The Irish Banshee and Leanan sidhe (Two Terrifying Fairies)
She stands just outside the window with a mourning wail so shrill, the life drains from your face. But you aren’t the one dying. She’s here to mourn another. The beating of wings, a gasp of wind, and she’s gone. And so is your family member. Is she a guide to the afterlife? Or an omen? The Irish banshee is a popular folkloric figure from the pages of history. You might have heard the term banshee before, such as in the band name Siouxsie and the Banshees or maybe in a horror movie. But the belief in the banshee isn’t modern, it’s ancient. Here we’ll explore the origins, characteristics, and frightening aspects of the Irish banshee and introduce a vampiric-fairy, the Leanan sidhe.
What or Who is the Irish Banshee?
In Celtic fairies’ mythology, the Irish banshee plays an important role. Her name the banshee, or in Gaelic bean-sidhe, means “woman of the fairy mound”. In Scotland, she’s the cointeach. In Ireland the sidhe were the people of the hills, also called the good folk. Or in layman’s terms – fairies. Fairies are depicted as small, winged and helpful in growing gardens and saving princesses. However, the true nature of the sidhe is much different. They are unpredictable and don’t follow human rules or societal values. Some of the faery folk are mischievous, while others’ true intentions are never quite known. The Irish banshee being one of the latter.
What does the Banshee look like? She looks different depending on the region, which is why I believe there are multiple banshees. Sometimes she’s wearing all white with long dark hair, sometimes she’s dressed in green and looks like she’s been sleeping in a swamp. The Banshee can be young or old, and in crone form, she typically has long gray or white hair and wears white or gray. Interestingly, in some tales, the Banshee shapeshifts into a crow, weasel, and other animals connected to witchcraft.
The Irish Banshee’s Scream and Origins
The banshee is well known in Ireland and Scotland for her keening (or wailing scream), which she unleashes upon an unsuspecting family before someone in the family dies. In old Irish lore, this is typically a member of one of the old Irish families of Milesian descent. According to Ireland’s Eye, the five families haunted by the Banshee are the O’Connors, the O’Neills, the O’Briens, the O’Gradys, and the Kavanaghs. When the banshee’s scream is heard, it’s truly terrifying. Either of the banshee herself OR of the thought of a family member’s imminent death.
Another theory is the Banshee isn’t a fairy but a ghost that attaches itself to a family. Which also means, this ghost could be the spirit of an ancestor. An ancestor whose job is to warn the family of the death AND mourn their descendant’s death.
The Wailing Women and Goddesses
An interesting connection to note, in ancient times, wailing women (also called keeners) were women whose job it was to cry loudly, pray for, and kneel next to the dead. This was customary as a means of showing respect for the newly deceased. “In Jeremiah 9, wailing women are the ones who voice the pain and whose laments serve as memory of what and who were lost. Without the wailing women’s witness, victims of violent attacks will fall into oblivion.” From Calling the Keeners: The Image of the Wailing Woman As Symbol of Survival in a Traumatized World by L. Juliana M. Claasens. This was obviously an important job to ancient peoples, and one that was widespread across the globe.
Another connection is a ghost called The Wailing Woman. This legend comes from Mexican lore and tells the story of a woman who loses her children and her own life, then spends eternity looking for them from beyond the grave. She is often found haunting bodies of water and crossroads, and her more popular name is La Llorona. They call her the Wailing Woman because of the horrifying cries that come out of her mouth.
Most will say the Irish banshee is a type of fairy, because of her connection to the sidhe. However, we could argue that she might be something else, a ghost or demonized goddess perhaps. In the same breath, the sidhe, or ALL fairies, are actually ghosts or demonized gods and goddesses from ancient times. Fairies in Ireland are thought by some to be the Tuatha de Dannan, a race of godly beings who were driven into the hills prior to the Iron Age. In fact, the goddess Cliodhna is even said to be the Queen of the Banshees”.
Washer at the Fords
In Irish fairies’ mythology, the banshee is sometimes seen washing bloody clothing in the river, which gained her another name – the Washer at the Fords. This is another warning of imminent death. When seen, the banshee is described as either an old hag surrounded in an eerie mist, or as the most beautiful Irish noblewoman that ever lived. Some say the Banshee is an entirely different spirit than the Washer at the Fords.
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The Banshee in Scotland and Cornwall
In Scottish fairies’ mythology, she sits near the door of the dying. And in Cornish lore she’s seen outside the dying’s window. Some say she flaps her wings against the window, and this sound has been mistaken as a crow’s wings over the centuries. The fairies are known shapeshifters, so I believe the Banshee shifts into the form of a crow, connecting her to the Irish goddess of death The Morrigan.
What or Who is the Leanan sidhe?
The Leanan Sidhe is another complex folkloric figure in Irish fairies mythology. Her name translates to fairy lover, as her purpose is to take a human lover as a mate. This beautiful fairy woman lives in sacred wells and streams, but unfortunately, you can’t trust her beauty. She’s vampiric in nature, because she sucks the life out of her lovers directly after gifting them with unbelievable musical talent.
The Leanan sidhe’s Red Cauldron
No one knows if there are multiple Leanan sidhe or if she’s one spirit, similar to the Irish banshee. Other legends talk of the Leanan sidhe drinking her victims’ blood and preserving it in a red cauldron. A cauldron that’s theorized to be the source of her beauty and power. Cauldrons are associated with witches and are the source of wisdom and rebirth, indicating the Leanan sidhe was once a wise, powerful goddess (similar to the Welsh Celtic Cerridwen). In Irish fairies mythology, they say the only way to the only way to escape the Leanan sidhe’s allure is to call out to the Irish Sea God Manann.
Grab a signed paperback copy of Kitty Fields’ Compendium of Fairies, Volume 2 in The Otherworldly Oracle Collection with detailed info. on how to work with the ancient elementals, fairy queens, and more.
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