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)

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.

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[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.


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

Author: Shanon Sinn

The Spirit of Vancouver Island. Nature Beings, Shapeshifters, Ghosts & Ancestor Spirits. The Earth is Sacred.

16 thoughts on “The Banshee: Ghost of the Celts”

  1. @shannonsinn im doing a folklore pidcast, ep 1 is the banshee… Would it be possible to use the annonymous story you recited above for the podcast, as a modern ecperience?

    1. absolutely! make sure to leave the link to your podcast when it’s ready. I’m sure readers will be interested in checking it out.

  2. i love the folktale but i am looking for a sacrifice folk tale its the Scottish or Irish folktale i think called the raven in red its about this women with fair skin,black hair, and a red cloak and takes children in the winter that’s all i know but i want to know more of the origins and i was hoping you could help my iv been trying to find things but its as if there are bits and pieces missing and i want your help if you see this i will be thankful and e-mail me if you find something or just post it you may not see this or something but please i would love your help to find more.

    1. Hi Summer,

      I’m not familiar with this story off the top of my head. I’ll respond to your comment if I come across anything in the future. I might be able to research this story this summer, even though I don’t have a lot of extra time. You’ve made me curious. She sounds beautiful – in a visually artistic sort of way.

  3. This is from a message that was sent directly to me. He doesn’t want his name to be public but to remain anonymous. I asked if I could still share his story and he sent me an edited version of what he’d previously sent me. That’s why this is written so well.

    1) Here you go, had my wife looking over my shoulder lol correcting my spelling, grammar, and giving some of her memories of the incident

    2) It was approximately 2:00 pm in December 1994 on a beautiful bright sunny afternoon with pure white snow covering everything outside. I laid on the couch to get some rest as I’d had a sleepless night the evening before. I remember the soft music of Easy 101 playing on the stereo and I felt warm, cozy, and comfortable. I drifted off to sleep.

    When I awoke, I was unable to move my body but was aware of everything around me – the music playing, the sun reflecting off the snow through the window. I was also very aware of something behind me. My head was laying towards the upstairs hallway in our side-split house. I could feel this magnetic presence but couldn’t turn to see it. I mustered all my energy and somehow was able to leave my body and move towards the hallway.

    As I moved towards the steps leading to the bedrooms, I stopped abruptly. I was in awe and had never felt such ancient wisdom and power. I was utterly astonished! In breathtaking silence, a being stood before me. It seems fitting that I was at its foot level as I felt I was so inferior and truly humbled myself. I trembled at the magnificence. Words cannot describe how it felt. A truly spiritual connection.

    It instilled the word “banshee” in my mind, but I didn’t know what it meant back then! I felt to gaze, was to look at a God with magnificent flowing silvery grey hair, slightly wavy that reached its elbows and seemingly minature, sparkling electronic currents flowing through it’s hair, like hundreds of tiny glow worms. The eyes were a transluscent grey/blue, like looking into crystal balls that held the universe. I could not hold the eye contact, it was too powerful a feeling. The wisdom of the ages creased its face. It’s robe was a long flowing burlap-like, linen-coloured tunic with many intricate tassels about 6 inches from the bottom of the robe that just touched the carpet. I couldn’t sense any gender and I truly felt I was in the presence of royalty.

    Then BAM, a blast of white light and I was back in my body. I couldn’t get the word “banshee” out of my mind. It was like one of those repeating tunes that keeps playing over and over in your head. When my wife got home I timidly told her about my exhilarating experience. She knew I had many premonitions and psychic experiences, and was not as excited about such things as I was. Her face said, “Not again.” I convinced her to go to the library with me to research “banshees”. These were the days before Google and the internet.

    When we got there, we looked through the library catalogue drawers to find anything on “banshees”. We couldn’t find anything but decided to look through the book section on spiritual/religious topics. There were very few people in the library and no one was in our immediate area. We walked towards the long aisle of books, and just as we turned the corner, a large book the size of an old bible like you might find on display at a church, fell off the second from the top shelf. It was about three quarters of the way down the aisle, maybe 30 feet in front of us. We both looked on the back side of the bookshelf to see if someone had pushed it off the shelf, but nobody was there!!

    The heavy, old book was like an encyclopedia on supernatural and spiritual topics. I knew I would find the topic of banshees in this book before I even picked it up. None of the banshee descriptions were as awesome as what I had experienced.

    I later tried to repeat this experience. I was able to pull myself from my body only a few more times back then, but never again did I have the privilege of connecting with my awsome spirit friend. In one of my “out-of-body” episodes, again on a sunny warm day with soft music playing, I moved from my body towards the upstairs hallway. I tripped on some old childrens toys, maybe from the 50’s era, which included a wooden sleigh and some wooden blocks – the kind with the carved and painted alphabet on them. They were certainly not from our reality. Each time I managed to pull away from my body, it seemed like only seconds and I was slammed back into my body, by a tremendously powerful white blast of light. These episodes are like moving in and out of an alternate dimension/reality.

    I still have some interesting experiences that are similar with “spirit” entities, but none so awe-inspiring as my encounter with what I believe was a banshee. I’ve got to tell you, the being I was visited by was Magnificent, and in no way an evil or scary being. I actually crave another visit!

    3) Let me know what you think, I’ve never told anyone other than immediate family, till today. Must be for a reason, by the way, my grandmother was a Kennedy and my other grandmother was a Sproule, and you know were they came from, the green isle!

  4. It was 10 AM in the morning, iI was off work but too lazy to get up, the music was marching band music,sounded like a parade coming through my bedroom.

    1. That’s really fascinating. Thanks again for sharing. Now, whenever the Banshee comes up I’ll think of your story.

  5. I saw what I now assume was a banshee in 1975. I was wide awake laying in bed with blankets over my head to shut out sunlight coming in my window, I heard music, it kept getting louder till it sounded like a marching band in my bedroom,looked up to see an old woman in green dress bending over as if laughing or moaning about something,she had long black braided hair and a red scarf. As soon as I took my eyes off her the music stopped and she was gone.. very weird.My old boss had died he was irish. I found out 3 weeks after this happened.

    1. Thanks for sharing Paul. I got a chill reading about your experience, which almost never happens to me anymore (An unfortunate side effect of hearing too many ghost stories). This is a great account. Interesting details with the dress, scarf, and hair colour. This definitely fits into the Banshee category. What kind of music was it? And you mentioned sunlight, did this happen during the day?

      1. It happened around 10 AM , I was off work and just laying in bed to lazy to get up when it occurred, the music got so loud it sounded like a marching band coming through my room, My hair on my arms stand on end when I talk about it ,even today. At first I thought she was laughing but after reading up on banshees I assumed it was wailing or moaning.


  7. I’m trying to find someone to relate to. I have seen what I thought was a banshee when I was very young. I woke up in the middle of the night, looked to my right and saw a screaming ghost with hollow eyes, she was see through, i closed my eyes hoping it would go away, but every time I opened my eyes, she would scream. Scared stiff for several minutes I kept my eyes closed and got the courage to roll on my back and look up, that’s when i saw a cloud type figure above me, it looked like a hag or hunched back woman. Her back was facing me and her arms were moving back and fourth like she was sewing or something. In my doorway stood a man with grey hair and a pristine dark blue suit staring at me. I didn’t know about banshees at all ( I was only 6 or 7) it was not until later in high school I was talking to a friend about it and she said it was a banshee! I just want some answers about what this all means.

    1. Hi Tori, thank you for sharing your story.
      Your account is interesting, but it must have been frightening as well.
      It sounds like the hollow-eyed woman and the cloud figure were the same apparition. Is this correct, or were there three entities? Also, was the man in the suit in modern clothing or was the suit more old fashioned? Also, do you remember if anyone passed away shortly after you experienced this? Finally, where exactly did this happen? Country-wise and city as well as the building and if it was old etc.
      I hope you don’t mind the questions. The extra details will help me understand what you were experiencing a little better, and I might be able to point you towards similar stories.

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