Guest Author - Rev. Jaclin Meade Scott
This week there are Irish tales aplenty. If story telling were an Olympic event, the Irish would take gold every time.
One piece of lore is the Banshee. There are sightings of the Banshee as an old woman, or in ghostly form. The dominant feature of a Banshee is sound rather than vision. Even for the first time, there is no mistaking the hearing of it. It is a clear, distant, blood chilling, haunting sobbing (keening in the Irish). And it means that a death is about to occur.
Relating this experience is not done with the usual Irish exuberance. When talk turns to the Banshee, there is a hush. Voices are low, and fraught with emotion. Nodding heads assure the teller that others can relate. Blessings are called upon the name of the one who subsequently died, and condolences extended to the teller. An appropriate silence is observed. When the music does start again, it is a somber piece. It usually takes a cue from the teller for the appropriate time to get the party going again. That cue is frequently another round with which to toast the dearly departed and all related.
These legends are not limited to rural Irish areas. Indeed, not limited to the Emerald Isle itself. Many an American, Canadian or Aussie of Irish ancestry can relate a Banshee experience.
Is it scary? Does one live in fear of the experience? Did you say ghostly appearance? Truth be told, the Irish thrive on this stuff. Not scary. More like a rite of passage. Once the keening is heard, preparations are made, people contacted. Emotional preparations are made as well, making family stronger and unified for what is to come.
Social science may debunk the Banshee as superstition rather than tradition. But every culture has a death mythology. It prepares young hearers for future responsibilities. It lessens the fear, for more is known. Those for whom the Banshee cries can more easily accept their time of transition.
Looking at death omens in other cultures is quite interesting. What the sign is can be common knowledge, but frequently there is a particular person most adept at interpretation.
Birds play a role for many groups in geographically diverse locations. The type, color or behavior of the birds differ, but recognition of the meaning of the species is universal.
Unusual cloud formations are warnings for some. This certainly sheds a new light on the Israelites’ journey out of Egyptian slavery, and why the pillars got so much press.
Of course Mother Nature gets a lot of credit for advance death alerts. Tree bark, leaf color, insect behavior, localized storms, blooms out of season, tides, and animal behavior all are watched carefully in various places.
It may surprise many to know that interpretation of bones is not the sole pervue of Voodoo. Some far Eastern cultures, among the Laos for example, have the same tradition.
Wherever tea has been served, there is someone to read the leaves in the bottom of the cup. A favorite scene in the Harry Potter series is Professor Trelawny seeing the big black dog in Harry’s dregs. Indeed, the large dark canine, either in tea leaf or real form, is known as the Shuck. Much like the black cat, a Shuck crossing your path is sure to change your mood, if you believe in such things.
And therein lies the quandary. Do these omens only work for the culture that perpetuates them? If an Irishman has never heard of a Banshee, can he still go to the wake? Does a Voodoo priestess really know why the chicken bones crossed the road?
From there it’s a small leap to two superstitions that can paralyze people. These are not so much omens as misinterpretations.
Dreaming of someone dying actually has nothing to do with that person’s demise. Are there such dreams that presage the loss of life? Yes, but you’d have to have a good interpreter define that for you. At first glance, it won’t look like a death omen, and must be seen in context.
Death in dreams usually signifies a loss – of health, job, a routine, innocence, an old problem – or great change. Again, dreams must be taken in context of the dreamer’s life. It’s not a science.
In cultures where legal documents known as wills are used, there is great reluctance to draw them up. Superstition abounds that once signed, death will be hurried. Has it occurred to anyone that people are hesitant to make a will, and wait until they know they are dying to sign one? And that may be why one event seems always to rapidly follow the other? Many who die unexpectedly leave their families in dire straits for not having made any decisions or left instructions. Get over yourself, and protect your loved ones. In that time of duress and grief is not when they need to be concerned about who gets the antique doorknob collection, or deal with the fallout because you promised it to someone else.
The Irish of a certain age know St. Patrick’s Day as one of religious observance, not bacchanal. So we worry about you hooligans that are out partying on a school night. Be safe. Maintain