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Wail of the Banshee: Harbinger of Death in Irish Folklore

A mournful wail shatters the stillness, rising and falling like ocean waves, echoing through the dark, lonely hills. It is the cry of the Banshee, an omen that someone will die.

According to Irish folklore, the Banshee wails, or “keens,” for only the five major families of Ireland: the O’Neils, the O’Briens, the O’Connors, the O’Gradys, and the Kavanaghs. Each Banshee attaches itself to a mortal family and follows that family wherever it travels, even across the ocean.

When someone in the family is about to die she stalks the hills around their home, her silver-grey hair streaming like a gossamer waterfall to the ground, her face pale and eyes red from weeping, her grey-white cloak as fine as cobwebs clinging to her tall slender frame. If you catch a Banshee, she must reveal the name of the person for whom she is keening.

The Banshee can take many forms. She may appear as a beautiful young woman, as a stately matron, as an old hag, or as an animal Irish folklore associates with witchcraft, such as a hooded crow, a hare, or a weasel. Some legends maintain that she is a ghost, often of a murdered woman or woman who died in childbirth.

In Ireland she is called Bean Sidhe (Sidhe pronounced “shee”), which literally means “woman of the fairy mound.” Her Scottish counterpart is Bean Nighe, or “washer woman,” which is another form she can take. The English word “keen” is derived from the Irish caoineadh, which means “lament.”

Traditionally, a woman would sing a lament, which was said to be an imitation of the Banshee’s cry, at peasant funerals.

According to legend, Banshees would appear before the death of a member of the five major families and sing their laments. If several banshees appeared, it foretold that someone great or holy would die.

The Banshee herself often attends funerals, her wails blending in with those of the mourners.

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