The Banshee is an ominous spirit of the Irish fairy realms whose presence foretells the loss of a life. This “woman fairy” (from bean, a woman, and sidhe, a fairy), announces an imminent death with her mournful and terrifying keening. When she can be seen and not just heard, the Banshee usually appears as a beautiful woman, often clutching a hairbrush. In Scotland she is bean nighe (the Washerwoman, whose spectral form can be seen washing the bloody clothes of the soon-to-die), while in Wales she is Gwrach-y-rhibyn (Hag of the Mist).
The Banshee is sometimes seen along with a cóiste-bodhar (coach-a-bower), pulled by headless horses and driven by her fellow Celtic death omen, the Dullahan. Although like the Dullahan (and the Cluricaun), the Banshee is usually classified in lore as a solitary fairy, it has been suggested that she may in fact be a sociable fairy who has only become solitary due to her constant sadness—unlike most solitary fairies, she is generally not malevolent, but only foreboding and frightening.
Her fleeting shadow in female guise cloaked in darkness and mystery
With wind-tossed hair and sparkling eyes, she cries out in misery
Watching with eyes that are full of tears
And a cry that rips your soul apart and heralds death is near.
— Pagan Altar, “Cry of the Banshee”
The wail of the Banshee has sometimes been heard as a scream of vengeful triumph, but W.B. Yeats notes in his Irish Fairy Tales that such a vindictive creature is more likely the angry ghost of one of the dying person’s ancestors, and not a banshee at all. The Banshee should also not be confused with the Bánánach, an Irish spirit who haunts battlefields, though both appear in the presence of death as beautiful spectral women.
Although the Banshee was once thought to attend the final moments of only the holiest or bravest of the great families of Ireland, stories of encounters with the Banshee have crossed the seas and now appear in many parts of the world, including the United States:
In 2008, according to police reports, coon hunters in Kentucky allowed their tracking dogs to follow an animal making a strange wailing sound. When the dogs cornered it, the hunters saw an old woman screaming down at them from her perch on a high branch. By the time authorities arrived, the banshee had disappeared and its scent had grown cold. It was not reported how much bourbon the hunters had drunk.
—Michael Largo, The Big, Bad Book of Beasts (2013)
The Banshee in Popular Culture
Teen Wolf: Among the numerous supernatural teen-creatures who wander the halls of Beacon Hills High School is banshee Lydia Martin (Holland Roden). She has the traditional appearance of a banshee (beautiful, with long, flowing hair) and is both smart and popular, if a little manipulative. As a banshee, Lydia finds herself drawn to the scenes of the murders so frequently occurring in Beacon Hills, and naturally screams a great deal. The troubled Meredith Walker (Maya Eshet), another banshee on Teen Wolf, is currently committed to the local mental institution, Eichen House.
Supernatural: In the Season 11 episode “Into the Mystic” the Winchesters deal with a malevolent banshee. This type of banshee drives her victims to crack open their own skulls by torturing them with her banshee screams. The banshee then proceeds to feed on her victim’s brain. She preys on the vulnerable, and only those whom the banshee is targeting can hear her screams.
DC: In DC’s Superman comics, Silver Banshee (aka Siobhan McDougal) is an archvillain with superhuman strength and speed, as well as special sonic powers such as pan-lingual fluency and lethal hypersonic shrieking. She appears in both Superman/Supergirl/JLA comics and as a foe in the TV show Smallville.
Disney: A banshee makes a disturbingly frightening appearance in the 1959 Disney film Darby O’Gill & the Little People (starring a young Sean Connery). She summons and is joined by the Dullahan and his Death coach (cóiste-bodhar) as well.
Harry Potter: In the book Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, a banshee seems to appear when Seamus Finnigan (whose patronus is a fox, by the way!) takes his turn against a boggart during Prof. Lupin’s Defense against the Dark Arts class, as Seamus is afraid of banshees. Gilderoy Lockhart also writes of his supposed battle with the Bandon Banshee in one of his own favorite fraudulent memoirs.
Outside of Ireland, the Banshee is often misunderstood to be little more than a shrieking ghoul, or something more akin to Celtic death goddess the Morrígan, than the sad, soulful harbinger she is known as in her native lands. Though the Banshee may mean no harm as a phantasmic mourner of the dead (or soon-dead), she is nevertheless unlikely to be a welcome sight—or sound.