Banshee's Comb 

What is a Banshee?

The Banshee is a woman, or bean, of the hill, or si, later to be known as fairy. Her name literally means fairy woman. She cries for old Irish families who are about to lose a loved one. She is, essentially, death’s messenger. The fear she strikes into our hearts is not fear of what she will do to us, but what her crying entails. Death is coming, the only question is for whom. 

She has been heard crying for a short while, hours, and even days. Sometimes she will knock upon the door or the window and you won’t hear any crying at all. But three knocks, that’s a warning you’ll get. Less commonly, she may not cry but sing instead. The song will likely drive you to distraction at the inability to pin point the location of its source.


The Banshee may appear as an old woman, or crone, haggard and frightening to look upon. She has also been seen as a matronly woman and even a very young one. Her hair, which often appears a ghostly white or an unnatural vivid red, is impossibly long and flows about her as she combs it obsessively. Her eyes, so worn from crying, they radiate a fiery red. Most often she is clothed in a grey cloak covering a green dress. Green is the color of the fairies after all. She’s also been seen wearing a long gown of white, the color of death. The Lady Wilde gives a description of a Banshee who would sit beneath the trees, a veil pulled over her face. 

We now understand the name of the Banshee, some of the ways she has been known to appear to others, and that she is a harbinger of death. But why? What makes a Banshee? It seems that there are some clues given in the many Banshee stories. In fact, some Banshee’s are even known by name. Cliodna cries for the McCarthy family of South Munster and Aoibhill for the Dalcassion family of North Munster (Rose 33). These fairy women are thought to have very tragic endings, or beginnings, depending on your perspective. The Lady Wilde would have us believe they start as young virgin women who died too soon and, for some reason we cannot understand and from a power we cannot imagine, is given the duty of announcing the end of a family member’s life. 

The Scottish Banshee

The Bean-Nighe or The Little Washer by the Ford

The beginnings of the Bean-Nighe seem to be better defined than the Irish Banshee. She is thought most often to be a woman who had died in childbirth. If she died and left behind unwashed clothing, she would spend the rest of her afterlife washing them until she reached the date upon which she might have died naturally. Another belief was not that she washed her own clothing, but the clothing of someone soon to perish. She was especially likely to be seen before a battle, busy at the water’s edge, scrubbing the blood from the clothing of the many men about to die. The sound of water beating upon the rocks is a possible sign of her presence, and it might be just as well to give her a wide berth.  

If you decide to brave her presence, it is possible to attain a fairy gift of sorts from her. This is a very precarious and possibly unpleasant experience for those who wish to try, but I will tell you what you might do to gain her favor. She is a shrewd and quick witted fairy, do not let her small demeanor fool you. If you are able to sneak up on her, and come between her and the water in which she spends so much time washing, you may gain from her three wishes. If you are one of sterner stuff, you might attempt to suckle from one of her long breasts. If achieved, one will become her foster-child and gain her favor, certainly, and possibly the second sight. If you fail, however, and she spies you before your goal is achieved, quicker than you can blink she'll whip the linen she washes at your legs. One such victim lost the use of his limbs after his run-in with the Bean-Nighe. Best be sure you really need those wishes you want so badly.

Possible Origin

It has been supposed that the practice of keening may be the origin of the Banshee belief. Beginning in the 16th century, a tradition of keening, or wailing in extreme grief, over the deceased at a funeral became very common in Ireland and Gaelic Scotland. A bean chaointe, or keening woman, would perform acts of grief such as rocking, clapping and vocal expressions of grief. This would become so common it turned into a profession and there would be women traveling from town to town to perform their grief work and the sound of her wailing would persist until the departed was laid to rest. Keening women were expensive so most often it was only the oldest and most wealthy families who were able to afford this service for their lost loved ones. Knowing this, it seems quite possible the Banshee’s infamy stems from such. For those who have seen or heard her, however, these logical explanations dissipate like mist into the Irish landscape. 

The Banshee's CombWhat’s with the Comb?

One of the Banshee’s most defining features is her hair. It is often described, ­­­to this day, by those who have seen her as unnaturally long. It falls thickly around her and she combs and combs at her hair in lament. Such a well known accessory is the comb to the Banshee that a comb found lying on the ground in Ireland will be left there quite deliberately. Pick it up or bring it with you and you’ll reap upon yourself no end of bad luck. A fairy possession might seem like a special trinket to keep, but truly, the cons far outweigh the pros. A fairy will not suffer the loss of what belongs to them. In a worse case scenario, you might even get a visit from the Banshee herself. A truly spin chilling thought. 





Rose, Carol. Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns And Goblins. W. W. Norton & Company, 2006.