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(in Irish folklore) a female spirit whose wailing warns of impending death
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

From the Irish bean sidhe and the Gaelic ban sith, meaning "woman of the fairies." A Banshee is a supernatural being in Irish and other Celtic folklore who screams or "keens," usually at night. This keening is supposedly a forecast of death in the home where it is heard. It is said that the Banshee only appears to, or is heard by, families of pure Irish descent or as Sir Walter Scott put it, "families of the pure Milesian stock, and never ascribed to any descendant of the proudest Norman or boldest Saxon."

The Banshee appears in or near the home during the hours of darkness and keens in an unknown language. She may remain there for a number of nights. Although the person who dies may be elsewhere at the time of death, the Banshee appears at the ancestral home.

Scott mentions a Scottish belief in a Banshee: "Several families of the Highlands of Scotland anciently laid claim to the distinction of an attendant spirit, who performed the office of the Irish banshie. Among them, however, the functions of this attendant genius, whose form and appearance differed in different cases, were not limited to announcing the dissolution of those whose days were numbered. The Highlanders contrived to exact from them other points of service, sometimes as warding off dangers of battle; at others, as guarding and protecting the infant heir through the dangers of childhood; and sometimes as condescending to interfere even in the sports of the chieftain."

Katharine Briggs describes the Banshee as "very pale, with long streaming hair and eyes fiery red from weeping. She wears a gray cloak over a green dress." According to other reports, however, she can appear as an old hag dressed in a winding sheet.

Peter Haining suggests that the Banshee is associated with three other spirit forms: Babd, the Irish goddess of battles; Morrigan, ancient Celtic goddess of fertility, war and magic; and the Scottish bean-nighe, an old woman who is seen washing blood-stained clothing at a stream, prophesying death in battle.

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


female specter, harbinger of death. [Irish and Welsh Myth.: Walsh Classical, 45]
See: Death


spirit with one nostril, a large projecting front tooth, and webbed feet. [Irish Folklore: Briggs, 14]


Irish spirit who foretells death. [Irish Folklore: Briggs, 14–16]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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