Love mythical creatures? Here’s a peek into their world.
Songs and Shrouds: The Mythical Banshee and the Bean Nighe as Harbingers
The Irish banshee and the Scottish bean nighe tread the darkest of nights as omens from another world, that of the unknown beyond. Though similar at first glance, they were regarded as quite different beings. They remain in the folklore of both cultures as fearsome beings—feared not for their appearance nor their magical powers, but for the message they brought: that of the death of a loved one or a family member. Though brief descriptions of these beings give the impression that they are the same, it is important to note that they were not, despite their comparative purposes.
To begin, the Irish banshee was considered a messenger from the Otherworld, the Irish version of the great beyond and/or the realm of fairies. In legend, banshees were known as keening, wailing female spirits who appeared directly preceding someone’s death or at the precise moment of it, and were thought to be fairies, ghosts of mothers who died in childbirth, or ghosts of women who died unexpectedly.
The foreboding banshee wailed in warning and grief. S.T./ Flickr
Since the Otherworld of Irish mythology can be interchangeable in certain texts as either the realm of the fairy folk or the dead, what precisely the banshees were has not been determined. However, the belief that they were women who died prematurely seems to be the most widespread belief, possibly to create an atmosphere of sorrow and grief around the spirits.
It was also a common belief in Ireland that a particular banshee would tie herself to one individual family, and serve as a singular warning. Thus, it was thought that if a group of banshees were heard howling, it meant that someone in a wealthy Irish clan was about to succumb to death’s fatal charms.
La Belle Dame Sans Merci – The Banshee. 1897. Public Domain
In a similar fashion, the Scottish bean nighe (pronounced ben-nee’-yeh) was believed to be a symbol of approaching death, though in vastly different ways from the banshee. Again, she was the spirit of a woman who lost her life far too soon, however she would only remain as a bean nighe until her ghost reached the age she otherwise would have died at. This distinction is interesting because it indicates that the Scottish bean nighe would not forever be sentenced to mourn the deaths of others, and it implies that the bean nighe was not born a fairy. Her gift lasted only as long as her life would have, eventually giving her a reprieve and allowing her to visit those she was torn away from. This freedom is never recorded in the Irish banshee myth.
Rather than wailing, the bean nighe was considered a washerwoman; upon the death of a person, she would be seen washing blood from funeral shrouds in a nearby river, a silent omen rather than a noisy one. She was considered to be much more capable of involvement with the human world than the banshee—most likely due to her eventual ability to rejoin them in the afterlife—as she was recorded as interacting with humans more than banshees ever did in tales.
As it goes, when the bean nighe spoke with a human, the human was to answer three of her questions to obtain three answers to his own, and was granted a wish for almost anything desired.
Interestingly, banshees and bean nighe have been described in very similar ways, except for three definitive points. Together, a banshee and bean nighe were believed to have taken on multiple forms, either as an old crone or a beautiful, young woman; in both cases, the being was most often dressed in very plain clothes—a grey cloak with a green, red, or black underdress and long, pale hair.
The major distinctions between the bean nighe and banshees, however, once again came from the bean nighe, as she is always depicted—both young and old—as having one nostril, drooping breasts, and frog-like webbed feet.
Bunworth Banshee, Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland. 1825. Public Domain
Despite that both banshees and bean nighe were considered threatening beings, their intentions were seemingly in the interest of providing warnings rather than triggering human deaths themselves.
According to legend, they did not predict the viewer’s own death, nor were they recorded as directly causing someone’s death; they were believed to be merely announcers—the terrible phone call from the hospital as it were.
It is important to understand the differences between the two creatures even though they are quite similar, out of appreciation for the Irish and Scottish cultures, as well as respect for the creatures, should they ever be viewed.
The Wandering Wilas of Slavic Mythology
In Slavic mythology, there is a type of nymph, which can only be described as somewhere between a ghost and a fairy. Said to float between the living world and the afterlife, the wandering wilas have taken on attributes of both fairies and elves, due to their ethereal beauty and their mischievously fatal temperament.
Who Are the Wandering Wilas?
Similar to the sirens of Greek mythology , the wandering wilas have gone by many names. Known as a wiła in Polish, vila in Slavic, wili or even veela, according to Ronel the Mythmaker they have been “seriously misunderstood.” The mythological wilas are young and mysterious fair-haired beings, revered for their beauty. Envied by human women and admired by mortal men, some legends claim that they are the “spirits of women who lived frivolous lives,” at least that is the description used by Lucy Cooper in her The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies .
These are spirit-creatures which abide in the in-between, lost women who were unbaptized or engaged at death. The wandering wilas have inspired modern-day versions, such as the ballet Giselle, which tells the story of a young woman who died of a broken heart having been betrayed by her lover and was ordered by the queen of the wilas (or wilis), the spirits of women who died after being double-crossed by their lovers, to take revenge by dancing him to death.
The wandering wilas as depicted by Giuliano Bartolomeo.(Fondazione Cariplo / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Shapeshifting Wilas and the Power of the Wind
The knowledge of wilas mostly stems from close readings of Polish and Slavic literature more than direct factual anecdotes. Wilas are mentioned in various poems and short stories, mostly as warnings to oblivious or unsuspecting men. Found in the forests, rivers, caves, hill tops, or even in the center of a ring of trees, the wandering wilas have most often been depicted as lonely, ghost-like beings, dressed in cloaks that billow with the air, covered in leaves, or sometimes naked in order to entice the opposite sex.
These solitary creatures have often been described as shapeshifters, appearing sometimes as beautiful female nymphs, while at others they appearing as swans or even horses. The mythical wilas are unlike European fairies since they were not born as spirits of nature, but became them with death, obtaining power over the winds in lieu of the lives they would have led. Able to blend into the wind as incorporeal, translucent and intangible shapes, or they can become solid, able to touch and be touched by the natural world around them.
Illustration of the ethereal wandering wilas from Slavic mythology. (Fair Use)
Don’t Cross a Wandering Wila
What most differentiates wilas from fairies is their ferocity. Fairies are known to be playful tricksters, taking easy pleasure from “borrowing” items and returning them in odd places. Wilas, on the other hand, are said to occasionally become fierce beings known equally for forcing companionship and seeking vengeance. They are known to dance human men to death for their amusement and enjoyment. They are also known to participate in battles not unlike those of the Valkyries from Norse mythology .
While stories describe them as shy creatures who avoid humans, their voices are described as a force to be reckoned with, so powerful that a few notes can keep the men dancing against their wills. They can even summon the most dangerous winds and storms to wipe out their enemies, causing the earth to shake from the very force of their magic. Only sometimes do they choose to help or heal humans, in war or in moments of compassion, but if the wilas are angered, it is not uncommon for them to kill the humans without a second thought. In fact, in the past, people roaming the mountains were warned to take care in the realm of the wandering wilas known for their unpredictable tempers.
Mounted heroes from a Serbian epic poem, and vila Ravijojla from Serbian mythology, in a painting by Paja Jovanović inspied by the epic poem “Marko Kraljević and the Vila.” ( Public domain )
Ways to Appease a Wandering Wila
Undoubtedly because of the range of magic the wilas possess, stories travelled very quickly throughout the Slavic region, describing ways in which to stop or gain control over a wila. One such tale claimed that if a man were to pluck a hair from a wila’s head, she would either die at once or be forced to transform from her incorporeal shape to a solid state, allowing the man to capture and contain her.
Stealing a piece of her skin was another way to dominate a wila and be able to give her commands which she would have no choice but to follow. Men would go armed into the woods at night with knowledge such as this, their only form of protection against the will and wiles of the wilas. A good thing too, for when a wila is angered, she is three times as dangerous as when she is merely being playful.
According to legend, wilas enjoyed spending time in similar locations as the fairies, and they could also be appeased if distressed, or summoned by the curious with treats. Said to prefer light fares such as fresh fruit and round cakes, they are also thought to appreciate decorative items like ribbons and flowers, which they weave into their hair. In this way, the mythology of the wilas and fairies are interchangeable, thus implying that the wilas are either literally or literarily cousins of the fairy folk .
Nevertheless, though the wilas are said to be a beautiful race of female souls, they are not to be ignored or insulted. Their power is much greater and their vengeance much swifter than that of the fairy folk . Long believed to be found wandering the forests forlorn and seeking companionship, it is best to be wary of the fatal friendship wandering wilas offer to mortals, who will likely get trapped under their spells and caught in their storms.
Tuatha Dé Dannan, the Enchanting Predecessors of Irish Fairies and Elves
Most people do not believe in elves. The little people, along with fairies, banshees, and werewolves, are often thrown into the category of ‘fantasy’ and left to molder unless some video game or children’s book decides to make use of them for commercial purposes. Whatever you believe to be true, stories of fantastic creatures are present in most ancient cultures, particularly in European regions such as Germany, Scandinavia, and Ireland.
Widespread disbelief and discrediting of the mystical folk have rendered serious research into the origins of elves almost nonexistent. However, recent scientific and historical analyses of the folklore of Ireland reveal that elves are not wholly fictional, but actually based on real life beings.
The Etymology of ‘Elf’
First, for clarity, it should be noted that the word ‘elf’ is not indigenous to Ireland. This word derives from a term used in Common Germanic, the ancestor language of modern German, English, and several Scandinavian languages. ‘Elf’ became a label for the Irish fairies when the English began to write about and record Irish folklore.
Originally, ‘elf’ was used to describe all fairies. Over time, the term came to stand for a specific subset of fairies: those that are small and possess supernatural powers. Other common characteristics of elves are the ability to shapeshift or the possession of great wealth. The old Germanic roots of the word made distinctions between male and female elves, as well as good and evil elves. This specificity has been lost and the English term ‘elf’ can apply to any of the above.
‘Meadow Elves’ (1850) by Nils Blommér. ( Public Domain )
Mixing Myth and Fact: The Old ‘Elvish’ Masters of Ireland
According to legend, there were six waves of ‘masters of Ireland’ and each has some connection to the Biblical story of Noah and the Flood (today, it is unclear how much of this is fact and how much fabricated by Medieval Irish monks in order to make the Irish history equally as important as Israel’s). In each of the waves, women play a prominent role, reflecting the unique equality present on the island before its incorporation with the rest of Europe.
Scholars today know the most about the final wave of conquerors, the Milesians (sons of Mil, a descendant of Noah), who reached Ireland from Spain in the 4th century BC. These were the Celts. They displaced inhabitants known as the Tuatha Dé Dannan, the progenitors of the Irish fairies.
“The Coming of the Sons of Miled”, illustration by J. C. Leyendecker in T. W. Rolleston’s Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race, 1911. ( The Commons ) The Danann (pre-Celtic “fairy” people) were overthrown by the invading Milesians.
Originally, the fifth wave of conquerors were known simply as Tuatha Dé (‘People of God’) but this posed a problem for the Irish monks recounting their history because the Israelites were the People of God. So, the early inhabitants of Ireland became the Tuatha Dé Dannan (‘People of the goddess Danu’) after their primary deity.
Another group of settlers was the Fomorians , who will feature in the legends of the Tuatha Dé Dannan and in Celtic myths as giants and sea raiders. Some believe that they were the remnants of a forgotten trading outpost of the African empire of Carthage. The survivors of each successive wave of settlers were enslaved by the Fomorians.
This solidified the characterization that the Fomorians were representatives of all that is evil in the world – the bad elves. In recounting the struggles between the Tuatha Dé Dannan (thus, the good elves) and the Fomorians, the former takes on an aspect of semi-divine and the latter an aspect of semi-demonic.
The Fomorians, John Duncan’s interpretation of the sea gods – ‘the bad elves’ of Irish mythology. (Public Domain)
It is possible to trace how the actions of each group developed mythic dimensions over time. For instance, when the Tuatha Dé Dannan came to Ireland from the Northern Isles, they burned their ships so that there could be no thought of retreat. This sent up a great cloud of dark smoke.
By the time the ‘Lebor Gabála Érenn’ ( ‘The Book of the Taking of Ireland’ aka ‘The Book of Invasions’ ) was compiled in the 11th century, their arrival had been recast as:
They landed with horror, with lofty deed,
in their cloud of mighty combat of spectres,
upon a mountain of Conmaicne of Connacht.
Without distinction to descerning Ireland,
Without ships, a ruthless course
the truth was not known beneath the sky of stars,
whether they were of heaven or of earth.
Oisín and Niamh travelling to Tír na nÓg (“Land of the Young” – an otherworld inhabited by the Irish fairy people the Tuatha Dé Dannan), illustration by Stephen Reid in T. W. Rolleston’s The High Deeds of Finn (1910). ( Public Domain )
It’s said that the Tuatha Dé Dannan descended from a group of people who previously lived in Ireland but had to leave. They were called the Nemedians and a faction of these people settled in northern Europe after their population was decimated following a battle against the Fomorians.
When the northern European Nemedians returned to Ireland, they became known as the Tuatha Dé Dannan. According to legend, they excelled in science, magic, and civilization. However, the Tuatha Dé Dannan were not gods or goddesses (or fairy people) themselves, but a druidic race with rare insight into the workings of nature. They were:
“a scientific people who comprehended laws of nature and were able it to operate. Tuatha Dé Dannan had all around knowledge of curative and power properties of plants and used them for treatment of the various diseases, mortal wounds and at commission of spells. They also were very skillful handicraftsmen and musicians, soldiers and poets, and their weapon was considered as the best and modern. Women had almost the same civil rights, as men, and actively participated in all man’s affairs, even in war. Quite often they spoke as envoys at negotiations between the conflicting parties, and also sat at councils at conclusion of peace.” (Koltypin, 2013).
Imaginative illustration of ‘An Arch Druid in His Judicial Habit’ from “The Costume of the Original Inhabitants of the British Islands” (1815). ( Public Domain ) The Tuatha Dé Dannan were not gods or goddess (or fairy people) themselves but a druidic race with rare insight into the workings of nature.
The Tuatha Dé Dannan as Hidden Fairy-Folk
To this day, one can see in Ireland the great barrows and intricately carved tumuli left behind by the pre-Celtic “fairy” people. In addition to their wisdom, the Tuatha Dé Dannan’s divine status was reinforced by their incredible beauty. Tall and slight, the pre-Celtic men and women had “very light skin, delicate features, blue, gray or green eyes and long golden hair which the faultless beauty could make mortal people crazy” (Koltypin, 2013). This is similar to some depictions of elves today.
The story goes that when the Milesians arrived, there was a horrific war.
“When the Danann were overthrown by the invading Milesians (known to modern historians as the Gaels), it’s said that a bargain was struck in good faith once the warring stopped. But the Gaels were cunning, and offered to split the lands of Ireland if they were allowed to stake their claim first. When the Danann agreed, the conquerors chose the land above ground, which then left the gods of old to preside over the lands below. They were forced to depart beyond the mortal world through the Sidhe [the earthworks and barrows scattered throughout Ireland]” (Jillian, 2015).
The fairy queen Meadb’s cairn at the summit of Knocknarea, Ireland. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Forced to live out of sight, the mythical Tuatha Dé Dannan, in the form of fairies, continue to pop up in Irish folklore, sometimes to help, sometimes to hinder. In addition to the Tuatha Dé Dannan, they are referred to as the People of the Sidhe and the Little People .
In his book, ‘ How the Irish Saved Civilization’ Thomas Cahill argues “The little people is a euphemism…meant to disguise the speaker’s fear of something unfamiliar and much larger than himself. It is possible that the flickering phenomenon of the little people represents the afterglow of Irish guilt over their exploitation of more artful aborigines” (Cahill, 1995, 80).
‘The Elf Ring’ (1905) attributed to Kate Greenaway. ( Public Domain )
By the time the Christian monks recorded the legends of the Tuatha Dé Dannan, they seemed like divine creatures; however, there could be no god other than the Christian God in the eyes of the monks. So, the pre-Celtic inhabitants became fairies and later on, elves. In reality, the pre-Celtic peoples that survived the Celtic conquest probably intermingled and intermarried with the Celts, creating the Irish people we know today.