“It is, in my mind, better to believe too much than too little, and that is the only theological crime of which I can be fairly accused” – Sir Jonah Barrington
Misidentifying your monster can have dire consequences, up to and including being eaten, dismembered, or possessed when your offensive strategies turn out to not only be culturally inappropriate, but also ineffective. If you mistake a basilisk for a dragon, forsake a mirror, and wade in boldly waving your broadsword, you wind up turned to stone. Assuming that the hairy hominid wandering the forests of Washington State is a reasonably benign Basque Basa-Juan is a recipe for a crushed skull. Tossing holy water on something that isn’t demonic just pisses it off. Don’t even get me started on staking the wrong organ or neglecting the double-tap to the brainpan when faced with zombie hordes. Basically, any monster hunter worth his rock salt will tell you that you’ve got to know the cultural rules. This is particularly true with harbingers of death. One looks pretty silly wrapping up their affairs and giving away their worldly possessions if you’re kicking it old school in Germany and a black cat crosses your path from left to right (everyone knows that your Teutonic feline goes right to left when warning you of impending doom; left to right signals imminent prosperity). Plus, it’s hard to get your stuff back. You see, while our species has a whole set of generalized fears including extinction (ceasing to exist), mutilation, loss of autonomy, separation, and ego-death, the character of these fears is culturally embedded, and thus monsters as symbolic expressions of those fears, can be somewhat ethnocentric. For example, being of Middle Eastern extraction, I am slightly wary of the potential for a theriomorphic Arabian Hâmah bird bent on vengeance making an appearance. Certainly the possibility is remote, as my dastardly deeds are limited mostly to unkind thoughts, rather than murder. On the other hand, I find myself relatively unconcerned that a horse-headed Filipino Tikbalang is lurking in the woods behind my house. Perhaps this is unnecessarily short-sighted, but we tend to play the odds. As I regard my research into those things that are likely to usher in our destruction as a public service, I was deeply concerned when I discovered that for the past 300 years or so, we have been mistakenly assuming that the mournful critter which has reputedly announced the impending death of every Baron Rossmore dating back to Robert Cuninghame, 1st Baron Rossmore (1726–1801) was a traditional banshee, when in fact it was more likely to be a Dutch Witte wieven (“White Lady”).
The Rossmores of Ireland’s County Monaghan have a complex lineage. Scottish General Robert Cuninghame, 1st Baron of Rossmore, son of Colonel David Cuninghame, and his wife Margaret Callander of Craigforth served as British Army Commander-in-Chief of Ireland from 1793 to 1796, but married Elizabeth Murray, a close relative through marriage of the Westenra family, and as she and Robert died childless, the Baron of Rossmore title passed to her nephew Warner William Westenra, who would become the 2nd Baron Rossmore. The Westenra family (and hence, every Rossmore after Robert Cuninghame) were not actually Irish (Celtic, that is). William Westerna (died 1676), grandfather of the 2nd Baron Rossmore had actually emigrated to Dublin in the mid-17th Century from Holland, but became heavily involved in local politics, representing Maryborough in the Irish Parliament. True, Robert Cuninghame was indeed a red-blooded Scot and thus ostensibly a Celt, although not Irish, but the catch is that Banshees are very particular, and sticklers for tradition. Your basic banshee (or Bean Sidhe) originates in the Gaelic mythology of Scotland and Ireland, and is essentially a fairy that wails mournfully when somebody is about to die. This is in keeping with the traditional Gaelic funerary custom of having a “keener” woman sing a lament at the graveside. Folklore has it that if you were a member of one of the “great” Gaelic families (O’Gradys, the O’Neills, the Ó Longs, McCnaimhíns, Ó Briains, Ó Conchobhairs, and the Caomhánachs), your funeral keening would be done by a fairy woman. Of course, you might have met your unfortunate demise far from home, but fairies are a presentient lot, so the fairy assigned to your family might just start wailing away before the folks got the news. Presto, you’ve got the banshee that warns you of an impending death in the works. Rank hath its privileges after all.
Of course, this presents a problem, as the original Rossmore was not descended from one of the great Gaelic clans. In a story heralded as a classic in banshee folklore, the death of Robert Cuninghame, 1st Baron of Rossmore was announced to his close family friend and judge Sir Jonah Barrington (incidentally something of a vagabond, who himself died in Paris, France in an attempt to avoid his creditors, and is unique in having been removed from the judiciary by a unanimous act of both houses of the Irish Parliament). During an impromptu visit to County Monaghan, Barrington and his wife were treated to a visit from a banshee proclaiming the death of the 1st Baron of Rossmore, which Barrington recorded in his popular memoirs.
This intimacy at Mount Kennedy gave rise to an occurrence the most extraordinary and inexplicable of my whole existence, an occurrence which for many years occupied my thoughts and wrought on my imagination. Lord Rossmore was advanced in years, but I never heard of his having had a single day’s indisposition. He bore in his green old age the appearance of robust health. During the viceroyalty of Earl Hardwick, Lady Barrington, at a drawing—room at Dublin Castle, met Lord Rossmore. He had been making up one of his weekly parties for Mount Kennedy, to commence the next day, and had sent down orders for every preparation to be made. The Lord-Lieutenant was to be of the company. “My little farmer,” said he to Lady Barrington, addressing her by a pet name, “when you go home, tell Sir Jonah that no business is to prevent him from bringing you down to dine with me tomorrow. I will have no ifs in the matter—so tell him that come he must!” She promised positively, and on her return informed me of her engagement, to which I at once agreed. We retired to our chamber about twelve, and towards two in the morning I was awakened by a sound of a very extraordinary nature. I listened; it occurred ﬁrst at short intervals, it resembled neither a voice nor an instrument, it was softer than any voice, and wilder than any music, and seemed to ﬂoat in the air. I don’t know wherefore, but my heart beat forcibly; the sound became still more plaintive, till it almost died away in the air, when a sudden change, as if excited by a pang, changed its tone ; it seemed descending. I felt every nerve tremble: it was not a natural sound, nor could I make out the point from whence it came. At length I awakened Lady Barrington, who heard it as well as myself ; she suggested that it might be an Eolian harp; but to that instrument it bore no similitude—it was altogether a different character of sound. My wife at ﬁrst appeared less affected than I, but subsequently she was more so. We now went to a large window in our bed-room which looked directly upon a small garden underneath; the sound seemed then obviously to ascend from a grass-plot immediately below our window. It continued; Lady Barrington requested that I would call up her maid, which I did, and she was evidently more affected than either of us. The sounds lasted for more than half an hour. At last a deep, heavy, throbbing sigh seemed to issue from the spot, and was shortly succeeded by a sharp but low cry, and by the distinct exclamation, thrice repeated, of “ Rossmore—Rossmore—Rossmore l” I will not attempt to describe my own feelings, indeed I cannot. The maid ﬂed in terror from the window, and it was with difﬁculty I prevailed on Lady Barrington to return to bed; in about a minute after, the sound died gradually away until all was silent. Lady Barrington, who is not so superstitious as I, attributed this circumstance to a hundred different causes, and made me promise that I would not mention it next day at Mount Kennedy, since we should be thereby rendered laughingstocks. At length, wearied with speculations, we fell into a sound slumber. About seven the ensuing morning a strong rap at my chamber-door awakened me. The recollection of the past night’s adventure rushed instantly upon my mind, and rendered me very unﬁt to be taken suddenly on any subject. It was light; I went to the door, when my faithful servant, Lawler, exclaimed on the other side, “O Lord, sir!” “What is the matter?” said I hurriedly. “O sir” ejaculated he, “Lord Rossmore’s footman was running past the door in great haste, and told me in passing that my lord, after coming from the castle, had gone to bed in perfect health, but that about half-after two this morning his own man hearing a noise in his master’s bed—he slept in the same room—went to him, and found him in the agonies of death, and before he could alarm the other servants all was over.” I conjecture nothing. I only relate the incident as unequivocally matter of fact. Lord Rossmore was absolutely dying at the moment I heard his name pronounced (Barrington, 1876, p336-337).
This presentiment of Rossmore’s demise, decidedly creepy as it was, was characterized as a typical banshee manifestation, but there are a number of problems with such a designation. Banshees are all about the incomprehensible wailing. It’s their trademark. They aren’t traditionally as charitable as to actually intelligibly whisper the name of who they are moaning about. That would ruin the sense of mystery. Obviously, the other problem is that Rossmore was Scottish, not Irish, and decidedly not of one of the Gaelic families to which banshees are restricted to. One early 20th Century folklorist noted the problematic appellation, but was willing to give a little leeway, assuming that a Celt is a Celt is a Celt, whether Scottish or Irish (although he too objected to the banshee identification, commenting “The question that most concerns me is whether they were due to the Banshee or not, and as Lord Rossmore was not apparently of ancient Irish lineage, I am inclined to think the phenomena owed its origin to some other class of phantasm; perhaps to one that had been attached to Lord Rossmore’s family in Scotland. Moreover, I have never heard of the Banshee speaking as the invisible presence spoke on that occasion; the phenomena certainly seems to me to be much more Scottish than Irish” (O’Donnell, 1920, p79). Perhaps there are rogue Scottish banshees that refuse to adhere to the Banshee Code of Ethics, but the fact that rumors abound that every Baron Rossmore’s death has been preceded by a banshee caterwaul puts the nail in the coffin so to speak, as after the first Baron Rossmore, every subsequent Baron has been from the Dutch side of the family. Even the 5th Baron Rossmore, Derrick Warner William Westenra (1853-1921) acknowledged the family “banshee”, although unwisely chose to (1) identify it as a banshee, and (2) express his personal disdain for the creature.
The banshee has been fairly active from time to time since then, and although personally I don’t care for the family spectre, it is firmly believed in by the country folk, and it would require a bold “bhoy” to walk after dark past a certain wood which is popularly supposed to be its stronghold. What I cannot disbelieve, however, is the Harrington episode, which is one of the least known but best authenticated of Irish ghost stories (Rossmore, 1912, p6).
Someone should probably inform the current and 7th Baron Rossmore, William Warner Westenra and his heir apparent Benedict William Westenra that rather than keeping their ears open and listening for the banshee cry, they need to watch for a Dutch Witte wieven. This is an exceedingly important distinction, as you generally can’t negotiate with a banshee. Somebody is going to die and a banshee commences wailing. On the other hand, with Witte wieven, you might just be able to cut a deal. Historically, Germanic paganism closely associated with Dutch folkloric traditions held that when “wise women” (herbalists, healers, seers, and witches) died, their spirits lingered and could be appealed to for help, and just like the banshee, their powers of prognostication were thought to contribute to their undead ability to act as a harbinger of death. Neither the banshee or the Witte wieven is thought to actually cause the death of the unfortunate soul in question; rather they simply know it’s coming. The difference is, if you ask a Witte wieven nicely they might just intercede on your behalf. That seems like an extremely relevant distinction, should one of them have attached themselves to your family. The object lesson is that we should not rush to judgment as to what genus of monster we are facing. Unless of course it’s about to eat you. Then, by all means, rush to judgment. Though, if you have the time, check your genealogies, confirm your culture, and take the measure of your monster. You can thereby avoid a lot of heartache, sidestep any unpleasant rending and tearing, and steal yourself a few more years on this mortal coil. As gunfighter Wyatt Earp said, “Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything”.
Barrington, Jonah, Sir, 1760-1834. Personal Sketches and Recollections of His Own Times. Glasgow: Cameron, Ferguson & Co., 1876.
O’Donnell, Elliott, 1872-1965. The Banshee. London: Sands & company, 1920.
Rossmore, Derrick Warner William Westenra, Baron, 1853-. Things I Can Tell. London: E. Nash, 1912.
Williams, Alfred M. 1840-1896. The Poets And Poetry of Ireland: With Historical And Critical Essays And Notes. Boston: James R. Osgood, 1881.