The bean-sidhe or banshee is probably the most well-known Irish mythological creature in America. The image of a ghostly woman wailing in the night to warn of a death is not dissimilar to the female Fates cutting the string of an individual’s life or La Llorona carrying away children to the netherworld. The fact that women are the ones warning of death or ending a life may seem a bit at odds with popular culture’s inclination to cast Death as a forboding male figure with a black robe a scythe, but the banshee’s history isn’t unique.
For starters, the banshee typically has three possible forms—a young woman, a matron, or an old hag. These three forms are also the three forms of the Celtic Triple Goddess of war, fate, and death, the Morrigan. The Morrigan was made of the goddesses Morrigu, Badb, and Nemain. The triple goddess came in various forms including the three stages of womanhood listed above, the raven, the crow, the wolf, and the horse. As the crow, the Morrigan would often be depicted as shrieking above the fields of battle toward the enemy. She was also known to be found washing the clothes of those to die—much like the bean-nighe (washer-woman), a subtype of banshee. Clearly, the banshee was based primarily off the Morrigan, perhaps closely enough to trigger a SafeAssign* alert.
The concept of the triple goddess, however, was far more wide-spread than Ireland. The Matres or Matronae (lit. “mothers”) were figures depicted in sets of three throughout Northern Europe. They were famously depicted on votive altars, mostly in sets of three seated with fruits, children or trees around them, although some sets would have a set of twenty-seven (three cubed) figures instead. Some had inscriptions, but little is known about the Matres compared to what is known about the Celtic triple goddess. The Matres, however, were more associated with life and fertility, as well as death, rather than warfare, fate, and death.
Speaking of fate, the Roman Fates could classify as a triple goddess as well. Nona the Spinner, Decima the Weaver, and Morta the Cutter were essentially a three-in-one goddess as well, seldom functioning independently of another. The fact that they shared one eye indicates their togetherness more than is seen with the other triple goddesses discussed. The trope doesn’t end there, however, as there are other Roman triple goddesses (Juventas the Maiden, Juno the Mother, and Ops the Grandmother-Crone as the triple mother-goddess; Nemesis for retribution, Justitia for justice, and Clementia for redemption as the justice-trio, among others).
The triple goddess motive spreads further than that, however. There are goddesses paired in related triplets throughout many myth and religious systems, including those in Arabia, Egypt, Canaan, Nigeria (specifically among the Yoruba people), Hindu, Mesopotamia, and Norway. Notably, the concept of the triple-mother-goddess seems to be most prevalent, but a component being the Crone or Destroyer is also nearly universal. This could indicate a common early human belief system with a strong belief in a triple mother goddess that changed to unique forms as humans spread and diversified. The beginnings may have been related to the concept of female fertility and its relationship with the fertility of the land, leading to an association of the stages of life being controlled by a female deity. Regardless of how it all began, it’s important to note that the banshee is yet another form this prevalent idea has taken over the centuries.
Dhighe, Danille Ni. “The Morrigan: Celtic Raven Goddess.” The GuardHouse. Danille Ni Dhighe, n.d. Web.
Lendering, Jona. “Matres.” Livius. Livius.org, 16 Oct. 2016. Web.
McIlvenna, Catherine, and Jim Black. “Irish Fairies | Banshee.” Irish Fairies | Banshee. Titanic Times, n.d. Web.