Probably you hear the word “banshee” and think of an ugly, ghostish woman screeching her lungs out whilst floating through the night air. And well, you’d be right, but that’s really only a little bit of the story.
Banshee come from the Gaelic word for “woman of the side” or “woman of the fairy mounds,” and while they truly are messengers of death, they come in all sorts of forms. Some stories dispute whether they are truly fairies, or ghosts of women who have died but are still trapped on the earth. Banshees can take on the appearance of animals, too, especially crows and weasels. Some appear as human women, either young and beautiful, matronly, or haggard and twisted old women. These different faces align with the three different Irish war goddesses.
Banshees sing the death, or upcoming death of a family member, mainly only of five specific, old-Irish families. It is said in some stories that a banshee is tied to a family for one reason or another, be it good or bad. “Friendly” banshees, the most likely to appear as beautiful young women, care for the family that they are tied to, and their song is a sad, but beautiful melody, mourning with or for their family.
The screeching, wailing banshees aren’t always women who hate their family, however. The wailing is tied to Irish traditions for mourning known as “keening,” something that can be found in many nations, as far as the South Pacific, where women are actually hired to make mournful, weeping cries over the body of a fallen family member. It is said that this “keening” will be done by a banshee if the deceased is extremely important, or holy.
Banshees are almost exclusively heard at night, usually by the one they are intending to warn, and they don’t travel beyond the borders of their beloved Ireland. Whether the cry is lovely and sad, or angry screeching, however, the bare-bones fact of it is, banshees are bad news, so you certainly don’t want to go looking for one.