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What is a Banshee? Getting to the bottom of this Irish legend

The fascinating world of Irish mythology has been drawing people in for hundreds of years. 

When it came to telling scary stories in our house in the South of Ireland, the Banshee was a top contender to scare the living daylights out of me. 

But what is a Banshee?

This being, who is both sad and scary, tells a complicated story of Irish culture through its history. 

Let us take a trip into the mysterious world of Irish and Celtic folklore to reveal the truth about this famous figure.

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What is a Banshee?

A Banshee is a female spirit who warns of impending death, according to Irish mythology. 

She is an important part of Irish folklore because she is often linked to certain families and her wailing can tell when a family member will die. 

Imagine that in the middle of the night on an Irish island, there is a chilling scream. 

This frightening sound was taken as a sure sign that death is coming.

Woman with wild, gray hair in the Itish countryside.
There are many descriptions of what a Banshee looks like. Most commonly they are described as old woman with long, wild hair. (This image was created with the assistance of DALL·E 2)

Five Interesting Banshee Facts

Banshee Family Connections

Banshees have always been linked to certain families in Ireland. 

People say that their haunting cries show that they miss family members who have died.

For example, the famous Banshee Aebinn of Craglee in County Tipperary was thought to warn the O´Brien family and the Dalcassian families about an impending death. 

The Language of the Banshee

The origin of the word “Banshee” can be traced back to the Old Irish words “ben síde” or “bean sídhe,” which mean “woman of the fairy mound.”

The Hair-raising Appearance of the Banshee

Banshees can take multiple different forms. 

Typically, they look like an old woman with long, flowing hair and white or gray clothes. Her eyes may or may not be red from crying.

However, Banshees can also appear as a young woman, or even an animal such as a crow. 

Crows and ravens are often associated with death in Ireland. 

As well as being a symbol of the Morrigan Goddess of War and Death, they also signified the death of Cú Cullain, one of the great Irish warriors.

Crow on a branch with moonlight.
Crows, or sometimes ravans, are connected with death in Irish culture. (Photo: CloudOnePhoto via Shutterstock)

Banshees beyond Ireland

The Banshee myth has spread beyond Ireland. 

This being is known as “bean nighe” in Northern Ireland and parts of the Scottish Highlands.

The Banshee’s History and Where It Came From

The Banshee origins date back to about the eighth century. 

As a central figure in Irish culture, her impact has been seen in many tales and folklore legends. 

The Banshee frequently appeared before a person’s death and is thought to be a “fairy woman” or “spirit woman.” 

Through her knowledge of life and death she warns of impending disaster. 

In many cases, this makes her a symbol of death, like the Grim Reaper in other cultures.

The Origin of the Word “Banshee”

The word “Banshee” comes from the Irish “bean sídhe,” which means “woman of the fairy mound” in Irish Gaelic. 

In Scots Gaelic, she is called the “bean-nighe”. 

It is a word that has a long and important history in the Irish language and culture.

The supernatural race of the Tuatha Dé Dannan became the Aos sí or Faerie-Folk according to Irish legend. 

As the story goes, they retreated underground to the Otherworld when Ireland was invaded. 

Even to this day, the Aos sí are connected with ancient burial mounds, hills and passage graves in Ireland. 

What does a Banshee look like?

Now the story starts to get interesting. 

You see, a Banshee does not look the same every time and very often they are heard and not seen.

Some depictions describe her as an old woman with a veil on her face and scary red eyes from excessive crying

Other tales depict her as a beautiful woman with long hair. 

She could also take a non-human form, which explains why she is sometimes said to be a hare or a crow. 

(This may have given rise to the misconception that the Banshee is an animal or creature.)

What does a Banshee sound like? 

The cry of a Banshee is said to be wailing, bone-chilling and blood curdling. 

Hearing this startling cry in the middle of the night can undoubtedly be quite terrifying!

In some cases, the Banshee screams for three nights in succession to announce the impending death of a family member. 

What is a Banshee scream? 

While Irish mythology states that these wailing and crying sounds at night come from the Banshee, there may in fact be a simpler origin. 

Many wild animals can make strange and unexpected noises. 

Combine this with a little imagination, darkness and fear of the unknown and it is not hard to create a scary omen connected with death. 

What is a Banshee animal or Banshee creature?

Barn Owl in flight.
The wings of a Barn Owl help dampen the noises it makes in flight, but they can make loud screech sounds. (Photo: Krasula via Shutterstock)

The Barn Owl, for example, has long been thought to be the origin of the sound of the Banshee. 

Barn Owls can fly slightly to surprise their prey. 

Many people are surprised to hear that they can also make a range of high pitched wails and cries. 

This is particularly true of the younger chicks, who are left alone at night while the parents return to the nest with food for them. 

The unnerving sound of the chicks is said to be similar to the cry of the Banshee. 

Other animals could also have helped to contribute to the legend of the Banshee as we know it. 

Hares have long been associated with the Otherworld and witchcraft in Celtic mythology.

Witches were supposed to be able to transform into the form of a hare and to kill one is thought to be unlucky. 

While hares are typically not very vocal, they can emit a high pitched cry when startled or injured. 

Female foxes, known as vixen, can also make a bone tingling cry. 

This is most common in January or February, when they are ready to mate. 

An Irish Moutain Hare
An Irish Moutain Hare (Photo: Ben Whitley via Shutterstock)

What does Keening mean?

The way a Banshee wails is not like any other scream. It is also called “keening.”

The word “keening” comes from the Old Irish culture and refers to a ferocious, somber wailing for the dead. 

The Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary says that keening is a noun that refers to the act of lamenting. 

The word “keen” comes from the Old English word “cēned” and the Middle English word “kene,” which mean “sharp” or “intense.” 

Keening is not just about grief. It is a very old and sad form of art in Irish culture and has long been connected with Irish wakes for the dead and Irish Funerals.

In the same way, the old German word “kuoni,” which means “brave,” alludes to the courage it takes to mourn openly. 

It is also thought to mean “wild”, which can be connected to letting go of one’s emotions and grieving openly. 

This kind of loud wailing is not just for people who are sad. 

It is a way to express a wide range of deep feelings, from longing to regret. It is a way to show how deeply you feel without opting for prayers for the dead.

The Origins of Keening

The Irish Goddess Brigid of Fire and Healing is said to have started the tradition of keening. 

After the death of her son, Ruadán, she mourned using this high pitched wailing sound. 

What is the Banshee meaning?

At its core, the Banshee is a powerful sign of impending death. 

Her look and, especially, her wail show that death is close. 

But she is more than just a sign of bad things to come. 

She also shows how closely the Irish people are tied to their rich folklore and mythology.

The Spiritual Meaning of Banshee

Candles in a woodland area at night.
Candles in a woodland area at night. (Photo: ju_see via Shutterstock)

The Banshee is important spiritually as well as in the physical world. 

In Irish culture, she shows how close the world of the living is to the world of the dead. 

Her wail serves as a link between these two worlds in addition to being a warning of physical death.

Banshees in Irish Culture and Irish History

The Banshee is a legendary figure in Irish Gaelic folklore and mythology. 

The Banshee is not just confined to Irish culture. 

She is also a part of Celtic mythology and features in Scottish culture, where she is called “ban sith” or “bean nighe” and associated with a washer woman figure. 

(The famous Scottish poet, Sir Walter Scott wrote about the “fairy spectre,” capturing her creepy beauty in writing.) 

However, the importance of the Banshee and her connection to Ireland is still unmatched. 

Banshee stories have been passed down through generations in a lot of families, especially those with Irish roots.

My Personal Family Banshee Story

Quiet county lane at dusk with creepy atmosphere.
Strange noises at night can easily make the imagination run wild! (Photo: Smolina Mariann via Shutterstock)

In my family, there was once a funny Banshee story. 

One night, my Grand Uncle recalled being scared witless when he heard footsteps following him at night. 

When he stopped walking, the footsteps stopped too. 

He waited to hear a scream, but nothing happened. 

Then all of a sudden he felt something wet and cold touch his hand. It was not a Banshee thankfully, but a stray dog.  

Clíodna the Queen of the Banshees

The ancient Irish race from which many of the Gods and Goddesses descended is known as the Tuatha Dé Dannan or the people of the Goddess Danu

They place the Banshee as a central figure in their mythology. 

Clíodna (or sometimes spelled as Cleena) is said to be the Queen of the Banshees of the Tuatha Dé Dannan. 

She is strongly connected with County Cork, especially Carrigcleena near Mallow in North Cork, where she rules over the fairies.

Áine the Irish Goddess of the Fairies

A stone circle close to Lough Gur in Limerick.
A stone circle close to Lough Gur in Limerick that is connected with the Goddess Áine. (Photo: Pierre Leclerc via Shutterstock)

The Goddess Áine of Summer is strongly associated with Cnoc Áine or Knockainey Hill in County Limerick.

This is thought to have been a fairy hill and was part of the midsummer rituals. 

(Discover more about Áine and the rituals in our complete guide to this Fairy Goddess of Summer)

Some legends even go as far as saying that Áine was in fact a Banshee, but this is not certain. 

Banshees in Popular Culture

The Banshee has made her way into pop culture, from the pages of comic books to the big screens of Hollywood. 

She has been in movies, TV shows, and even video games, where she is usually shown as a scary figure with a loud scream.

  • In the Harry Potter books, Professor Lupin talks about banshees in his Defense Against the Dark Arts class. The Laughing Potion is a good way to protect yourself from banshees.
  • A Banshee is a type of enemy in the “Mass Effect” video game series.
  • The animated show “Gargoyles” has a character named Banshee who is a Child of Oberon.
  • In the world of Marvel Comics, there is a superhero named Banshee, played by Sean Cassidy, who is a mutant who can use a sonic scream.
  • Banshees are also featured in numerous video games, such as “World of Warcraft” and “The Witcher”.
  • The word “banshee” is used in Star Wars as a metaphor. Qui-Gon Jinn calls the podracer Anakin Skywalker is going to race a “banshee” in “Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace.” This is likely because the podracer makes loud, wailing sounds like the mythical banshee.
  • “Banshee” was the name of a TV show that ran from 2013 to 2016 on Cinemax. Banshee is a town, though, and the ghostly Irish woman has nothing to do with it.

Banshee in The Banshees of Inisherin

Even though the movie is called The Banshees of Inisherin, it does not have any real banshees like the ones in Irish folklore. 

But the movie has a theme of impending death, which is represented by the banshee. 

A song written by the character Colm, who is played by Brendan Gleeson, who is also a real-life fiddle player and wrote the song, adds to this theme. 

Mrs. McCormack, played by Sheila Flitton, acts like a banshee because she can predict deaths. 

This gives the banshee theme of the movie another layer.

FAQs on the Irish Banshee

A still, foggy morning in Ireland.
A still, foggy morning in Ireland. (Photo: iised93 via Shutterstock)

What does the word ‘Banshee’ mean? 

The word “Banshee” comes from the Irish Gaelic word “bean sídhe,” which means “woman of the fairy mound.”

What does a Banshee look like? 

A Banshee can look like an old woman, a pretty young woman, or even a crow. She is often shown with long hair and white or gray clothes.

What is the purpose of the Banshee’s scream? 

The scream of a Banshee acts as a warning of impending death in a family.

Where is the Banshee from? 

The origins of Banshees are not very clear. Certainly there is a long history of Banshees in Irish folklore (probably since the 8th century), as well as Celtic folklore. 

What is a Banshee animal? 

A banshee is not usually depicted as an animal. In most cases she appears in the form of an old or young woman with wild ragged hair. 

There however are some tales that describe the Banshee in the form of an animal. 

This is most often in the form of a hare or a crow. 

Given the animal sounds such as that of the Barn Owl are likely to have inspired the cry of the Banshee, this is not very surprising.

Whom do Banshees visit? 

Banshees can visit anyone. They are most often linked to certain Irish families and are said to show up when someone in that family is about to die.

What does a Banshee do to its victims? 

Banshees do not hurt people in an obvious way. 

Instead, through her wail, she predicts the impending death of a family member.

Is a Banshee evil? 

No, not necessarily. Even though it is linked to death, a banshee is more of a prophet than a bad spirit.

What is the Banshee scream called? 

The Banshee scream is called “keening,” which is an Irish word for a traditional vocal lament for the dead.

What is the myth of the Banshee? 

The Banshee is a figure from Irish folklore. She is a female spirit whose sad cry warns of the death of a family member.

How does one become a Banshee? 

In mythology, a woman who dies a tragic death can turn into a Banshee, though the details of this change from story to story.

The full moon has always been associated with the Otherworld, fairies and magic in Celtic culture. (Photo: pashabo via Shutterstock)

Are Banshees real? 

Irish mythology and folklore talk about banshees. Even though they are important to culture, there is no scientific proof that they exist.

It is likely that they were inspired by the calls of wild animals at night.

Can a human be a Banshee? 

Some stories say that a woman who dies in a tragic or violent way can turn into a Banshee.

What does it mean if you hear a Banshee? 

If you believe in Irish mythology, then hearing a Banshee’s wail means the impending death of a family member in the near future.

What powers does a Banshee have? 

If the banshee were a superhero, her powers would be a bit lame. 

The main source of a banshee’s power is her wailing or keening, which is a sign that a death in the family is about to occur.

Banshee Mythology and Folklore

The Banshee is a symbol of the rich tapestry of Irish folklore and not just a sign of death. 

They are also important to understanding how the Irish feel about death, family, and the spirit world. 

Their cries, heard by family members who are about to lose a loved one, are a hauntingly personal link between the everyday and the otherworldly.

When you hear the word “Banshee” again, remember that it is more than just a scary story. 

It is a window into the heart of Irish culture and a key to the wonderful world of Celtic mythology.