Past and Future Banshees

“’Twas the Banshee’s lonely wailing,
Well I knew the voice of death,
On the night wind slowly sailing
O’er the bleak and gloomy heath.”

Thomas Crofton Croker, Keens of the South of Ireland (1844)

And thou shalt eat the fruit of thine own body, the flesh of thy sons and of thy daughters.”

Deuteronomy 28:53

We are told that, next to trampling city walls beneath his feet, and crushing and plundering his enemies, Genghis Khan loved most to hear “the lamentations of their women.”   I could not hear the wailing of the women in the photograph that accompanied Kristor’s latest post, much less taste the salt of her tears, but to look upon that anguished face was enough for me to sip the joy of the Mongol beast.

It also recalled to my mind the cry of a dread banshee.

A banshee is, strictly speaking, a ghost that haunts an ancient Irish family.  The name has been interpreted to mean “Lady of Death,” although not all banshees once walked the earth as flesh and blood.  Some are said to be elemental spirits, others the spectral residue of sentient but non-human beings.  Whatever their origin, banshees divide into two types, the sorrowful banshees, which are beautiful and given to moaning, and the hateful banshees, which are hag-like and cackle or shriek.

It is generally supposed that a banshee haunts an ancient Irish family because the forebears of that family committed a crime at some dark and distant date.  This normally involved recourse to the dark arts of sorcery and necromancy, an indiscretion that opened the door of the spirit world and gave entrance to the haunting banshee.

This haunting is primarily aural.  A banshee may appear visibly, but more often makes her presence known by groans, wails, or terrific screams.  Some banshees are said to knock and bump like poltergeists; others disquiet those they haunt with the “Satanic chuckle” of an old crone who enjoys (in both senses of that word) foreknowledge of their comeuppance and cruel fate.*

In German lore the office of banshee is filled by a “White Lady,” a spectral figure that appears, sometimes to musical accompaniment, as an omen of impending death and disaster.  Like a banshee, a White Lady is often attached to a particular bloodline and was either the perpetrator or victim of that bloodline’s dark ancestral crime.  And like a banshee, a White Lady is an oracle of fate who announces but does not warn.  She is not a guardian angel, or even a monitory ghost who advises men to mend their ways.  She is an oracle of fate, a memento mori, who tells a man that his time is soon coming or has come.

As the White Lady of Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Monastery (1820) says to the young man whom she haunts,

“Complain not to me, child of clay
If to thy harm I yield the way.
We, who soar thy sphere above,
Know not aught of hate or love.”

* * * * *

My first epigraph is taken from a curse that the Lord placed on Israel for its infidelity and disobedience.  Israel shall be desolated, he declares, by “a nation of fierce countenance,” not unlike the Mongols of Genghis Khan; and this desolation will reduce the Israelites to the abominable disgrace of eating their own children.  Indeed their straits will be so dire, and their pangs of hunger so keen, that every one of them will hoard a private larder of infant flesh.  Crouched and alone, each cannibal will gnaw the ghastly bones, guarding his vile repast with quick and jealous glances over his shoulder.

“She shall eat them for want of all things secretly.”

No nation of fierce countenance was required to reduce us to eating our children.  Neither siege nor straitness caused the vile banquet of cannibalism in our gates.  We may not directly eat the fruit of our own bodies; but many of us do in various ways annex for our own use the rain and sun that was meant to feed that fruit.  The abominable disgrace of these annexations is not, perhaps, so clear as the abominable disgrace of the secret repasts of the starving Israelites, but that may make our banquet even more vile than theirs.

An old German legend tells us that the spectral career of the White Lady of the House of Hohenzollern began when Kunigunde, Countess of Orlamünde, murdered her two children in the hope of enlarging her own enjoyments.  This was in the middle of the fourteenth century, after the Countess, recently widowed, had fallen in love with Albert the Fair, who was Burgrave of Nürnberg and the handsomest man in Europe.  Fearing that Albert would not love a woman encumbered with children, the Countess of Orlamünde is said to have forced knitting needles through the ear sockets of her two small children, and thereby to have scrambled their infant brains.  This enhancement of her allure did not, alas, suffice to win the heart of handsome Albert, and so the penitent Kunigunde, Countess of Orlamünde, retired to the convent at Himmelsthron.

When this particular White Lady afterwards appeared, we may therefore take it as the specter of an unnatural mother who was in purgatory, and was working out her sins in the office of a premonitory spirit, or what the Irish call a banshee.

* * * * *

If the legend of the Countess of Orlamünde is any guide, many banshees and White Ladies may be the ghosts of unnatural mothers who have murdered their own children in the hope of enlarging their own enjoyments, and who are now working out their sin in the office of a premonitory spirit.  Thus much of the wailing, shrieking and howling that now issues from faces contorted like the one in the photograph in Kristor’s latest post, may be training for their future task.

“For there is sorrow on the way,
For I tonight have seen
A banshee in the shadows pass
Along the dark boreen.”***


*) Elliott O’Donnell, The Banshee (London: Sands & Co., 1920).
**) S. Barring-Gould, The Land of Teck and Its Neighbors (London: John Lane, 1911).
***) Dora Siegeron Shorter, Collected Poems (1907).  A boreen is a country lane.

9 thoughts on “Past and Future Banshees

  1. Just as an aside, I think the “lamentations of the women,” is an invention of Robert E. Howard in his Conan series, and repeated by Schwarzenbraunundblueundegger in one of the movies, to my handclapping hilarity. Every time I love to watch that line reading. It makes my day!

    • I’ve never seen anything close to an authentic original source of the quote, although I do believe I’ve seen it used by authors earlier than Howard.

      • Very likely. It’s memorable, but just generic enough to have been invented many times. Up until very recently (the 1940s), Mongols delighted in their version of polo, using the head of an enemy chief as the ball. They still play it, but with the heat of a goat.

      • It’s a youtube video of a baseball commentator reviewing the mongolian sport of Buzkashi which is the sport you described.

        https (colon slash slash) youtu (dot) be (slash) 1JUn8MsEyPs

      • Buzkashi! Yes, I read of it first in the history of the Yuan dynasty many years ago and then several years thereafter in a book written by a Danish adventurer to what was then outer Mongolia in the 1930s and ’40s — and the enemy’s severed head was still the preferred ball of choice. 🏀 🏈 ⚽

  2. Don’t know whether you saw the recent story about Peter Nygard, the Norwegian Epstein. Apparently he asked his sleepmates (often underage models) to abort their fetuses so that he could cannibalize their stem cells. “Everyone does it,” he would say when the girls would look horrified. Epstein, too, we know, planned on a breeding harem under his New Mexico palazzo. A quote, likely apocryphal, of Mel Gibson’s, is that this or similar is common currency in Unholywood. The Deuteronomy quote, the Molechian overtones, cuts straight to the quick. We, all of us, are now navigating up the Nung River into Kurtz’s Kingdom of Death.
    BTW, didn’t this used to be a Thomas Carlyle hangout? The place seems to have gone full-tilt Pascendi, but then, so have I, so yeah, glad to have rediscovered the Orthosphere. Fiat!

    • Glad to have you back. I’m not sure when Carlyle last made an appearance in these pages, but I’m sure he will be back.

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