Image taken from Irish Fairies: Banshee http://www.irelandseye.com/animation/explorer/banshee.html
I have always been fascinated with banshees, probably because of my Irish ancestry. They are equally eerie to me. I get the creeps thinking of seeing a pale, long-haired woman in a rotting cloak, wailing and pointing at me on a dark and dreary night. Sheesh!
According to the website, Irelandseye: A Field Guide to Irish Fairies, Banshees, or bean-sidhe, are faery women or ancestral spirits that are assigned to certain families to forewarn their members of their time of death. The five major families that the banshees were said to cry for are: O'Neill, O'Brien, O'Connor, O'Grady, and the Kavanaugh. However, this list has been lengthened by intermarriage (so don't think you're off the hook.) According to Wikipedia, the banshee is sometimes not a fairy, but the ghost of a murdered woman or a woman who died in childbirth.
The Field Guide to Fairies states that the banshee can appear in three major forms: a young woman, a bedraggled old crone, or a matronly woman. This is in representation of the triple aspects of the war and death goddess of Celtic mythology, Badhbh, Macha, and Mor-Rioghan. The banshee can also appear in animal forms, such as hares, weasels, and hooded crows, which are associated with witchcraft in Ireland.
Wikipedia states that banshees are frequently described as having long, fair hair, which they will brush with a silver comb. This relates to a very old Irish story that you should never pick up a silver comb laying on the ground, for the banshees (or mermaids, depending on the tale) will place it there to lure an gullible human away, likely to their death or to be stolen away to the land of Faery.
The banshee will typically be dressed in a hooded cloak of gray or the grave robe of people who died without receiving Last Rites. In some instances, she may appear as a washer-woman, washing the blood-stained garments of the unfortunate soul who is about to die. When a banshee appears as a washing-woman, she is called a bean-nighe. According to Wikipedia, the Scottish call the banshee a bean-nighe.
The Field Guide states that sometimes a banshee may not even be seen. Instead, her wailing can be heard when someone is about to die. The banshee's wail can be so piercing that it can shatter glass. It is said that King James I of Scotland was told by a banshee that he would be murdered in 1437. Wikipedia states that according to legend, the banshee will wail around the house of the person who is about to die.
Although banshees are very much a part of Irish and Scottish folklore and legend, they have found their place in modern fiction. For instance, Seamus Finnigan, one of the Irish students in the Harry Potter stories, saw a banshee, and screeching was heard in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire that was attributed to banshees.
Banshees may be associated with the five great Irish families, but many Americans have Irish heritage. Who is to say that a banshee may not come to foretell of one our demises on a dark, gloomy night? I hope I never find out.
Banshee. Irelandseyes: A Field Guide to Irish Fairies. http://www.irelandseye.com/animation/explorer/banshee.html. Accessed 1 October 2008.
Banshee-Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banshee.
Accessed 1 October 2008. Last Modified 29 September 2008.