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Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Bean Sí

Following up on last week's post about fairies of the battle field this week I want to look at the Bean Sí. The name itself simply means 'fairy woman' and is found in a variety of spellings including the anglicized Banshee. As we shall see though the Bean Sí may or may not actually be a fairy, although she is often considered one in both historic and modern folklore.  

When we look at exactly what the Bean Sí may be and what her origin is we find there's no simple answer, but multiple options ranging from literary to folk tradition. MacKillop in his Dictionary of Celtic Mythology says that "In folk etiology the banshee was thought to be the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth, or of a murdered pregnant woman." (MacKillop, 1998). Lysaght in her very thorough work 'The Banshee: The Irish Death Messenger' has an entire chapter on the topic which elucidates the following possible theories:
- She may be a fairy
- She may be one of the Tuatha Dé Danann
- She may be the child of a fairy and a mortal
- She may be a human woman, living, abducted by the fairies but allowed to return to caoin for her family
- She may be a fallen angel
- She may be the spirit of an unbaptized child
- She may be the ghost of a murdered maiden, killed by a family member
- She may be a human soul working off misdeeds in a fashion like purgatory (specifically the sin of pride which is why according to folk tradition the banshee has long beautiful hair she combs out)
- She may be someone who was a keening woman when she was alive who was negligent in some way and so must pay by continuing to serve as a keening woman in death
- She may be someone who was a woman who lost her family tragically and never stopped mourning them

 It is possible that like so many other kinds of fairies the answer to the Bean Sí's origin isn’t one or the other but a combination, with these fairies being made up of some who are mortal dead and others who have always been fairies and may be related to Badb of the Tuatha De Danann. There is certainly no reason to expect a single origin or explanation for the Bean Sí when we already know that very few things with the fairies are either simple or straightforward. 

The Bean Sí is a female spirit who is known for attaching herself to a particular family and appearing whenever someone in that family is about to die. In one account a Bean Sí attached to a family near Lough Gur came when a woman of the family was dying and both of the woman’s sisters heard sad fairy music playing (Evans-Wentz, 1911). Some people say that only those in the family she is attached to can hear her cry (Ballard, 1991). In other stories the Bean Sí may appear on the night of a death wailing or keening in mourning and may be heard by anyone in the area of the dying person. The sound she makes has been described in a variety of ways including like the sound of a crying fox, howling dog, or moaning scream, but most often is heard as a woman keening

 The Bean Sí, particularly in Ireland is often said to be very beautiful, appearing as a young woman, although in other places such as Scotland she may be described as a very old woman (MacKillop, 1998). She is often described as a grey figure or a woman wrapped in a grey cloak, although by other accounts she wears a long grey cloak over a green dress with her eyes deep red from crying (Ballard, 1991; Briggs,1976). Others say that the Bean Sí wears white, or white with red shoes, and has long golden hair (MacKillop, 1998; Logan, 1981). She brushes her hair with a special comb and it is considered very dangerous even today to pick up a stray comb you find laying on the ground, in case it belongs to this spirit. Folklore tells of those who find a silver or gold comb and bring it home only to be confronted at night by horrible wailing and scratching at the windows until they pass the comb out on a pair of tongs which is pulled back in twisted and broken (O hOgain, 2006). 

The Bean Sí is particularly associated with several goddesses among the Tuatha Dé Danann, including Badb and Cliodhna. In same areas of Ireland the word badb (pronounced in those dialects as bow) is the name used for the Bean Sí; like that famous war Goddess the Bean Sí is able to take the form of a hooded crow (MacKillop, 1998). Cliodhna is sometimes called the 'Queen of the Banshees' and she acts as the Bean Sí for the McCarthy family, who are said to be her descendants, appearing to cry and announce a death in the family. 

Many people today fear the Bean Sí as the cause of deaths, but in most folklore she is clearly not the cause but merely an omen of the inevitable. She would appear just before or at the moment of death to announce the event to the family and others gathered around the ailing person. Over time her appearance in this capacity and association with immanent death seems to have given her a more sinister reputation, although some authors do suggest that she began with a clear association with the Goddess Badb and the battle field and only slowly switched to the more personal and passive death messenger we know today. If this is so then the Bean Sí may be slowly shifting back into her earlier and more actively dangerous persona as modern belief re-imagines her as fearsome and possibly fatal to those who cross her path. 

Evans-Wentz, W., (1911) The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
Ballard, L., (1991) Fairies and the Supernatural on Reachrai
Logan, P., (1981) The Old Gods: The Facts about Irish Fairies
Lysaght, P., (1986) The Banshee: The Irish Death Messenger
MacKillop, J., (1998) Dictionary of Celtic Mythology

Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies
Fortune, M., (2016) The Bow/ Banshee
O hOgain, D., (2006) The Lore of Ireland


  1. Morgan, As usual this is an excellent synopsis of this spirit. My husband Robert is mostly of Celtic ancestry, his Mother's family coming over during the Famine. In the next few weeks we will be visiting several Civil War battle sites, especially Antietam and Fredricksburg where the Irish Brigade fought. We will be pouring libations to the Union dead.

  2. Concise and complete as always - nice work!