BANSHEES AS KENNING SPIRITS
Scotland is home to many female spirits that are directly connected to the otherworld. None more so than the mythology of the Bean Sith (Banshee). The traditional death messenger spirit whose wailing predicts imminent death and marks the period of mourning. A subject that holds great interest to me as someone who teaches death and dying and has reclaimed the ritual of keening as a form of vocal psychopomp. Elements of this ancient lore come from the 8th century and although it evolved slightly to responded to the psychological needs of the indigenous people, for the most part, it has resisted change. Her powerful stories are part of women's cultural heritage in Scottish and Irish folk traditions.
This death messenger spirit haunts remote pools and desolate Scottish streams where she washes the blood-stained clothes of those about to die. She is described as having unusually long breasts that are thrown over her shoulder and hung over back so they do not interfere with her chore of washing the clothes of the doomed. It is said that if you happen upon this strange-looking spirit, you must not run away. Instead you must catch her unaware and take hold of one of her breasts, put it in your mouth, and claim to be her foster-child. Then she will be forced to foretell your future or grant your desires with her supernatural powers.
If the Bean Nighe tells you that the blood soaked garments she is washing belong to you or your kin, you can compel this death messenger to prevent her from completing her macabre task and avoid this deathly fate. Traditions vary but a common belief is that this female spirit died giving birth and is doomed to wash the clothes of those about to die until the day that her natural death would have occurred.
An invisible highland banshee whose name means ‘weeper’. She foretells death in her clan by singing a lament in the night beside a waterfall, river or loch. Unlike the washer woman at the ford she cannot be captured or made to grant wishes. Her keening was said to have alerted some of the Clan MacDonald to the massacre at Glencoe and in doing so saved their lives. The folklorist Alexander Carmichael collected fragments of the dirges that were said to have been sung by the Caoineag before the great massacre.
Little Caoineag of the sorrow
Is pouring the tears of her eyes
Weeping and wailing the fate of Clan Donald
Alas my grief that ye did not heed her cries
There is gloom and grief in the mount of mist
There is weeping and calling in the mount of mist
There is death and danger, there is maul and murder
There is blood spilling in the mount of mist
The Caointeach is a more formidable version of this female death spirt and is attached to various clans in the Hebrides. It was said that when a death from illness was about to occur, she would appear outside the sick person's house wearing a green shawl and begin lamenting at the door. That if she was interrupted, she would strike out causing injury and even the loss of limb.
THE BEAN SITH
The Banshee is one of the best known otherworldly female spirits, whose name is often translated to mean fairy woman, even though she is most likely an ancestral messenger of death, rather than a fairy woman. A common description is that this haunted being is an old woman of small stature with long grey hair that she brushes with a cursed comb made of bone or gold and woe betide anyone who tries to take or touch her comb. Although some of the folklore describe her as a beautiful young woman who wears a long grey cloak and keens for those about to die.
This liminal figure is often believed to be bound to certain families. In the Irish lore, it is said that the ban sidhe is tied to the bloodline of noble surnames that begin with an O or Mc and that she appears to warn them of impending death when one of their kin is about to die. Although this theory has evolved to include other bloodlines over the centuries. In addition with the ideology that only those with that bloodline can hear her cries and that the person who is close to death will not hear her. However, in some of the folklore those that live in the surrounding area can also hear the haunting wails that sound like a vixen or human keening woman.
There are many theories connected to her mortal origins, the main ones are that she died in tragic circumstances, or is a spirit who is still mourning her family, or even the ghost of keening woman who is trapped between worlds and is fated to lament for the dead. This is the one that resonates closely with me and I honour this other-worldly woman as a keening familiar. Likewise there are older beliefs that connect her origins to the ancient goddesses of the Tuatha De Danann and claim that the banshee was born of both fairy and human blood, which would make her a truly liminal being that is compelled to mourn for the dying of her mortal family line.
Despite all the differing theories, the one thing that everyone agrees upon is that the Bean Sith is a messenger of death and a powerful female otherworld spirit.
Hearing Rowan tell her tales is a truly magical experience. Mesmerizing and so from the heart. (Shona Sullivan)