Welcomed Visitors

Celtic Music Search Engine

Goddesses of The Otherworld: The Cyhiraeth & the Banshee

The Cyhiraeth, and the Bean Sídhe or Banshee... are they Goddesses of the Water or Goddesses of the Death?.-I have oftenly questioned myself about these symbolisms, and undoubtledly we may find out some coincidences between both characters.

Being the Cyhiraeth suscribed to Welsh Mythology (aka "Gwrach-y-Rhibyn" or "Hag of the Mist"), the belief in Banshees exceeds Ireland, she is  also named in scottish gaelic Bean Nighe in the West Highlands of Scotland,  in Welsh Modron, in Breton Tunnerez no. She is also known in Cornwall as "Washer at the Ford".

Les Lavandières, also known as the "Kannerezed Noz" in Brittany is a very interesting motif too,  the story of three old women may be due to the old Celtic tradition of the triple goddess of death and slaughter.

Curiously the meaning of water for many cultures have been almost the same "purity" and "purification"; "wisdom" and "fertility", "healing" and "source of miracles",  a symbol of "God's life-giving spirit" and his "sacredness". By the way, The Bible has many references to "the water of life," and the Koran is filled with references to the value of water and its plentiness  in Paradise.

But we may find also some connotations regarding death too... For instance, in ancient Greece, their was a  belief that the souls of the dead were ferried to rest across the dark waters of the River Styx, a river which separates the boundaries of the world of the living from the world of the dead. The controvertial japanese Dr Masaru Emoto believes that water initially held the conscientiousness of God, and that souls that don't attain enlightenment transform into water.

Let's see how these opposite but related conceptions of life and death can also be traced on both welsh and irish/scottish deities, who retain two common aspects:
  • Their role as feminine messengers of the Otherworld,  usually seen as an omen of death since they are heard just prior to a nearby death.
  • Divine once and later on conceived as fairy spirits who begin to wail if someone is about to die.
  • Their association with streams and water. 
  • Both are depicted as ugly and not funny to be seen.

"The Cyhiraeth" or "Grieving One"

There are various conceptions derived from it’s etymology: 

· Cyhyraeth (Welsh pronunciation: [kəˈhəreθ]), also spelled as cyheuraeth (probably from the noun cyhyr "muscle, tendon; flesh" + the termination -aeth; meaning "skeleton, a thing of mere flesh and bone"; "spectre", "death-portent", "wraith")
·   hiraeth: "mourning" 

Once a Goddess of streams, she later became thought of as a faery spirit who was a portent of death, seen or heard just prior to a nearby death. She later entered folklore as a spectre haunting woodland streams
 She is more often heard than seen, indeed one interpretation of cyhyr-aeth is 'the formless', but it is heard groaning before a death, usually at a crossroads or a stream, where she would wash her hands . It is most closely associated with certain rivers and coasts, with the area around the river Tywi in eastern Dyfed, as well as the coast of Glamorganshire
She has been described as making a doleful, disagreeable sound, like the groans and sighs of someone deathly ill, and to sound three times, growing weaker and fainter each time, as a threefold warning before the end.

The unfortunate passer-by would hear her exclaim "my husband!" or "my child!" or "my wife!"--all depending on which loved one was to die. Or, if the cries had no words, it was believed that the hearer was the intended. 

According to Dr. Rhys in his book "Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx"

"The picture usually given of the Cyhiraeth is of the most repellent kind: tangled hair, long black teeth, wretched, skinny, shrivelled arms of unwonted length out of all proportion to the body."

Some belief she is associated to the Scottish Cailleach, for being  an ancestress figure, like the bean sidhe. 

Along the Glamorganshire coast, the cyhyraeth is said to be heard before a shipwreck, accompanied by a corpse-light.