We’re possibly all familiar with the idea of the banshee. The wailing female spirit cries out to announce a death within certain Irish families. But what of her cousin, the Bean Nighe? This lonely spirit also marks impending deaths, in Scotland and Ireland.
Let’s get to know her a little better and find out why she’s an omen of death. Hit play to hear the podcast episode or keep reading!
Meet the Bean Nighe.
The Bean Nighe (pronounced ‘ben-nee-yeh’) is also known as the washerwoman at the ford. She’s related to the Bean Sidhe, or Banshee, of Irish legend. ‘Bean sidhe’ just means ‘fairy woman’.
The Bean Sidhe announces an impending death with a keening cry. By contrast, the Bean Nighe passes her time beside pools or streams. There, she washes the blood from the clothes of those about to die.
E.C. Watson refers to the Bean Nighe as a water nymph. In this version, the Bean Nighe “sings the dirge and bewails the fate of the doomed” (1908: 49). This Bean Nighe ends up so engrossed in her task that she’s easy to capture. At this point, she grants three requests of her captor.
Whether she sings or not, she’s an omen of death. Though Lewis Spence notes that the evil that “follows upon the sight of her … is no fault of hers” (1999: 85). So seeing her might herald a death, but she doesn’t cause it.
Watson is careful to draw a distinction between the ‘caoineag’ and the Bean Nighe. The ‘caoineag’ predicts death in battle. Unlike the Bean Nighe, you can’t approach her. She’s usually heard, rather than seen. People feared the sound of her cry before a battle. Watson claims people heard her “for several nights before the Massacre of Glencoe” (1908: 50).
A Talent for Prophecy
In one Irish tale, recounted by Spence, the Bean Nighe also possesses the power of prophecy. Oscar headed to the battle of Gavra and came across a washerwoman. He asked for a prophecy about who would die. She replied to say 900 would die at his hand, including the King. Pretty encouraging stuff. Not so for the Feinne, Finn MacCool’s band. She prophesied Finn’s death in battle, which came true.
Another story in the Highlands concerns a girl from Cromarty. She spotted a woman washing clothes one Sunday morning. Over thirty bloodstained smocks lay nearby on the grass. Not long after, Fearn Abbey’s roof collapsed and killed 36 people in the congregation (MacGregor 1937: 298). The roof did actually collapse in 1742, killing almost fifty people (Undiscovered Scotland 2000-2020). Perhaps the story had an element of truth.
Where does the Bean Nighe come from?
According to some legends, she’s not a fixed entity like the kelpie; instead, she’s the ghost of a woman who died during childbirth. Not just any unfortunate mother, just those “whose garments had not been washed at the time of her burial” (Spence 1999: 85). She’s only released from her thankless task on the day she would have died, had she not passed away sooner.
Most descriptions note her small stature, ugly appearance, and hooked nose with one large nostril. Others point out her webbed feet and long breasts. In some places, the Bean Nighe dresses in green.
According to Spence, the Bean Nighe is “confined to the large islands of Scotland – Lewis, Harris, Uist and Coll” (1999: 84). That said, other parts of Scotland, and Ireland, feature versions with different names. One of these, the cointeach or vow haunts the River Carron. She cries out as an omen of death for members of the MacMillan clan – much like a banshee. There’s a version native to Brittany, called the Eur-cunnerez-noz. She asks passersby to help her in her washing task. But she drags those who refuse into the stream and breaks their arms.
Does she have any special powers?
Aside from her gift of prophecy, the Bean Nighe possesses the ability to grant wishes. To get them, you need to spot her before she sees you. In fact, “she cannot stir until she is caught and spoken to” if you see her first (Spence 1999: 85). She’ll grant you three gifts of your choice and then she won’t be seen on that spot again. If a person encountered the Bean Nighe, she would answer three questions if the person answered three of hers (Monaghan 2010: 307).
But there’s an even more hardcore version. Sneak up on her while she’s washing and suckle from one of her breasts before she sees you. Apparently, folk tales hold no truck with consent or harassment. I should point out, the tales also say her breasts are so long she flips them over her shoulder while she works. Which is why you can reach them from behind.
Anyway. If you succeed, tell her you’re her foster child. She’ll give you a wish in return. Many believe the person who sees her will die soon after the encounter. So maybe wishing not to die is a good idea.
The people of Islay tell their own version of the tale. Their washerwoman, the cointeach, lashes out with her wet linen if you interrupt her. The hapless victim loses the use of their legs.
So why is she an omen of death?
Patricia Monaghan notes that she “is a folkloric version of the goddess Badb, prophesying death in battle as she washes the bloodied clothing of those doomed to die” (2010: 307). Badb was a Celtic war goddess. In Old Irish, her name means ‘crow’. Badb whipped armies into a frenzy, inciting war to enjoy the conflict and bloodshed. Some also identify Badb with the Bean Sidhe.
Mary Rowland relates the lyrics of a ballad in which the Bean Nighe is “the daughter of the Badhb” (1965: 32). Elsewhere in the Highlands, she is the Badhb, though she washes the garments of those who will drown (1965: 32).
Over time, it’s possible her warlike prophecies of “death in battle” became ordinary omens of death. I’m not sure why people might believe the Bean Nighe was a woman who’d died in childbirth. Perhaps an old death superstition existed about washing the linen of these unfortunate women. Someone could have conflated the superstition with stories of Badb. Toss in the fairy folk habit of stealing people (see changeling folklore) and thus the Bean Nighe was born.
Or perhaps the washerwoman really does sit at the ford, pounding bloodied linen against a rock.
Just hope it’s not your linen next time…
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MacGregor, Alasdair Alpin (1937), The peat-fire flame: folk-tales and traditions of the Highlands & Islands, Edinburgh: The Moray Press.
Monaghan, Patricia (2010), Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines, Volume 1 and 2, Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
Rowland, Mary (1965), ‘Which Noble Duke?’, Folk Music Journal, 1:1, pp. 25-37.
Spence, Lewis (1999), The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain, New York: Dover.
Undiscovered Scotland (2000-2020), ‘Fearn Abbey’, Undiscovered Scotland, https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/balintore/fearnabbey/index.html.
Watson, E.C. (1908), ‘Highland Mythology’, The Celtic Review, 5:17, pp. 48-70.
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