Throughout Ireland and Scotland when one hears a high wailing sound in the countryside, chills start creeping along the arms and neck of the listener. This is a sound one does not wish to hear, for it is from a messenger of death -- the banshee who is lamenting the death of a member of a high family.
The legends vary depending on which part of the country the banshee was heard or seen, or depending on who saw her. Some say she looks like an old hag, a lovely matron, or a beautiful and gentle young maiden. These three guises are reminiscent of the Morrigan, the Celtic triple goddess of war and death. The Morrigan are three sisters, Badb, Macha and Nemain. Sometimes, she is said to appear as animals associated with witchcraft of the old days, such as the hooded crow, a young pig or hog that is newly weaned, or a weasel. Since the banshee is of the faerie folk, she can appear however she wants to be seen. She is not always seen, but her lamenting wail is heard for miles, so piercing and shrill it shatters the still night air. The wail can also be gentle and low, almost pleasant, or like the sound of a barn owl whose screech is chilling. Regardless of what her wailing sounds like, it is known what it means and is not a sound one wants to hear.
There is one legend about the banshee being seen as an old washer woman by a river. She is washing the blood off the clothes of a warrior who is about to die in a battle field. She probably does this to make sure the soul of the warrior is cleansed before making his journey to the afterlife. Then she heads for the home of the family to announce the death of one of their loved ones.
Bean sidhe, pronounced 'ben shee', is the name used for the banshee in Ireland. It means "woman of the faerie mounds". In Scotland she is known as bean sith, or bean nighe (washer woman). The banshee is not restricted to just Ireland and Scotland. Welsh mythology has a similar legend of a spirit who foretells the family of a pending death. The Hag of the mist, or Gwrach-y-Rhibyn, is much like the Irish and Scottish banshees yet is always portrayed as an old ugly woman. She cries her lament as a forewarning of a death. She is often seen near a stream as the mists from the water rises.
During the earliest days of the colonies in America, the Irish, Scotch and Welsh immigrants brought their folklore and legends with them -- so, the banshee is known in American folklore and mythology also as a a harbinger of death, similar to the 'White Lady' ghost legends. In rural areas around the world, legends tell of the ghost of a woman dressed in white who seems to be attached to a particular family line. The legends usually state that she was betrayed by her husband or fiance'.
The banshee in modern times is thought of as a ghoul or other monstrous character -- yet there are some who think of her as only a benevolent spirit who mourns a beloved family member.