Do you follow rabbit holes like I do? How much time do I spend going down rabbit holes in the name of research? I probably don’t want to know.
In my fiddle practice, I am learning a tune entitled Banshee. Like you, I’ve heard the expression, screaming like a banshee. Usually, it’s in reference to someone very upset, maybe a small frightened child or a teenage girl in despair. I wasn’t sure of the exact nature of a banshee but I had a vague notion of a banshee as an excited creature.
The tune involved a couple of measures in the minor mode and almost sounds like Native American music. I wondered if Banshee might have a Native American connotation. So I looked it up.
Banshee is of Irish origin so that caught my eye. A banshee is a spirit or maybe a fairy in Irish lore who appears and cries out to signal that death is to occur in the household. In art, the banshee is depicted as an old woman with gray tattered clothing presumably from roaming the countryside doing her job. She might be portrayed as unnaturally tall but some render her less than four feet like a fairy. Her hair is disheveled and she is generally unkempt. Some believe the spirit is that of a mother who died in childbirth or a murdered virgin. A banshee might also warn someone before he attempts a foolish endeavor that will lead to death.
According to folklore, the banshee announces the death of members of the O and Mc/Mac families in Ireland — you know, O’Reilly, O’Donahue, MacDonald, MacIntosh. At times the banshee announced the death of a family member living far away before the actual news reached home. The shrill nature of the banshee cry has been said to shatter glass.
The banshee utters a cry known as a keening. It’s a harsh cry. The term wailing woman is also used for a banshee.
I wasn’t familiar with the word keening so I looked it up. A keen is a Gaelic word meaning to cry or weep. At funeral processions and burial sites, the wailing woman or the keener, sometimes a professional who is paid, cries out a lament to herald the accomplishments of the deceased or the woeful state of those left behind. All those present might join in the chorus with the keener. The keening might include rocking, clapping, or kneeling. Some keeners are highly paid for their talents.
Death wails are common around the globe. Peoples in Africa, Australia, Greece, India, and China practice some form of a death wail.
I searched for an audio file of a keener. After a few false starts, I found a Keening Song on an album entitled Traditional Songs of Ireland. Far from being a frightfully high-pitched scream, this recording was light and airy in a high register reminding me of an Indian or a Gregorian chant. After hearing this I will never again refer to a screaming child as a cry like a banshee.
And while I was searching for a keener audio, I found a video of a hurdy-gurdy. Now there’s another rabbit hole I must travel down.
Mary Reid is a Haralson County resident who dreams of writing a memoir of her family’s time in Africa.