Magpies And Superstition

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.

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.

Magpie ID guide

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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. 

Death and thievery

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.

Two Magpies

“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 arems like wings and caw loudly to mimic the magpie’s missing mate.

Regional variations

The fear that a lone magpie will bring bad luck is fairly common throughout the UK, 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.

More bird superstitions

Good luck or bad luck?

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.

14 Comments Magpies And Superstition

  1. I kept seeing 1 Magpie throughout my pregnancy and my mother in law died 2 days after I gave birth. I also saw 3 when I was expecting a baby girl

  2. Linda Chambers

    Every time I have encountered a Maggie I have unfortunately learned of a death of a close relative. This morning a magpie flew into our conservatory and tried to come into the house it has filled me with dread as my husband has not been well help😢😢😢

  3. I think Magpies are lovely birds – I dont believe in supersition – rather that I ‘ve got eyes to see these beautiful bird . People should believe their eyes andnot listen to daft rumours !! I often have a mass of them when the young ones arrive – sometimes as many as 20 !!

  4. Reading into the history of Magpies and the church rather indicates that the church strove to destroy a belief from a previous religion and mendaciously created a story . Rather like Mary of Magda being a prostitute

    1. My grandmother taught me a different version;
      One for sorrow
      Two for mirth
      Three for a letter
      Four for a birth
      Five for silver
      Six for gold
      Seven for a secret never to be told…

  5. Josephine O'Sullivan

    Someone once left 13 dead magpies in a bag on the bonnet of my car.
    Does anyone know the significance of this

    1. I would think with 13 being unlucky and 13 single magpies with a single denomination meaning bad luck, you had upset somebody with strong superstitions.
      Find out who it was and hire a hitman to end them.

    2. A lot of human beings are nasty idiots, this is just evidence of one more, mourn the poor innocent magpies and forget the idiot.

  6. I met one magpie, two Robins and a orange black butterfly plus a white butterfly. All in one day. Just going through a break up after 7 years I really don’t want anymore bad luck,

  7. I love to see !afford whether three or one i am Irish and I never could understand why an 🐦 magpie or robin could cause bad luck

  8. I always greet magpies “good morning/afternoon Mr Magpie, I hope you and yours are well?”. Passed on from my mum, respect rather than superstition.

  9. I have a nest of magpies living in the trees in my garden.i love them there colour and inquisitiveness. Some times there are 5 or more flying around. Had no problem with them so far. Nature’s is always welcome In my garden.

    1. At last , a voice of reason , we think they are great . A British Parrot with lovely colours !

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