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?’