USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘banshee’
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Legends
Narrative
Signs

The Banshee

The following is a story about an Irish legend.  The informant is represented by the letter S, and I am represented by the letter K.

Piece:

K: Tell me about the Banshee.

S: So, the banshee is… uh… and Irish legend. And it’s, it’s this spirit of a woman… who has this long, silver-white hair… like down to the floor.  And she’s always brushing her hair with this comb.  And her eyes are red- from like centuries of crying and grieving over people who- who other people have lost.  And uhm…uhm… and basically, the Banshee is the uhm, warning, that somebody you’re close to is going to die.  So if the Banshee comes to you, someone you love- is gonna end up dying.  And uhm, the Banshee is the…. kinda the predecessor to the… what is it? The Coach de Baron… What is it? The Cóiste Bodhar. Uh, which is… the… the coach that takes you to death, so… yeah, the Banshee is very scary. She wails. And if you hear the wailing, then you know… that somebody’s gonna die.

Context:

We were sitting at a dining room table on Easter Sunday.  We had just eaten dinner and celebrated the holiday.  We were sitting around and just talking and sharing stories and folklore that we knew about.  The informant is my friend’s younger sister, so she lives at the home we were at and she was sitting with her friend, with me, her brother, and our other friend sat across from them.

My Thoughts:

The Banshee seems to be a legend that is meant to kind of scare people into always being alert and always watching out for their family.  It was interesting because when I collected this piece of folklore, the informant told me that her dad’s friend had actually heard the Banshee at one point and then someone they knew died shortly after.  The informant seemed to strongly believe in the Banshee from hearing this story of the person her dad knew.  This goes back to the idea that with legends you never really know if these people or things exist/existed because there are stories of them existing, but there’s no proof they never did or that they don’t.  The Banshee seems to have some similar characteristics to La Llorona, actually, which was also interesting.  It’s possible that both of these legendary people are the same and the context of each story is different from culture to culture, but there’s a mass belief in this spirit of a woman with long hair that grieves. With the Banshee, a lot of the context I received from my informant and from her father, who followed up with some context is that the main thing about the Banshee is that you hear her, but you don’t really see her, which I also thought was very interesting in relevance to our class discussions about ghosts and spirits.  It seems as if in American folklore we’re much more scared of seeing actual ghosts, but here there’s a clear fear of hearing the Banshee.

 

For another version of this story, see p. 9-19 of Elliott O’Donnell’s 2010 Banshee (Project Gutenberg)

general
Myths
Narrative

Banshees

Main piece: It is said that the howling winds of the Irish coast are formed from the screams of women suffering and dying – otherwise known as banshees. Therefore, any time you hear a particularly loud or chilling gust of wind, a woman is in agony somewhere.

Context: The informant (BN) is half Irish and half American. Her mother’s side of the family is originally from and still resides in Atlanta, Georgia. Her paternal extended family live in Sligo, Ireland. She grew up culturally Catholic, but she does not consider herself religious. Our conversation took place in February on my couch at home in Atlanta after she began recounting her recent trip to visit family in Ireland. BN originally heard this myth that explains Ireland’s winds from her cousin and godmother, who both reside on the coast of Ireland. As she told me about banshee winds, she visibly sunk in on herself and god chills multiple times. “Those winds will always be branded into my memory, because it’s kind of traumatizing as a child, since they really do sound like screams.” When asked if she believed in the myth in a literal sense, she said that only when she’s in Ireland does she truly believe: “everything in Ireland is just so magical and ancient.”

Personal thoughts: What I find most intriguing about this myth is that it touts the age-old trope of a woman’s suffering becoming immortalized through nature or supernatural occurrences. It is not difficult to realize that you don’t see many folk tales, legends or myths that emphasize male suffering – rather, male-centric stories tend to be about heroism or strife that is overcome through perseverance. Women, however, are historically known for subjugation and suffering, which is perhaps why when people first heard the harsh winds of Ireland, they thought of a dying woman rather than a dying animal, a shrieking child, or even just harsh weather at face value. Additionally, what makes the banshee wind myth of Ireland a myth is that it seeks to explain a very prominent and ancient natural phenomenon in Ireland with a concept we are familiar with: female suffering. For external reference of this myth, see “THE BANSHEE.” The Louisville Daily Journal (1839-1868), Nov 25 1839, p. 2. ProQuest. Web. 18 Apr. 2019 .

Folk speech
general
Legends

Irish Poem

Informant:

Terry is a second generation Irish american who grew up in los Angeles in the ‘60s and 70’s. He is now a dentist working and living in the Bay area.

Piece:

Informant: “There is this poem that my uncle told me back in 1970 when I was 10 years old. My parents sent me to Ireland to live with my cousins for the whole summer. I had never met any of these people before, but knew them through the stories my dad told me about all of them. But one night my uncle Paddy drove me to the Bridge at King John’s Castle in limerick… you know the one we’ve been to before. And he told me that this bridge was where the Banshee would come out late at night if you were walking alone. And then out of nowhere he started rattling off this old irish poem about the banshee called “Drunken Thady and the Bishop’s Lady” and it was a long long poem that took about twenty minutes to say. I was amazed that he had remembered all of it and then we got back in the care and drove back to the house in Janesboro. Then the rest of the summer I tried to memorize the poem just by hearing it over and over so I could tell my dad when I got back home to Los Angeles, but I was never able to remember the entire thing.

Collector: Do you remember any of the poem?

Informant: ughhh oh boy lets see

Before the famed year Ninety-eight,

In blood stamped Ireland’s wayward fate;

When laws of death and transportation

Were served, like banquets, throughout the nation

But let it pass the tale I dwell on

Has not to do with red rebellion.

 

Uhhhhh and then there is another part at some point that goes

 

There lived and died in Limerick City,

a dame of fame oh what a pity

that dames of fame should live and die

and never learn for what, or why!

That’s all I can remember.

 

 

Collector’s thoughts:

I find it amazing that the informant could remember even the slightest bit of this poem despite having half learned it more than 40 years ago. Being sent at such a young age to stay with Irish relatives reveals how, despite living in the US, his parents and family still valued their Irish heritage and culture. For a full version of the poem see:

http://www.limerickcity.ie/media/drunken%20thady.pdf

general
Legends
Narrative

Irish Banshee

The Banshee was another story I was told about, but not by my parents. My brother used to tell me this to scare me. At night we were outside and there was like a howl, or uh, something that I didn’t recognize, and um, he knew what it was but told me it was a banshee, which is . . . like a woman spirit/witch wanders about at night time crying out with high wails when there is going to be, like, a death in the family and whoever hears it, their family will be effected. Needless to say it scared the hell out of me and I was relieved when no one was dead the next morning! Ha, haha!

Legends about fairies and elves are very important in Ireland. “Believing” in the fair folk, whether you actually believe or not, is considered patriotic. Children raised in Ireland are expected to know of and participate in the belief of the fair folk, although, as is the case with my friend, they largely grew out of the belief of these legends as they grew older.

Myths
Narrative

The Banshee

This story was collected by my informant from a man he was talking to in Dublin who said that he had encountered the banshee first hand. The banshee is one of the Irish Si spirits who whose wail is a signifier to whoever hears it that someone in their family, or perhaps even they themselves are about to die. Her wail is reminiscent of old-time funeral wails, but because, as my informant explained,“there is something slippery about time for the banshee”, rather than wailing at the funeral as was customary, she wails before the death even happens.

“Ban” means woman in Gaelic and “shee” means one of the Si spirits–the ancestral spirits associated with the megalithic mounds. Thus, encounters with the Si spirits or the Banshee usually occur around the megalithic mounds. My informant explained that there are multiple banshees. Sometimes there are regional ones and sometimes there will be one that follows certain families around.

“I remember one time I was in Dublin I was talking to this guy who was the husband of Elane Hulanon, who was a professor at Trinity, and I was talking to him about the banshee and he said “oh yeah, one time I heard the banshee” so he was telling me that one time he had heard the banshee and um, and in a rural area, and sure enough when he found out that sure enough, I forget who it was, I think it was his uncle who had just passed away. So I thought it was kind of interesting cause it was like totally classic banshee story but told by a very educated person. And he firmly believed in it because he said he had experienced it. I don’t remember the whole story but he did say that the classic thing that he was walking and he heard the banshee wail which is the classic way that you encounter her, and he was sure that’s what it was, he got really worried and he went back and um, then he found out that his uncle had just passed away. It was kind of cool because it’s still going on in Ireland and he believed in the banshee because he had experienced it.”

The belief of banshees is still around today in Ireland, and as my informant explained in this particular case, belief in the banshee is not limited to uneducated individuals as one might assume. My informant explained the a lot of individuals in Ireland don’t necessarily believe in the Si spirits, but they don’t disbelieve in them either.

Annotation:

  • The Real Ghostbusters “Banshee Bake a Cherry Pie?” Season 2, episode 34. Air date: 10/28/1987. In this episode of The Real Ghostbusters a banshee is masquerading as an Irish pop-singer and is attempting to use her voice to take over the world.
  • J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, July 8, 1999. When being taught how to fight boggarts (a mythical creature that can imitate whatever you are scared of), a boggart imitates a banshee when being fought by the Irish character, Seamus Finnegan.

 


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