The Call of Death

This is a mock article I’ve written for Pagan Pages. The information combines the information I’ve found from the various sources. No copyright infringement intended! This is merely an effort to combine information and eliminate those excerpts that seemed contradictory in my eyes.

Do not stand by this grave and weep,

No one’s here, I do not sleep.

For I am the thousand winds that blow,

and the diamond glint on the snow.

I am the sun on ripened grain,

The soft & gentle autumn rain.

When you wake in the mornings hush,

I am the swift uprising rush.

Of the quiet birds in circling flight,

The timeless stars that shines at night.

So, do not stand by this grave and cry,

No one’s dead, I did not die.

Mary Elizabeth Frye 1932

 

The Call of Death

By Morgana Moonfire

The most well-known of the fairy women both in Ireland and Scotland has to be the Banshee or Bean Sídhe. She is known throughout Scotland, Ireland and Wales by many names, including Badbh, Cyoeraeth, the Washer Woman, the Bean Nighe and Bean Sídhe. The Banshee, which literally means fairy woman, has been portrayed as both a frightening old woman with glowing red eyes (due to centuries of crying) and a beautiful woman with a veiled face. She is associated with death, funerals and mourning and has been called the “Death Messenger” or the “Lady of Death”. She is always in mourning and wailing for those about to die. Sometimes she is also known as the “White Lady” and is usually described as pale-skinned with long hair and wearing grey or green. She is often ethereal.

The banshee is often associated with a particular family and serves as their link to and messenger from the Other World. Usually these were seen as friends of the family. The banshee is not limited to one area, but migrates with her family no matter where they may choose to relocate.  In Ireland she is the ancestress of the old aristocratic families, the Irish clans. It was even considered something of a status symbol to have a banshee attached to your family! According to tradition, the banshee can only cry for five major Irish families:  the O’Neills, the O’Briens, the O’Connors, the O’Gradys and the Kavanaghs. Intermarriage has since extended this select list. When any death or misfortune is about to occur in the family, her unearthly wails will be heard.

More often heard than seen, there is nothing quite so terrifying as the cry (or keening) of the banshee, for to hear her cry has become an omen of death. Keening is an Irish word to describe the wailing that women used to do over the body of a deceased person to ward off evil spirits. Therefore she is also known as the bean chaointe: the wailing woman. Her mourning call is usually heard near woodlands, at night when someone is about to die.

Though her appearance can be frightening, the banshee does not bring death but warns that death is near. I.e. she foretells a death in the family. Her warning gives the family a chance to prepare for that which is to come. The death that she announces does not necessarily have to be a violent death:  it may simply be a case where a family member is about to die of old age. The banshee mourns the loss of the loved one and serves as an escort to ensure that the deceased family member passes safely to the other side.

To hear more than one banshee singing at a time is very rare and is said to indicate the death of a great person.

Initially the banshee would appear to mourn the dead. As time went on, the tales changed so that she began to foretell death. In some stories she would make an appearance when someone was on their death bed. In others her appearance or wail would foretell an unexpected death or disaster. Over the years the legend of the banshee appears to have changed. What was initially a fairy tribute to a family member has become more of a bad omen to be feared.

Origins of the Irish Banshee

The first is that she is the ghost of a young woman who was brutally killed and died so horribly that her spirit is left to wander the world watching her family and loved ones, warning them when a violent death is imminent.

This particular type of Banshee appears as an old woman in rags with dirty grey hair, long fingernails and sharp pointed rotten teeth. Her eyes are blood red and filled with so much hatred and sorrow that to look into them will cause instant death. The Banshees mouth is permanently open as she emits a long and painful scream to torture the souls of the living.

However, the banshee is also called badhbh chaointe, which clearly indicates her connection with Badhbh, the Irish word for scald crow, but more interestingly also the name of one of the Celtic war goddesses who would shriek over the battlefields in the form of a crow. Thus it is said that the origins of Banshee lie with the celtic goddess, the Morrighan, who was known to stand in a river and wash the entrails of those about to die in battle while singing a most enchanting and mesmerizing song. Warriors in battle, who could hear her singing, were destined to die. The Morrighan, who has been portrayed as both a beautiful, yet deadly, warrior goddess and an old hag; is one of the goddesses of the Tuatha dé Danaan.

The Washer Woman of the Highlands

In Scotland we find the dreaded Bean Nighe, the Washer at the Ford or the Washer Woman of the Scottish Highlands: a terrifying creature. She may be seen at midnight washing the death shirt of someone about to die. Usually the person who meets her knows that it is his own fate that she foretells. As she washes she sings a dirge:

“Se do leine, se do leine ga mi nigheadh”

(It is your shirt, your shirt that I am washing).

According to other folk tales, if one happens upon her while she is washing the bloody clothing of those about to die and she happens to see them, she will lash out at them with her laundry and break both of their legs. However, if one hides at the spring where she comes to wash and surprises her, they can demand three wishes. For those even more daring, it is said that to sneak up on the Bean Nighe and to nurse from her breast will make them her foster child. She will then be obligated to give gifts such as second sight or the ability to prophesize.

A much kinder relative of the banshee is known as the Bean Tighe in the Highlands of Scotland. The Bean Tighe attaches herself to a particular household and serves as the fairy housekeeper. In some places she is known as the Glaistig Uaine, the Green Lady, who is often sighted in the rooms and the grounds of the old castles of the Scottish clans, keeping watch over everything. There is also the wilder type of banshee found in more remote places. This type of banshee wanders through the woods and over the moors at dusk, luring travellers to their doom.

The Welsh Hag of the Mist

In Welsh folklore, a banshee-like entity is referred to as the Cyoeraeth or Gwrach-y-Rhibyn and will tap on the windows of those about to die. Rarely seen, (which is a blessing, as she is quite ugly and frightening) she has long black hair and black teeth and cries in mourning for those about to die. Often invisible, she can sometimes be seen at a crossroads or stream when the mist rises. If it is death that is coming, the name of the one doomed to die will be heard in her “shrill tenor”. The misfortune may be coming to the person hearing her voice, or to someone in their family.

The many guises of the banshee

As mentioned before, the Banshee can appear in a variety of guises, most often as an ugly, frightening hag; but she can also emerge as a beautiful woman of any age. When she is portrayed as the Morrighan in some tales, the hag appears as a washer-woman who cleans the blood stained clothes of those who are about to die. The Banshee may also appear in a variety of other forms, such as that of a crow, hare and weasel, mostly any animal associated in Ireland with witchcraft. Banshees are frequently described as either old or beautiful women dressed in white, green, black, grey or silver; often having long, grey, silver or fair hair which they brush with a silver comb. Alternatively, when they cover their hair and face, they appear wearing a veil or a shroud. There have also been instances of a banshee appearing as a deathly pale woman with long red hair dressed in a white dress or even as a headless woman naked from the waist up and carrying a bowl of blood.

In 1437, King James I of Scotland was approached by an Irish seeress or banshee who foretold his murder at the instigation of the Earl of Atholl. This is an example of the banshee in human form. There are records of several human banshees or prophetesses attending the great houses of Ireland and the courts of local Irish kings.

Conclusion

We may conclude, then, that the remnants of the old pagan Gaelic religion can still be found in the fairy lore of Scotland and Ireland, with gods and goddesses being remembered as the guardian ancestors of the clans. In fact, all the clans once claimed descent from a particular deity. The old gods still appear in local tales, as kings and queens of fairy palaces or as guardians of lakes so they are still very much part of the land and the folk memory of the people. However, belief in the sídhe has been steadily diminishing, not least through the decline of the number of Gaelic native speakers. Many folk tales, after all, were only told and passed on in Gaelic.

It is sad that many people are no longer interested in what used to be their native language and in their folk legends and rich mythological tradition. The fairies are the elemental powers of the land and the standing stones of the Celtic culture. Yet, while the stories behind her presence, appearance, and purpose vary, the tradition of the banshee as the signal of death remains fixed in Celtic culture up to this day, from the Irish counties to the folklore of Scottish and Welsh shores.

Sources

The Cry of the Banshee by Deanna on April 15th, 2010

http://www.youriris h.com/banshee. Htm

Banshee, Harbinger of Death

http://www.newworld encyclopedia. org/entry/ Banshee

Banshee by Frazetta, Frank

http://www.wyrdolog y.com/fairies/ celtic/index. html

Fairy Women Of Scotland

http://www.empathys.co.uk/129.html

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Copyright notice

All entered text is ©2010 of the author, unless otherwise stated.

In order to reproduce any material, permission needs to granted by the author, either Morgana Moonfire or Archangel Amitiel.

Dark Moon Circle

As a sister of the DMC, Morgana aka Funky Chicken would like to honour this wonderfully supportive circle of sisters who never hesitate to offer guidance and share their wisdom.
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