Bean nighe

Bean nighe

The bean nighe (Scottish Gaelic for "washer woman"), is a Scottish fairy, seen as an omen of death and a messenger from the Otherworld. She is a type of "bean sìth" (in Irish "bean sídhe", anglicized as "banshee").


As the "Washer at the Ford" she wanders near deserted streams where she washes the blood from the grave-clothes of those who are about to die. It is said that "mnathan nighe" (the plural of "bean nighe") are the spirits of women who died giving birth and are doomed to do this work until the day their lives would have normally ended.

In the ancient Celtic epic, The Ulster Cycle, The Morrígan is seen in the role of a "bean nighe". When the hero Cúchulainn rides out to war, he encounters the Morrígan as a hag washing his bloody armour in a ford. From this omen he realizes this battle will be his last.

A "bean nighe" is described in some tales as having one nostril, one big protruding tooth, webbed feet and long hanging breasts, and to be dressed in green. A mortal who is bold enough to sneak up to her while she is washing and suck her breast can claim to be her foster child. The mortal can then gain a wish from her. If a mortal passing by asks politely, she will tell the names of the chosen that are going to die. While generally appearing as a hag, she can also manifest as a beautiful young woman when it suits her, much as does her Irish counterpart the "bean sídhe".


A "bean nighe" ("washerwoman") is a specific type of "bean shìth".Campbell, John Gregorson (1900, 1902, 2005) "The Gaelic Otherworld". Edited by Ronald Black. Edinburgh, Birlinn Ltd. ISBN 1-84158-207-7 p.311: "A "bean shìth" is any otherworld woman; the "bean nighe" is a specific otherworld woman."]

Both the Irish "bean sídhe" and the Scottish Gaelic "bean shìth" (both meaning "woman of the sídhe", "fairy woman" or "woman of peace") are derived from the Old Irish "ben síde", "fairy woman": "bean": woman, and "sídhe": the "tuiseal ginideach" (possessive case) of "fairy".

In Scottish Gaelic, "bean shìth" can also be spelled "bean-shìdh". Both are correct.

"Sìth" in Scottish Gaelic ("síd" in Old Irish, "síocháin" in Modern Irish) also means "peace", and the fairies are referred to as the "duine sìth" (Irish, "daoine sídhe") - the "people of peace". "Sídhe", in its variant spellings, refers to the "Sídhe" Mounds where these beings dwell.

The "bean nighe" is sometimes known by the diminutives "ban nigheachain" (little washerwoman) or "nigheag na h-àth" (little washer at the ford).

ee also

* Banshee
* Beira
* Cailleach
* Huldra
* Les Lavandières
* Morrígan
* Wirry-cow


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