I recently watched The Banshees of Inisherin – in which, as one of the characters points out, there are no banshees.
OK, so we won’t find out from that movie what a banshee is. But what is a banshee? Do you know? If we look at things in popular culture – movies, for example – perhaps we can find out.
In the Avatar movies, banshee is the English name for a large pterodactyl-like creature named ikra in Na’vi. There’s even a ride in the Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park in which you have 3D simulation of riding one (it’s awesome). It’s also the name of a similar creature – with a paralyzing scream – from the Darkover novels by Marion Zimmer Bradley (which may have been the inspiration for the Avatar name).
Both Marvel and DC comic universes have characters named Banshee. Marvel’s is a guy whose sonic scream is his superpower. DC’s Silver Banshee is a Celtic woman supervillain with assorted powers endowed by supernatural forces.
There are several musical groups bearing the name: Banshee (metal), The Banshee (new wave), The Banshees (garage rock), Siouxsie and the Banshees (please tell me you’ve heard of them; they’re Important in the History of Music). There are also boats, aircraft, and land vehicles named Banshee.
None of these give us any clearer idea of what a banshee is. In popular culture, it’s a word like some ancient thing people have always seen here and there but never known the source or purpose of, so they make up their own stories.
But we do know that somehow banshee is a word for a terrifying magical being. Does it look like a bandersnatch as animated by Ralph Bakshi? Most people wouldn’t be able to say. When we encounter the word in general use, we see it in one kind of comparison: “scream like a banshee” or “screech like a banshee” or “wail like a banshee” or “howl like a banshee” or something similar. Anyway, it sounds terrifying. I wouldn’t be keen on it.
Wait, did someone say “keen”? As in “keen like a banshee”?
Yes, that’s a thing.
So banshees are keen?
No. Banshees keen. As in wail in mourning. This word keen is an Anglicization of the Irish root caoin-, as in caoineadh ‘keening’. A banshee will wail to mourn the death of a person. But – and this is a key feature – the banshee will often mourn the death in advance. People will know someone’s going to die because they hear a banshee keening.
So, um, there’s like a, uh, pterodactyl sitting by a grave, and screaming in despair?
No. It’s a little fairy woman. And maybe she sits by a fairy mound.
Not quite superhero or sci-fi/fantasy level, is it?
Banshee, you see, comes from Irish bean sí. The first word, bean, which is said about like “ban,” means ‘woman’. The second word, sí, said like “she,” is, in most contexts, the Irish word for ‘she’ – but not in this context. Here, it’s the genitive – identical to the nominative – of sí, formerly spelled sídhe,* meaning ‘fairy mound’. Which in its turn is descended from the same Proto-Indo-European root that gives us English seat. A bean sí is a woman of the fairies, a fairy woman, and her most notable role is to foretell deaths. By keening. (She does it diligently. You could say she’s a real keener.)
OK, so what is a fairy mound? If you’re from Ireland, you probably know already, as there are something like 45,000 of them dotting the landscape. They’re things that have been there since time immemorial, round rises with mud and stone structures ringing them. They were long thought to be abodes of spirits, or entrances to the underworld (see this article in the Irish Times for some pocket history and such like). It might reasonably be speculated that they’re burial mounds. But it turns out they’re the surviving structures of homesteads – dwellings with fortifications – mainly from a millennium or so ago.
So that’s how things sit with this. People built ring mounds for their homesteads. Later people, not knowing the origins of these structures, associated them with something more awesome. They gave this a word derived from words for ‘woman’ and ‘seat’, and it was borrowed and modified into English. Later people, not knowing the origin of this word, have tended to associate it with something more awesome. (Pterodactyl-like creatures are definitely more awesome to us. Would you pay money for a Disney attraction involving a wailing fairy woman? Even the Haunted Mansion doesn’t have those.) There are, of course, no banshees, just as there never have been. But the banshees that there aren’t have developed somewhat… at least to the keen eye.
* For the fussy who want to point out that it was actually a d with a dot over it, that dot was originally a superscript h, so let it be.