Bean Nighe, the Washerwoman at the Ford, is Scotland’s harbinger of death, says AMY VAN DE CASTEELE
Imagine you are a lonely wanderer, travelling through the meads and glens of Scotland or Ireland one grey evening, when suddenly you stumble upon a stream winding down the slope from the mountains above, its icy waters a roil of grey and white foam.
At first you think the stream is utterly deserted but as you draw nearer you see a small figure hunched over the banks, washing some tattered grey clothing in the water.
The figure has her back to you so at first it’s not clear what she looks like but she is clad in green and obviously old, her thick grey hair tumbling down her back and over her shoulders in disarray.
What is the Bean Nighe?
Though she looks innocuous – probably an old crofter, who simply decided to do some evening laundry – there is an air of quiet menace about her, as if she were somehow more than what she seems.
Your footsteps stumble and then falter and you pause about 20 metres from the stream, unwilling to draw near the eerie little figure, who is singing softly as she works – a mournful lament of some kind, which might be Gaelic but then again could be some otherworldly tongue.
You are about to spin on your heel and head back the way you came, to find some alternative route, when suddenly the singing stops.
Slowly the strange little washerwoman turns to face you. And what do your horrified eyes see?
A terrifying creature with a haggard face, a single nostril, one protruding tooth and large pendulous breasts barely concealed by her green dress. In her hand she holds the sopping grey rags, which you now realize are a death-shroud. Your death-shroud.
You have stumbled upon none other than the Washerwoman at the Ford – known in Scotland as the bean nighe and in Ireland as a manifestation of the Morrigan, the Celtic goddess of death…. Your unhappy fate is surely sealed. Your life is over… death awaits.
Frightening Encounter with Bean Nighe
This sort of frightening encounter with a bean nighe is very common in Irish and Scottish folklore.
Traditionally, to see the Washerwoman was a bad omen and prophesied your approaching death – but there was one way to counteract this; it is said that if you suckled from one of the bean nighe’s sagging breasts she would adopt you as her foster child and grant you a wish, or perhaps three.
But who is this gruesome old woman and what does she represent? Many tales say that such washerwomen are the spirits of women who died in childbirth and the garments they wash are the grave-clothes of those who are soon to die.
A member of the Banshee “class” of fairy, the bean nighe wail a grim lament for the unfortunate souls whose shrouds they are washing – but they do not directly cause the death of these unfortunate people; rather they serve as messengers, foretellers of doom.
As has been mentioned, in Ireland the bean nighe is a manifestation of the Morrigan, the Celtic goddess, a powerful deity of death and rebirth. She has been worshipped for centuries, dating back to the Copper Age and beyond, and remains a figure of fear and reverence to this day, symbolized by crows and ravens, by the number three, and by the chevron. Known as the Triple Goddess she has three manifestations – the young girl, the maiden and the old crone – though other stories say she is one of three warrior goddess sisters, the other two being Neiman and Badb, otherwise known as Violence and Madness.
Tuatha de Danaan
Said to be a consort of the Horned God and also of Lugh, one of the mythical Tuatha de Danann, the Morrigan features time and again in Celtic myth and legend, even appearing, in The Ulster Cycle, to the Irish hero Cúchulainn as he rides to battle – indicating that this will be his last and he will not live to fight another day.
While the Morrigan could often appear as a very beautiful young woman, and in fact is linked to that famed beauty from Arthurian legend, Morgan Le Fay, she could also cloak herself in the guise of a hideous old woman – the Washerwoman at the Ford.
Death Becomes You
Whichever mythology you choose to ‘follow’ – the Irish or the Scottish versions of this terrifying sidhe (fairy) – either way, the outcome is the same; death to those who see her.
A doom which makes the bean nighe one of the most feared figures of British mythology, along with the Banshee themselves and Black Shuck, another devilish harbinger of doom and premature mortality.