If you find yourself walking the beautiful Irish countryside one evening, taking in the rolling hills blanketed by a misty fog, it’s best that you keep an eye out for danger. Or more accurately, keep your ears open for it. Is that cry that you hear simply an owl calling out? Or could it be a terrifying warning that death is on the way?
Origins of the Banshee
The first accounts of banshees are found in Norman literature or Scottish and Welsh mythology from as early as the 1300’s. They describe creatures that predict death and appear before events that one would not survive. Some early stories tell of soldiers deserting battlefields because they believed they heard a banshee that was warning of their imminent deaths.
While the mythology has been around for centuries, the idea of banshees is likely rooted in real history. An old Irish tradition tells of ‘Keeners’, women who were hired to come wail and sing sad songs at someone’s graveside. Perhaps over time, the keener’s cries of mourning over the body of the deceased could have morphed into the legend of the banshee foretelling death.
What is a Banshee?
Banshee’s are believed to be disembodied souls that foretell death. While some variations of legends claim that they are bringing death to those that hear them, it is much more common that they are only warning that death is approaching. Irish folklore describes them as a type of fairy that is connected to the realm of death, while some legends claim they are the ghosts of women who had been murdered.
Legends say that seeing or hearing a banshee means that an impending death will occur. There is some variation around who can see a banshee. Some say that anyone can see them, while others claim that banshees only visit those related to the oldest Irish families, and in fact every old Irish family has their own banshee. In case there is a chance you may see one, what should you look for?
Signs of a Banshee
The appearance of the banshee seems to vary across each legend. It is reportedly rare to catch sight of a banshee, as her famous cry is a much more common and telling sign of her approach. Reportedly, banshees will typically float over the Irish countryside, her translucent body fading into the fog around her. Some say that if you happen to see a banshee, she will disappear immediately.
Sometimes she is a hideous old witch, sometimes she is a beautiful young woman, and sometimes she is a mature and somber matron. Typically, the banshee will wear a grey cloak or torn robes. Her hair is usually long, messy and red or silver. Some legends say that if you come upon an old silver comb, don’t touch it because it could belong to a banshee.
One thing that they always have in common is her immense despair. The banshee’s eyes will be red from crying. Interestingly, in a medusa like fashion, some legends claim that looking into a banshee’s eyes will kill you instantly. While there are plenty of legends describing her appearance, these are much rarer compared to her most famous feature: her cry.
The Legendary Banshee Cry
The banshee’s cry is legendary. Typically it is portrayed as a blood curdling scream or a shrieking that is so loud that nearby glass will shatter. Her cries can be heard from a distance and almost always are heard at night. While her screams famously foretell that death is coming, some say that only the person who is going to die can hear the banshee.
Some tales describe the banshee’s wailing as a beautiful call, siren like and ready to lure people to their deaths. This is an interesting twist to the legend to imply that the banshee may be luring those that hear their calls, instead of simply foretelling their demise.
One of the most famous sightings of a banshee was documented in 1649 by the author Lady Ann Fanshawe. She and her husband Richard were travelling through Ireland and stopped to stay at a castle belonging to an acquaintance for a few nights.
On the first night, at about 1 am, Ann heard a voice outside her bedroom window. She got up to peek out the window to investigate and was shocked by what she saw.
Just outside the window, leaning towards her, was a woman lit only by the light of the moon. She had long red hair, was very pale and wearing white. She was calling out in the strangest voice. Upon being seen, the woman let out a long sigh and vanished into the mist. Ann, naturally quite startled ran to awaken her husband and tell him what she saw.
The next morning, while sitting down to breakfast with their host, the Fanshawe’s were told that the host’s cousin had been quite ill in another room of the castle, and that they had passed away at about 2 am.
Ann recounted to her host what she had seen the night before and was told that there were rumors in the family of a ghost appearing at the window when anyone in the family was dying. When asked who the ghost was, the host replied that it was rumored to be a woman who became pregnant and was murdered by a former owner of the castle.
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