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The name banshee or bean sidhe comes from the Gaelic words ban (bean) which means 'woman', and shee (sidhe) fairy (combined form 'woman of the fairy'). She is also known as 'The Lady of Sorrow'.

The banshee is an ancestral solitary fairy appointed to forewarn members of certain ancient Irish families of their time of death. According to tradition, the banshee can only cry for five major Irish families: the O'Neills, O'Briens, O'Connors, O'Gradys and the Kavanaghs. Intermarriage has since extended the list. Some claim that any names starting in 'Mc', 'Mac' or 'O' are included in the list.

The banshee appears mainly in one of three quises: a young beautiful woman, a stately matron, and a scary old hag. She usually wears either a grey, hooded cloak over a green dress or the winding sheet or 'grave sheet' of the dead. Others claim that banshees are frequently dressed in white and often have long, fair hair which they brush with a silver comb. She may also appear as a washerwoman and is seen washing the blood stained clothes of those who are about to die.

Many have seen her as she goes wailing and clapping her hands. The keen (caoine), the funeral cry of the peasantry, is said to be an imitation of her cry. She visits a household and by wailing she warns them that a member of their family is about to die. When a Banshee is caught, she is obliged to tell the name of the doomed.

Each Banshee has her own mortal family and out of love she follows the old race across the ocean to distant lands. Her wails or keen can be heard in America and England, wherever the true Irish have settled. It is believed that the banshee is the spirit of a deceased relative who died young.

When multiple Banshees wail together, it will herald the death of someone very great or holy.

When a member of the beloved family is dying, she paces the dark hills about his house. She sharply contrasts against the night's blackness, her white figure emerges with silver-grey hair streaming to the ground and a grey-white cloak of a cobweb texture clinging to her tall thin body. Her face is pale, her eyes red with centuries of crying. In Cornwell she is said to flap her cloak against the window of the person who is dying and in Scotland she squats next to the door of the one who is doomed.

The banshee may also appear in a variety of other forms, such as that of a hooded crow, stoat, hare and weasel - animals associated in Ireland with witchcraft. The Scottish version of the banshee is the bean nighe.

The Irish have many names for her (perhaps they feared invocation of her true name may invoke her presence). They included: Washer of the Shrouds, Washer at the Banks, Washer at the Ford and the Little Washer of Sorrow. The Scottish called her cointeach, literally "one who keens." To the cornish she was cyhiraeth and to the Welsh either cyoerraeth or gwrach y rhibyn, which translates as Hag of the Dribble (to the Welsh she sometimes appear as a male). In Brittany her name is eur-cunnere noe.

As her other names might suggest, she frequently appears as a washerwoman at the banks of streams. In these cases, she is called the bean nighe (pronounced "ben-neeyah"). The clothing she washed takes different forms depending upon the legend. Sometimes it is burial shrouds, others it is the bloodstained clothing of those who will soon die. This particular version of the bean sidhe is Scottish in origin and unlike the Irish version, who is very beautiful, she is extremely ugly, sometimes described as having a single nostril, one large buck tooth, webbed feet and extremely long breasts, which she must throw over her shoulders to prevent them getting in the way of her washing . Her long stringy hair is partially covered with a hood and a white gown or shroud is her main wardrobe. The skin of the bean sidhe is often wet and slimy as if she had just been pulled from a moss covered lake. They are rumored to be the ghosts of women who died in childbirth and will continue to wash until the day they should have died. The keening music of Irish wakes, called caoine, is said to have been derived from the wails of the bean sidhe.

Variants: bean sidhe (Irish), bean nighe or cointeach(Scottish), cyhiraeth (Cornish), cyoerraeth or gyrach y rhibyn (Welch), eur-cunnere noe (Brittany).

'Twas the banshee's lonely wailing
Well I knew the voice of death,
On the night wind slowly sailing,
O'er the bleak and gloomy heath.

 Crofton Croker, The Keen


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