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Banshees: Death Seers of Ireland

Banshee, ca. 1825

"Who sits upon the heath forlorn,
With robe so free and tresses torn?
Anon she pours a harrowing strain,
And then--she sits all mute again!
Now peals the wild funereal cry--
And now--it sinks into a sigh."

                                  -- Ourawns.

In Ireland there is an old tradition of women singing laments at funerals to commemorate the passing of a loved one; but there are also phantom women in Ireland who are heard to sing laments for certain people before they die! The singers of these phantom laments are now called Banshee, said to be an anglicization of either “bean sidhe” (Irish for “woman fairy”) or “bean si” (“woman of peace” or “woman of the mound”). While common legend claims banshees only sing for members of the five oldest Irish families ― the O’Gradys, the O’Neills, the O’Briens, the O’Conners, and the Kavanaghs ― there are stories that tell of banshees singing for other families too. It is also generally believed that people of great status in Ireland may have banshees, no matter who their family is.

        Banshees always appear, when they are visible, as human females; sometimes ghostly, sometimes solid but capable of supernaturally disappearing. Some people believe banshees are fairy women who care about the doomed people; others have theorized that the voices must be that of ghosts, perhaps of former members from the families of the doomed people. Both of these, however, appear to be only guesses about the true nature of these beings.

        Surprisingly, as I dug backwards looking for legendary banshee tales, I discovered something very odd... the oldest tales are not legends, but firsthand reports of actual encounters. The idea of generic banshee behavior and fictional tales about them only seem to start around 1860-1870, after the earlier firsthand encounter stories become well known across Europe in the Victorian era!