The Banshee is a creation of Irish mythological lore, the facts of which are a bit disputed. She is a spirit who most cultures agree is a precursor of death. Even this basic premise is not always agreed, but the majority of reports have conceded this point. (Although a few reports in the U.S. have stipulated she is a bad omen, a ghost, or the spirit of a murdered woman-no future death forecasting abilities included.)
Most reports hold that the Banshee wails as a notification or warning of death of a family member. In Irish custom, women were sought to “keen” at the funerals of the recently departed, Some reports include a structured society of banshees, and if several banshees appear and wail, an important person connected to the family was going to die post haste. Some reports specify the banshee’s call could only be heard to foretell deaths of five prominent Irish families: the O’Neills, O’Briens, O’Connors, O’Gradys, and Kavanaghs. The family trees have been extended tremendously, however, since ancient times.
Other legends hold the banshee does not wail; she sings. Mournful singing, true, but singing nonetheless. Some ancient Irish beliefs saw the banshee as one of the Celtic war goddesses who would shriek over the battlefields in the form of a crow. (Arguably, some contemporary singers can be said to wail rather than sing, but that’s a topic for another day.) Suffice it to say, this is a fine point of contention.
The banshee’s form has been reported as spiritual for the most part. She has been known to appear in human form, and reported to warn prestigious members of Irish history of their impending demise. The banshee can appear as a lovely young woman, a matronly adult woman, or an old hag. In some old Irish folklore, a banshee sometimes appeared in spiritual form washing the blood out of battle clothes on the eve of battle. She has also been said to take the form of a crow, hare, or weasel, although these reports are more rare than her human form.
Interestingly enough, the Christian religions have eve weighed in on the legend of the banshee. Such explanations include: the banshee is a devil who wails for the souls that are lost to her as they ascend to heaven; banshees are familial guardian angels or souls of unbaptized children; banshees are the souls of women who committed the sin of pride in life. These explanations have little connection to the Irish folklore from which the banshee originates.
There are many more versions of who, what, and how the banshee existed in legend, but I’ve outlined a few of them. Here are a few citations for further research, should the reader so desire. Enjoy!