Portents of Death in Celtic Lore

Written By Jennifer Ostopovich

Jennifer Ostopovich is an artist and writer who lives in Canada with her family and five crazy pets. She delights in tales of the dark and strange, and her horror and short fiction can be found in publications such as Roi Fainéant, Maudlin House, Coffin Bell, Hobart, and others. Find her on X: @jrostopovich.

I’m not sure the exact moment I became aware of my Irish lineage—both my maternal and paternal grandmothers were Irish—but somewhere between childhood and adolescence I began to develop a hazy sense of having some Irish ancestry. As a fourth generation Canadian from a secular home, I often felt I’d missed out on the deep cultural ties many of my First Nations and first and second-generation friends had. I think it was sometime around fifth grade that I found a book about Celtic lore at the local used bookstore and my tenuous link to the Irish culture began to feel a little more concrete. I remember flipping through the text and images and feeling amazed that such a wonderfully rich mythology was part of my own heritage, and I experienced for the first time a sense of continuity with the past. A feeling of familial history and connection to something larger than my own small existence.            

I became obsessed with the beauty of Celtic myths and art and began to learn everything I could about the mysterious and mystical ancient culture. I scoured the library for books on Celtic history, art, and language. I even took up wood carving and would sit for hours and etch intricate Celtic knot-work and little fairies and green men into bits of wood that I picked up along the dusty gravel roads that stitched through the back country fields near my home.

Among the things I found most interesting about the mythology were the many female gods. As a young person given to morbid curiosities who’d always been fascinated by death, two in particular captured my imagination. The banshee, a spirit whose mournful wail was said to herald death of a loved one, and the Morrígan, the tripartite goddess of war and death.

The myth of the banshee (“woman of the fairy mound”), or bean sí (Old Irish), varies a bit between regions, but the spirit is mostly described as seer who has the ability to shape-shift. She often appears as a bent old woman with long hair, which she must comb while wailing, or sometimes as a beautiful young woman, eyes red from crying, or even still, as a crow, tapping at the windows of family members of the soon-to-be departed. Sometimes she can be seen washing the clothes of the dead.

In some myths, the banshee can not be seen by the person whose death she is foretelling, in others a solider may see her before his own death. She is mostly benevolent, unless she was the victim of murder, or her comb and mirror have been stolen, in which case she becomes vengeful. She is generally kind to children or those she favors but is also sometimes depicted as a trickster that must be appeased with gifts. Many families are even said to have their own family spirit—the banshee is often associated with five family names in particular. Rather than something to be feared, having a familial deity of death for an Irish family was considered a mark of prestige.

The banshee is often treated as a ghostly figure and sometimes considered the spirit of a dead ancestor, but she may have her origins in a much older goddess, the Morrígan, as the two share many similarities. It’s thought that the combining of the saints with the old Celtic gods by the Catholic Church was responsible for the advent of lesser entities. These lesser beings were no longer gods, but instead generally considered the spirits of the dead. The Morrígan, translated as great queen or phantom queen, is thought to be a member of the Tuatha Dé Dannan, a supernatural race of ancient beings. The goddess Morrígan is not a singular entity but instead is considered to be the embodiment of three sisters who were thought to predict, and often even influence, the outcome of battles. Badb, the goddess of war who takes the form of a crow and appears before battle to foreshadow carnage or the death of a prominent person; Macha, who is associated with land, kingship and war; and the Morrígan, (also sometimes called Nemain or Anand), who represents the madness of battle and is said to foretell death with her wailing. The Morrígan can often be found on the fields after battles, keening for the dead.

Distinguishing between the Morrígan and the banshee, or even between the different goddesses that make up the tripartite is tricky. Each persona seems to bleed into the others. The myths are much like an ancient game of telephone, blurred by many different tellings. It’s difficult to say how much of each myth is original, but maybe the most striking similarity is that they are all harbingers of the deaths of kith and kin.  

Bonds formed of kinship and are incredibly strong, and grief and mourning are rites of passage that scarce few escape. The death of a family member is often a harrowing and personal experience, having a profound effect on those left behind to mourn. As a result, most cultures have rituals to mark the event as something important and to help ease the pain of loss and many different religious beliefs and cultural rites are centered on death. Given the grave sadness many feel at the permanence of loss, it’s no surprise that death and maintaining a connection to the dead features so prominently in mythology.

In a bit of personal family lore, my mother like her Celtic ancestors before her, claims to have had a premonition of her father’s death the night he died. He was an alcoholic and had been living on the streets. She hadn’t spoken to him in years, but she says that the next morning when she woke, she knew her father had passed sometime during the night. Later, when the phone rang, she’d picked it up with shaking hands already certain of the news that would follow.

Many of my friends have similar stories of death premonitions, and I often wonder if there is a grain of truth in these types of stories. Our knowledge of our world has expanded rapidly, but there is still so much science has yet to explain. We can’t entirely rule out the possibility that these are not just quaint fairy myths invented to make sense of something that often feels incredibly senseless. Maybe our ancestors do appear to our loved ones to provide warning and ease the passage into death. Many near death experience survivors recount speaking with deceased loved ones during their brief flirtation with the afterlife. Some even report receiving important life advice from these spirits before returning to their corporeal form. Could this hint to some form of continued spiritual connection with our dead ancestors?

Precognition might also serve as a viable explanation for death prediction. There is some scientific evidence that humans have a small but statistically significant ability to predict future outcomes. Perhaps we’ve come up with charming lore to explain a sort of precognition; a biter-sweet artifact born of the intense bonds of familial love.

It’s difficult to know just where truths end and myths begin, but I’m not sure it really matters because I think mythology is its own end, helping us form attachments to our pasts and often serving as an important cultural observance of the cycle of life and death. We all share a desire for kinship and some feeling of permanence amongst the fleeting impermanence of life. As I’ve gotten older and experienced loss of family and also the birth of my own children—two girls, both crowned with the striking red hair of their Irish ancestors—I’ve developed an even greater appreciation for cultural rites. There is much comfort to be found in shared belief and a feeling of being tethered to our ancestors. Learning about my Celtic roots has provided me with a connection to the past and a sense of history I’d often felt lacking. I’m incredibly grateful to have discovered the rich lore of my Irish heritage.