Science and Ghosts

Science and Ghosts

“Science itself does not always know why a thing is so.” – God’s World: A Treatise on Spiritualism (T. W. Stead. 1919)

So Mote It Be

Ghosts, they’re everywhere! From the pages of the Bible to the old building down the street, people have been reporting hauntings for thousands of years. Every family has a ghost story or two, as does every town. They’ve even spawned a multimillion-dollar industry in the form of books, movies and television. Whether we see them as a fantastical source of entertainment, or as dark messengers from an unseen world, one thing’s entirely certain: ghosts are here to stay.

If you’ve ever made even a cursory visit to any of those online ghost sites, however, you would’ve noticed that there’s an even darker side to the stories of hauntings: Trolls! Hundreds of people – maybe even thousands – have taken it upon themselves to declare – because they claim they’ve never seen or experienced anything “paranormal” themselves – that the rest of us are just plain, bat-shit crazy.

Continue reading “Science and Ghosts”

The Skippy Experiment

Skippy Experiment

The Philip Experiment, discussed last week, has since been replicated several times. The most successful of these efforts, to date, has been the Skippy Experiment, which has also been referred to as the “Sydney Experiment.” This study took place in Sydney, Australia and is often said to be ongoing.

From the start, the Australian team focused on a fictitious character named Skippy Cartman. Skippy was a 14-year-old girl who had been murdered by an older man. According to the story, Skippy had been having an affair with her Catholic schoolteacher, Brother Monk. When the beautiful girl became pregnant, she went to this man – who she loved – for direction and advice. Fearing discovery by the church or other schoolchildren’s parents, however, Brother Monk murdered her by strangling her. He then buried Skippy in a shallow grave. This grave was beneath the floorboards of a work shed on her parent’s property. When the body was discovered, it had already suffered a year of exposure to earthly elements and decomposition. As a result, investigators were unable to determine that the young girl had been pregnant at the time of death. Also, Brother Monk had since moved to another community and did not fall under suspicion. His crimes against Skippy were never discovered.

With the fictitious story in hand, the six participants in the Skippy Experiment claimed to make headway in the creation of their own “ghost.” According to one source, the experimenters met with success only after they changed the type of table they were seated around during the experiment:

“The group met once a week for five months but saw no results. Frustrated, they dispensed with the agency Skippy and began sitting around a light, three-leg card table. Success! The first night, they heard a light tapping noise from somewhere inside the table. The second sitting brought startling results, as well. After 15 minutes, the table began to move seemingly of its own accord. Soon, it was spinning around, balanced on one leg, dragging participants behind it.”

This was a fantastical claim, and it could only be supported by hard evidence. The group – under the leadership of veteran paranormal researcher Michael Williams – reported a great deal of continued success including unexplained knocking and scratching sounds. As late as 2007, there were claims that experimenters would soon capture audio or visual evidence of these manifestations and share these with the public. No evidence from the Skippy Experiment, however, has ever been shared. We can only assume, after so many years, that all attempts to capture this evidence has failed.

 

Mathews, Rupert. Poltergeists and Other Hauntings. 2009.

http://www.articledestination.com/Article/Skippy-experiment/4887

http://www.unexplained-mysteries.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=193764

http://paranormal.about.com/library/weekly/aa102201b.htm

Image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BolexH16.jpg

The Philip Experiment

Philip Experiment
Séance conducted by John Beattie, Bristol, England, 1872

The Philip Experiment

“A poltergeist will usually claim to be whatever its human observers believe it to be” – Poltergeists & Other Hauntings (Rupert Mathews. 2009)

In 1972, Canadian Dr. G. Owen conducted the Philip Experiment. This was a study that would test his theory that, “Ghosts have an objective reality, but they are created out of the minds of those who see them.” A ghost, he proposed, was basically a hallucination created by those who believed in it.

In the Philip Experiment a group of individuals met regularly and began to focus on a fictitious character with the aim of creating a ghost. This “spirit” was named Philip and was given a complete life biography including a tragic end. According to the group, Philip’s wife had murdered Philip’s real love by having her tortured and burnt at the stake for being a witch. The man had then fallen into a deep depression before eventually killing himself.

For a period of time nothing happened to the experimenters. The group then decided to add the 19th century practice of table turning, which was used by earlier experimenters to produce some interesting phenomena. All of the participants, it was agreed upon, needed to believe in the paranormal but not feel responsible for creating any phenomena themselves. If something unusual did occur, they all agreed that it would be met with a lighthearted acceptance.

After about a month into the Philip Experiment the table actually began to tremor. In the weeks that followed, the table then began to rock back and forth dramatically. Finally, a knocking sound was heard while they were seated around it.

The experimenters told the “ghost” to knock once for “yes” and twice for “no” and began to ask it questions. They always addressed this entity as Philip. Through the knocking communication, Philip gave a biography of himself that matched the fabricated story. This was complete to the smallest detail. Philip, however, continued to add unmentioned smaller details to the stories that had not been created by the group. When these details were checked, however, it would be determined that they were not always historically accurate.

The table itself then began to demonstrate some very strange behaviors. All of the participants were frisked and the environment was controlled. The table began to move even when no one was touching it. At one point, it even became stuck in the doorway as it attempted to leave the room. When this entity, Philip, was asked to manipulate the lights he would do so and they would flicker.

The volunteers’ knocks were recorded and compared with the knocks produced by Philip. There were distinct differences, however, as Philip’s knocks did not vibrate as long.

This activity was recorded and later captured on film. The table was moved to various locations but the activity continued. At a later period of time, the experiment was replicated by a new group of participants.

Many have noted the similarities between Philip’s abilities and those of the poltergeist. These experimenters had tried to create a physical manifestation of a ghost, but instead were rewarded with a different type of haunting altogether: the Poltergeist.

There have been those who’ve claimed that the original results from the experiment were hoaxed, but this has never been confirmed. The usual criticism is that the experiment lacked the control factors, which would have made it scientific. Attempts by other groups to replicate the Philip Experiment have usually, but not always, failed. The most successful – though not as powerful – replication has been the Sydney or “Skippy” Experiment.

Interestingly, the Philip Experiment is often quoted as being the inspiration for the upcoming movie the Quiet Ones, which Hammer Films says is a “follow-up” to Woman in Black. The movie’s scheduled for release on April 25th, 2014.

The first Quiet Ones trailer was released on October 31, 2013.

So Mote It Be

Philip Experiment documentary with actual footage (7:40, 9:40, etc.).

Mathews, Rupert. Poltergeists and Other Hauntings. Arcturus. 2009.

Owen, Iris. Sparrow, Margaret. Conjuring up Philip. Harper and Row. 1976.

Schill, Brian. Stalking Darkness. IPRF. 2008.

http://ranprieur.com/readings/psychokinetic.html

http://www.empireonline.com/news/story.asp?NID=33673

 

The Eight Stages of a Poltergeist Haunting

Poltergeist – Therese Selles. 1911

The eight stages of a poltergeist haunting has been taken from Rupert Mathews’ book Poltergeists. For anyone interested, Mathews’ book is well researched and a great read. He covers the many different characteristics of what we would now consider to be the classic poltergeist haunting. Mathews does not necessarily subscribe to the common poltergeist theories of ghosts or psychokinesis, but instead offers many other possible explanations such as fraud or misidentification. Within the book, Mathews covers historic and modern cases, investigations and scientific experiments, as well as famous early mediums and fraudsters. Mathews concludes there are generally eight stages to an “idealized poltergeist visitation” or haunting where fraud has not been detected:

Stage One: Beginnings

The activity usually begins with faintly registered sounds. This is usually a scratching noise, which may be disregarded as being made by rodents or to be the sounds of water pipes. These noises are usually only heard at night.

Stage Two: Noises

These sounds will then become harder to ignore. These noises resemble knuckles knocking on wood or other objects such as glass. Sometimes, very loud cracking or unexplained banging noises are heard but this is less likely. Objects can sometimes be felt to vibrate. At this stage the activity may also be heard during daylight hours.

Stage Three: Moving Objects

Mathews does state that sometimes Stage Three begins at the same time as Stage Two. Objects may be moved inexplicably. Stone throwing, or lithobolia, is very common. Objects may disappear and reappear. This activity usually focuses around a certain type of object such as a specific ornament or keys. It’s rare to actually see the item be moved. Items may be hot to the touch immediately thereafter.

Stage Four: Apports and Disapports

When an object appears from out of nowhere it’s called an apport. When an object disappears “into oblivion” it is called a disapport. These types of activities are extremely rare but have been reported.

Stage Five: Communication

In some cases communication is established through a code of knocks. This may be two knocks indicating a “yes” and one knock indicating a “no” or some other established pattern. Sometimes speech is achieved. In almost all of these cases there seems to be a gradual process which starts with whistles, slurps, growls and so on. At first, mutterings or distant voices will be heard. Next, the voice will be said to sound robotic. Finally, witnesses will claim regular speech is achieved. The poltergeist will then be able to speak as a normal person and will begin to make statements. Claims by the poltergeist about their identity are usually grande. They may claim to have been a murderer, a victim, a suicide, or even a famous person. When claims are checked out they will usually be determined to be false. According to Mathews, it is rare for a poltergeist to have knowledge of events outside of what is widely known within the community. Mathews does not mention this, but it is interesting that many claimed spirit-contacts through a Ouija board also share these same characteristics of deceit[i].

Stage Six: Climax

The poltergeist activity will suddenly increase to a point it had never reached before. This may last several hours or several days. If the poltergeist can talk it may state that it’s going to be leaving soon. Unlike previous claims, however, this will generally turn out to be true.

Stage Seven: Decline

According to Mathews, “the decline is almost always much shorter than the build-up.” The poltergeist will lose its abilities in reverse and gradually become weaker.

Stage Eight: Endings

The activity may slowly skip to an end. Sometimes, this poltergeist activity will reach a dramatic conclusion. In many cases, exorcisms or blessings may prematurely kill the activity. Sometimes, the focus person leaving the premise may cause the activity to cease.

Other Features

The “idealized” poltergeist haunting will usually have a focus person. According to Mathews, this focus person is usually a teenage female but may be of any age or gender. Some investigators believe that this poltergeist activity will center around one person but this is not always the case. Mathews also states that, “it is often said that focus people are usually in a stressful situation of some kind.” Examples given within the book are a divorce and an attempted rape.

Also of note, poltergeists sometimes manifest physically. This apparition may be smoky or misty. Sometimes it will take on a human form. Sometimes the apparition may appear very strange such as in an animal or part animal form. Wet spots may also manifest which smell like urine. Sometimes this manifestation can be seen as it is occurring and seems to come out of nowhere.

Witnesses will sometimes claim to have been harmed by the poltergeist entity. Scratches and bite marks are often reported to have appeared on the person’s skin without explanation. In some cases, animals will perish. Fires will sometimes start in the home inexplicably. In the Bell Witch case the poltergeist claimed to have killed Jack Bell. In one case – which is not in Mathews book – a woman named Doris Bither claimed to have been raped by a poltergeist. Witnesses later supported her claim. The Bithers’ poltergeist account and investigation was made into the 1981 movie ‘the Entity’ starring Barbara Hershey. For the full interview of Doris Bither’s surviving son please go to: ghost theory

It’s important to note that the poltergeist distinction is not as clear as many imagine. The characteristics of these hauntings often share many similarities with conventional hauntings. The word poltergeist basically means “noisy ghost” but has come to represent a specific idealized type of haunting. Many individuals separate poltergeists from traditional ghosts because they believe that the spirits of the deceased causes other types of hauntings and there are psychic explanations for poltergeist activity. One early theory was that poltergeist activity was caused by uncontrolled female teenage sexual energy, an unfounded belief that persists to this day.

Poltergeist Haunting

[i] For more on the apparent deceptive nature of spirits consider reading Hungry Ghosts by Joe Fisher 1991, which is a very interesting study.

The Cat in Celtic Lore: Demon, Witch, or Lover?

The Cat in Celtic lore is a beast both loved and abhorred. Those in pursuit of Otherworldly powers coveted him, but not in a way that lacked cruelty.  For those who despised powers said to exist outside of the church, the cat was an indication the devil’s hand was near. This belief would become so prevalent that simply owning a cat would become a dangerous affair when the witch trials began to spread across Europe.

A study of the Celtic cat reveals an ethical dilemma, which will shortly become apparent. A list of sources will be given at the end of this post, but I will not attach them to any one individual statement. By doing this, I hope to provide some accurate broad information while simultaneously avoiding disclosing specific information as far as the ritual use of cats.

It is my belief that spells are symbolic gestures, a prayer embraced by metaphor. Like a New Ager’s ‘vision board’ or the church’s rite of communion. I make these statements not to cause discourse or debate, but to openly criticize anyone who believes that there could ever be a reason to harm an animal for ritualistic purposes. There are those who would obviously disagree with me, but the way I see it, any living being’s life is not worth one’s own personal gain, unless it’s as a source of food. Those who practice these types of rituals are rarely very old, and never very wise. The beings they do seem to attract – metaphorically or not – do not seem interested in the individual’s wellbeing either…

There is a great deal of Celtic lore, which still exists in regards to the cat. Individual body parts were used in a number of spells in several different ways. Additionally, there were love spells that required certain organs ritualistically prepared. There was also a type of divination that involved the slow killing and roasting of a cat in a very specific way.  The cat that was used in these spells was usually black. The particular cat most often referred to is also male.

There were spells that used living cats as well. Conducting one spell could transfer a disease from a sick animal to a hapless cat. Several other rituals allowed evil spirits to kill a cat so that the humans would be left alone. On the first Monday of winter, for example, the cat could be thrown outside of the home before the family had exited in order to placate any lingering hungry spirits.

“God save all here except the Cat.” – Irish saying.

There were many opportunities to divine the future by observing a Cat’s actions. If it jumped over a corpse, for instance, the next person who saw it would go blind. If it washed itself rain was coming. If the cat died in the house a human would also die shortly thereafter. If the cat jumped over food being prepared it was said that the person eating it would themselves conceive cats. A cat crossing the path of a bride, or anyone on New Year’s Day was considered unlucky for it warned of negative future events. If the cat crossed the path of a sailor, on the other hand, it was considered to be good luck. If a cat meowed for flesh it was believed that another animal was about to die.

The cat’s life was not highly valued, but the animal itself was treated with a great deal of caution. It was said that a witch’s cat was “endowed with reason.” These felines were also said to be vengeful, so great care was taken so as not to offend them. A cat could also be a spirit, an evil fairy, a shapeshifting witch, a demon, or the devil himself in disguise. For these reasons, the cat was often believed to be a spy for evil beings lurking outside the home. There was also a fairy cat that was known as the King of the Cats. Truthfully, he was much less a king than a vengeful protector spirit of the feline population in general.

Cat of Celtic Lore
The Love Potion. Evelyn de Morgan. 1903

There’s also an abundance of lore, which speaks of talking cats.  These are often Aesop-like tales or stories of shapeshifting witches. The cats are usually given human characteristics to the extreme. They are bards, warriors, and even sentries. One common Celtic story, for example, is of a Cat who allowed some travelers to feast upon his table. When one of the men tried to take advantage of his hospitality by stealing a necklace, however, the cat became a flaming arrow and incinerated the would-be thief.

In myth, the Celtic cat is a much more ambiguous entity. The Tuatha De Danaan god Nuada had one of his eyes replaced with one of his pet cat’s eyes. Cuchulain and his companions fought three cats in one tale, and in another the Fianna would fight against Cat-headed and dog-headed warriors who were part of an invading land force. Across the water, one of Arthur’s men named Gogyfwlch was said to have had cat eyes. Arthur himself later battled a cat that almost killed him. Elsewhere, there’s the story of an enchanted princess who spent one year as a Cat, one year as a swan, and one year as an otter. This shapeshifting theme, as we’ve seen before, was quite common in the Celtic world.

In the more modern stories, Cats were often associated with ghosts and demons. In one tale, a troublesome cat was drowned with a garter around its neck. The cat would later be seen in a boat with the same garter around its throat. In one early poltergeist account, an apparition of a Cat with a man’s head was seen when a bed was inexplicably set on fire. Though often left out of published accounts of poltergeists, these types of apparitions – that defy logic – are not unheard of. The Bell Witch poltergeist, for example, was said to have first appeared as having had the body of a dog and the head of a rabbit by at least one source. So maybe the apparition was a poltergeist? Then again, maybe the spirit was simply a leftover cousin of the cat-headed people who had fought the Fianna?

The 13th century Irish witch Alice Kytler was accused of having relations with a succubus that sometimes took the form of a black cat. Elsewhere, a source claimed that “the devils” could take the form of a weasel, cat, greyhound, moth, or bird. One Irish witness of witchcraft claimed to have seen a cat-like creature that was three times the size it should have been. The story implies that the apparition was a demon.

Cat of Celtic Lore
16th Century Woodcut

In Welsh and French myth, there was also the Palug Cat who was so powerful a being that it was called “one of the three plagues of the Isle of Mona.” It was this cat which Arthur, or sometimes Cai, was said to have defeated in battle. Arthur would later die from wounds sustained in a separate fight, but as many know there are tales that speak of his return to the land. Perhaps, this should offer us some measure of solace, for as one text claims of the cat:

“The wether [goat] they had been fighting with was the World, and the cat was the power that would destroy the world itself, namely, Death.”

No study of the Celtic Cat would be complete, without the mention of phantom cats being reported throughout the United Kingdom today. Despite a lack of evidence of a large black cat ever having been released in England’s rural countryside, there have literally been thousands of sightings in recent years. This cat is usually described as a black panther. It’s the belief of many that these cat sightings can be explained, and there’s a lot of evidence to support this. Until such a time the cat is captured, however, the story remains a modern folkloric account – which just happens to take place on the lands of the ancient Celts.

Although sources seem to disagree with one another in regards to the cat’s nature, there is one level of consistency found throughout. All agree that the Cat harbored, or hid, great power. The Cat in Celtic lore truly was a beast both loved and abhorred, and it would suffer through the ages because of it.

Cat of Celtic Lore
Witches Sabbath. Arthur Rackham. 1924

Sources:

Campbell, J. F. Popular Tales of West Highlands. 1890.

Carmichael, Alexander. Carmina Gadelica. 1900.

Crocker, Thomas Croften. Fairy Legends and Traditions. 1825.

Curtin, Jeremiah. Tales of the Fairies and of the Ghost World. 1895.

D’Este, Sorita & Rankine, David. Visions of the Cailleach. 2009.

Douglas, Sir George. Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales. 1773.

Ellison, Emily and Perry, Chuck. Liars and Legends: The Weirdest, Strangest, and Most Interesting Stories from the South. 2005.

Gregor, Walter. Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North East of Scotland. 1881.

Gregory, Lady Augusta. A Book of Saints and Womders. 1906.

Gregory, Lady Augusta. Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland. 1920.

Guest, Lady Charlotte. Mabinogion. 1877.

Henderson, George. Survivals in Belief Amongst Celts. 1911.

Jacobs, Joseph. Celtic Fairy Tales. 1892.

Jacobs, Joseph. More Celtic Fairy Tales. 1894.

Kuno, Meyer. The Voyage of Bran. 1895.

MacKillop, James. The Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 1998.

Mathews, Rupert. Poltergeists and Other Hauntings. 2009.

Moore, A. W. The Folk-Lore of the Isle of Man. 1891.

Rolleston, Thomas. Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race. 1911.

Seymour, St. John. Irish Witchcraft and Demonology. 1913.

Seymour, St. John & Neligan, Harry. True Irish Ghost Stories. 1914.

Wilde, Francesca. Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland. 1887.

Cat Eating Prey. Mark Marek. 2005

*the top image is by Clement Percheron. It’s available for use through Unsplash.

The Banshee: Ghost of the Celts

The Banshee’s arguably the most famous ghost of them all, and probably the least understood.

“When the Banshee calls she sings the spirit home. In some houses still a soft low music is heard at death.” – George Henderson 1911 (Survivals in Belief Amongst Celts)

There’s an Irish tradition promoting the Banshee as only ever interacting with certain families. Although folklorists have also made this statement in the past, it’s entirely false. The Banshee’s known by many different names, was encountered in many varied forms, and was believed to have existed by a wide array of people[i].

In Ireland, the Banshee is also called Banshie, Bean Si, Bean Sidhe, and Ban Side amongst other names. A great deal of surviving Banshee lore comes from outside of Ireland, however. In Scotland, for example, the Banshee may be referred to as Ban Sith or Bean Shith. On the Isle of Mann she’s called Ben Shee, while the Welsh call her close sister Cyhyraeth[ii].

The she in Banshee, or sidhe, suggests and older source for the stories. The sidhe were the old gods who had fled the Irish invaders to live inside of the hollow hills. They were also known as the Tuatha De Danaan or “the fair folk.”

Banshee: A female wraith of Irish or Scottish Gaelic tradition thought to be able to foretell but not necessarily cause death in a household.”  – James MacKillop (Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology)

In the 1887 book Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde, we’re told that the Irish Banshee was more likely to be beautiful, while the Scottish Banshee was more likely to appear in the image of an older crone-like woman. Like most things in Celtic lore, however, this wasn’t always consistent.

The Banshee would usually warn of death by: wailing, appearing as an apparition, playing or singing music, tapping on a window in the form of a crow, be seen washing body parts or armor at a stream, knocking at the door, whispering a name, or by speaking through a person that she had already possessed – a host or medium[iii]. The noble families of Ireland generally viewed the spirit’s attendance as a great honour. Some sources do say that the Banshee served only five Irish families, but others say that several hundred families had these spirits attached to them[iv]. The five families usually stated to have had Banshee attendants are the O’Neils, the O’Brians, the O’Gradys, the O’Conners, and the Kavanaghs. Many stories, however, are of other families.

The Ó Briains’ Banshee was thought to have had the name of Eevul[v], or Aibhill as she is called in the book True Irish Ghost Stories. Likewise, a great bard of the O’Connelan family had the goddess Aine (sometimes called Queen of Fairy), attend him in the role of a wailing Banshee in order to foretell – and honour – his death[vi]. Cliodhna (Cleena) is a goddess-like Munster Banshee, who people claimed was originally the ghost of a “foreigner.”  Most Banshees remained nameless, however.

The description of the Banshee varies a great deal throughout the many accounts. If she was young she often had red hair, but she could have “pale hair” as well. She was often described as wearing white, but sometimes she could be seen wearing green or other colors such as black or grey. Red shoes were sometimes mentioned, but so was a silver comb,[vii] which she either ran through her hair or left on the ground to capture some curious passerby. Most described her eyes as being red from crying, or keening, or to be menacing and evil looking. The eyes were also often said to be blue. In J.F. Campbell’s 1890 Popular Tales of the West Highlands, the Banshee was said to have webbed feet like a water creature. Sometimes she was wrapped in a white sheet or grey blanket – a statement that reveals an older funerary tradition and a possible source for the modern white sheet-ghosts of Halloween.

In True Irish Ghost Stories we’re told that the Banshee could not by seen by “the person whose death it [was] prognosticating.” This statement is not consistent with all of the stories either:

“THEN Cuchulain went on his way, and Cathbad that had followed him went with him. And presently they came to a ford, and there they saw a young girl thin and white-skinned and having yellow hair, washing and ever washing, and wringing out clothing that was stained crimson red, and she crying and keening all the time. ‘Little Hound,’ said Cathbad, ‘Do you see what it is that young girl is doing? It is your red clothes she is washing, and crying as she washes, because she knows you are going to your death against Maeve’s great army.’” – Lady Gregory 1902 (Cuchulain of Muirthemne – retelling of 12th CE)

Banshee
Watcher of the Ford. Eleanor Hull. 1904

The Banshee – who’s often said to have her roots in stories of Morrigan the Irish war goddess[viii] – could also follow families abroad. One famous story regarding the O’Grady family takes place along the Canadian coastline where two men die[ix]. St. Seymour shares another tale in which a partial Irish descendent sees a Banshee on a boat in an Italian lake. In Charles Skinner’s 1896 Myths and Legends of Our Own Land we’re also told of a South Dakota Banshee living in the United States.

The Banshee could also be a trickster of sorts. She was said to mess with “the loom” in Alexander Carmichael’s 1900 Carmina Gadelica. There’s even a blessing in the section, which is chanted over the item. In W.Y. Evens-Wentz’ 1911 Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries we’re told of a Banshee who could be placated by giving her barley-meal cakes on two separate hills. This action reminds us of the tithes often left for other trickster fairies, and doesn’t seem to be a customary gift one would leave for a ghost. As Katherine Briggs once said[x], however, fairies fall into two categories, “diminished gods and the dead.” Unfortunately, our modern conception of fairies does little to remind us that either one of these forms would be considered as a spirit-being today. As Evans-Wentz further explains:

“It is quite certain that the banshee is almost always thought of as the spirit of a dead ancestor presiding over a family, though here it appears more like the tutelary deity of the hills. But sacrifice being thus made, according to the folk-belief, to a banshee, shows, like so many other examples where there is a confusion between divinities or fairies and the souls of the dead, that ancestral worship must be held to play a very important part in the complex Fairy-Faith as a whole.” – W.Y. Evans-Wentz 1911 (Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries)

The Banshee being attached to a certain family could be extremely beneficial and would have not been seen as a negative. As already stated, any family would’ve been seen as extremely important if a Banshee (or several) attended them. In George Henderson’s 1911 Survival in Belief Amongst Celts, a Banshee, or Maighdeann Shidhe, even gave the “Blue Stone of Destiny” to the Scottish hero Coinneach Odhar. In return for favours, however, it would’ve been extremely important to honour these spirits whenever possible, either out of respect for the Banshee, or from a place of fear in order to placate them.

In modern times, the Banshee became associated more and more with evil. As a portent of death she shared many things in common with the approaching Carriage of Death, the death candles, Ankou[xi] or even with the Grim Reaper. In her more ancient visage, she could easily be compared to the Norse Valkyrie (as the Morrigan often is) or to any other Shieldmaiden whose task it was to collect the dead[xii]. To the commoner of modern times, such a role was reserved for the Angels of God and for the Holy Church alone.

Furthermore, the Banshee – like other mystic beings of Celtic lore – was also able to appear in various non-human forms. A fact which would later make her seem in league with the devil:   

 “The Banshee is dreaded by dogs. She is a fairy woman who washes white sheets in a ford by night when someone near at hand is about to die. It is said she has the power to appear during day-time in the form of a black dog, or a raven, or a hoodie-crow.” – Donald MacKenzie 1917 (Wonder Tales From Scottish Myth & Legend)

Whether the Banshee does, or ever did, exist is a matter of conjecture. One thing is certain, however, the most famous ghost of them all is the one in which few people actually know anything about. The Banshee was more than a shrieking omen of death. In fact, individual Banshees appeared and behaved quite differently from one another in different stories.  Her attachment to a particular family was a relationship that was embraced by the Celtic people with pride, and with honour. Her haunting of a particular place, on the other hand, was met with wary bribes. An unknown Banshee – like a stray dog – could have been seen as something quite different altogether. It would have been this Banshee that brought with it fear – which was usually seen as nothing short of a greeting from death itself.

The Banshee in Celtic folklore seems much more interesting, when we realize that many of our modern ghost stories share the exact same elements. A deceased female relative forewarning death, a disembodied voice, a spirit attached to a particular family, or a haunted landmark may not seem to have anything to do with a Banshee today, but none of these stories are really all that different from the old ones at all. Like it or not, in modern folklore the Banshee still remains. It’s only our terminology that has changed.

Old Yale Brewery Tall Tale Series
Vancouver, BC’s Old Yale Brewery: Tall Tale Series

[i]  James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 1998.

[ii]  (ibid)

[iii]  St. John Seymour and Harry Neligan. True Irish Ghost Stories. 1914.

[iv]  James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 1998.

[v]  Thos Westrop. Folklore. 1910.

[vi]  W.Y. Evans-Wentz. The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. 1911.

[vii]  This may be an overlap with the mermaid, which history likewise seems to have forgotten was also a spirit.

[viii]  James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 1998.

[ix] This would most likely be referring to the east coast but could also be the west coast, as well.

[x]  Katherine Briggs. The Fairies in Tradition and Literature. 1967.

[xii]  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shieldmaiden

The Banshee
The Banshee. Henry Maynell Rheam. 1897
Banshee
Bunworth Banshee. From Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland by Thomas Crofton Croker, 1825
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