What’s a Banshee and How Did She End Up in My Book?
The Children’s Book Review
Published: August 5, 2013
Ellen Booraem’s TEXTING THE UNDERWORLD, a middle-grade fantasy about a scaredy-cat South Boston boy and a determined young banshee, hits bookstores in August (Penguin/Dial Books for Young Readers). Her earlier middle-grade fantasies are SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS (Penguin/DBYR, 2011) and THE UNNAMEABLES (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008). She lives in coastal Maine with an artist, a dog, and a cat, one of whom is a practicing curmudgeon. She’s online at ellenbooraem.com, and also blogs at enchantedinkpot.com and scene13ers.wordpress.com. In this guest post, Booraem has ever so graciously unearthed banshees.
When I was growing up in Massachusetts, with a half-Irish grandmother and Irish neighbors all around, the banshee—an ancestral spirit who wails when a family member is about to die—was as familiar to me as Santa Claus.
As a child I was terrified of banshees—the fault of the old Disney movie “Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” in which a cloaked, faceless, green-tinged phantom calls in the death coach. The special effects are ridiculous by today’s standards, but I don’t think my young mind could have handled anything realer.
I remembered Darby and his banshee years later, leafing through ABBEY LUBBERS, BANSHEES & BOGGARTS, an “encyclopedia of fairies” by the late great folklorist Katharine Briggs. Far from the dreadful death-spirit I remembered from Disney, Briggs’ version was a maiden who died before her time. I started thinking about such a maiden—how she met her end, how she’d like being a harbinger of death. Three hours later, Ashling the banshee was a character with a story and a twelve-year-old human friend/victim named Conor O’Neill.
What if, I thought, Ashling turns up in Conor’s room one night, telling him someone in his family is about to die? Conor will want to stop the death, won’t he? But what if Ashling was murdered in the fifth century, and is desperate to return to life? Her return depends on her success as a banshee, so she needs Conor or a relative to die. But there’s a mysterious something about Conor that draws her to him, and she takes him to the afterlife to see if he can change fate.
Heaping on the abuse, I made Conor a scaredy-cat, as ill-equipped for this adventure as I would have been at his age. (Or now, for that matter.)
Online, I learned that there are umpteen descriptions of banshees, each contradicting the last. Some tales say they are dead ancestors, others that they are fairies. They are horrible wraiths or beautiful women or little old ladies, dressed in white or gray or red or green—in some cases red AND green. Sometimes, the person marked for death is the only one to hear the banshee’s keening; sometimes he’s the only one NOT to hear it.
Everyone agrees on one thing: The banshee (bean si in Irish) does not cause the death, only announces it. According to one sensible guess, the banshee made her first appearance around the eight century, an otherworldly variation on the “keeners” hired to wail and clap their hands after someone died. Some legends suggest that keeners were paid in booze, and after death were turned into banshees to atone for their drunkenness.
The Scottish version is the bean-nighe, a ghostly washerwoman glimpsed tearfully dunking bloody clothes in a stream. More than one washerwoman signifies a battle or other disaster.
At some point, the banshee legend combined with mermaid tales to incorporate the combing of long hair, and with the story of the supernatural Belle Dame Sans Merci (“beautiful woman without mercy”) who lures unsuspecting lovers to fairyland or to death. If a banshee leaves her comb lying around, the unfortunate who picks it up will be in her thrall forever.
Oscar Wilde’s mother, Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde, set down a variety of Irish tales in an 1887 work called ANCIENT LEGENDS, MYSTIC CHARMS, AND SUPERSTITIONS OF IRELAND. Her contention is that the banshee is a fairy, “the spirit of death,” and she notes that “only certain families of historic lineage, or persons gifted with music and song, are attended by this spirit; for music and poetry are fairy gifts, and the possessors of them show kinship to the spirit race—therefore they are watched over by the spirit of life, which is prophecy and inspiration; and by the spirit of doom, which is the revealer of the secrets of death.” (They liked their sentences long in the 1800s.)
Sometimes the banshee’s cry is a vengeful shriek, and the very sight of the banshee will kill the viewer even if he’s not the intended death. In other stories the spirit wishes her family the best, and graces the death with a gentle song of mourning. Sometimes she accompanies the dead soul to the afterlife to ease the transition.
What a smorgasbord! Walking past all this, plate in hand, here’s what I chose: My Ashling is a young teen with long red hair, a green tunic, and a red cloak, killed in a cattle raid sometime in the fifth century. She combs her hair when she’s upset or nervous. As a death approaches, she turns into a horrible shrieking wraith whom we hear but do not see, because seeing her kills the viewer. Her job is both to mourn the death and to conduct the dead soul to the Underworld.
In life, her favorite pastime was hog slaughter.
Other than that, she’s a nice kid.
For more information, visit: http://www.ellenbooraem.com
This is the first stop of Ellen’s blog tour for TEXTING THE UNDERWORLD! Tomorrow’s stop will be Danielle Smith’s blog, There’s a Book. See you there!