Banshees exist primarily in Scottish and Irish folklore, but a counterpart can also be found in Welsh mythology – and they are women whose screams and cries are an omen of death. Seems simple, right?
By Liana Paraschaki
Few creatures from Celtic mythology have as prominent a place in pop culture and collective knowledge of mythology and folklore as the banshee. Initially, the banshee seems to be a fairly straightforward mythological creature. Banshees exist primarily in Scottish and Irish folklore, but a counterpart can also be found in Welsh mythology – and they are women whose screams and cries are an omen of death. Seems simple, right?
Despite their initial seeming simplicity, few accounts and interpretations can actually agree on the nature and actions of a banshee. In fact, it is even unclear precisely what sort of a creature the banshees are! Are they ghosts, ghouls, apparitions, fairies? Are they meant to be a counterpart for sirens? The truth is, we simply don’t know, as various accounts describe the banshee in a myriad different ways. It has even been suggested that the banshee may simply be powerful enough to change her appearance at will, appearing as either a ghost or fairy as she pleases.
But, even if we were to accept the banshee as a liminal mythological creature, one existing between or beyond the normal boundaries and categories of mythology, we still would be none the wiser about what to expect from the appearance of a banshee. Often times, banshees are depicted and described as young maidens with exceptionally long hair and pale complexions. Their hair can be as dark as a raven, as crimson as copper, as shining as gold. In certain accounts, however, she might not even be a young maiden! Banshees are just as often depicted as old crones, with long grey hair – some accounts even claim the banshees are headless, carrying around a bowl of blood! Perhaps, the only way to discern a banshee based on her physical appearance is her eyes, eyes that are constantly red and puffy due to her lamenting.
The accounts disagree even with regard to the banshee’s lamenting. While all agree that her screams are blood-curdling and terrifying, there is no consensus as to who precisely can hear the screams of the banshee – or even to her own motives. The Irish believed that only members of a pure Irish bloodline could ever hear a banshee’s wailing; others seemed to believe that only those who were soon to die could hear the cries of a banshee. Some accounts suggest that the banshee may be the ghost of a woman brutally murdered or wronged by a specific family, who would then find a wild delight in prophesising the death of the family’s members. Others yet suggest that the banshee was uniquely tied to a specific family, not because of revenge, but because of love, and her cries were a warning, instead of a victory song.
Whatever their motives or their appearance, it is important to remember that the banshees cannot actually cause death. Their singing, or lamenting, is merely an omen, a warning, a chance to say your goodbyes and get your affairs in order. The banshees are no executioner – they are, merely, an omen of death.