Friday, November 23, 2012

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

Over at Triple P today, I did a post involved the good doctor Stephen Maturin from Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels. Being half Irish, Dr. Maturin was very familiar with today's harbinger of untimely death, the Celtic specter known as the Ban-Sidhe: the banshee.

The Sidhe were, in original Celtic tradition, the "old gods." Diminished by Christianity to "fairy folk", the strongest of them road out on dark, stormy nights bringing a bit of the Teutonic Wild Hunt - another foreteller of doom - into their legend. Originally, families had personal Sidhe as well, ancestors who watched over the clan century after century. These too withered away under the Christian yoke, becoming no more than ghosts akin to last week's Shivering Boy. But in Ireland, where Roman Christianity never took a full hold, the Sidhe in general and the familial Ban-Sidhe continued to hold sway.

To this day the banshee is known among Irish families. Certain of the Kennedy clan, for instance, claimed to hear her voice before the deaths of John and Robert. She is imagined as a woman dressed in gray and green with long hair undone and eyes perpetually streaming with tears. Often she is said to be corpse-like and skeletal, her eyes glowing red when she finds the family member whose time has come. In these cases, her churchyard face will appear at each window of a house in turn until she locates her target, then she will beckon with a boney finger and the victim will have no choice but to follow.

This may be the experience only of the one about to die, however.

Most of the living hear rather than see the banshee. In such cases she is heard to keen in a wild, high-pitched voice just outside or near the family home. Her voice is cold and unearthly and once heard, can never be forgotten. Sometimes more than one voice calls out - as was the case with the President and his brother - indicating that a very important individual will meet their end.

As noted too, moving away from Erin did not displace the family banshee by any means. In her book Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland, Jane Francesca Elgee Lady Wilde, the mother of Oscar Wilde, wrote of a well-to-do Irish family in Canada. When an otherworldly voice was heard near their estate one night, no one could find the source. The next day, however, the family found they had indeed experienced a close encounter with their own Ban-Sidhe:

... several persons distinctly heard the weird, unearthly cry, and a terror fell upon the household, as if some supernatural influence had overshadowed them.

Next day it so happened that the gentleman and his eldest son went out boating. As they did not return, however, at the usual time for dinner, some alarm was excited, and messengers were sent down to the shore to look for them. But no tidings came until, precisely at the exact hour of the night when the spirit-cry had been heard the previous evening, a crowd of men were seen approaching the house, bearing with them the dead bodies of the father and the son, who had both been drown by the accidental upsetting of the boat, within sight of land, but not near enough for any help to reach them in time.

Thus the Ban~Sidhe had fulfilled her mission of doom, after which she disappeared, and the cry of the spirit of death was hear no more.

No more, one must imagine, until the next time one of the family faced the arms of our final companion...

Header: The Banshee (La Belle Dame sans Merci) by Henry Meynell Rheam c 1901 via Wikimedia 


Timmy! said...

There's a sound I hope never to hear, Pauline...

Pauline said...

Me too. But we both certainly have the potential to have a family Ban~Sidhe.