send chills down the spine of even the highest born.
In Ireland, the banshee’s “keening”, or lamentation, warns that death looms for one of the members of five major Gaelic families, including the:
In fact, the banshee is said to cry even for the ancestors of these families – which means that far more than the original nuclear families could be afflicted by her curse. Indeed, some say the banshee has even followed these families abroad to places like Australia, Canada, the United States, and beyond…4
Banshee Meanings and Symbolism
Because she is such an enthralling figure in Celtic mythology, the banshee holds important symbolic meaning to many. Here are some of those associations:
- Imminent death
- Fate and prophecy
- Guardianship, such as that for one’s clan
- Vigilance, as she takes a keen interest in justice; ensuring the good are rewarded and the miscreants punished.
Banshee Meaning and the Earth
The banshee is also symbolic for the Earth itself due to her association with the goddess Mórrígan. The ancient Celts viewed Mórrígan as a manifestation of the Earth and a guardian of the land and people who originate from it.
According to some stories, the banshee has the power to keep people who have lived a lifetime of selfishness and greed chained to the earthly realm. In other words, they must continue to toil on Earth as an act of penance. By the same token, she has the power to reward those who have lived a lifetime of goodness and compassion by bestowing upon them the peace, happiness, and good fortune.5
Banshee Mythology and Legends
Although the legend of the banshee is firmly rooted in Celtic mythology, other cultures also tell tales of banshee-like spirits.
Japanese Banshee Mythology
The Japanese tell stories of a creature they call Yonaki baba, or the weeping hag. According to the legend, the distraught Yonaki baba tarries outside the homes of those suffering tragedy. To make matters worse, she cries and screeches throughout the night.
Some believe she is commiserating with those who grieve. But others claim that she feeds on a diet of heartache and misery.6
Banshee in Norse Mythology
In Norse mythology, the Valkyrie (or Valkyrja in Old Norse) has been compared to the banshee. The Valkyrie’s name translates to “chooser of the slain”. According to Norse mythology, Odin chose the Valkyrie to select worthy warriors for a place in Valhalla, or the “hall of the fallen”. In this way, the Valkyrie is like the banshee as she calls out to those who will pass and as she oversees justice.7
Banshee in Arthurian Mythology
In the legends of King Arthur, Morgan Le Fey, who was Arthur’s sister and the ruler of Avalon, reflects qualities of the phantom queen, or the banshee. Morgan, too, was known to be a shapeshifter and fortune teller who instilled fear with her prophecies.
Is the banshee real?
Because the legend of the banshee has endured in Ireland, Scotland, and beyond for many centuries, it begs the question: Is the banshee real?
Indeed, throughout history and in our modern-day, there have been incidents of people claiming to see and hear the banshee.
King James I of Scotland (1400s)
In 1437, King James I of Scotland allegedly said he was approached by the lady of death, who foretold his murder. The story details a “thin, screeching sound somewhere between the wail of a woman and the moan of an owl.” Unfortunately, due to his hubris, the king ignore her warnings – to his own peril.8
The Bunworth Banshee (1800s)
In the city of Cork in the south of Ireland, locals tells the woeful tale of the death of a nobleman named Charles Bunworth. According to the story, one week prior to Bunworth’s passing, a Mr. Kavanagh (one of Bunworth’s farmhands) was asked to collect some medicine for his master, who was feeling ill. However, as he was returning from his errand, Kavanagh heard an unmistakably chilling wail…
Overcome with fear, sorry, and grief, Kavanagh said to the mistress of the house: “Miss, he is going from us surely – we will lose him – the master – we will lose him, we will lose him!… The Banshee has come for him, Miss; and ‘t is not I alone who have heard her.”
– Thomas Crofton Croker’s Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (1825–1828)
A Mr. Kavanagh predicted, Bunsworth passed later that same day.9
The Banshee of Ballintubber (Present Day)
My own family in Ireland has had experiences with the banshee. My Uncle Brendan, who is a seanchaí, or Gaelic storyteller, is from the village of Ballintubber in County Roscommon in the west of Ireland. He recounts seeing the banshee in the form of an old woman.
According to his story, she wears a shawl around her shoulders and she sits outside the door of a family, warning them that death is coming. Undoubtedly, the next day someone in the house will have died. Uncle Brendan is not the only one in his village who has seen her. Other locals also claim to have seen her in the same form.
The Cry of the Banshee
My father also recalls hearing the cry of the banshee one day while he was on his way home from a football match as a boy. In fact, every time he told the story, the memory unnerved him. Then, when he arrived home that day, he was informed of the death of his neighbor. He never forgot the feeling of unease for the rest of his days. He says it left an indelible mark on him; a mark that only the banshee could leave.
According to other locals, the banshee follows the family of the Farrell Clan. While they have never heard the banshee themselves, their neighbors attest that they have. They report having heard the lonesome, plaintive howl around their homesteads in times of sorrow.
The Celtic lore surrounding the banshee seems to expose a nearly universal aspect of the human condition, which is – we all fear death. Indeed, like the banshee’s terrifying wail, the fear of death seems to be even worse than death itself. Perhaps the banshee exists in all of us, challenging us to face our fears.