The banshee ( // BAN-shee), from the Irish bean sí [bʲæn ˈʃiː] ("woman of the sídhe" or "woman of the fairy mounds") is a feminine spirit in Irish mythology, usually seen as an omen of death and a messenger from the Otherworld.
In legend, a banshee is a fairy woman who begins to wail if someone is about to die. In Scottish mythology the creature is called the bean sìth or bean-nighe and is seen washing the blood stained clothes or armour of those who are about to die. Alleged sightings of banshees have been reported as recently as 1948. Similar creatures are also found in Welsh, Norse  and American folklore, such as aos sí ("tumulus folk").
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The story of the banshee began as a fairy woman keening at the death of important personages. In later stories, the appearance of the banshee could foretell death. Banshees were said to appear for particular Irish families, though which families made it onto this list varied depending on who was telling the story. Stories of banshees were also prevalent in the West Highlands of Scotland.
The banshee can appear in a variety of guises. Most often she appears as an ugly, frightening hag, but she can also appear as a stunningly beautiful woman of any age that suits her. In some tales, the figure who first appears to be a "banshee" is later revealed to be the Irish battle goddess, the Morrígan.
Although not always seen, her mourning call is heard, usually at night when someone is about to die and usually around woods. In 1437, King James I of Scotland was approached by an Irish seer who was later identified as a banshee who foretold his murder at the instigation of the Earl of Atholl. There are records of several prophets believed to be incarnate banshees attending the great houses of Ireland and the courts of local Irish kings.
In some parts of Leinster, she is referred to as the bean chaointe (keening woman) whose wail can be so piercing that it shatters glass. In Kerry in the southwest of Ireland, her keen is experienced as a "low, pleasant singing"; in Tyrone in the north, as "the sound of two boards being struck together"; and on Rathlin Island as "a thin, screeching sound somewhere between the wail of a woman and the moan of an owl".
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In legend, a banshee wails nearby if someone is about to die. There are particular families who are believed to have banshees attached to them, and whose cries herald the death of a member of that family. The most common surname attached to the banshee was Mac. They were also associated with the Airlie clan. Accounts of banshees go back as far as 1380 with the publication of the Cathreim Thoirdhealbhaigh (Triumps of Torlough) by Seean mac Craith. Mentions of banshees can also be found in Norman literature of that time. The Ban Si was also known to wail at the crowning of the true king. Such a cry was reported to be heard at the crowning of Brian Boru.
Traditionally, when a person died a woman would sing a lament (in Irish: caoineadh, [ˈkɰiːnʲə] or [ˈkiːnʲuː], "caoin" meaning "to weep, to wail") at the funeral. These women are sometimes referred to as "keeners" and the best keeners would be in much demand. Legend has it that for five great Gaelic families — the O'Gradys, the O'Neills, the Ó Briains, the Ó Conchobhairs, and the Caomhánachs — the lament would be sung by a fairy woman; having foresight, she would sing the lament when a family member died, even if the person had died far away and news of their death had not yet come, so that the wailing of the banshee was the first warning the household had of the death.
The Ó Briains' banshee was thought to have the name of Eevul, and was ruler of 25 other banshees who would always be at her attendance. It is thought that from this myth comes the idea that the wailing of numerous banshees signifies the death of a great person.
In later versions, the banshee might appear before the death and warn the family by wailing. When several banshees appeared at once, it indicated the death of someone great or holy. The tales sometimes recounted that the woman, though called a fairy, was a ghost, often of a specific murdered woman, or a mother who died in childbirth.
Banshees are frequently described as dressed in white or grey, often having long, pale hair which they brush with a silver comb, a detail scholar Patricia Lysaght attributes to confusion with local mermaid myths. This comb detail is also related to the centuries-old traditional romantic Irish story that, if you ever see a comb lying on the ground in Ireland, you must never pick it up, or the banshees (or mermaids — stories vary), having placed it there to lure unsuspecting humans, will spirit such gullible humans away. Other stories portray banshees as dressed in green, red, or black with a grey cloak.
Stories of banshees can also be found in America in the late 18th century. The most prevalent of the American stories comes from Tar River in Edgecombe County, North Carolina. However, in this variation of the story, the banshee is simply a ghoul, as opposed to a sign of misfortune.
In the badlands of South Dakota, a banshee is said to wail upon a hill near Watch Dog Butte. Like other American tales of banshees, this legend does not connect her to any particular death (aside, perhaps, from her own).
In Scottish Mythology a similar creature is known as a the Bean nighe or ban nigheachain (little washerwoman) or nigheag na h-àth (little washer at the ford).