Why I Formed the Society of Banshee Supporters
Nearly a decade ago, I created SOBS, the Society of Banshee Supporters. Passion drove me to create the group. The main motivating emotion was outrage. Secondarily, I felt compassion. I thought it was time someone stood up for banshees and did something to fight against the increasing defamation of these kind-hearted faeries. What’s that? You’re surprised I’ve referred to them as faeries? You thought they were ghosts, or worse, monsters. If that’s what you thought, I must alert you to the fact that you’ve been conditioned and misled by American pop culture’s distortion of one of Irish folklore’s best faeries. This week’s post is dedicated to my favorite faeries with the goal of enlightening minds and, hopefully, changing a few hearts.
The Inciting Incident
I’ll start with the inciting incident. Sometime between 2012 and 2014 (I don’t remember the precise year), I watched an episode of Charmed. The episode was entitled “Who’s Barking Now?” In the interest of full disclosure, I love the series, Charmed. If you’ve never seen it, here’s a quick synopsis. It’s about three sisters who, in their twenties, discover they are witches, but not just any witches. They are the Charmed Ones, three witches prophesied to be the most powerful witches of all time, destined to fight (weekly) against the forces of evil. It’s a great show. But, at the time, I was new to it, watching episodes for the first time even though the show was in reruns. Admittedly, I’m sometimes late to the party.
Back to the plot thread. In this particular episode, the “evil” the sisters have to deal with is a banshee. She is gray-haired and toothy. She screams almost incessantly, causing dogs to bark and howl, and glass to shatter. The banshee (in this depiction) seeks out the broken-hearted, not just the sad, but people who are in deep, deep pain. Once she finds them, she kills them with her screams. In this episode, the sisters consult their Book of Shadows, which is a kind of encyclopedia of bad beings as well as a compendium of spells for vanquishing evil. The entry on banshees describes them as “demons” who feed off people’s pain. Later in the episode, it is revealed that they were once witches who, having heard another banshee’s screams, turn into banshees themselves.
What a bunch of hooey!
The Reaction Action
Before I finished watching this episode, I was sputtering with anger. And when it was over, it wasn’t over. I was so upset by this defamatory depiction of the Irish folklore being that I felt compelled to do something. Ultimately, I formed the Facebook group, the Society of Banshee Supporters, aka SOBS.
It’s a silly story, I know. But it’s true. And there is an important point underpinning it. That Charmed episode is not the only place in American pop culture where banshees are depicted as evil, predatory monsters. That has become the American banshee stereotype, and it is wrong. Plain and simply incorrect. So, let’s talk facts.
The Irish Banshee
Banshees originated in Irish folklore. The name itself is a kind of portmanteau of two Irish words, ban and sidhe. Respectively, they mean “woman” and “faerie” (or “of the faerie mounds). Since in Irish the adjective usually follows the noun, ban sidhe translates in English to “faerie woman.” W.B Yeats, the great writer and Irish folklorist, lists the banshee as one of the “solitary faeries” (as opposed to the trooping faeries). So, while in latter Irish folklore, there are stories of banshees who are the ghosts of young women who died sudden, violent deaths, such as from drowning, in their origin, banshees are female faeries. Nowhere in Irish folklore are they ever called monsters.
To be sure, stories of the banshee strike fear into Irish hearts but not because these faeries are predatory or homicidal. It’s because they are harbingers of death. Seeing—or hearing one—is a sign that someone is about to die. Banshees don’t kill humans. They don’t even choose who is going to die. They simply warn people of the coming tragedy. They are messengers. And they’re more than that.
Banshees adopt a human family to look after and minister to. When a member of that family is about to die, the faerie goes to warn the family to help them prepare. She does this by wailing. Note: wailing, not screaming. The banshee wails because she is grieving the person’s death. Irish folk tales describe the banshee’s wail as beautiful and, at the same time, so intensely sad it can break your heart. Many who claim to have seen a banshee say her sorrow is inconsolable.
Think about that. The banshee is so distraught by the human’s death that she cries in devastation and cannot be comforted. Does that seem monstrous? It’s not. The banshee is one of the most compassionate of all the Irish faeries. Banshees have even been known to attend funerals and keen. Merriam-Webster describes keening as lamenting through making a long, loud cry of sorrow.
Well into the twentieth century, in Ireland having a family banshee was considered an honor as not all families have them. In older folklore, the more banshees at your funeral, the better as it was an indication that you were either a person of great importance or great holiness.
From Faerie to Monster
How, then, did banshees go from being honored and respected to being depicted as monsters? The answer isn’t simple. A dissertation likely could be written about it including the topics of the changes that occur with the transplantation of Irish folklore into an American cultural environment, the differences between a nineteenth century mindset and twenty-first century one, attitudes and prejudices about women, as well as other factors.
One thing is certain, banshees are, and have always been, associated with death. That makes the thought of them scary. The fear of death then gets projected onto the messenger. Even the Irish who understood the goodness and compassion of the banshee dreaded encountering one. With time, the banshee transformed from a harbinger of death to a bringer of death.
But it’s time to reclaim the banshee’s goodness. In my novel, Music of Dragons, my protagonist’s mother, Keira n’Gaela is a banshee. She is tender, caring, and compassionate both to her daughter and to her human charges. She never screams, but she does cry and, when appropriate, wails. This goes against the American stereotype, and I am hoping it will give readers a fresh image of a banshee.
Speaking of images, Keira doesn’t have gray hair, nor is she old or ugly. She is beautiful, looks mid-thirty-ish, and has long black hair that shimmers with purple lights. This is another step back towards the Irish banshee who could appear as an old hag but didn’t always. Irish banshees can appear one of three ways: as a hag, as a motherly noblewoman, or as a young woman of unearthly beauty.
It’s important to note that, in Irish folklore, banshees didn’t just serve as messengers of death. They cared for and looked after the human families they chose to adopt. Being faeries, they could help out families and individuals when they had a mind to. Take, for example, the story of Clíodhna, queen of the North Munster banshees, who helped Colum MacCarthy first with a lawsuit, and then with the building of Blarney Castle. Click here to read her story.
Now that you know the truth about banshees, please spread the word. Become a Banshee Supporter and help rehabilitate the reputation of these most caring of Irish faeries. You never know. Your banshee might reward you for it.
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Slan go foil!