The banshee is a female spirit in Irish mythology, usually seen as an omen of death and a messenger from the Otherworld.
In legend, a banshee is a fairy woman who begins to wail if someone is about to die. In Scottish Gaelic mythology she is known as the bean sìth or bean-nighe and is seen washing the blood-stained clothes or armour of those who are about to die. Alleged sightings of banshees have been reported as recently as 1948. Similar beings are also found in Welsh, Norse and American folklore.
The story of the banshee began as a fairy woman keening at the death of important personages. In later stories, the appearance of the banshee could foretell death. Banshees were said to appear for particular Irish families, though which families made it onto this list varied depending on who was telling the story. Stories of banshees were also prevalent in the West Highlands of Scotland.
The banshee can appear in a variety of guises. Most often she appears as an ugly, frightening hag, but she can also appear as a stunningly beautiful woman of any age that suits her. In some tales, the figure who first appears to be a “banshee” is later revealed to be the Irish battle goddess, the Morrígan.
Although not always seen, her mourning call is heard, usually at night when someone is about to die and usually around woods. In 1437, King James I of Scotland was approached by an Irish seer who was later identified as a banshee who foretold his murder at the instigation of the Earl of Atholl. There are records of several prophets believed to be incarnate banshees attending the great houses of Ireland and the courts of local Irish kings. Banshees are usually seen by a person who is about to die in a violent way such as murder.
In some parts of Leinster, she is referred to as the bean chaointe (keening woman) whose wail can be so piercing that it shatters glass. In Kerry in the southwest of Ireland, her keen is experienced as a “low, pleasant singing”; in Tyrone in the north, as “the sound of two boards being struck together”; and on Rathlin Island as “a thin, screeching sound somewhere between the wail of a woman and the moan of an owl”.
The banshee may also appear in a variety of other forms, such as that of a hooded crow, stoat, hare and weasel – animals associated in Ireland with witchcraft.
The banshee has appeared in just a few films such as Cry of the Banshee (1970) and Banshee!!! (2008). In Night of the Creeps (1986), there is a joke reference to “screaming like banshees.” Punk/gothic/pop band Siouxsie and the Banshees took their name from the aforementioned 1970 film.