The banshee lives on in cheap cartoons and the slang for a police car alarm, and her place among the classic female demons – the furies, harpies, sirens, valkyries, et al – is assured. But unlike her mythical sisters, the banshee had a very particular job to do in the lives of ordinary mortals, as opposed to epic heroes. Supposedly, her folkloric role as a herald of death derived from the uncertainty of her own situation. The banshee was an in-betweener – too good for hell and too bad for heaven – and, generally speaking, she was more heard than seen.
The word banshee is an anglicisation of the Irish words bean sí, literally, “woman spirit” or “fairy”. She was said to follow families with an O or a Mac (or, if female, a Ni or a Nic) to their surnames. As a clientele, this was not all that exclusive because, if you go back far enough, those prefixes were attached to the family or clan names of all Irish-speakers, even those with Norman or English surnames.
Our perceptions of supernatural phenomena have a way of complementing earthly realities. We have table-rapping, knock-knocking ghosts following on from the invention of telegraphy and the Morse code; ectoplasmic phenomena and floating, fuzzy apparitions synching with developments in photography; little green men and flying saucers arriving with the postwar space race, and so on. No surprise then, that the banshee’s heyday was pre-electrified Ireland, where the night was as mysterious as it was dark, and births and deaths happened in the seclusion of relatively isolated rural homes.
The banshee was a creature of this primal dark and her eerie wail is sometimes explained as the sound of mating cats, the screeching of certain birds, or the vixen’s call for a mate. Foxes are commonplace in my London neighbourhood, where – unless we have a power cut – it’s never really dark, so I can vouch for the unnervingly plaintive note of a vixen’s midnight screams. In her seminal study of the banshee, Patricia Lysaght (The Banshee, Dublin 1985) observes that it wasn’t necessarily the nearest and dearest around the deathbed who would hear her. Often, it was the people round and about who sensed the presence of the death messenger. Since they were expecting sad news anyway, these friends and neighbours were pre-disposed to interpret the sounds of the night as an alert: for them, the banshee’s wail was a kind of “go” signal, permission to mobilise emotionally as well as practically for a wake and a funeral.
In some parts of Ireland the banshee was seen as well as heard, possibly because she took on the characteristics – the high-pitched wailing, the weeping, breast-beating and hair-rending – of those old-time professional mourners, the keening women who, from ancient times, would perform as a sort of chorus at prestigious funerals. In fact, I cannot look at the famous photographs taken of the “hysterics” at the Salpêtrière – the former gunpowder factory that served as the female madhouse of Belle Epoque Paris – without recalling the banshee. The pioneering neurologists who “examined” and recorded the behaviour of these female lunatics, notably Charcot and Freud, chose to understand them as victims of a condition they called “hysteria”. But there are good reasons to suppose that some of these hysterics actively colluded with their celebrity, putting on a great show of “attitudes passionnelles” for the well-intentioned but buttoned-up and, in some ways, rather innocent men of science. (Something similar may be going on, methinks, in 1960s newsreel footage of young female fans of the Beatles: it’s the wildest, screamiest girls that get noticed, and they seem to know it!)
In those parts of Ireland where she might be seen as well as heard, abandoned combs were explained – and disdained – as the lost property of a disturbed banshee. And since pestering a distraught, demonical female was a risky business, men would be wary of any lone woman encountered at night – which, I’m sure, was no bad thing.
But the typical banshee, the phantom woman who was heard and not seen, was not so much bad as sad. Although her cry was spine-chilling, hair-raising, she herself was more pathetic than threatening. She was just doing her job, alerting both kith and kin to an impending departure from this valley of tears, and incidentally reminding them of their own mortality.