Ban-Sìthe/Banshee Folklore

The term “Banshee” is probably most often associated with a harbinger of death who usually conveys her message through wailing. Various books, films, TV series, computer games etc have featured a Banshee character, so I thought I’d write some posts from a Scottish folklore perspective. Banshee is the Anglicised version of the Scottish Gaelic Ban-Sìthe & just means “Fairy Woman”. As such she isn’t always associated with death, as we’ll see below in this initial wee round-up. Since this entity comes from Scottish Gaelic folklore I’ll be putting Gaelic terms first 🙂

The Bean-Nighe (“Washerwoman”) is a very important Otherworldly figure in Scottish folklore & a very famous one – she often appears at rivers washing the clothes of a person who is going to die in the near future as she wails/sings a lament. It’s said that if you sneak up on her you can take her by surprise, grab her & demand to know who’s going to die. In some cases, you can get her to stop washing if the person is someone you want to save, or get her to answer other questions (though you may then have to answer her questions too…) 🧺

However, it has also been said by some that even just hearing her lament –

“‘Si do leine, ‘si do leine ta mi nigheadh/‘Tis thy shroud, ‘tis thy shroud that I am washing”

– &/or just the “slac, slac” of her pounding the shroud she was washing could be enough to put you in danger. There’s a story of man hearing both of these sounds on the way home one night & telling his family when he got in. Then, not long after, when he was on the way home once more he crossed the river at the same place he’d heard the sounds before, but lost his footing on the stepping stones in the dark & drowned as there was no-one around to help him. (I read this story in The Silver Bough Vol One, by F. Marian McNeill – a great book on Scottish Folklore 📕)

The same book also tells of a custom in the Northeast of Scotland, in Aberdeenshire, for travellers to carry extra oatcakes or something similar with them, so that they could leave some behind at any wells or springs they passed. This was supposed to ensure that the Mnathan-Sìthe/Banshees (“Fairy Women”) wandering the area would let them pass through without trouble💧

A slightly less famous type of Ban-Sìthe/Banshee is the Caointeach or Caoineag (“Wailing Woman”) – she also mournfully wails to foretell death but usually remains unseen & so unlike the Bean-Nighe cannot be approached. She was said to have been heard before tragedies like the massacre of Glencoe & some clans or areas are said to have had their own Caointeach. Click/tap to read a story of a one such Caointeach in the Rhinns of Islay 🚪💦

When visible, the appearance of Mnathan-Sìthe/Banshees varies greatly across regions & types. In some places, such as Mull & Tiree, Mnathan-Nighe (“Washerwomen”) are said to have strange features such as one eye, one nostril, one large tooth & “long breasts”; however in other areas such as Perthshire they’re simply described as being short, plump & dressed in green. Other types of Ban-Sìthe such as the Leannan-Sìthe (“Fairy lover”) of the Highlands & Islands, or the Fairy/Elf Queen of Southern Scotland are said to be extremely beautiful (though sometimes that changes later on!) & human-sized ✨ (Source: The Gaelic Otherworld by John Gregorson Campbell, edited by Ronald Black)

Additionally, an alternative origin story for Mnathan-Nighe in particular in some places is that rather than being Mnathan-Sìthe, they are actually the ghosts of human women who died in childbirth who are bound to wash their clothes until the time they would have otherwise naturally died – this can be prevented by making sure all her clothes are washed immediately after death. These spirits don’t seem to always necessarily predict death, though they do wail/lament & can apparently cause those who hear them to overcome by weakness & fatigue 🌫 (Source: also The Gaelic Otherworld)

📖 Dictionary/Pronunciation Guide for Scottish Gaelic

👀 More articles on this topic to follow – will link them here in future when done. In the meantime feel free to have a look at any of the blog posts on similar topics shown below ⬇️

(📸 Featured Photo credit: Me, Glencoe)

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