The real story behind the Banshee…
Mythological beings all have their origin stories, so let’s find out what it is for the Banshee.. It should be a scream.
The scream…does it bring death? or does it warn you of an impending death? Does the scream itself kill you or your loved ones? or is it a warning of screams yet to reach your lips?
I recently saw an episode of the old-school Charmed where the sisters battle a banshee. The television show depicted the banshee as a demon who hunts down people in great pain. The Banshee was depicted as a woman with long white hair, sharp pointy teeth, catlike eyes and a scream that could break glass. The scream can kill mortals and turned heart-broken witches into banshees.
Aside from the ear-splitting scream, I wasn’t sure I had ever heard any myths resembling that of the Charmed Banshee, so I decided to do some digging. And with Halloween on our heels, thought I’d share my findings with you!
What is a Banshee?
According to The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures by John and Caitlin Matthews (2005), a Banshee is defined as follows:
Banshee/Beansidhe: It is the duty of the banshee or ‘woman of the fairies’ to foretell the death of an individual. Banshees are attached to particular families and their cry is only heard when a family member is about to die…With eyes red from weeping, she continually combs her hair with a gold or silver comb. The cries of the banshee are echoed by professional mourners or keepers, bhean chaointe,who were engaged to maintain high piercing cries and moans or ochone at a funeral wake.
(Matthews, 2005, pg. 57)
Okay so the ‘real’ banshee is not a murderous demon, but a death omen. People have the right to fear her, because seeing her means someone you love will soon die — according to this. Apparently this version of the banshee also travels with a posse of, i don’t know, ghouls, who go to the wake and scream in agony. That…sounds…well, it sounds dreadful if you ask me. Wakes are supposed to be a time to remember the deceased. If we’re getting technical here, wakes started to make sure that the person didn’t wake up — after finding scratch marks on the inside of coffins one too many times they started holding wakes — someone would stand vigil for three days with the dead body to make sure it was really dead. Back in the day they couldn’t tell the difference between comatose and dead, so it was a way to make sure they didn’t kill someone because they mistook them for dead and buried them. But whether you’re commemorating a loved one or standing guard to make sure the person wasn’t just in a deep sleep -a bunch of banshees screaming at the wake sounds horrible.
Badb the Banshee
Babd is the original Banshee, if i’ve got my Irish lore correct. Badb is one of the sisters of the Morrigan, an Irish goddess of war, sovereignty, mother of the Tuatha de Danann, and a sleu of other titles because, well, Celtic deities are never cut and dry. They have reign over all sorts of things, and the triple deities are all the more complicated.
Badb (BAH-v) calls to us from the misty battlefields of legend. Disguised as a hooded crow, her shrill cries heralded doom for warriors. She is the banshee, a battle fury, and a prophetess. As the gentle Crone, she guides souls to the Otherworlds, to rest and rebirth. With one foot in the mortal realm and the other firmly in the realm of spirits, she holds the gift of prophecy and prophetic speech.~Stephanie Woodfield, Celtic Lore and Spellcraft (p. 68)
Badb became the Banshee because of roles she played in Irish mythological history. She continues to embody these aspects as a deity many work with today, but her myths are thought to be the origins of the dreaded Banshee. She is a Prophetess, most often the aspect of the Morrigan who delivers prophesy and premonitions in myths. Second, She is the Washer at the Ford, the spectre who appeared to men on their way to battle, warning them of their impending death. Let’s take a look at each of these roles.
Badb appears many times throughout Celtic Myths, often appearing to kings, queens, and heroes to tell them that if they choose a certain path, they would encounter a particular challenge or triumph.
In the Tochmarc Ferbe, a collection of Irish tales dating back to the 10th century, Badb appeared to Queen Maeve and the Ulster King Conchobar, telling them that disaster was imminent, and death was sure to follow.
Badb warned Queen Maeve that King Conchobar would kill her sons, and that she should rally her armies right away so she might avenge them as swiftly as possible. She warns King Conchobar of a cattle raid that lead to a devastating war, giving him years to avoid that path. Both the King and Queen described Badb as a “white lady, fair with brilliancy.” (Woodfield, 2011, pg. 70) This certainly has stuck with the current depiction of the Banshee.
The Prophetess Today
Badb can be an invaluable ally when you are developing your psychic abilities, as well as your mediumship skills. Work with Badb to learn the ways in which your subconscious speaks to you, as most prophecy comes to us in symbols or riddles to be figured out.
Washer at the Ford
It’s said that when armies set off to battle, those doomed to die would see a vision as they came to a river ford. The woman would be dressed in white, keening, as she washed blood from armor. The waters around her are blood red, and only those destined to die would see her. Recognizing their armor they had two choices: they could turn around and leave, confident in the fact that they would live to a ripe old age; or they could ignore her desperate tears and continue forward, willing to welcome Death as an old friend once they have done their part to support their people on the battlefield. Despite the terrifying depiction of the Banshee today, the Washer did not relish in this task. She was not wailing to scare people, much less kill them. She was wailing because she felt the heartache of a death – a violent death at that. She could feel the pain of those men and women’s mothers, friends, fathers, siblings, people who counted on them and found companionship in them. She wanted to give these people the chance to live. But the Celts didn’t fear death, and so there are no tales of anyone seeing the Washer at the Ford and turning back.
Washer at the Ford Today
Today, the Washer at the Ford has more to offer than warnings of death. She was seen cleansing the blood from the slain warriors armor. Work with the Washer to cleanse yourself – your soul- of all that you’ve lost in your journey of life. She will hold you and mourn with you, helping you to move past that which you’ve left behind so you may grow, learn, and glean wisdom from.
Matthews, Caitlyn and John. (2005). The Element Encyclopedia of Mythological Creatures.Kindle Edition.
Woodfield, Stephanie. (2011) Celtic Lore and Spellcraft of the Dark Goddess: Invoking the Morrigan. Kindle Edition.