As a child, I encountered many fantastical tales about the Faerie Folk. Whether they were presented in a book or in a film, these stories were an integral part of my childhood and my development as a Pagan and Witch. There has never been a time during my years that I haven’t wholeheartedly believed in the reality of their existence. I feel a deep reverence and connection to the Faeries as they have always been some of my primary allies, teachers, and friends. As a child, and to this very day, I enjoy building houses for them, leaving offerings of milk and honey, and sharing with them my deepest wishes and secrets.
Yet, throughout all my years of interacting with the Fair Folk, there has always been one particular being who has captivated my heart more than any other.
Like many other faeries, this particular one is quite complex. Her appearance alone seems to shift at will, taking on different guises as she sees fit. At times she may appear rather ghastly, a wraith with long disheveled hair, sunken eyes, and a tattered white gown. Yet, other times she may be a beautiful maiden, dressed in green with crimson lips and a pale complexion. However, no matter what form she takes, she is always somber, fearsome, and entrancing.
Who is she?
She is the Bean Sidhe, the wailing woman whose mournful cries are heard in the dark of night, foretelling doom, destruction, and death.
The Bean Sidhe, or Banshee, is an Irish faerie woman who acts a harbinger of death. The legend goes that, when someone is soon to die, the Banshee can be heard screaming, wailing, shrieking, or even singing. Her special form of foretelling death is connected with the Irish funerary tradition of vocal lamentation known as keening. Classically, it is said that the cry of the Bean Sidhe was specifically meant to forewarn the members of certain Gaelic families. However, it is believed that through the intermarriage of these families, almost every Irish family came to have their own Banshee. Additionally, it is thought that they were spread even further, being brought over to America by the Irish immigrants.
According to legend, the Bean Sidhe may also appear similarly to her Scottish sister, the Bean Nighe. Translating to “Washer Woman,” the Bean Nighe can be seen near deserted streams, washing the bloodied shrouds of those doomed to die. The Irish hero Cúchulain had a vivid encounter with the Banshee in the guise of the Washer of the Ford while on his way to battle:
Then he 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. And take the warning now and turn back again.”*
Both the Bean Sidhe and Bean Nighe are often viewed in connection with the Morrígan, particularly in the form of Badb. In fact, in the above tale, the Washer Woman is sometimes specially referred to as “Badb’s daughter.” As a Goddess of war, Badb is often said to appear before battle as an omen of death to ill-fated warriors.
While she is classically associated with the passing away of loved ones, in my personal experience I have found that she is quite complex and capable of heralding more than just physical death. More often than not, in my life, the Banshee appears when I’m about to experience a period of great change and sadness in my life. She becomes, for me, a powerful force to ally with during these darker periods of time, teaching me how to embrace death, to let it wash over me, and let go of what no longer serves me. One of the most potent and primal ways she has taught me to do this is through the power of screaming, wailing, and crying.
For me, I start by focusing in on my emotions and visualizing what I need to release. Whatever the emotion, be it anger, grief, fear, etc., I let myself feel it in its entirety. It becomes a full body sensation, with the emotion transforming into raw power. This power churns and rises within me until I can’t take it any longer and I send it bursting forth with a scream, cry, moan, howl, etc. What happens with or where that power goes is up to the Witch. It can easily be channeled towards a specific person, with whatever intent one has (it doesn’t necessarily have to be malefic, although it certainly could be). It may just as well be released into the earth where it can be naturalized and recycled. I’ve also found that on a visualization level, or when in the Otherworld, these screams can be channeled at obstacles (whatever form that may take) and used to effectively obliterate them.
One of the most powerful experiences that I’ve had with this:
I had gone across the Hedge, into the Otherworld, to specifically work on healing some emotional wounds left over from a past relationship. I found myself in a lonesome forest in the dark of night. The barren tree branches creaked overhead as a cold wind blew in from the North. I walked along a winding trail, going further and further, feeling pulled towards the very heart of the forest. As I neared my destination, I grew aware of a low moaning sound which stirred a sense of both curiosity and dread within myself. I rounded a bend in the trail to find myself in a small grove of trees. Standing in the center of that grove, with her back towards me, was a ghostly woman dressed in white. Her dirty, bare feet barely touched the ground and her long, white hair floated in tendrils around her head. Slowly, she turned to look at me, her face morphing from a solemn gaze to abject terror. Her mouth opened wide and she emitted a shrill scream which instantly called up the wind in a mighty gust. Without a second thought, I leaned in a let out my own scream. Our voices met in midair, their power combining in a cathartic release of the pain I felt inside. The forest danced wildly in the wind, dead leaves whipped all around us in circles. This went on and on until she slowly began to change from the wraith to a beautiful, pale woman. I too felt myself changing, transitioning to a state of peace and calm. Our screams eventually trailed off, leaving the forest silent once more. The Banshee looked deep in my eyes, her mouth curled into a knowing smile. And just like that she faded into mist, leaving me standing alone, feeling reborn among the trees.
A Prayer to the Bean Sidhe:
Darkness has fallen and sadness surrounds,
I call out to you, Faerie Woman of the Mound,
You’re the harbinger of death, the ghastly Bean-Sidhe,
In the dead of night, you appear now to me,
I hear your screams of dreadful grief,
My cries join with yours as I search for relief,
I wail in lament of my poor broken heart,
You stand by my side as it all falls apart,
I shriek and I yell, I beat my fists upon the ground,
As the bitter winds of change rise up all around,
As death wraps around me, and devours and reaps,
And takes away the old and what I can no longer keep,
On and on until all the pain is gone,
Carried away by my Banshee song
*Cuchulain of Muirthemne, by Lady Augusta Gregory (1902)