In Irish Legend, a “Banshee” (woman of the fairy mound) scream is believed to be an omen of death. They are spirit beings, also known as Phasma clamoris– meaning no permanent corporeal form. Her scream, also called a ‘caoine,’ which means keening and is said to be a warning of imminent death. Some Irish believe every family has their own banshee, though some believe it is only for those families with Milesian blood, specifically those who surnames start with O or Mac. While the word banshee refers specifically to the Irish spirit, similar creatures can be found throughout northern Europe, as well as some Spanish-speaking areas of the Americas. “There is a washerwoman figure, called by many other names depending on the country of origin, is said to appear as a female spirit who washes the blood-stained clothes, armor, or funeral shroud of a person who is soon to die” (Blackwater, 154). In Wales, Scotland known as the Welsh Hag of the Mist, shrieks when death is imminent: if you listen closely, you can hear the name of the deceased, though she is rarely seen.
Historians have traced the first banshee stories to the 8th century, in a tradition where women ‘keeners’ would sing a sad song to lament someone’s death.It was said because they accepted alcohol as payment for their songs, they were seen to be sinful and were punished by becoming banshees after they died. Another says, “many people believe they are the spirits of women who were murdered or died in childbirth.” And yet another theorizes they are fairy queens, driven underground from the arrival of humans.They have been seen in many forms, from a beautiful woman wearing a shroud, to a headless woman carrying a bowl of blood that is naked from the waist up (I’ll admit that’s pretty badass,) though it’s also said if spotted they will vanish into a cloud of mist, the action creating a similar noise to a bird flapping its wings. So, I’m wondering which is it; bloody boob lady or never been seen? I’m guessing it’s a bit of both, as Dr. Veronica Wigberht-Blackwater categorizes them as spirit beings, able to shape-shift.
Legend says banshees don’t cause death; they only warn of it. It is said they have to feed on death energy, even if they don’t cause it. “The few studies that have been done on Banshees reveal that their forms become increasingly transparent the longer they go without encountering death, leading us to believe such spirits uphold the law of conservation of energy. The energy that once made a person who they are becomes part of the Banshee, which eventually expends it and returns it to the world… so it seems they serve a vital purpose in consuming and expelling energy to keep it cycling throughout the world” (Blackwater, 155).
However, there is such a thing as a spiteful banshee, which is probably the kind that comes to mind when we think of one, a scary woman with long hair, a distorted face, mouth stretching too wide to form a piercing howl. Some believe that while alive these women had reasons to hate their family, and in death they taunt them with the horror to come, even reveling in it. Their howls will chill you to the bone, as they celebrate the future demise of a member of a family they loathed. There are even legends of evil banshee’s deriving pleasure from torturing a person with their inhuman wails, until said person kills themselves or goes insane.
But not all a banshee is bad, in fact some say a woman connected to her family in life chooses to watch over them in death, appearing as enchanting women and singing songs to warn the ones the love, giving them time to prepare for the inevitable.
“I do not believe that the banshee’s cry is not now heard in Ireland. I most distinctly heard it about five years ago, previous to the death of my dear brother; he was ailing at the time. It was 12 o’clock at night. I was up with him watching in case he required a drink, when suddenly I heard an indescribably mournful cry.” A letter to the Weekly Irish Times on April 8th 1893, titled “Where has the Banshee gone?” answered its own question. It hadn’t gone anywhere.