D) Survivals of the Death-Messenger in Folklore

This idea of preternatural female beings prophesying death survived in the characters of the bean sí (Banshee) and Aoibheall, who appear to members of families to announce an imminent death. In Irish heroic lore, evil characters haunting the battle field, such as the bánánach, a female creature of the battleground and the bocánach, a sort of demon who has the appearance of a goat and shrieks in the air over the warriors, can also be regarded as echoes of the war-goddesses.1420 Those terms always appear together and in the plural form in stereotyed phrases: bánánaigh agus bocánaigh, that is ‘white spectres’ and ‘troublesome spectres’. They are a reflex of the general mediaeval European idea of demons. They are for instance described in a version of Táin Bó Cuailnge squealing and flying over Cú Chulainn when he fought his friend Ferdiad for three days at the ford Áth Fhirdiad in the river Dee (Ardee, Co. Louth):

‘So close was the fight they made now that their heads met above and their feet below and their arms in the middle over the rims and bosses of their shields. So close was the fight they made that they cleft and loosened their shields from their rims to their centres. So close was the fight which they made that they turned and bent and shivered their spears from their joints to their hefts! Such was the closeness of the fight which they made that the Bocanachs and Bananachs and wild people of the glens and demons of the air screamed from the rims of their shields, and from the hilts of their swords, and from the hefts of their spears. Such was the closeness of the fight which they made that they cast the river out of its bed and out of its course, so that it might have been a reclining and reposing couch for a king or for a queen in the middle of the ford, so that there was not a drop of water in it unless it dropped into it by the trampling and the hewing which the two champions and the two heroes made in the middle of the ford.1421

Mackillop, 2004, p. 33, 46.


Pearse, 1898, pp. 15-16 (translation by O’Sullivan).