As we move into the darkest months of the year, it seems appropriate to visit a a spectre as ancient as life itself - the death messenger or Banshee.
Throughout history and across cultures there are stories and myths of beings that forewarn of human death. Just as the joy and desire to live is innate to most humans, so is the fear and dread of death. Seeing a ghost is not as alarming as the chilling knowledge that "as I am, so you shall be". Because mankind lives at the behest of the beautiful sometimes cruel powers of Nature, a prophecy of death returns a bit of order to those struggling to see a tapestry of cosmic or divine purpose.
In past centuries (and even today) humans look for signs of eccentricities of domestic time to portend the snipping of the thread of human life. Clocks chiming irregularly or stopping, roosters crowing at night, candles melting in winding sheets or bees swarming at doors or windows to accompany a soul in flight. Birds perching at windowsills or housetops such as owls, robins and ravens have often been seen as harbingers of gloomy news.
In Scotland, the "bean-nighe" or washing woman is seen by travelers around pools or fjords washing the shrouds of those who are about to die, singing a dirge or crying. The bean-nighe will tell for whom she is keening and also the fate of those travelers who would dare to ask her. The bean-nigh is thought to be the ghost of a woman who died in childbirth. The feminine gender of this grieving spirit is a theme found again in the exclusively Irish form of the "bean-si", or banshee.
The banshee tradition occurs throughout Ireland and nearby islands. The gaelic terms used most frequently to describe the banshee are the "bean-si" (a female dweller of a sidhe, or fairy mound), the "bean chaointe" (a female keener, a term found in east Munster and Connaught) and the "badhb" (referring to a more dangerous, frightening bogey). Although "bean-si" implies an Otherworld or fairy being, the banshee is a solitary creature without male counterpart who never partakes in communal human or fairie social enterprise. Speculation also links the banshee with the mystical race Tuatha De'Dannan, from whence the fairy folk are descended. There is little folk evidence to support Christian explanations that the banshee is a devil who wails for the souls that are lost to her as they ascend to heaven, or that they are familial guardian angels or souls of unbaptized children or even the souls of women who committed the sin of pride in life.
The mourning of the deceased is not just the affair of surviving relatives in Ireland. In years past, the measure of a person's respect and stature in the community could be seen in the number of mourners at a funeral and the breadth of their grieving. Professional women keeners, often old women, were paid in drink to weep at the graveside of eminent figures in the community. The Church frowned upon the entanglement of these often alcoholic women and their funerary services, perhaps giving rise to another theory that banshees are the ghosts of professional keeners doomed to unrest as a result of their insincere grieving. Interestingly, this does touch on a basic component of the banshee legend: that banshees follow certain families. If banshees are the ghosts of deceased keeners, their accompaniment is probably due more to a sense of loyalty than a sense of guilt.
More likely the banshee should be thought of as the "spirit of the family", a spirit who attends to the family in a time of transition. The banshee is described as a wee woman with long white, blond or even auburn hair who appears in the vicinity of the birthplace of the soon to be deceased. When seen, she is wearing the clothes of a country woman, usually white, but sometimes grey, brown or red. The former hues represent the colors of mourning while red is associated with magic, fairies and the supernatural. In some accounts she is seen combing her hair as she laments. She is heard more often than seen, wailing as she approaches the abode in the late evening or early morning, sometimes perching on the windowsill two to three hours or even days before a death. As she moves off into the darkness witnesses describe a fluttering sound, such as the sound made by birds flying at night. Hence, the mistaken belief that banshees manifest as birds such as the crow. The inaccurate association with crows is probably due to confusion of the banshee with the primitive Celtic goddess Badb, the goddess of war who appeared frequently in the form of a crow.
Banshees also wail around natural forms such as trees, rivers, and stones. Wedge shaped rocks known as "banshee's chairs" are found in Waterford, Monaghan and Carlow. Although there have been reports of banshees accompanying Irish families who emigrated to the Americas, it appears the banshee more often grieves for an emigrant at the ancestral family seat in Ireland. Stories are told of the misfortune visited upon men who interfered with the banshee by taking her comb or challenging her. These tales point up the value of courteousness towards women, the avoidance of drink, violence and late hours.
There is historical precedence for the banshee's appearance as a female spirit. In Genesis, Eve delivers the apple to Adam. In the Christian myth, Mary delivers Christ unto the world, in ancient Greece women prophesied the message of the gods to mortals who sought their divine purpose at the Oracle of Delphi. Women "deliver" children into the world. As death is as natural as life, it is appropriate that the banshee, a feminine shade, provide the message which ushers a soul along on its journey.
The announcement of the banshee was heard by non-relatives and friends, not usually by close family members of the dying. With this warning, friends from far and near would travel to the failing individual knowing it was the last chance to say goodbye. Upon being told of the banshee's pronouncement, surviving family members could admit the finality of the situation and accept the support of the community that had gathered around them. The visitation of the banshee gave the tribe the opportunity to talk openly about the death with family members and thereby ease the mourning process. Although human death is inescapable, the foreknowledge of such an event does provide advantages, to the soon-to-be-deceased, the survivors and the community -- thereby honoring both the living and the dead.