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Halloween special: ominous birds and banshees

Discover the origins of the word ‘badhbh’ in our book A history of Ireland in 100 words

The statue of the early Irish warrior Cú Chulainn, which stands in the General Post Office, Dublin, in commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising, depicts the dying hero with a bird on his shoulder. The bird is integral to the mythological reference, for in the Old Irish tale of Cú Chulainn’s death, a bird, commonly thought to represent the war-goddess, the Morrígan, alights upon the wounded hero. It is an ominous sign, for the Morrígan had previously foretold a battle in which Cú Chulainn would be killed, telling him: ‘I am and I shall be bringing about your death’ (is oc dídin do báis-siu atáu-sa ocus bia). When the bird lands on Cú Chulainn, then, his demise becomes inevitable.

Throughout medieval Irish literature, the Morrígan demonstrates the ability to shape-shift into an astonishing array of forms: we see her as an eel, a wolf, a cow, and an old woman (see Cailleach). It is as a black bird that she is most familiar, however. In this form, she hovers above the battlefield or gloats amongst corpses on the ground. Names associated with the war-goddess attest to the importance of the bird-aspect. She is referred to as ben tethrach or ben trogain, both of which seem to mean ‘scaldcrow woman’, and either the Morrígan herself or a fellow war-goddess is called Badb (later Badhbh), a word which also means ‘scaldcrow’.

Words for black carrion birds seem to have been used more or less interchangeably in medieval Ireland, so badb, though commonly understood as ‘hooded crow, scaldcrow’, seems to be hardly distinguished from bran, fuinche, fennóc and fiach, all of which can signify a ‘raven’. Like the badb, the fiach in particular is associated with the supernatural and can communicate information about events yet to happen through a range of different calls or noises. Calls specified in a Middle Irish text on the subject of fiachairecht ‘raven lore’ include grác, grob, err, grad and coin. Some of these are onomatopoeic, others are clearly based on common nouns—coin, for example, means ‘wolves’ and a raven making this sound is said to be warning of approaching wolves.

As well as denoting the Irish war-goddess, the word badb is used sometimes in adaptations from Classical literature to refer to one of the Furies. Indeed, like the Furies, the badb catha ‘battle-badb’ is described as having snakes for hair. This kind of assimilation of traditions is not uncommon, with foreign concepts being interpreted by Gaelic authors according to ideas with which they were more familiar, while also integrating aspects of the foreign culture into their own (see Leipreachán).

The word badb persists into Modern Irish as badhbh, and the old war goddess survives in folklore as the badhbh chaointe, literally ‘the badhbh of keening’, a supernatural figure similar to the banshee. She was associated in recent times with South Leinster where, it was believed, she would howl to announce an imminent death. Unlike her forerunner, however, the badhbh chaointe appears as a more plaintive figure who follows a particular family, and the objects of her wailing were much more likely to die as old men in their beds rather than on the battlefield.

A history of Ireland in 100 words. Shortlisted for ‘best Irish-published book of the year’ at the An Post Irish Book Awards 2019.
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