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Alternate Names

Banshie, Bean Sfdhe

Appears In

Irish and Celtic folktales



Character Overview

Banshee (pronounced BAN-shee) is the English spelling of bean sidhe, the name of a female fairy of Irish and Celtic folklore. Banshees were omens of death and let out a howl that chilled listeners to the bone. The banshee's nighttime howling warned people that a death was about to take place. When an important or holy person was about to die, several banshees would wail or sing together. According to some legends, the banshees were accompanied by a large black coach carrying a coffin and pulled by headless horses. When the coach arrived at a house, blood was thrown at the person who opened the door. On the other hand, if a banshee loved a person who was near death, she would sing a gentle song that predicted death but also comforted the dying person and family members.

Banshees in Context

The legend of the banshee may have gotten its start in the Irish and Scottish tradition of “keening.” When a person in the community passed away, it was customary for a chosen woman, known as a keener, to sing a song of lament, or grief, at the person's funeral. Some keeners were believed to be descended from fairies.

Key Themes and Symbols

Banshees represent the certain approach of death, since their wail means that someone will die. For this reason, they are usually feared and seen as messengers from the land of the dead. However, they may also represent comfort and peace in the face of approaching death.

Banshees in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Banshees are among the best-known beings from Irish mythology, appearing in the literary works of William Butler Yeats and modern fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett. They were also featured in the Disney film Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959). Banshees are represented in many fantasy role-playing games, including the Dungeons & Dragons and Warcraft series. The term “banshee” has been used in the names of many different products, from vehicles to sunglasses.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

As mentioned above, keening was a common part of Irish and Scottish funerals at one time. Using your library, the Internet, or other available sources, research “keening” as a funeral tradition in Ireland and Scotland. What does the keener usually sing about? Is keening still performed in modern times? Why or why not?

SEE ALSO Celtic Mythology