As I mentioned last week, we get the privilege of picking two of our favorite guest posts for December’s “Favorite Things” theme. Our other favorite guest post this year was from our August theme, Lady Midnight, and it was Juliette F. Martin’s “Celtic Womanhood and the Banshee.”
It’s no secret all three of us ladies at Unbound love our Celtic mythology…so this post spoke to our hearts in that regard. But it also touched on a pop culture topic that many have heard of, but few know the origin of–the screaming banshee. We learned a lot from this article about the connection between Celtic womanhood and the origin of the banshee–so we wanted to share it one more time to give even more people the opportunity to see how women in ancient Celtic culture influenced modern day mythologies!
Try to imagine the terror of it: It’s dark, near midnight, and you sit beside the bed of an ailing family member. Through the window comes the sound of a woman in the grips of deepest grief. She is unrestrained in her keening, raw with sorrow. It is not merely the mysterious sounds that fill you with fear, but also the knowledge that in the day that follows, a member of your household will pass from the world. The source of this wailing is a banshee. She is a fairy, though she is far from what a modern American imagination might summon up at the word: this is no mischievous winged sprite, but rather an omen given a woman’s form.
The banshee evokes an even earlier tradition of feminine warnings of death: in pre-Christian Celtic mythology, the badb, an aspect of the triplicate death goddess known as The Morrígan, was said to appear as a crow predicting the imminent death of an individual or the outcome of a battle. These omens are self-evidencing of a tie in the pre-modern Celtic world between death and womanhood, and an examination of the social forces at play give some insight as to why.
In order to examine the tie between femininity and death in the Celtic world, one must first understand the concept of liminal spaces. Deriving from the field of anthropology, “liminality” is usually used to denote a ritualistic space in which participants cross from one stage of life to another. The experience of liminality occurs right at the threshold between the two, when the participant is neither one nor the other.[i] Though often associated with coming-of-age rituals, liminality has strong ties to concepts of morality and death. Essentially, in entering the liminal space of ritual, the person who entered effectively dies and a new one is reborn.
Because of the frequency in which women died in childbirth in the pre-modern world, women had a unique relationship with this life-and-death liminality. Every time a woman entered the process of labor, she faced the very real risk that in striving to bring new life into the world, her own would be made forfeit. Women also inhabited a liminal space in the familial structure. Celtic society was organized into clans, built upon kinship lines. In order to sustain the lineage, which was traced patrilineally, women had to be brought in from outside.[ii] As such, the wife was both a vital part of her family structure and an outsider.
This duality of familiarity and strangeness may also have contributed to the concepts of witches and witchcraft.[iii] The Celtic wife would have been responsible for the management and feeding of the household, and even as she worked to sustain the family and continue it’s lineage, an unhappy wife with a certain amount of knowledge of plant lore could make her family very sick—even to the point of death. We can only speculate about the source of fears associated with witchcraft, but perhaps the witch served as a focal point for anxieties around this familiar/foreign liminal state.
Like the ancient Celtic wife, the banshee too is a liminal being. Banshees usually appear at midnight, the liminal moment between two days, and represent a person’s passage into a sort of pre-death space in which they continue to live but are known to be near death. They also were heard from outside of homes, but never seem to enter them—the inverse of an ordinary woman, who would be strongly associated with hearth and home. Also like the ancient Celtic wife, the banshee has strained but important ties to the line of kinship: certain families were believed to be “followed” by a banshee. To be from a family followed by a banshee may have been a symbol of a certain rank and a point of pride.[iv] Despite the sorrow and darkness they represented, they remained important and valued.
The lore of the banshee carries with it a lot of the contradiction of life as a pre-modern Celtic wife—life and death, familiarity and strangeness. She is both a man’s fear at the potential damage his wife could do to the family line, and a woman’s grief at the suffering she must endure. Though any modern scholar can only guess at the societal forces behind mythology and lore, the shared liminality between the banshee and the Celtic wife does present a strong rationale for the persistent ties between death and femininity in ancient Celtic societies.
In the ancient world, centuries of oppression lent a certain darkness to femininity—after all, why shouldn’t the husband fear the wrath of a woman taken from her birth family and constrained to the hearth, doomed to watch her brothers and sons die in wars entirely outside her control? There is power in a woman’s rage and a woman’s grief. Perhaps fear of that power is what gave rise to the prevalence of the badb and the banshee.
Growing up, one of my very favorite book series was The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. I actually, purely by accident, read the series out of order. I saw The High King at my local library and thought it looked like just the sort of book I would enjoy. Little did I know it was the last book in a series. I eventually read all the other books…then read them again…and a few dozen times more after that. In fact, I just revisited them over Christmas. They deal with typical themes found in children’s literature, but one of the profound messages it contains is its message on identity–delivered both through the hero-with-no-past, Taran…and also through three shapeshifting enchantresses.
If you’re unfamiliar with the books, they’re about an orphan boy (because all great fantasies start with orphans) named Taran who is raised by a great magician. But Taran has no magic of his own; he’s only the “assistant pig keeper” who, like most children in these tales, wants to seek adventure outside of the confines of his farm. In The Black Cauldron (the book, not the Disney movie), Taran and his adventuring group stumble upon the Marshes of Morva and three old women. The old women are comical, talking about things such as whether they should eat the adventurers or turn them into toads and what-not. Naturally, this makes the group uneasy (for they do not want to be turned into toads), but draws laughter from the young audience (who finds the idea rather ridiculous).
That night, the group camps outside of the three women’s home, and Taran sneaks up to their window, only to catch a magnificent sight–the three old women aren’t old after all, but young, beautiful maidens weaving a tapestry he can’t really see.1
The next morning, the women (old, again), offer to give Taran and his friends the cauldron they seek, if Taran will give up his most valuable possession–a brooch that helps him portend the future. Yet, even as he does so, he recognizes that the three women meant him to find the cauldron, and also that they meant for him to trade his brooch for it.2 This realization makes the young man uneasy–yes, the three old women look ridiculous and sound a bit flighty and perhaps seem frail…but they possess a danger he would do well to fear.
It wasn’t until years later, on re-reading this series yet again, that I even thought to take a peek at the “Author’s Note” at the front of the book. There I discovered that Alexander drew much of his inspiration for The Prydain Chronicles from the Welsh Mabinogi, and that many of his ideas and characters were a part of Welsh legend. Who, then, are the three old women from the Marshes of Morva? The women who appear as they wish to be seen? Whose power is dangerous because it is undefined?
The Morrigan is a Welsh triune goddess whose form changes as she wills, and who, it seems, possesses a power that is feared above else. She is the goddess of war and death, whose form as the raven is an ill-omen before battle. In fact, in “The Children of Lir,” one character says just that. Aoife, after having turned the children of Lir into swans against the gods’ will, faces punishment from her foster-father. She begs that he spare her life, and he responds:
“That I will, for the snuffing out of your soul is but to show you mercy. Answer this question, for you are bound to do so: of everything that is on the earth, or above it, or beneath it, or everything that flies or creeps or burrows, seen or unseen, horrible in itself or in its nature, tell me what do you most fear and abhor?”3
Shaking, she replies:
“I fear Macha, Badb, and Nemain, the three forms of the Morrigan, the goddess of war, of death and slaughter, and most of all, her blood-drinking raven form.”4
Because she says this, he deems her punishment to be trapped in the form of a raven and haunt battlefields forever.
And therein lies the true horror of shapeshifting–does becoming the thing you most fear help you overcome fear? Or just become fear itself?
In the case of the Morrigan, she is feared because she is unknown. She is unknown because her nature can never be pinned down. She is the goddess of war, but also a mother. She presides over fear and death, but also over love and life. She takes, but she can also give. She is an ugly hag, a beautiful maiden, a raven, a banshee. She is the “Phantom Queen.”
Even her modern moniker–“phantom queen”–gives us insight into her nature. “Phantom” means “illusory” or even something that exists in one’s mind, giving the impression that she is not actually real. The wailing on the battlefield is all misleading; the raven portending death in war is a figment of imagination. In shifting her shape to take on other identities, the Morrigan has no identity at all.
Lloyd Alexander addresses this idea in the last book of his series, The High King, when the women of Morva come back to visit Taran after he has defeated the Death-Lord. They return in the form he once spied them in–beautiful maidens. Two wore robes of shifting colors, while the third remained shadowed in a cloak of black,5 depicting the shifting nature of the Morrigan, but also the constancy of darkness and fear. He admits that he did not recognize them at first, and one reminds him they choose their form as the situation “seems to require it.”6
They tell him they have come to deliver a tapestry to him–the same tapestry he’d seen them weaving all those years ago. It’s his tapestry, with the story of his life. They did not choose the pattern, they say; he did that. They just thought he should see what the result was of his choices.7 But, he tells them, he no longer sees his path clearly, and then says, “No longer do I understand my own heart. Why does my grief shadow my joy?”8 For this, they have no answer and fade away, leaving him (and us) to question.
And therein lies the truth of shapeshifting–we fear it because it is us.
At the end of the series, Taran realizes that he is not who he was before; he did not know himself then, and he isn’t sure he knows himself now. Perhaps we do become what we fear; we change our shapes “as the situation seems to require”; we lose our identity in the sea of identities.
Though Aoife lives the rest of her days as a raven, she is not burdened by the quest for identity, as the Morrigan is; as we all are. And perhaps it is not fit to think of identity as clothes we slip on and off. We fear what is illusory and crave permanence. But while permanence cannot be found in an identity that alters with the wind, perhaps it is through the illusory quest that we find our permanence. With every shape we put on, we come closer and closer to the true one.
For, as Alexander reminds his young readers, identity is perhaps more about altering our perceptions than our shapes. In Taran Wanderer, Taran goes to the Morrigan and asks for their help in uncovering who he really is. Instead, they offer to turn him into any animal he likes. Offended, he refuses their offer, and one of the women says, “We were only trying to make things easier for you.”9 It’s much easier, she seems to say, to change the outward appearance and accept that as inward reality than it is try it the other way around.
We often place value in appearances; “what you see is what you get.” And yet, so often, the outward appearance is a mask for a false identity. There is no easy answer or path for how to discern reality from illusion, but it is a journey worth taking.
“Is a man truly what he sees himself to be?’
“Only if what he sees is true.”10
Alexander, Lloyd. The Black Cauldron, 1965, Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1990, pp. 147-148.
Ibid, pp. 160-161.
Ellis, Peter Berresford. Celtic Myths and Legends, Constable and Robins, 2002, pp. 64.
Alexander, Lloyd. The High King, 1968, Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1990, pp. 285.