Banshees among the Celts
by James Slaven
The dreadful keen of the banshee, shrieking over the hills and dales across the Celtic lands – their carrion calls of impending death are told in tales around the hearth, but not as a simple scary story, but rather, as actual events that were warnings to family members, so they would be aware of their surroundings and their own mortality. Take a haunted ride with me, as we visit the various forms of this Fae being across the Celtic countries!
When one thinks of the Banshee, one may think of the darkening misty green hills of Autumnal Ireland. Certainly her cultural image in the United States is shaped more by the Irish legends than other locations. Their name is derived from Irish for “fairy woman” or “woman of the fairy mound,” bean si. They herald the death of family member by loudly keening, which is a loud wail used at funerals, in a relative’s presence, causing her to be considered a death spirit by many. Funnily enough, the keening at funerals were used to keep evil spirits away, something that the banshee must find immensely humorous.
Sometimes she is only heard, sometimes she is seen, and her image is wide and varied. A pale woman with long red hair, in a white shroud, is perhaps the least frightening. She can also appear, dressed in green or black, as an old woman, her grey or white hair covering her haggard face or with her hair surrounding her head like a halo, allowing her glowing red eyes to pierce the viewer’s soul. Certainly what I would find as the most unnerving is when she appears as a headless woman carrying a bowl of blood, naked from the waist up!
When attempting to figure out who the banshee is wailing for, stories tell of the cries coming both before and after the death, so it may be a warning or may just be a lament. The family member that has passed (or will pass!) may still live nearby, but the banshee also keens for family members who live far away, and so news of the death may not arrive for some time after hearing her shrieks.
It is very difficult to tell who the banshees cry for. There are stories that the banshee only cries for a handful of special Irish families, but also that she may cry for any family with the O’ and Mac prefixes. Some Norman families have tales of their own spirit, as they’ve become “more Irish than the Irish themselves,” but even the lesser known Irish families have stories of meeting or hearing the spirit, giving credence to a more egalitarian bearer of bad news. Although there are stories of a family ghost, there are no stories of a Slaven (Sleibhin) banshee, which makes me both sad and grateful.
Why am I going back and forth between terms, such as “spirit” and “being” and “fairy?” It’s due to all the different types of tales given about them. They are described as being a woman of the mounds with Otherworldly knowledge and abilities, but also may simply be a ghost, usually said to have died from murder or in childbirth.
Irish oral tradition holds that the “washer at the ford” spirits, those spirits who wash the blood out of the clothing of those about to die, are banshees. It is in this aspect that they are considered to be associated with the Irish goddess The Morrigan, not just through her aspect of war and death, but because when she helped The Dagda with his war plans to defeat the Fomorians, he found her as she was washing clothes in a stream. A planning and consummation that happened, by the way, on Samhain.
Even in modern times, stories abound with sightings and “hearings” of the banshee, with reports occurring as recent as 2014.
In Scotland, while sharing the moniker of banshee with her Irish cousin in some stories, she has a plethora of other callings. She is another “washer at the ford,” going by the name Bean Nighe (“washer woman”). Just as her Irish cousin, the Bean Nighe can be seen as a beautiful young women or an old hag. It is more typical to see her in her crone aspect, dressed in green with a deformed nose, long black teeth, and webbed feet. To even just see a Bean Nighe can itself be a portent of doom, although if one is brave enough, that person can gain a wish from the fairy woman. To do so, though, requires the staunch of heart to sneak up on the being and suckle upon her breast before she can react, and even then she must be convinced that you are her foster child. Seeing as how the penalty when unsuccessful is having the fairy woman throw your own grave clothes upon you, indicating your upcoming death, I’m not sure it’s worth it. Personally, it sounds like the plan of older brothers trying to rid themselves of a pesky younger brother. Although there are stories of her crying, the Bean Nighe is more of a “hope you don’t see” rather than a “hope you don’t hear” fairy woman.
On the other side of that dichotomy is the Scottish Caoineag (“the weeper”) who is heard, but never seen. A water spirit similar to the Banshee and the Bean Nighe, she keens near waterfalls and, if heard, spells death or sorrow to her attached clan. Such is the case of the MacDonald clan, who heard their Caoineag keen just before the Massacre of Glencoe. The MacDonalds were promised hospitality by other clans in the aftermath of the Jacobite uprising, but were then turned upon and murdered by those who said they’d keep them safe.
In Welsh tradition, they have the Cyhyraeth, thought to combine the Welsh names for muscle or flesh and termination, indicating it is a wraith or a skeletal being. It is associated with the eastern region of Dyfed, as well as along the coast of Glamorganshire (incidentally, the region my maternal grandfather’s family hales from). Unlike this creature’s Irish and the Scottish Bean Nighe, it is distinctly non-corporeal. It is always a disembodied voice, groaning and howling before death, resembling the Scottish Caoineag. When it howls, it if for the ears of a relative, warning them that someone they love and who is a part of the living’s and the Cyhyraeth’s family, will soon perish. The death may be of a single person or multiple relatives, as well, and may be for those still in Wales or who have moved far away. So for those of us with Cymric ancestry leaving around the world, that groaning sound you hear late at night may not be as innocent as you’d hope.
One particular Cyhyraeth, and semi-eponymous source, is the river goddess Cyhiraeth. As the native deities across Celtic countries were relegated, whether through conquest or choice, to becoming Dwellers-in-the-Mound (aka The Shining Ones or Fairies), she turned into being a specter of death. She is notable for being heard before shipwrecks among the coast, being accompanied by a corpse-light, which is the only way to see where she is located, being in all other regards transparent.
Another Welsh version is the Gwrach y Rhibyn, a hideous woman with withered wings and long black teeth. Her visage also resembles that of a corpse, mimicking what those who are doomed to die will soon look like themselves. She is heard when someone approaches a crossroads or a stream, both liminal spaces, matching with the liminal space between life and death. When a person nears, she will cry out the name of their spouse, indicating that they will soon be a widow/widower. Sometimes she is unseen and flying along winds and sometimes she can be seen washing her hands in the water, if at a stream (another washer-at-the-ford). On occasion, the screaming is not an indication of spousal death, but that their child will soon pass, screeching out “fy mhlentyn, fy mhlentyn bach! (my child, my little child)!”
In all cases, her name is sometimes just given as “hag of the mists,” where her piercing and shrill singing is a harbinger of death and woe.
In ancient and modern Briton, there are the Kannerezed Noz, the Midnight Washerwomen (are you picking up on the motif?). These three old women can be found at water’s edge at midnight, washing the grave shrouds of those about to die. Similar to Scottish legends, the figures wear green and have webbed feet. Seeing them is an indication that you or a loved one will soon die. If you see them, and are able to flee quickly enough, you may prevent the doom. If you stop to help, though, listening to their pitiful pleas of help, you’ll be drown within the shrouds and will then stuck eternally helping them with their wash.
As we finish this article together, I want to wish you well. For whether the wind is whispering or the thunder is cracking or you know naught but the sweet and sour susurrations of your ancestral voices in the air this Samhain night, beware of a shriek that is distinct, for that keening wail may be meant for you and yours! Happy Halloween!
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