The Banshee is a type of faerie ghost that is found in both Irish and Scottish folklore. According to legend, she lets out an ear-piercing wail when a member of the family to which she is attached is about to die.The Banshee is a spirit of the dead, a harbinger of death. Originating from the Celtic lore of Ireland and Scotland, the Banshee is said to come into existence when a woman dies while giving birth. This tortured soul, unable to cherish the new life of her child, becomes restless in the grave. She is preordained by unknown forces to warn others of impending death, especially violent deaths.
The Banshee goes by many different names, according to regional folklore and culture. Bean Sidhe, Badbh, Bean Chaointe, Baoban Sith (actually another species altogether), Ban Nighechain, Bean Nighe, Caointeach, Washer of the Shrouds, Washer at the Banks, Washer at the Ford, Cyhiraeth, Cyoerraeth, Gwrach y Rhibyn, Eur-Cunnere Noe, Kannerez-Noz. The word banshee itself comes from the Gaelic term bean sidhe (pronounced “bane shee”), which means “woman of the mounds.”
The Banshee is said to inhabit the hills and highlands of Ireland and Scotland, and this spirit has been seen in France and Germany as well. The Banshee has been known to attach itself to certain families, following them anywhere. This spirit has even been reported in America. Basically, if one looks hard enough, she can be found just about anywhere.
The Banshee’s appearance seems to vary quite a bit. Some legends say that she is a hag, having fiery red eyes (from constantly weeping) and long, flowing white hair, wearing a gray cloak over a green dress (a faerie color). Other legends say that the Banshee appears as a beautiful woman dressed in white (the color of death) with long, luscious red hair. Although beautiful, the Banshee’s face is veiled in mourning.
The Banshee attaches herself to certain families, doomed to foretell the deaths of the each member of that family. However, the Banshee does not wail, contrary to popular belief. Instead, she sings or weeps loudly when she senses impending death. Although the Banshee isn’t necessarily evil, she is feared by both the Irish and the Scottish because of her association with death and impending doom. They dread her haunting cries, and it is said that those who are about to die can hear her cries, no matter where they are in the world. However, the people appreciate the warning ahead of time.
The Banshee is a spirit, having no corporeal form to speak of. Thus, she is impervious to physical attacks. Furthermore, she is able to disappear and become invisible at will. Her incorporeal form allows her to pass through physical barriers with ease.
As mentioned previously, the Banshee is able to foretell of impending death, singing and weeping with such a sad tone that the people are unable to mistake the dire warning that she conveys. However, it is possible that the Banshee’s touch could have a dangerous, perhaps even fatal, effect on the living. However, this has never been proven, as she seems to be a pacifistic spirit.
While the Banshee is unable to be physically harmed or killed, she may possess a few weaknesses. A blade of cold iron (that is, iron that has been shaped without heat) could possibly hurt her, although this is only a theory derived from the spirit’s association with faeries. Salt repels the Banshee, as it is considered to be pure and anathema to the denizens of the spirit world. Any other methods of protecting oneself from the Banshee are unknown at this point.
Another, more malevolent version of the Banshee is the Bean Nighe, the “Little Washer by the Ford.” She is a hideous old hag who, like the Banshee, died in childbirth and went mad with grief. She is forever doomed to wash the bloodstained clothes of those who are about to die. She appears as a hideous old crone with glaring red eyes, a single sharpened front tooth, a single large nostril, large and pendulous sagging breasts, and great clawed webbed feet. Most legends say that she is a cannibalistic flesh-eater, but some brave adventurers seek her out for help. According to legend, if a hero were to somehow suckle at one of her breasts, he would be rewarded. The Bean Nighe would gift him with second sight, grant a single wish, and be adopted by the creature, thus becoming her foster child and gaining her protection forever.
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits. Third Edition. New York: Checkmark Books, 2007.