A banshee is a female spirit in Irish and Scottish folklore whose wailing voice is heard before the death of a member of the family to which she is attached. The word comes from the Irish bean sidhe, meaning “woman of the fairies”; in the Scottish Highlands, the banshee is known as the Bean-Nighe, and it is said that she can be seen washing the winding sheet or bloodstained clothes of the doomed person. Only aristocratic families have banshees; anyone of lower birth has nothing to fear when encountering a banshee.
The banshee’s wailing tone, known as keening, indicates the type of death: low and soft for a peaceful death, shrill and harsh for a violent one.
Descriptions of the banshee vary. In some accounts she has long streaming hair and wears a gray cloak over a green dress, and her eyes are red from continual weeping. She may alternatively be dressed in white with red hair and a ghastly complexion according to a firsthand account by Ann, Lady Fanshawe in her Memoirs. Lady Wilde in Ancient Legends of Ireland provides another:
The size of the banshee is another physical feature that differs between regional accounts. Though some accounts of her standing unnaturally tall are recorded, the majority of tales that describe her height state the banshee’s stature as short, anywhere between one foot and four feet. Her exceptional shortness often goes alongside the description of her as an old woman, though it may also be intended to emphasize her state as a fairy creature.
The banshee is sometimes associated with the Morrigan, a triple-aspected Celtic goddess of war and death, and as such may appear in one of three states: as a young woman, a stately matron, or an old hag.