Songs and Shrouds: The Mythical Banshee and the Bean Nighe as Harbingers
The Irish banshee and the Scottish bean nighe tread the darkest of nights as omens from another world, that of the unknown beyond. Though similar at first glance, they were regarded as quite different beings. They remain in the folklore of both cultures as fearsome beings—feared not for their appearance nor their magical powers, but for the message they brought: that of the death of a loved one or a family member. Though brief descriptions of these beings give the impression that they are the same, it is important to note that they were not, despite their comparative purposes.
To begin, the Irish banshee was considered a messenger from the Otherworld, the Irish version of the great beyond and/or the realm of fairies. In legend, banshees were known as keening, wailing female spirits who appeared directly preceding someone's death or at the precise moment of it, and were thought to be fairies, ghosts of mothers who died in childbirth, or ghosts of women who died unexpectedly.
The foreboding banshee wailed in warning and grief. S.T./Flickr
Since the Otherworld of Irish mythology can be interchangeable in certain texts as either the realm of the fairy folk or the dead, what precisely the banshees were has not been determined. However, the belief that they were women who died prematurely seems to be the most widespread belief, possibly to create an atmosphere of sorrow and grief around the spirits.
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It was also a common belief in Ireland that a particular banshee would tie herself to one individual family, and serve as a singular warning. Thus, it was thought that if a group of banshees were heard howling, it meant that someone in a wealthy Irish clan was about to succumb to death's fatal charms.
La Belle Dame Sans Merci – The Banshee. 1897. Public Domain
In a similar fashion, the Scottish bean nighe (pronounced ben-nee'-yeh) was believed to be a symbol of approaching death, though in vastly different ways from the banshee. Again, she was the spirit of a woman who lost her life far too soon, however she would only remain as a bean nighe until her ghost reached the age she otherwise would have died at. This distinction is interesting because it indicates that the Scottish bean nighe would not forever be sentenced to mourn the deaths of others, and it implies that the bean nighe was not born a fairy. Her gift lasted only as long as her life would have, eventually giving her a reprieve and allowing her to visit those she was torn away from. This freedom is never recorded in the Irish banshee myth.
Rather than wailing, the bean nighe was considered a washerwoman; upon the death of a person, she would be seen washing blood from funeral shrouds in a nearby river, a silent omen rather than a noisy one. She was considered to be much more capable of involvement with the human world than the banshee—most likely due to her eventual ability to rejoin them in the afterlife—as she was recorded as interacting with humans more than banshees ever did in tales.
As it goes, when the bean nighe spoke with a human, the human was to answer three of her questions to obtain three answers to his own, and was granted a wish for almost anything desired.
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Interestingly, banshees and bean nighe have been described in very similar ways, except for three definitive points. Together, a banshee and bean nighe were believed to have taken on multiple forms, either as an old crone or a beautiful, young woman; in both cases, the being was most often dressed in very plain clothes—a grey cloak with a green, red, or black underdress and long, pale hair.
The major distinctions between the bean nighe and banshees, however, once again came from the bean nighe, as she is always depicted—both young and old—as having one nostril, drooping breasts, and frog-like webbed feet.
Bunworth Banshee, Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland. 1825. Public Domain
Despite that both banshees and bean nighe were considered threatening beings, their intentions were seemingly in the interest of providing warnings rather than triggering human deaths themselves.
According to legend, they did not predict the viewer's own death, nor were they recorded as directly causing someone's death; they were believed to be merely announcers—the terrible phone call from the hospital as it were.
It is important to understand the differences between the two creatures even though they are quite similar, out of appreciation for the Irish and Scottish cultures, as well as respect for the creatures, should they ever be viewed.
Featured image: Similar to banshee and bean nighe of Celtic legend, in Slavic folklore, vilas and rusalkas were dangerous female spirits, souls of young women who had died prematurely. Wikipedia
Katharine Briggs. An Encyclopedia of Fairies (Pantheon Books: New York, 1976.)
Evans Wentz, W.Y. The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (Citadel: New York, 2003.)
Illes, Judika. Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses (HarperOne: New York, 2009.)
John and Caitlin Matthews. The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures (Barnes & Noble Publishing, 2005.)
By Ryan Stone