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MESSENGERS OF DEATH

Updated on November 1, 2011

ON BANSHEES AND DEATH WOMEN

                There is an Irish folklore that the wailing of banshee foretells the imminent death of a person. Though our rational mind rejects this as superstition, there are many who firmly believe that it is not so. The word banshee is derived from the Irish Gaelic ‘bean sidhe’which means ‘woman of the fairies’ (some even call it as ‘woman of the fairy mounds’) . She is believed to keen outside the home of home of persons about to die as she combs her long red hair. Those who have heard her wail describe it as an awful moan which starts low and reaches a crescendo. The melancholy mood which engulfs drowns the person in deep depression. Etymologically the word keen comes from the Irish word ‘caoineadh’ which means to weep or wail. This was because traditionally in Irish villages whenever a person died, a woman would sing a lament.  In fact the banshees lament is said to be so shrill and piercing that it is reported to have even shattered glass.

                According to Celtic legend the banshee is a spirit which acts as a guardian angel for some old Irish  families like the O’Briens , O’Gradys,  O’Connors  O’Neils  and the Kavanaghs. .  But her wailing is not just confined to a few. She is believed to have wailed for ancient Irish warriors like King Connor McNessa and latter day heroes like Michael Collins the Commander-in-Chief of the Irish Free State in 1922 during the Irish Civil War. It is believed that the banshee wailed on the noon of 22nd November 1963 when John F Kennedy was assassinated.

                Banshees have appeared to many either as a young woman, a stately matron or as an old hag, which are triple forms of the Celtic Goddess of war and death.

                The belief of harbingers of death is not just confined to Irish folklore, the Scots too believe in the ‘Death Woman’, but unlike the banshee she does not wail, but sits on westward running streams washing clothes of those about to die. It is believed that Ewan of the Little Head in 1538, on the eve of a battle met on the way a old woman washing blood stained clothes in a stream. Suspecting her to be the death woman he enquired whether the bundle contained his shirts too, to which she answered yes and added that if his wife offered him bread and cheese with her own hands he could win and live. Unfortunately as the battle was between Ewan and his father-in-law, Ewan’s wife failed to do so. Next day Ewan’s head was chopped off by a Lochaber axe in battle and his horse galloped down Glen More with the headless rider still on top.  The descendants of Ewan claim that every time there is a death or serious illness In the family the apparition of the headless rider could be seen galloping as though to give warning of forthcoming death.

Books on Banshees

§  Lysaght, Patricia (1986). The Banshee: The Irish Death Messenger. Roberts Rinehart Publishers. 

§  Briggs, Katharine (1976). An Encyclopedia of Fairies. Pantheon Books

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