IRISH FAERIES, Part. 2: Messengers of Death, Aquatic Shape-shifters, and Soul Hunters
Last week’s blog discussed the two general categories of Irish Faeries and went into detail about a few of the Solitary Faeries. This week’s blog is about three more Irish faeries: the Merrows, the Sluagh Sidhe, and the Banshee.
The Banshee is the most famous of the trio but much of her fearsome reputation is
undeserved. Most of contemporary belief about the Banshee is inaccurate or simply untrue. More on that later. The Banshee is a Solitary Faerie. The Merrows and the Sluagh are not. Nor are they Trooping Faeries, per se, as neither, in their natural state, walk.
The Merrows spend much of their time swimming. The word merrow is derived from the Irish words muir (sea) and oigh (maid). So the name means “sea maid.” This, of course, brings to mind mermaids, and there are similarities between Merrows and mermaids, although they are not exactly the same. “Sea maid” is a bit of a misnomer anyway because there are male as well as female Merrows. The two genders differ considerably in appearance. Yeats described the males as having “green teeth, green hair, pig’s eyes, and red noses.” Strangely, the females look like beautiful human women except that they have fish tails and slightly webbed fingers.
Unlike mermaids, female Merrows wear a red cap with feathers on it. When they come onto shore, they remove the cap. Then they can shape-shift into one of two forms. Frequently, they take on the appearance of small hornless cows. At other times, their tails are replaced by legs and they look human, but with a captivating loveliness. A mortal man who desires to marry a Merrow woman can accomplish it by stealing and hiding her cap. She cannot transform back into her natural state without the magical cap. Many folktales recount stories of Irish fisherman doing this then coercing the sea maid into marrying them. The fisherman and the sea maid may stay married for many years and even have children together, but she will never give up searching for her cap. If she finds it, she will leave husband and children behind and return to the sea forever,
The Sluagh Sidhe are much scarier and way more dangerous than the Merrows. In fact, the Sluagh are among the most feared of the Irish Faeries. The phrase sluagh sidhe means “faerie host.” Sometimes it is translated as “faerie army.” While the Sluagh is sometimes referred to as “The Unforgiven Dead,” the folklore goes back to pre-Christian times. In the article, "Irish Folklore of Yore and Yesterday: Sluagh," gotireland.com says the Sluagh originally were “some ill-begotten form of fairy folk, with no reason, no loyalty, no mercy,” and that they were essentially “fae gone amuck.” After Christianity spread across Ireland, the Sluagh became “a pack of unforgiven, unrepentant, dead sinners.” But that’s not all they are. Among the Sluagh are human souls who’ve been enslaved by these horrid Faeries.
The Sluagh are gruesome in appearance. They resemble humans but are skeletal with a bit of flesh still clinging to their bones. A few strands of dark hair hang from their skulls. They have beak-like mouths from which protrude sharp, pointed teeth. Their hands and feet are bony claws. They are one of the few Irish Faeries which have wings, but theirs are not beautiful and delicate like a butterfly’s. The Sluagh Sidhe’s wings are large, leathery, and bat-like. When in the closed position, they are held close to the body and resemble a cloak.
In the western part of Ireland, folk belief says that, at midnight on Samhain, The Hell Gate of Ireland, located in Connaught, flings open to let out the Sluagh Sidhe. They soar into the human realm, accompanied by red birds and the Cu Sidhe or hell hounds. They then proceed to ruin crops, kill cattle, sheep, dogs, and cats with poisoned fairy darts, and they carry off humans who are traveling alone in the dark.
But the Irish need to worry about the Faerie Host more than once a year as it seems the Sluagh are often out hunting for souls. This is particularly true in the case of people who are very sick or dying. The Sluagh are said to fly in from the west, looking like a flock of crows or ravens. They will fly in through open windows of any room where someone lies sick and dying. So keep those west-facing windows shut! They then steal the soul of those who have not received the last rites. They also will come after anyone who is heart-sick and despairing. And they will seek out anyone who speaks their name out loud. The only way, it is said, to save yourself from them is to put someone between you and them—but that means endangering that person’s soul.
The Sluagh will try to steal the souls of healthy, happy people too. This is more difficult, but apparently they like a challenge. The healthy and happy have ways to escape capture however. They can run indoors when the sun sets. They can avoid dark, secluded places such as woods and lonely country roads. Finally, they can stay home at night and not go traveling alone in the dark.
If the Sluagh captures a human soul, it is doomed forever to be a part of the Faerie Host, helping to catch other poor souls.
The Banshee is another Faerie whose very name can cause people to tremble. And there is good reason to be afraid of encountering her as she is a messenger of death. That said, Hollywood, and American television shows and video games have maligned this Faerie who once was honored. There was a time when having a family Banshee was a thing to be proud of. Not all Irish families have one.
First, let’s dispense with the absolute slander. Banshees are not crazed, predatory monsters. They are not murderous and they do not kill humans with their screams. Actually, they don’t scream at all; they wail. Sometimes, a Banshee’s cry is described as piercing, but it also has been said to be low and pleasant. Some people have said that her lament is so sad as to be heart-wrenching. In some parts of Ireland, she doesn’t cry or wail at all. She taps on the window or delivers her message through three unexplained knocks in the house. What is her message? That someone in the family is about to die. She does not, however, kill the person.
Sometimes, Banshees are believed to be ancestral ghosts. Even some Irish folk stories depict them this way, usually as the spirits of young women who have died violently, often through murder or drowning. Her name, however, reveals her true nature. The word banshee comes from two Irish words, bean (woman) and sidhe (faerie). So a Banshee is a faerie woman. (Banshees, unlike Merrows, are exclusively female.)
Banshees, I think, are the most compassionate of Irish Faeries. They attach themselves to a specific family and then dedicate themselves to warning the family of the impending death of a member. This is actually a kindness. After all, it lessens the shock and helps the family start to make preparations for the wake and funeral. Irish wakes were held in the home and required a lot of work, getting everything in shape and ready for the onslaught of visitors. The family Banshee sometimes also came to keen or mourn the deceased at the funeral, crying with abundant tears over the loss.
Having more than one Banshee at your funeral used to be a big deal in terms of status as having numerous Banshees in attendance indicated that the deceased was either a great person (e.g. a hero or a king) or a very holy person.
Finally, do Banshees really look like old hags? Yes, they can. They also can look like noble middle-aged women or beautiful young ladies. A Banshee usually is dressed in a gray or green dress or in white burial robes. Her hair is long and either red or dark (unless she’s a hag, then it’s grey). She often is seen combing it with a silver comb. Just for fun, check out the Irish traditional song, ”Spanish Lady,” on YouTube (the Celtic Woman rendition is wonderful) or pull up the lyrics on Google and read them. I have never read nor heard that this song was about a Banshee, but there are several details in the lyric which make me think the Spanish Lady is a Banshee. One such detail is how she is brushing her hair with a silver comb laying on her lap. Let me know what you think in the comments!
Please share this information with everyone you can. Banshees deserve for us to restore their good name!
Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed the information. Next week: Scottish and Welsh Faeries. Please like and share this blog on social media and don't forget to sign up to get the blog delivered to your inbox.
Posts are published every Thursday.
To get the post delivered free to your inbox, just sign up in the upper right corner of this post. Thanks!