Mae Clair’s Mythical Monday: The Banshee

Earthworms and thistles are gathered for portents,
a funeral of the fallen is a soul to collect,
bound to the river by a fragile, pale vision,
are the shards of a life fate failed to protect.

The keening wail of a banshee is said to herald death. The name comes from the Irish “bean sidhe” (or Scottish Gaelic “bean sith”) which relates to a woman of faerie blood. Blessed with foresight, the banshee would often know of a loved one’s demise prior to their passage, and loudly lamented their departure with sorrowful weeping and moaning.

She often appears in the guise of an old crone on the side of a stream or river, washing the blood-drenched clothing of the one doomed to die. Other times, she may be young and beautiful, or appear in the form of a hooded crow, hare or weasel. Sometimes she is not seen, only heard, her eerie wailing enough to make those who catch it on the night air, cower in terror. 

Traditional folklore paints the banshee as an ancestral spirit attached to five great families of Irish heritage. 

I think like most legends, myth is contorted and changed over time as it passes from generation to generation.  I don’t recall my first exposure to the banshee myth but whenever I hear the name, I picture a woman with unkempt red hair, keening as she washes bloody clothes on the bank of a rock-strewn stream or river.

Why red hair? I’m not sure. Maybe it meshes with the idea of blood-soaked garments. Maybe I associate her with battle, as attributed in some ancient myths. There are other folktales that depict the banshee as a young woman who uses a silver comb to attend to her flowing white hair as she weeps. Certainly, the more poetic of the two versions. Somewhere among my many years of reading fantasy and myth, the weeping washer-woman must have ingrained her image into my subconscious.

I’m a visual person whether I’m reading, writing or having a discussion. What about you? What do you see when you hear the word ‘banshee?’

18 thoughts on “Mae Clair’s Mythical Monday: The Banshee

  1. This is so interesting! When I hear “banshee”, I always think of “The Scream” by Edvard Munch. LOL I agree that myths and legends change and evolve through the multiple retellings, which I find fascinating. I’m also fascinated by Gaelic language, and all those extra letters in there that don’t seem to be used. It feels so whimsical to me. Just one more reason I love words and language!

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    • Cool association with The Scream, Donna. That would definitely be a wail, LOL!

      I love the Gaelic language in print too (and Norse). It does feel whimsical and magical. Kind of like Tolkien’s Elfish. 🙂

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  2. I picture a combination of the two images. Being faery I think she would seem alluring and beautiful, young with pale blond hair, but in actuality if you looked upon her face she’d be old, haggard and symbolize death. But I also think being part of the fae world gives her the ability to change her form and decide how you will see her. I did a lot of banshee research for my books and I think some how I just melded it all together. 🙂

    Great post!

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    • Oooh, I like that, Renita…beautiful and young from a distance, but haggard and old up close with the ability to change depending who was seeing her.

      Glad to hear you’ve woven the Banshee myth into GOSSAMER. I know that’s going to be one magical read! :0

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  3. I learned something new today. Thanks, Mae! I have heard the expression “screaming like a banshee” but I never knew what it referred to. I always assumed that a banshee must be some sort of animal. I love the images you’ve described.

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    • Thanks, Stephanie. I’m so glad my post was informative. When I was telling my husband about my latest Mythical Monday post, he made the same assumption – – that a banshee must be an animal. I think a lot of people have that same idea. It’s fun to explore these elements of myth, thus introducing them to a broader audience.

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  4. I always think of a screaming ghostly like image. I don’t think I’ve ever really given it a gender, to be honest. Very interesting and creepy! Now the image of the bloody clothing being washed is stuck with me.

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    • Yep, the bloody clothing has just always gone hand-in-hand with that image for me. Weird, the different takes everyone has. I find them all so interesting. Thanks for sharing, L.J.!

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  5. I once started a YA series called Soul Screamers by Rachel Vincent and the first in the series is called My Soul to Take. When I first read it, I was quite surprised to find out there was a thing called a Banshee. The word Banshee brings to mind a crazy person to me. And rightly so I guess, because in this series, when she let her scream go, everyone around her thought she was a freak. Only to another Banshee did her song sound like sweet music to their ears…. Yep, I was right! Crazy it is!! lol
    I’d like to pick up the series again and see where it takes me. So far there are 7 books in the series. Quite the adventure I would think.

    Love your Monday post Mae! I’ve had no fairy rings in my yard this week. I hope I don’t come home this week to someone screaming (unless its me at my kids lol)

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    • Oooh, I love the idea of her scream sounding like music to another Banshee. I got a chill on that one! I might have to poke around in that series myself.

      And, hey, maybe a fairy ring in the yard next week. The timing of the last one was perfect! 😀

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  6. Mae~this is very interesting. I’ve always pictured her as a woman who is emotionally breaking, distraught from some heart breaking event. Is she actually the cause of the event? Now you have me thinking about that.

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    • Intriguing insight! Banshees have always fascinated me. I can’t remember when I first stumbled over the legend but I was immediately sucked into the tradegy of what her life bordered around. Eeesh! Talk about a bleak existence.

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  7. my image of a banshee kinda comes from an episode of ‘creepy canada’ that was on tv a while ago. basically the banshee was the soul of a woman abandoned in a swamp and no one came to her rescue. and this banshee looked like something outta a horror movie and seeks revenge on men who’ve gone astray and enters her domain

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    • Love it! A ‘wronged’ woman, revenge and a swamp. That’s the kind of TV program I could curl up with late on a Saturday afternoon and pass a few hours. 🙂 Thanks so much for commenting and sharing, Laurie. So many interesting takes on banshees!

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  8. I picture a black-haired woman, kneeling on damp grass at the foot of a Faerie mound, weeping and wailing, and rocking back and forth. One hand yanks great hunks of hair from her scalp; the other brandishes a knife, with which she is rending her clothing and scoring her flesh. She is one of the last of her people, the Fae Folk who live in the Hollow Hills (Bean=woman, Sidhe=grave mound, often said to be the entrances to the Faerie Realm). This is why she weeps so mournfully.

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