Banshee: Exploring the Origins of a Witchy Woman

Banshee by Felicia Lujan

~”Banshee” a Digital Composite by Felicia Lujan~

What is a banshee? Is she a spirit? Is she a figment of our imaginations? Is she a monster? Is she a being of light or a lover of the darkness? Something I read recently sparked my curiosity with regard to the origins of these mysterious women who are supposedly supernatural. The dictionary defines a “ban·shee” as “an Irish legend” and “a female spirit whose wailing warns of an impending death in a house.” Banshee appearances and accounts have largely been captured and passed on through oral traditions; however, there are a handful of documented accounts and attempts to make sense of the stories.

A Princeton University web site defines the banshee as a “woman of the side” or a “woman of fairy mounds” or a “seer.” She is said to be a “female spirit in Irish mythology, usually seen as an omen of death and a messenger from the Otherworld.” This messenger or “fairy woman” is often “keening at the death of important personages.” Important personages? Yes…that is a word! Many believe the banshee can predict death. Many have heard the “mourning call” of the banshee in the late hours of the night when a person is going to die. This happens most often around woodland areas, though there are some accounts by water. A tale from 1437 says that King James I of Scotland had an encounter with a “banshee who foretold his murder…” Her cries may have been “so piercing” that they were able to shatter glass.

The university web site says that “the banshee can appear in a variety of guises. Most often she appears as an ugly, frightening hag, but she can also appear as a stunningly beautiful woman of any age that suits her. In some tales, the figure who first appears to be a ‘banshee’ is later revealed to be the Irish battle goddess, the Morrígan. The hag may also appear as a washer-woman, or bean-nighe (washing woman), and is seen washing the blood stained clothes or armour of those who are about to die.” I would like to learn more about the Irish battle goddess. The banshee is also rumored to appear in other supernatural life forms. She may appear as a “hooded crow, stoat, hare and weasel.” In Ireland, these are animals which the locals associate with dark arts and witchcraft.
Syracuse Herald_1.2.1898_Syracuse_NY
In an 1898 column titled The Easy Chair, the Syracuse Herald said that “a genuine Irish banshee is a little old woman in a red cloak…” A little old woman doesn’t seem that scary, but maybe? The column was spurred by the review of a play titled Number Nine. In numerology, the number nine symbolizes karma, spiritual lightening and awakening, mysticism, and divine wisdom in addition to other things. It is not clear who reviewed the play, but it was apparent that their curiosity was spurred by the mythology shrouding the banshee. The column goes on to say that…“she appears only to announce unpleasant events, such as one’s demise” and that “she does not always appear.” According to the author of this column, the banshee may make an appearance only in sound by wailing.

By 1929, the story of the banshee seems to be associated with the death of important people. If you recall the 1898 column and the number nine, this may be due to a growing association of the banshee with karma. The Buffalo Center Tribune ran a short piece titled Believe in Banshee as Herald of Death with regard to the death of Baron O’Neill. Neighbors of the family mogul “declared they heard the wail of the banshee the night before near the ruins of Shane’s castle on the shores of Lough Neagh. The castle was formerly the O’Neill residence.” Maybe people used the banshee as a way to understand the death of corrupt officials? “Baron O’Neill was eighty-nine…” Really? The number nine shows up again? The article says he “had had a long career as judge and member of parliament” from 1863-1880. Maybe he was a bad man?
Buffalo Center Tribune_1.10.1929_Iowa
In 1942, Virginia Moore published a poem titled The Banshee in the scholarly Poetry journal. Her poem captures the darkness and the light of banshee mythology, which may be seen by writers as a deep symbol of both death as well as the afterlife. Moore wrote…“Lightly, lightly, Ever brightly, Moves the banshee, certain death. Cry and call out, Death will fall out. Hold – you cannot hold – your breath.” It is interesting how she frames the poem with light. When you read about the banshee in historical news articles, she (not he) is always fixed as a creature of straight darkness. This is one reason I love writers. We see deeper than the dark. Moore closes her poem with…“Brilliant yellow, Is this fellow, Is the banshee, plumed and bright. Lovers hearing. Listen, fearing. Hark! Who treads the plushy night?”
Elyria Chronicle Telegram_6.28.1935_Elyria_OH

Patricia Lysaght studied banshee folklore in the mid to late 1970s. In her white paper titled Irish Banshee Traditions: A Preliminary Survey, Lysaght took an in-depth look at the folklore of this mythical apparition based on manuscripts from the 1930s in the archives of the Department of Irish Folklore with the University College in Dublin, Ireland. This female scholar went straight to the source. She says that “the explanations of how the banshee came to be are not only few; they also seem to have a limited distribution, or even to be individual fabrications.” That was interesting to learn. It confirms that more often than not, the early origins of these oral stories were not recorded. She did locate an account of a local custom by Co. Tipperary. Tipperary said that “long ago people used to pay women to moan in the corpse house just when the corpse would be leaving for the church.”

Could this be how the mythology of the banshee started? Were women paid to wail and moan when someone died? Maybe we will never know if a banshee is a spirit or a figment of our imaginations or a monster that encompasses the light and darkness? What I do know is that my unending curiosity associated with the origins of mysterious things will never die, much like the tales of the banshee.

Santa Fe New Mexican_10.31.1976_Santa Fe_NM

Sources:

Princeton University Web Site (Accessed August 21, 2014)
https://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Banshee.html

The Easy Chair~ Syracuse Herald~ Syracuse, New York (January 2, 1898)

Believe in Banshee as Herald of Death~ Buffalo Center Tribune~ Buffalo Center, Iowa (January 10, 1929)

How it Began~ Elyria Chronicle Telegram~ Elyria, Ohio (June 28, 1935)

The Banshee a poem by Virginia Moore~ Poetry (Vol. 59, No. 5, 1942, Page 247)

Irish Banshee Traditions: A Preliminary Survey by Patricia Lysaght~ An Cumann Le Béaloideas Éireann (The Folklore of Ireland Society), (Page 94-119, 1974-1976)

Down the Old Santa Fe Trail~ Santa Fe New Mexican~ Santa Fe, New Mexico (October 31, 1976)

Advertisements
Explore posts in the same categories: Animals, Articles, Awesomeness, Bad Ass, Darkness, Digital Art, Digital Composites, Edification, Fairy Tales, Folklore, History, Legends, Light, Mythology, Research Papers, Scholarship, Studies, Symbols and Imagery, Women, Worthy Reads, Writers, Writing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: