Well I knew the voice of death,
On the night wind slowly sailing
O’er the bleak and gloomy heath.”
– Thomas Crofton Croker, Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland
The banshee has her roots in the traditions of Irish mourning. When a person died, a woman would sing a lament at their funeral. The number of singers, known as keeners, and the quality of their voice was an indication of the deceased’s family’s status. The most wealthy and influential clans were said to have fairy women as keeners. These keeners came to be known as the bean sidhe, or the banshee.
Because the banshee is gifted with foresight, she would keen at the moment of death whether or not the news of the event had reached the family. She is a harbinger of death, but does not cause it. In later versions of the myth, the banshee wails before the death. The rare times she is seen as well as heard, she appears as a woman of any age with long pale hair and dressed in a gray cloak. Sometimes a silver comb is mentioned, but that appears to be a crossover from mermaid myth. The more banshees keen, the more holy or more prestigious the person who dies will be.
Although she is most closely associated with Irish myth, other culture have similar spirits. There are Scottish Gaelic versions known as the bean nighe, the Washer at the Ford. She would be seen at abandoned streams, washing the bloody grave-clothes of those about to die. There are Welsh, Norse, and American versions. While on vacation, I was told a ghost story about a banshee who resides outside of the town of Williams, Arizona. She was said to have traveled from Ireland to America, following the family she was attached to as they moved further west.
The keening has been described a low, pleasant singing. Others describe it as being able to shatter glass or a screeching somewhere between a woman’s voice and an owl’s. One theory to explain the origin of the legend is that the cry of the banshee is the call of the barn owl. No matter what the origin, it is an eerie sound that I do not wish to hear.