In the Alters’ World (and the series of books found here), creatures of legend reveal themselves to the world. Born through genetic abnormalities, defects and mutations, the Alters have lived for centuries as outcasts of human society, hiding their true nature from the world while colorful stories have been written by many to describe what they’ve seen. How are these creatures different from what was described in the stories? What relationship do they have with humanity? Every entry of the Alterpedia will delve into a new creature from around the world. This week we cover:
Ethereal voices haunting the Irish countryside, ever present reminder of mortality, the wail of the Banshee has long been known by those of Gaelic ancestry as a sign of someone’s passing. Tied to the oldest and most important of Irish families, this “fairy” woman stands as the first to mourn the departed – sometimes even before their death.
Long tied to the tradition of keening held in Gaelic culture, is the Banshee truly mourning the dead, or is it merely a coincidence? Do they know the coming of someone’s passing, or is it all happenstance? Few dare to ask the question and many fear the answers. But could it all just be an elaborate ruse, or something much greater?
What secrets do these wailing women hold?
Somewhat tame for creatures of Celtic and Gaelic origin, the Banshee is a creature that looks mostly human. Often times described as a woman clad in red or green and sporting long, disheveled hair, Banshee appear quite human despite the fact they are most certainly not. Despite her appearances, she is actually a member of the fairy folk, able to change her form or hide her identity if she sees fit.
Because of this, descriptions of the Banshee often vary wildly. Many describe her as an old, ugly hag with a frightening appearance – reminiscent of death itself. This is often the description attributed to her by those that fear her coming. But in other stories she’s been known to be young, beautiful and unearthly – even angelic. Many of these descriptions make note of her pale complexion, an effect of either her deathly pallor or the unearthly beauty she possesses. BUt these forms may be temporary and Banshees have been known to change forms in front of witnesses, sometimes revealing a true form beneath that changes the perspective of those she deals with.
In any fashion, these women can be quite unassuming and are not known primarily for their appearance, but rather for their voice.
Typically Irish and rarely anything else, Banshee are most definitely on the paler side of the human spectrum. Like many people of their homeland, the amount of direct sun seen by a typical banshee can be quite limited. However, though considerably pale, it is rarely in a sickly fashion. Banshee are known to be unusually beautiful in their youth and age gracefully over time. Descriptions of their older selves being ugly hags are generally slander, directed against them due to the reputation of their race being associated with death.
The choice of colors is actually somewhat accurate. Being from Ireland, many traditional clothes in the old days for them and other Alters native to the region varied between reds and greens. In fact, even without this color coordinating in their outfits, it is very common for them to have red hair and green eyes as well.
Unnatural features of the Banshee, unlike many Alters, are relatively limited. Being descended from the more humanoid races of Alters in the past, it’s believed that the Banshee race developed under a need to avoid standing out. However, one thing often recognized by Alter scholars is that, while they did blend in for a very considerable length of time, the soft tones of Ireland’s native languages imply they were constructed to allow Banshee to speak them without causing much harm – indicating that they never managed to hide for very long.
As mentioned previously, the Banshees were fairy folk with some of the latent magical abilities all of them had. Able to change their shape at will, the Banshees would disguise themselves if they desired in the process of interacting with people. In one famous example this even led to the reveal that a Banshee had in fact been the goddess Morrigan, a Celtic goddess of battle. However, the shape shifting was somewhat limited. While the stories did not say that these entities could not become something other than human, there are no indications that Banshees ever did decide to become something other than a human woman. This is likely due to the fact they spent a great deal of time interacting with humans on a personal level – particularly at the moment of their death.
Attached to specific, important families throughout Ireland, Banshees were known to be able to sense the death of an important person regardless of distance. This knowledge would come to them immediately, as if by a psychic connection, and the Banshees would begin to wail at the moment of that person’s death even if no other notice had arrived yet.
However, while these wails marked someone’s death, it did not always mark someone had already died. Many stories demonstrated that the Banshee’s knowledge of someone’s passing was not just apsychic sense but actually a prediction of the future. Several times, Banshees would appear to important individuals and lament for them to warn them of their own passing. This indication of being able to tell the future eventually morphed into something of a curse.
Similar to the Dullahan‘s voice, some stories and later interpretations of Banshees began to associate their voice with the cause of death itself. It was believed over time that the Banshee was not particularly predicting the death but rather were causing it. Though the older stories never quite put as much weight behind it, later versions of these figures would show them to have powerful voices which could cause harm to any that heard it.
But in truth, while the Banshees did have this ability, they were still predicting the death of others. Descended from the line of Sirin and Gamayun and closely related to the Dullahan and Reapers, Banshees have the ability to detect chemical changes in people in their vicinity and take note that the person in question could be in poor health or have recently died. This ability does not reach as far as the stories indicate, however, as generally the Banshees can only sense these effects within a short distance and rarely more than the area of a single town.
However, stories of their voices being powerful did hold some truth. Sitting somewhere between the Sirin and Dullahan in the family tree, Banshees have incredible control of their vocal chords and are able to generate frequencies unobtainable by regular humans. While their ancestors used these abilities to lull humans into a stupor, Banshees long ago adapted the talent to create physical pain as a means of self defense. Though rarely recorded in actual use against humans, Banshees can cause blood vessels or ear drums to burst in a person if they feel it necessary.
Stories of shape-shifting are exaggerations of one ability that they do retain from their ancestors. While unable to manipulate someone in the way a Siren could, a Banshee could use precise control of their voices to impact someone’s perceptions. This effect, while not enough to bend someone’s will, could make the Banshee appear either more or less threatening depending on the reaction she wished to draw out of them. This talent is not common, however, and generally is a mark of a Banshee who has mastered her voice to an extent many cannot achieve.
Ireland tradition holds that during a period of mourning such as a funeral or a wake, wailing women known as keeners would lament over the corpse. These keeners were important in Gaelic culture and the best keeners would often be the most highly sought after. But for those of truly important lineage, no simple keener would do. For those of the most famous families of Ireland, only a keener of supernatural ability would do it justice.
Acting as the personal keeners of these families, the Banshees were tied to these families and would enter a state of mourning for the recently deceased. This lone Banshee would usually wail at the event of an important person’s death alone, generally with no one aware of who she cried for, but that was not always the case. In the event of the death of someone truly remarkable – whether they be powerful, righteous, or beloved – it was said that multiple Banshees would come together to express their mourning for this person.
These actions were generally not believed to be out of malice, but the reputation was hard to avoid. With the association they had with death, it was difficult for them to avoid being regarded as an ill omen rather than simply a mournful witness. Because of this, many people would become terrified of the sound, fearing that the Banshee might be wailing for them. However, despite this fear, the Banshee was rarely shown to mean any harm in this mourning until more modern interpretations. As time grew on, this reputation did eventually morph into a form of curse or malice, but the traditional figure was merely there to carry out a service – one well appreciated if it were carried out by mere mortals.
Aware of the passing of others and knowing they possessed a great ability at it, Banshees spent a great deal of time selling their services as professional keeners like many normal humans would. Many of the best keeners in Ireland would make the act their profession, attending many wakes as a means of supporting themselves, and Banshees were of the highest caliber and made the most of their talents. Though their voice could be harmful if unskilled, the Banshees who most closely interacted with humanity were masters of their abilities and were known to be the greatest keeners to exist. As such, while they could wail for anyone, they would often be well outside the price range of commoners and would generally only work for the oldest and most powerful families.
This tradition held throughout time. Though professional keeners are less in demand today, they have found a place in modern society in a variety of similar but slightly different occupations. Banshees in today’s society have been known to work as funeral directors, morticians, or lead singers of metal bands. Their vocal ability is somewhat inferior to the likes of Sirens or Nix, but in these circles they have a knack at hitting the specific sound required. The songs of Banshees are particularly known for falling on two extremes, from melancholy and haunting to one end…
To completely disturbing on the other.