One for sorrow
Two for joy
Three for a girl
Four for a boy
Five for silver
Six for gold
Seven for a story that remains untold.
In the UK, we are still very superstitious when it comes to ‘Mister Magpie’. Even the most straight-laced of people will, at the sight of the black and white feathers, salute and offer up the traditional response: “Good morning, Mr. Magpie.” It’s a response and a rhyme that are ingrained in our collective consciousness – but where did this practice originate and are magpies seen the same way in other countries?
The answer to the latter question is no: for the Chinese, the magpie is completely the opposite – a symbol of good luck and, in some cultures, such as the Manchu people of north-east China, considered to be a sacred bird. For the Chinese, the magpie’s song is thought to foretell good fortune and impending happiness, and the bird even features in their legends.
The most famous magpie story in Chinese legend tells how the goddess Fokulon was playing in a lake with her two sisters. A magpie flew overhead and dropped a piece of red fruit into the water, which Fokulon picked up and ate. Nine months later, she gave birth to a son, who she named Bukulirongshun, who was to become the forefather of the Manchu people. Bukulirongshun and all his descendants were fearsome warriors, triumphing in every battle they took part in. However, the neighbouring tribes became unsettled by this and joined forces to wipe out the Manchu people. After the subsequent massacre, only one member of the Manchu survived; a boy called Fancha.
Fancha escaped the slaughter and went on the run, but was followed by the tribespeople, who wanted to see their objective through to the bitter end. They chased him through the night until, at dusk, they were almost upon him. At that moment, a magpie landed on his head and created the illusion that he was a tree-trunk, causing his pursuers to pass him by. As a result, many Manchu perceive the bird as a symbol of good fortune.
However, the same can’t be said of the way we see the bird in the UK. The roots of this can be traced right back to the Bible. The Book of Genesis tells how the magpie refused to enter Noah’s Ark with the other animals and, instead, preferred to sit on the roof, “jabbering over the drowning world” all the way through the devastating deluge. The magpie gets a further mention later on, as one of the animals that refused to mourn Christ’s crucifixion. As far as church-goers and religious men of the Middle Ages were concerned, this was enough evidence to judge the magpie as an agent of the Devil. In some superstitions, the magpie was believed to be the Devil in animal form.
The saluting of the bird comes out of the three lines of the rhyme that are forgotten or unknown by most people:
Eight for heaven
Nine for Hell
And ten for the Devil’s own self
In short, the magpie was an association with the demonic, the carnal and avaricious behaviour; the lures that Satan was thought to use in order to possess human souls. The original response to the sighting of a magpie was to salute and say: “Devil, Devil, I defy thee,” – a saying that is traced back to Shropshire of the 1800s. Interestingly, the collective noun for a group of magpies is a ‘tiding’, which hints at the way in which the birds were seen. However, although this superstition has survived, it has assumed some regional variations, over the years.
An omen of death
In Scotland, the belief is that, if you see a single magpie near a window, then it is a premonition of death. Again, this is linked to the association with Satan, as the Scottish superstition is that the magpie carries a drop of the Devil’s blood under its tongue. This is almost the direct opposite of the Manchu story, in which the red fruit that falls from the bird’s mouth brings life, not death.
In Yorkshire, if you see a lone magpie, the correct response is to flap your arms, as though they were wings and imitate the call of the magpie’s mate. In Devon, it’s to simply spit three times, to avert any impending disaster. The call of the magpie itself has also helped them earn their bad reputation; groups of magpies are known to ‘chatter’ very loudly which, to those who don’t know the bird, can sound quite threatening or sinister.
Thieves and vagabonds
It may well be that the magpie’s natural habits have had some sway over the way they are perceived in the British Isles. There are over 20 species of magpie, but they all have certain behavioural traits in common. Primarily, magpies are known for their penchant for stealing shiny objects. Although this has, for a long time, been considered to be little more than folklore, evidence has come to light, supporting the claim. Male magpies do in fact collect shiny things in order o attract a mate – the magpie with the greatest or most impressive array of trinkets is the one that will garner the most interest.
However, magpies have a darker aspect to their natures. Although they are primarily scavengers, they will cheerfully destroy another bird’s nest and eat its eggs or young. Magpies are thought to be responsible for the decline in numbers of certain songbirds. In addition, their own numbers have grown considerably over recent years. This is thought to be the result of an increasing number of dead animals on our roads and motorways – and the sight of magpies tearing at a corpse can have done nothing for their reputation as a whole.
Magpies are intelligent, resourceful and striking birds. While they may be cheeky and responsible for a number of thefts, there is nothing malicious about them. They are simply doing what nature intended. However, the sight of people saluting or tipping their hats in fear of the magpie’s powers shows no signs of abating any time soon.