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All About Banshees

The Banshee

The banshee from Walt Disney’s “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” (1959). Sean Connery (James Bond!) sings in a fake Irish accent.

In my childhood, when dinosaurs walked the earth and movie special effects were primitive, I thought the banshee in Walt Disney’s “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” was the scariest thing I’d ever seen. (Nowadays it looks a bit lame.) Fascinated but foolhardy, I tried to watch a documentary about banshee lore. My mother made me turn it off because she knew I was a wimp and would get such horrible nightmares it would be like living with her very own household banshee.

She was right. For years, I was haunted by the little bit of that documentary I managed to see before she turned it off.

Visuals tend to stay with me. I don’t even want to talk about my months-long reaction to a trailer for “Night of the Living Dead,” glimpsed in a split second before I averted my eyes. I was a fully grown human at the time.

In short, I avoid scary visuals whenever possible. Two or three years ago, though, I became fascinated by Abbey Lubbers, Banshees & Boggarts, an illustrated encyclopedia by the late British folklore expert Katharine Briggs. The first entry under “B”—predictably—was “banshee,” and I almost skipped over it the same way I used to skip the Ghost of Christmas Future illustration in A Christmas Carol.

The Banshee

The cover of Abbey Lubbers, Banshees & Boggarts by Katharine Briggs (Pantheon Books, 1979). At the upper left is illustrator Yvonne Gilbert’s rendition of a banshee.

But then I started reading. It turns out that, far from always being some horrifying old hag, banshees often were maidens who’d died too young, and came back to warn their families about an impending death. That was rather sweet. There was a story in that, I said to myself.

Three hours later, Ashling the banshee and the entire plot of TEXTING THE UNDERWORLD were mapped out in my head. Take that, Darby O’Gill.

In Irish, “banshee” is spelled bean si, but it’s pronounced like the English spelling. There are many varieties of banshees: In some tales, the banshee is a gorgeous fairy woman combing her long silver hair, in others she’s a little old lady sitting on a rock and weeping. Once in a while she’s a horrible apparition with evil red eyes and a mouth always open, ready to shriek, and you can die just from looking at her.

If you see a comb on the ground, the legends advise, do not pick it up. If it belongs to a banshee, at worst she will use it to lure you to your doom. At best she’ll be annoyed, which probably isn’t so good either.

In some traditions—especially in Scotland, where there’s a similar entity called the bean nighe—the banshee is seen washing bloody clothes in a stream before a battle. If more than one washerwoman banshee appears, it means either there’s going to be an awful slaughter or somebody exceptionally important is about to die.

The Banshee

A banshee as rendered around the turn of the 20th century by Henry Meynell Rheam.

Sometimes the noise a banshee makes is simple weeping, often with hand-clapping (which apparently was a mourning gesture at one time). It’s also been described as pleasant singing—sometimes with words—or unearthly shrieking and moaning. Some traditions insist that it’s the sound of two boards being clapped together.

At one point in Irish history, bereaved families hired women to “keen” (sing a mourning lament) at a funeral—some think that’s where the banshee legend started. There are those who say that a banshee appears to everyone except the doomed person. (I suppose that thought would be a comfort if you were being scared out of your wits by a horrible apparition—at least you’d know you weren’t the one being targeted.)

In most stories, banshees are connected with the oldest Irish families, and will follow them wherever they go in the world. No matter what language the family now speaks, the banshee’s cry will be understood by everyone.

If you live in an Irish neighborhood, surrounded by O’Neills and O’Briens, listen carefully to the next car alarm you hear.

Maybe it’s not what you think it is.