Friday, October 29, 2010

Not Just A Scary Face

"THEN Cuchulain went on his way, and Cathbad that had followed him went with him. And presently they came to a ford, and there they saw a young girl thin and white-skinned and having yellow hair, washing and ever washing, and wringing out clothing that was stained crimson red, and she crying and keening all the time. 'Little Hound,' said Cathbad, 'Do you see what it is that young girl is doing? It is your red clothes she is washing, and crying as she washes, because she knows you are going to your death against Maev'e's great army.'"

"Cuchulain of Muirthemne" by Lady Augustus Gregory, 1902

It’s a tale almost every Irish schoolchild will be only too familiar with- the young hound of Cullen and the king’s druid on their way to the most famous battle in Celtic lore, The Cattle Raid of Cooley. Taken from the 2000-year-old Ulster Cycle it’s also the earliest written record of an encounter with that most famous of Ireland’s fairies, the banshee.

I think I’m actually going to go as banshee now, not a vampire. No doubt I’ll change my mind a couple of dozen times again over the next 24 hours, but for the moment banshee it is! I’ll probably just stick to the obvious scary version, because it’s easier, though the aul Bean Sidhe comes in all sorts of guises. The screeching ghostly spectre that most people, myself included, usually associate with her is just one of  many faces.
<--- by Sweetheart Sinner Creations

Her most famous face, certainly. Maybe that’s because her brief appearance in that wonderfully true-to-life movie Darby O’Gill was so memorable (I know it frightened the proverbial out of my wee childhood self).  But it might also be because she’s often confused with the Morrigan, an old raven-feathered deity from Irish mythology who is also associated with death. While the Morrigan accompanies a soul passing over, however, the banshee only alerts the living to the passing of that soul.  She really can’t do you any harm at all, and she isn’t always a vision of terror either.

Anyway, I’ve bored of searching for costume ideas online so instead tonight I’m going to point you in the direction of a little more Samhain reading, this time from Lady Gregory’s ‘Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland’ (1920). Specifically this chapter on banshees and other death warnings,  which provides a more accurate account of the whole phenomenon. Or, if my inane babbling has already bored you of all things screaming and keening, you might enjoy this chapter. It’s packed full of tiny little ghost stories :) 

You know it’s funny; this book hails from an age when it was all the rage in Ireland for intellectuals to troop across the country collecting folk and fairy tales from the lesser classes.  The majority of the practices, traditions and urban legends documented from the period have more or less died out over the subsequent generations, but there are still a lot that endure.  And reading back over them I’ve realised that the ones with the most staying power  seem to be those concerning death and dying.  Ah, but sure isn’t that the nature of the human condition. We’re obsessed with our own mortality. That must be why we love Halloween so much! Well, hope you’re all having a spooktacular start to this seasonal weekend!


Heathen said...

It's true, we are obsessed with our mortality. Thank you for sharing, I always thought of the banshee as a screeching ghost...I had no idea there were more sides to the banshee!

JJ Beazley said...

I suppose the fear of the banshee stems from the fact that their appearance foretells somebody's death, which isn't very nice! I feared seeing a shooting star when I was a kid for the same reason.

I gave the banshee a beningn and sympathetic aspect in a story called The Accordion Player.

Anthropomorphica said...

There's certainly a fascination of "the other side" as well as a fear of death. I often wonder if that's because we don't LIVE our lives.
Thanks for the Lady Gregory link, I'm looking forward to getting stuck into "The Unquiet Dead"
Happy Hallows Eve Roisin.

Jeanne said...

Did not know that much about banshees, Thank You for enlightening me.

Happy Halloween!
May the coming year bring happiness and harmony, good health and prosperity to your hearth.

Della said...

Fascinating about the banshee, thank you. Happy Halloween and Samhain, Roisin

Róisín said...

Hope you all had a lovely Halloween folks. Thanks for stopping by!

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