Tuesday, March 27, 2012

THE BANSHEE by Elliott O'Donnell

Elliott O'Donnell's claims that this stories are true don't always strike me as credible, but I have to admit that he's a darn good storyteller and his recountings of various legends is zesty fun and good reading on a cold windy night.

A banshee, for those who don't know, is an Irish legend of a fairy woman, normally attached to a particular family or locality, who weeps and moans, or sometimes sings, as a sign of a death. Banshees could be ugly hags or beautiful young women, they could be weeping and keening mournfully or cackling in maniacal glee, and sometimes are not seen at all. They do not cause a death (as they do when translated in D&D or Chill games), but merely foretell a death that is about to happen and that is inevitable, although in some legends they simply warn when someone is in danger of their lives. Although prevalent in Ireland, there are also legends of banshees in Scotland and in some areas of the United States...presumably, in places with heavy Irish populations.

O'Donnell's The Banshee is a book-length exploration of the folklore and legends of the creature, and while it often slips in to occult mumbo-jumbo and claims of personal experience, it's still a fun read. He discusses just what a banshee is, tales of them from history, the ideas of banshee personality, the nature of banshee hauntings, variations on the legend, and even has a chapter on poetry and prose involving banshees.

Naturally, I don't believe a word of it, but it is good reading, and in an odd way is also a good look into the mythology of the spectral being that foretells death, a folklore trope that's found all over the place. Many old families in the British Isles and elsewhere in Europe have legends of death portents, ranging from certain animals being seen in certain places, to weird supernatural beasts. I once read of a legend of three ghostly women (a young lady, a middle-aged woman, and an aged crone, all dressed in mourning clothes) who were seen knocking on the doors of the Intramuros neighborhood of Manila, and wherever they knocked a death soon occurred, and were supposedly seen knocking doors all over the city just before it was bombed in 1945. While O'Donnell would see that as a banshee-type haunting, I would see it as a repetition of the old folklore.

O'Donnell claims personal experience of banshees, and tells many "personal" stories purportedly heard from friends and acquaintances that may or may not be true, but at least they're shuddersome and entertaining.

The Banshee can be had in an overpriced print-on-demand bound version, but is out of copyright and can be downloaded for free from various online resources, including Amazon. (I read it on the Kindle.) If you're in the mood for some supernatural shudders, this is good fun. Just take it all with a grain of salt.

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