Do you salute magpies? Do you worry that if one crosses your path your day will be filled with doom? If so, you’re not alone. For even the most rationale of sceptics can find their faith in reality floundering upon seeing a magpie.
In Britain there is probably no other wild bird that is associated with superstition as much as the magpie. Folklore has surrounded magpies in the UK and the rest of Europe for 100s of years and Victorians were so fearful of magpies that they nearly hunted them to extinction.
However, before the spread of Christianity the magpie was an important symbolic bird often associated with good luck or fortune. The Romans, for example, believed that the magpie was highly intelligent with excellent reasoning abilities, and in Ancient Greece magpies were sacred to Bacchus the god of wine.
Further afield some tribes of Native Americans believed that wearing a magpie feather was a sign of fearlessness, while others considered the magpie to be a sacred messenger of the creator, or even a guardian with shamanic properties.
But the Church viewed the magpie very differently, insisting that it was the only bird not to weep or comfort Jesus during his crucifixion or go into a proper period of mourning because of its pied plumage. From this grew a number of superstations around magpies and the stories in the bible.
In the 19th century a vicar reported one of his servants explaining that the magpie was the only bird not to enter Noah’s ark, preferring to sit outside chattering and swearing in the pouring rain. Another tale from the same era says that the magpie is a hybrid between the raven and the dove and therefore the only bird not to have been baptised.
It was also the Church that started the rumour that magpies carry a drop of the devil’s blood in their tongues. If you were to cut the tongue to release the blood then the magpie would be capable of human speech.
But why did the magpie get such a bad rap and how did these superstitions come about?
Without a proper understanding of how the world worked our ancestors would try and explain mysterious events by linking them to supernatural causes. Often this meant they linked the appearance of an animal or a natural phenomenon such as a change in weather with an event that occurred soon after that could not be otherwise explained. This rudimentary way of explaining the world gave rise to many of the superstitions that people still believe in or at least acknowledge today.
Death, in particular, could be very difficult to predict or explain and people quite rightfully were fearful of death and the unknown. It’s why so many superstitions and old wives’ tales arose around this morbid subject.
Like other corvids magpies have long been associated with death. In medieval times they would have been found scavenging near battlegrounds, field hospitals, and the gallows in search of carrion. During breeding season, they will supplement their diet of grubs and berries with the eggs and chicks of other birds, including pheasants, which meant gamekeepers and other country folk wouldn’t have been too fond of them.
Magpies are also known for their inquisitive and mischievous nature which meant they earned a somewhat unfair reputation as thieves with a particular liking for jewellery and other shiny objects. If a precious ring went missing it was easy to blame it on a magpie.
Rossini wrote a tragicomic opera entitled La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie) about a French girl accused of theft who is tried, convicted, and executed. Later the true culprit is revealed to be a magpie and in remorse the town organises an annual ‘Mass Of The Magpies’ to pray for the girl’s soul.
Over time, the notion that magpies were bad birds morphed into the idea that magpies will bring bad luck.
“One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret
never to be told”
However, as the well-known rhyme shows, it is generally only seeing a lone magpie that is supposed to bring bad luck.
We’re not entirely sure why this is but we do know that magpies often mate for life so seeing a single magpie may mean it has lost its mate and therefore the chance of it bringing bad luck is higher. Indeed, according to the rhyme coming across a larger group of magpies could actually bring you good fortune and wealth.
To help ward off the bad luck that might come your way from seeing a solitary magpie there are a number of things you can do:
Salute the magpie.
Say ‘Good morning general’ or ‘Good morning captain’.
Say ‘Good morning Mr Magpie, how is your lady wife today?’
Say ‘Good morning, Mr Magpie, how are Mrs Magpie and all the other little magpies?’
Say ‘Hello Jack, how’s your brother?’
Doff your hat.
Spit three times over your shoulder.
Blink rapidly to fool yourself into thinking you’ve seen two magpies.
Flap your arms like wings and caw loudly to mimic the magpie’s missing mate.
The fear that a lone magpie will bring bad luck is fairly common throughout the UK and Ireland, but in some areas there are more specific magpie superstitions:
Scotland – A single magpie seen near the window of a house is a sign of an impending death.
Wales – If you see a magpie when starting a journey and moving from right to left then the journey will be hazardous.
Ireland – Magpies are the souls of evil-minded and gossiping women.
Yorkshire – Magpies are associated with witchcraft and you should make the sign of a cross to ward off evil spirits.
Somerset – Carrying an onion with you at all times will offer you protection from the bad luck a magpie may bring.
Northampton – A group of three magpies together predicts a fire.
Devon – If a fisherman sees a magpie first thing in the morning he won’t catch any fish that day.
Sussex – Bucking the trend, in Sussex a magpie perched on the roof of a house is regarded as a good sign and that the house is in no danger of falling.
And throughout the rest of the world magpies are not always seen as so unlucky:
China – a singing magpie will bring good fortune and is a symbol of happiness and good luck
Korea – magpies deliver good news and invite good people into your life.
Mongolia – magpies are smart birds that can control the weather.
France – evil nuns are thought to be reincarnated as magpies.
Scandinavia – magpies are associated with Skadi, the Norse goddess of the winter, although in Norway magpies are considered cunning and it is also the bird of the huldra, the underground people.
We now know that the Romans got it right. Magpies are highly intelligent birds with a brain-to-body mass that is equal to that of the great apes. They can use tools, play games, work in teams, and even mimic human speech.
So if you see a magpie today give it your very best salute, but not because you want to protect yourself from bad luck but to show this smart, colourful bird some well-deserved respect.
What do you do when you see a magpie? Let us know in the comments below.