Bestiary: B is for bansidhe

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B is for bansidhe: If you’re ever woken up by a wailing, a mournful, skin-crawling cry in the night, beware. It could be the bansidhe [pronounced ban-she], a supernatural being, mentioned in Celtic folklore.

The bansidhe [ban meaning ‘woman’, and sidhe meaning ‘fairy’] is someone, it is said, to be avoided. Appearing, usually, as an elderly woman, somewhat ugly, dressed in rags, this fairy-woman, looking almost indistinguishable from a normal adult, is someone whom death follows. Those who hear her, it is said, can expect a death in the family.

Opinion is divided as to whether the bansidhe is the bringer of death and is therefore to be feared, or is merely the messenger who announces impending death and so provides an opportunity to those who hear her, to brace themselves and to be prepared (and in which case the bansidhe has received bad press), and it is this, latter, definition that I believe to be more accurate and one that I favour.

It is said that in 1437, King James I of Scotland was approached by an banside, who foretold his murder at the instigation of the Earl of Atholl. And, in 1807 two of the sentries stationed outside St. James’s Park in London witnessed the bansidhe it is said, and promptly died of fright

The bansidhe, though, is a changeling, a shape-shifter, and may also appear in a variety of other forms, such as that of a crow, a stoat, a hare or weasel, or similar.

The Welsh counterpart, is the gwrach y Rhibyn (that is, the ‘hag of Rhibyn’), an entity who resides in fog and near water. With the ‘ch’ sounding like a throat-clearing sound, similar to the sound at the end of the Scottish word ‘loch’, it is pronounced ‘gor-arch ee rib-inn’.

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